Nurturing self confidence in the young athlete

I can vividly remember that I was confidently the best tree climber in the world when I was about 7 years old. If I could not get up into a tree it was because it was not possible, not because I could not do it! I remember a massive tree that separated our yard from that of our neighbours. One day I was outside again and on that day I climbed higher than usual, stopping when the weight of my arm pulling me up broke the branch above me. I called out, at the top of my lungs, from the top of the tree to get the attention of my parents. They came out, looking left and right for me until I said “look higher”. They put on a brave face and acted proud, but probably out of shock could not help mention that I must just be careful of falling when coming down. An exercise that took me all of about 3 minutes to get up took me all of 10 minutes or more on the way down. Suddenly I was aware that I could fall!

Children have an amazing ability to believe in what it is that they are doing. . If you have ever looked at a young child at play you can sometimes be astonished that what we as adults associate with the word doubt does not exist in their worlds. Doubt is something that children often get from us adults. Let’s have a closer look at the confidence of your kids and how you could help grow the confidence of your kids, not hamper it.

What is confidence?

There are many definitions of confidence out there, but they all have belief at its core. Confidence is a belief in your own ability to achieve what you have set out to do. Another interesting definition in layman’s terms is by golf psychologist Bob Rotella, where he wrote that “confidence is playing with your eyes”. He was referring to the almost effortless and automatic way athletes compete when they are confident, as with children when they “just at play”. They just look at the target and they do what they have to do.

How much confidence is enough?

You may ask “how much confidence is good for my child”? I cannot think of any negative consequences of believing in your own abilities, but when over-confidence spills over into other areas of your child’s sport then we need to be careful. When over-confidence affects the preparation of your child through a blasé attitude and lack of intensity because they think that it good enough, then we could expect some problems.

How can I help my child gain and keep their confidence?

There are four main methods in which your child can increase their confidence:

  • Past experiences where they did well.
  • Watching others, especially confident others.
  • Verbal encouragement by you to show support and belief in their abilities.
  • Physically feeling good on the day.

A large part of confidence comes from how well we feel we have prepared. One thing you could do is to help your child decide what he or she needs to do to prepare well for their sport. You can help them incorporate the above four ways in their preparation. If they have really worked hard to do well you should compliment them on having prepared well for their match or competition. Of course you should also look at the bigger picture, if they prepare well by eating well, by staying active and fit (in line with what they should do for their age of course) and by resting enough then they just give themselves an even better chance of feeling confident.

How can I make this last?

Often the major focus in sports is on the result indicated by the scoreboard. That means that there is always someone walking away having increased their confidence and someone who has potentially lost some confidence. According to Jim Thompson, author of the double-goal coach, one important way in which you can ensure that your child can keep gaining confidence is to change the focus from the scoreboard to the mastery of their skills. Let us look at the following example.

Your child is a tennis player and has been working really hard to improve her weaker backhand. She makes the choice to test her backhand against her next opponent and if she can hit five backhand winners then she has done very well. She is drawn against a provincial player in the first round of the next tournament and looses the match. She managed to hit six backhand winners. She walks of the court feeling very content as she can see the improvement in her backhand.

This means that your child could lose a match against a very good opponent and still walk away having gained confidence. This could also have the added benefit of your child working harder and sticking to a task longer because they are gaining mastery of their skills. All it took was a change in focus onto something that they have control over, regardless of the result of the match.

Final tips for nurturing the confidence of a young athlete:

  • Remind them of past experiences where they did well.
  • Encourage them to watch confident role models.
  • Compliment them on having prepared well.
  • Show verbal encouragement in their abilities.
  • Changing their focus from the scoreboard to their mastery of skills.


Rotella, B., & Cullen, B. (2004). Golf is a game of confidence. London, England: Pocket Books.

Taylor, J. & Wilson, G. (2005). Applying sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Thompson, J. (2003). The double-goal coach: Positive coaching tools for honouring the game and developing winners in sports and life. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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