Picture the scene: you are standing at the start line; you are calm and focused on what you are about to do. Perhaps there is a smile playing about your lips. You know you have trained hard and prepared well and now it's simply a matter of the gun going off and you'll be on your way. You are bursting with confidence and excited about the challenge you are about to take on.
Can you really imagine this scenario, or is your reality more like this: you're shaking with nerves and your overriding thought is "I can't do this and I want to go home"?
In truth, we all have moments when we doubt our ability and feel nervous about what lies ahead, but you can banish this doubt and anxiety by exercising and strengthening your, if you will, 'confidence muscle'. And there's no better time to do so than during autumn and winter, so you'll be primed for next year's race season.
The confidence game
Confidence comes from the belief that you can do what you are about to do. It's based in part on the training you have put in and in part on your experiences and how you measure success.
People with confidence have a 'can-do' attitude. As a triathlete, that means being calm, secure in the knowledge you have trained long and hard, and paid attention to your nutrition; you know that you will do your best on race day.
A confident person will also admit mistakes and learn from them. If, for example, you didn't achieve the result you were looking for in a race, you will reflect on what happened and make adjustments that will help you to perform better next time.
The key to strengthening your confidence, says Dr Terry Orlick, author of In Pursuit of Excellence, is about staying positive by finding reasons to believe in yourself and your abilities. And it means focusing on the positives, on all that's gone right and all that will go right on the day.
Conversely, when you focus on the negatives, you are giving yourself permission to perform poorly. You have a ready-made list of excuses to let yourself off the hook just in case you do not achieve your expected outcomes. This negative focus can then become a habit, which inhibits your performance abilities.
So, like any other bad habit you want to kick, you'll need conscious and consistent effort to make the change. Rather than paying attention to worst-case scenarios and negatives, focus on best-case scenarios.
To do this, it's crucial that you become aware of the unhelpful thoughts creeping around your brain. In particular, where do you focus your attention? Every time you notice that negative thoughts are beginning to stir, shift your focus to something more positive to boost your performance.
Flex for success
You can flex your 'confidence muscle' in the same way that you strengthen your physical muscles - through exercise. For this exercise, reflect on recent successes or times when everything went well in training or racing. Examine the factors that contributed to your success and how they assisted you. In short, why did you succeed?
Take your last race as an example. Some positive factors might include successful training sessions in the run-up to the race; that you felt well rested and had eaten nourishing foods; that it was a bright, sunny day; and that the course was flat and fast. Or you might have been feeling good about yourself because something positive happened at work or at home that fed into your training or race-day performance.
Now, for comparison, think back to a recent learning experience (some people might call them failures, but we won't - it's such a negative term) when things did not go well. Recall the elements that contributed to this experience, such as your training, your health or distractions in another area of your life.
This exercise helps to boost your sense of self-esteem and self-confidence and is even more powerful when you actually write down your answers, rather than simply thinking about them. Writing them down will give you something to refer to and reinforces what you already know but simply have not focused on before.
A pattern emerges
When you look at the elements that contributed to your recent successes and learning experiences, you may find a pattern emerging. According to Dr Robert Nideffer, sports psychologist and author of Psyched to Win, there are internal or external elements and constant or variable elements that contribute to success, which, of course, builds confidence.
The internal and constant elements include your ability, expertise, experience and skills. You have control of these elements and can work at strengthening them, which in turn has a direct influence on your confidence levels.
The internal variable elements include your effort - practice, preparation, planning, and even your thoughts and feelings. They affect your results and influence your confidence levels.
External variables should have less of an impact on your confidence because they are outside your control - it's important to remember this point. These variables might include a tough course and conditions, sundry mechanical problems, the quality of the competition or the targets and expectations set by others. When these factors contribute to a poor performance, we often let them affect our confidence even though they are beyond our control.
Recognising what elements you have within your control and focusing on them will help strengthen your self-confidence. You can continue to strengthen that 'confidence muscle' by writing a 'confidence CV'. This is a list of your achievements and successes in all areas of your life.
This confidence CV will help you to focus on what you have accomplished, the goals you have reached and successes you have enjoyed. Look for occasions where you stretched yourself and where can you give yourself a pat on the back.
Write down both tangible and intangible achievements. Dr Nideffer identifies tangible achievements as those things that you have accomplished and that meant something to you - such as completing a triathlon under difficult circumstances, receiving a promotion, delivering a great presentation or meeting a particularly tight deadline. Intangible achievements are qualities and characteristics you possess, such as being a good team player, a supportive friend or having the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
This confidence CV is a surprisingly effective way to acknowledge your achievements and it can help you to shift your focus onto the positives. When you see in black and white a list of what you have achieved in life you will probably be pleasantly surprised: you should feel a sense of pride.
Another way to boost your confidence levels is by doing visualisation exercises. Imagine that you are watching a film in which you are the lead character and where you are at your most confident and impressive. Visualise standing on the start line of your next triathlon and try to imagine, in as much detail as possible, the event from start to finish.
See what you will see, hear what you will hear and try to get a sense of the feelings you'll experience when you are confident and everything is going perfectly. By vividly imagining this film, in which you have boundless confidence and things are going exactly according to plan, the idea becomes embedded in your subconscious that you have already completed the event in that super-confident fashion.
Repeatedly watch that film before your next race. Then, when you actually come to the real event, you will have more confidence because you have done it before... even if it was only in your mind.
Reasons to be cheerful
Strengthening your 'confidence muscle' can help you in every area of your life. And by starting to flex those muscles now, they will be strong by the time next year's triathlon season starts. By finding reasons to believe in yourself and focusing on the positives, you'll adopt a more confident mindset. In the same way that speed work will help you to race faster, you can also practise building confidence. Confidence is a mindset and a habit, and with conscious and consistent efforts to strengthen that 'confidence muscle', you can soar at every race.
Midgie Thompson of Bright Futures Coaching (www.brightfuturescoaching.com) is a Mental Performance and Lifestyle Coach. She is also a recreational triathlete and marathon runner.