Searching for Confidence
By Dr. Mitchell Greene
If you are new to triathlon, or are racing a new distance this season, one thing is certain: if you search too long and too far for confidence — triathlon's Holy Grail — you may be missing a key element to winning triathlon's mental game. As it turns out, a lack of confidence may not be your problem, and trying to "find confidence" may be a waste of your time and energy.
Consider Cathy, who was training for her first triathlon, but who rarely swam as a youth, and never in open water. When she and I met, she was literally shaking as she waited for her local tri club's open-water swim clinic to begin. Cathy stated emphatically that she had "zero confidence." I smiled and replied, "Perfect, because you don't need confidence to swim." I also added that swimming in Philadelphia's Schuylkill River on a chilly July morning hardly inspired confidence in even the most seasoned athletes. The truth of the matter is that Cathy had little reason to feel confident, having never done anything similar before. Yet, she was expending so much mental energy trying to "get confident" that she was feeling defeated and exhausted before she even dipped a toe into the water.
I asked Cathy to focus instead on the word "willingness" instead of confidence. Willingness, I explained, is something she could do something about. She could ask herself three key questions: Are you willing to have a good swim but maybe not a great one? Are you willing to feel incompetent if that's the way you feel? Are you willing to reconnect with the purpose behind your triathlon goal rather than worrying about how to banish thoughts and feelings over which you have little direct control?
Unexpectedly, Cathy's eyes welled up with tears as she saw that her tension and fear were less about swimming than about the perfectionist standards she always placed on herself. Once Cathy "got it," she rejoined the group, and asked a tri club member to stay by her side as they entered the water. When she exited the water, having completed her first open-water swim, she allowed the tears to flow as she experienced a healthy release of tension.
Cathy and I joked that now, when she didn't need it anymore, she actually felt some of the confidence she had wanted. More importantly, Cathy said she faced something about herself that she needed to face if she was going to actually enjoy triathlon.
If you make a commitment to stop trying to prove yourself, and you're willing at any moment to give yourself the breathing room to enjoy your participation in the sport, you'll have a much more enjoyable experience than if you futilely sitting around waiting for confidence to develop.
Dr. Mitchell Greene is the sport psychology consultant to the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon and the SheRox Triathlon series. Dr. Greene works with a range of competitive triathletes, from professional to recreational. If you have a question concerning the mental aspects of training and racing, send Dr. Greene an email and he will use some of your questions in future issues of USA Triathlon's Multisport Zone. He is also available to collaborate with you in developing a personalized mental training plan to maximize your training programs.