Confidence: is it real or is it all in our minds?

As we return to the water, Olympic silver medallist Annie Vernon shares her top tips for gaining confidence and mental strength

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(c) Drew Smith

After a dreadful 12 months, barring disaster there will be racing again this summer. Hooray! If we haven’t been out in boats all winter, we expect our rowing to be rusty and our hands to have gone soft; but are you also prepared for your mental skills to have gone off the boil? The mind is a muscle and needs training like any other part of your body.

Here’s a few tips about how to spend the next few months gradually rebuilding your confidence to race.

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1.      Don’t build confidence by trying to build your confidence

You don’t pass an exam by telling yourself to be cleverer, and you don’t develop confidence by telling yourself you need to be more confident. Confidence is the outcome of lots of different mental attributes, so concentrate on building all the different parts of the package rather than jumping straight to the destination.

2.      Start with the positives!

We’re good at identifying what we find difficult, and self-deprecation is part of the British character. But to build those foundations of confidence, start with what you are good at and what you find enjoyable and intuitive. Once you know what that is, challenge the parts of your rowing that you don’t find straightforward.

3.      Not everyone needs to feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger

Everyone’s confidence identity will be different. Some rowers will need to feel like the Terminator on the eve of a race in order to get the most out of themselves; others need to feel on edge, like they have something to prove. Find out what kind of confidence identity suits you. And the brilliant thing about team sports like rowing is that everyone in your crew will be slightly different.

“There’s no magic confidence wand that can make all the difference”

4.      Rome wasn’t built in a day

Steve Redgrave didn’t win five Olympic gold medals overnight and Usain Bolt didn’t run 100m in 9.58 seconds at the first attempt. It takes time, work and application to develop robust self-confidence.

Paul Thompson, former Chief Coach of the GB women and lightweights, told me that there is no shortcut. “You can’t tap someone on the head with the confidence stick. There’s no magic confidence wand that can make all the difference. People have to be challenged, and then they come through it, and then they’ve got confidence to get through that situation – and that’s how it builds.”

5.      Look in the rear-view mirror

Goal-setting isn’t just about looking ahead and focusing on the next step. It’s also vital to check behind, to see how far you’ve come. It might take a while to get to your confidence destination, but keep checking in with all the steps you have taken, and assess how far you’ve come from your starting point.

6.      Self-awareness is a fundamental

Constantly hold up a mirror to yourself and ask yourself tough questions. If my confidence isn’t growing, why not? What do I need to change in my approach, so it’s consistent and repeatable? If I am feeling more in control of my performances, how do I keep moving forward?

7.      If you win you didn’t do everything right; if you lose you didn’t do everything wrong

It’s easy to dismiss your entire performance after a loss; and tempting to pat yourself on the back after a victory. Building confidence comes from looking beyond the result and figuring out what actually happened. Even in a thumping defeat you can find some positives, and after a victory make sure you are still learning.

“The inches we need are everywhere around us”

8.      Learn from others

Every insight is valuable. Talk to other rowers, coaches and athletes about how they build their confidence; read sports books and listen to podcasts. Everybody will have a different approach to confidence. Reading Mind Games, by yours truly (and preferably buying it in hardback), is an excellent place to start.

9.      ‘The inches we need are everywhere around us…’

…says Al Pacino’s character in the film Any Given Sunday as he urges his football team to fight for every inch. The same applies to confidence. You can build your confidence in different ways, by trying to find gains everywhere. Self-belief doesn’t just come from good performances and the inches really are all around you: you can learn as much from a Tuesday evening group ergo session in February as from a victory at a big regatta in the summer.

10.   Create your own reality

Maybe it is real, or maybe it’s all in our minds. If it’s real to you, then that’s all that matters.

You’ll hear football fans insisting their team can still come back and win when they are 5-0 down with two minutes to play. Confidence exists in your head, rather than as a quantifiable reality like an ergo score. It doesn’t matter what you base it on, or how you express it. Create your own version of reality that enables you to believe you can achieve.

Go for it!

Read Annie’s thoughts on what makes a fantastic team here on British Rowing Plus. 

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