How to recover from a collapse in mental confidence

SANTA CLARA, CA - JUNE 19:  Stefan Hirniak of ...
Stefan Hirniak of Canada competes in the men's 200 meter butterfly (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Winning and losing are close friends and mentally an athlete can shift from one to the other frighteningly fast.  We read this article about Canadian Olympic swimmer, Stefan Hirniak who bombed out of the 2008 Olympic selection trials after being ‘in the best shape of his life’.  Why?

The reason was mental.

“Holy crap, it’s all on me to make the Olympic Team.”

Once that doubt started to seep in — through a crack Hirniak didn’t even know existed — he couldn’t stop the hemorrhaging. He ended up fourth, missing the trip to Beijing.

How to create mental confidence

In an athlete, you can practice mental skills as much and as frequently as physical.  [Readers should look at Jimmy Joy’s book, The Mind’s Eye]

Confidence on race day comes from faith. Faith is the product of belief – in yourself, in your coach, in the training programme you follow every day.  So when you are on the start line, there is no place for doubt – you will perform to the best of your ability at that given time.

Hirniak explains that he ended up “second-guessing” the programme.  Was it structured correctly, had he trained appropriately and ended up finding that

if you’re practicing doubt every day, doubt is what you’ll be left with when the knife blade of competition pares everything else away.

Interestingly, his analysis of why he lacked this confidence was two things:

  • A coach who focussed on technique rather than pain tolerance
  • Lack of the support system surrounding his previous University squad compared with becoming a professional full time athlete training alone

For Victoria Academy of Swimming head coach Randy Bennett, training isn’t always about how many yards you swim and how hard you swim every single one. As Hirniak describes it, “It’s how perfectly you can do every stroke, how perfectly you can do every turn and how well you can swim on race day. I would tell Randy, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying,’ and he would say, ‘Obviously you’re trying. I can see that. But are you doing it correctly? Are you doing it well?'”

Does this “perfect practice makes perfect” theme sound like the Rowperfect approach to our sport?

How do you overcome mental issues with your athletes as a coach?  Or as an athlete how do you overcome this with your crew mates?


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