Under Pressure: What’s The Most Important Mental Skill?

by Emily Galvin, MS, CMPC

There’s one second on the clock at the end of a basketball game. A player is standing on the foul line with a chance to tie the game with one shot, and win the game if he makes both. He feels the pressure. What’s the most important mental skill for him to have in this moment?

You could make an argument for focus or anxiety management strategies.

I’d make an argument for confidence. In these pressure situations, athletes first and foremost need confidence.

Coaches and Confidence

In my experience working with athletes in team and individual settings, I’ve heard plenty of stories about coaches bolstering athlete confidence – but I’ve heard just as many about coaches destroying it (and yes, I know that sometimes I only get one side of the story!). In fact, effective coach leadership is one of the primary sources of confidence for an athlete.

The message here is that coaches have a strong influence on athlete confidence. With deliberate, thoughtful effort, you can use that influence to revolutionize your athletes’ mental game.

The Case for Confidence

Confidence is a magical mental skill. Confident athletes:

  • Play to win rather than play not to lose
  • Feel motivated and take on challenges
  • Learn and recover from setbacks and mistakes
  • Show increased effort and persistence3

Lack of confidence is associated with4:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissatisfaction

Confidence works because it helps athletes interpret pre-competition thoughts and emotions effectively2 and helps them be solution-focused in the face of adversity. On the flip side, less confident athletes get caught up in themselves, focusing inwardly on their own perceived failures and inadequacies1.

As a coach, fielding a team of confident athletes is in your best interest.

Import your team from TeamSnap

Deliberately Developing Confidence

Knowing coach leadership is a fundamental source of confidence for athlete confidence can seem like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you might see it as another tool in your coaching arsenal to try to produce top performance. On the other hand, it can feel like a burden to understand that everything you do and say will be processed and internalized by your athletes – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Here are a few tips to help you coach confidence:

  1. Let feedback flow: feedback (rather than criticism) is specific and instructional. It focuses on the task/skill (rather than the athlete him/herself) and offers suggestions for improvement. Providing helpful feedback and avoiding harsh criticism helps keep confidence up despite mistakes or off days. It also clarifies misunderstandings, which is a common complaint from athletes I work with.
  2. Provide opportunities for success: seeing (or doing) is believing. Being successful in practices boosts confidence of transferring skills to games. Even if you’re working through new, challenging drills or plays and mistakes seem rampant, make an effort to end things on a high note.
  3. Help athletes recognize their sources of confidence: encourage them to reflect on what makes them confident (training and preparation, past successes, positive feedback from you, teammates, and family). Having some sources at the ready can be helpful in pressure situations.
  4. Highlight reel: set aside a minute in the locker room before a game for athletes to visualize their personal highlight reel. Encourage them to replay in their minds their best plays and competitive triumphs. You’d be surprised how much this impacts mindset.

Lacrosse players use mental discipline

Seeing Is Believing

Think about the statistics you provide for your athletes. Information about training plans, nutrition, reps for the weight room? Do they receive any data about their mental progress?

As a mental performance consultant, I envy the quantitative data coaches and sport scientists have. It’s not uncommon for me to have athletes in front of me wondering how to tell if they’re really making progress. Quantifying confidence development can have a huge impact on athlete adherence to developing the vitally important skill.

Lately, my partner and I have placed more emphasis on providing visuals that allow athletes to see their progress. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable this is for sustaining motivation and focus on mental skills development. We’ve used pen and paper assessments and encouraged journal reflections.

Most recently, we decided to try After Action. Because the app allows customization, we created questions that specifically address mental skill development, namely, confidence. We’ve been using it with a roster of 59 Division 1 female athletes. Every week, they rate their work with the skill. They’re logging week after week of data and in time, will be able to see their progress. Seeing is believing. If they see their ratings go up, they have more confidence that they’re improving their confidence. And you, as a coach, get valuable feedback about how effective your efforts are at deliberately boosting athlete confidence.

No matter how you choose to do it, use your role to help your athletes develop confidence. You won’t regret the effort.

  1. Bandura, A. & Wood, R. E. (1989). Effect of perceived controllability and performance standards on self-regulation of complex decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56: 805–814.
  2. Hanton, S., Mellalieu, S. D. & Hall, R. (2004). Self-confidence and anxiety interpretation: A qualitative investigation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 5: 379–521
  3. Hays, K., Thomas, O., Maynard, I., & Bawden, M. (2009). The role of confidence in world-class sport performance. Journal of Sport Sciences, 27: 1185-1199.
  4. Martens, R., Vealey, R. S. & Burton, D. (1990). Competitive anxiety in sport, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.