Mastering the Mental Game: A Q&A with Sports Confidence Coach Tami Matheny
Yes, confidence can and should be cultivated in young athletes. Mental coach Tami Matheny offers plenty of tools and advice started to help them get started.
Watching Tami Matheny excel in tennis and basketball in high school and then college in North Carolina in the 90s, you would have seen an athlete who exuded confidence. Matheny was often stoic, heeding the advice of a dad she calls “old school” to never show emotion. But appearances can be deceiving.
“If you looked at me on the outside you would have thought I was an extremely confident person, but on the inside, I was only as good as that last game or that last shot, or even in school, that last test. I rode that roller coaster,” Matheny says.
Her experiences ignited a desire to help other athletes get off the roller coaster sooner than she did. After a successful stint turning around the tennis program at USC Upstate, Matheny shifted her proprieties to mental coaching. She founded Refuse2LoseCoaching in 2008, assisting individual athletes, teams, and organizations with building confidence, focus, and motivation. She’s the author of four books including The Confident Athlete, and The Confidence Journal, and produces a monthly calendar with daily activities designed to build confidence.
Here is September’s version:
The notion of being able to cultivate confidence is fascinating, especially when it comes to the many layers involved in youth sports which is so often rooted in results. Lack of confidence. Overconfidence. How does it all manifest itself in performance and team chemistry, not to mention beyond the playing field?
Luckily, Matheny recently shared her wisdom with us on the many facets of confidence and youth sports. I hope, like me, that you come away from this conversation with some new tools and clarity to help guide your athlete to a more confident future.
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Good Game: Do you think people are born with confidence or is it more of a nurture thing?
Tami Matheny: I do believe you can be born with confidence, but it’s just like physical skills. The more we work at it, the more we can grow. And I don’t think there’s a limit on confidence. If I’m born confident, I can become even more confident and make sure it’s not cockiness. If you say ‘I was born this way and I’m just not confident,’ I believe that’s an out because anyone can achieve confidence if they’re willing to work at it and want it bad enough. It’s easy to fall into the comfortableness of not being confident because that’s what they’re used to or it’s easier.
GG: Why is it easier not to have confidence?
TM: Not for everything but some kids have learned to say, ‘I don’t think I’m any good.’ When they say those comments, we often give them the feedback they crave. Oh honey, yes you are. You’re so good. So, they’re never developing that confidence on their own, and I think it’s something that becomes habit over the course of time. I can speak with authority because growing up I was insecure and always wanted that feedback from a coach or parent or a teacher. I knew I was smart but needed the teacher telling me, ‘Oh good job, Tami.’ If they didn’t, all the sudden I would not think I’m smart. That may seem crazy, but that’s what I thought as a child. It was so exhausting.
Some stay in that uncomfortable zone of comfort because it’s all they’ve known, and that’s when they get feedback saying things like, ‘I’m not as good as you.’ Then they get the coach or parent or friend, saying ‘Oh no, yes you are’ instead of learning how to manage the negative self-talk themselves.
GG: Does the negative self-talk equal lowered expectations, too? Maybe that’s another comfort?
TM: Yes, and that’s a great point to add there. If I’m not confident, I don’t have to have these expectations of getting into a zone of achieving anything higher than I think I can. That’s uncomfortable for many people. It’s easier for some to think, of course I can’t do that.
GG: So how do you start building confidence in younger athletes? Can they actually absorb your advice?
TM: I work with a few 10-year-olds and yes, they get it. But I make sure the parents are listening as well to reaffirm the message.
I think it’s important that the parents understand because most parents are about feedback. You were good. You were bad. That keeps the athlete focused on results. Our society is so results oriented that if we can get the athlete and parent together focusing on things they can control, that will help with confidence.
GG: Things like effort and attitude?
TM: Yes, exactly. And things like, ‘Were you a good teammate?’ In youth sports, I’m really focused on asking why you play. One of the first things I do is have athletes list all the reasons they play their sport. And then find out if they are true to that why. If they’re true to that then they’re probably going to have a good time. If they’re having a good time, they’re probably going to have more success. So trying to focus on living your why instead of your result is key. If you do that, you’re more likely to get the result.
GG: What is the line between confidence and arrogance?
TM: If I’m arrogant I think I’m better than everyone else, and I know it all so I’m not as coachable and maybe I’m not a good teammate. It’s more about me and how I do. If I’m confident, I’m coachable because I know I’m good but that I can always get better. And if I’m confident, I don’t worry that a teammate may take the limelight. It’s ok if a teammate does better because I’m confident in my results. That‘s how I draw the line between the two.
GG: If you were to go to say, a 12-year-old lacrosse match, how would you spot a kid who’s confident vs. one who might be masking something inside?
TM: One of the four things we can use to control our confidence is body language. Body language speaks volumes. How a kid carries themselves if they get down is telling. Are they slumping their shoulders? Are they putting their head down? How are they responding to the action of teammates as well as their verbal comments? How they interreact with teammates and coaches can give you a pretty good idea if the athlete is confident.
I don’t think you can always tell. I don’t think you would have been able to tell with me. But if you could have gone in my brain and seen all the thoughts there then you would have been able to tell.
GG: Where does body language rank on the hardest things to change in an athlete working on confidence?
TM: It’s so individualized, but the four principles I have in my book are: how you see yourself, body language, the use of visualization, and preparation. I may be stronger in one area and weaker in another than you are. To build confidence, you must understand which areas you need to work the hardest on. But I believe if we work at all four of them every day we’re going to have a steady baseline of confidence.
GG: How important is environment when it comes to maintaining confidence? Kids talk a lot of trash. How do you tune out the haters?
TM: It’s your choice what you listen to and pay attention to. We can’t control others – that’s your parent, that’s your coach, that’s your teammate, that’s your opponent, that’s the fan yelling at you. But you can control what you listen to.
I know that’s harder sometimes for younger kids. At the same time, if we teach them that early on, it helps them develop a good habit. Individually, we can’t control someone running their mouth off to us. We can’t control a thought entering your head, but we can control how long it lingers. Let’s rewrite the narrative. You’re telling yourself you are trash. Someone else is telling you you’re trash. You get to choose whether you listen to that or rewrite it. No, I’m not trash because of this, or I am capable or whatever it may be at the time in that situation. It’s teaching the athlete the self-talk and them choosing what they focus on.
GG: Do you find the kids who are talking a lot of trash are lacking in confidence?
TM: I think sometimes. Again, it’s individual. I’ve seen some of the best athletes in world like Michael Jordan, I think he was a pretty confident guy, but he could talk the trash. With some sports I think that’s part of the game. Like football players, part of their environment may be to talk the trash.
Younger kids more times than not, I’m hesitant to say are insecure, because it’s individual, but yes it could be their own insecurities, or it could be trying to get into the head of who they’re yapping at. It could be all tactical.
GG: How do you keep the kids understanding that you do have bad days and that this is a long game for them?
TM: It starts with going back to your why. Why do I play my sport? If you focus on your why, it helps put the results into better perspective. Maybe I’m trying to make the high school team. Ok, how do I bounce back from a bad day? Or maybe it’s, I like to be part of a team. How did I do as a teammate? Maybe you don’t lose as much confidence that day.
Another activity I have athletes do, and I challenge the parents to ask not about the result but ask, did you live your why. Then I have them ask what I call their five to ones. What were five specific things you did well and one thing you want to improve on? And that’s if they did really good or really bad. Then it becomes habit. What did I do well? Because they must have five and then only one bad thing. I didn’t pick that number randomly. Studies show that’s how we grow with anything. If we’re picking out everything we do wrong, then our brain can never zoom in and get better at anything. But if we pick one, we can really grow and get better at that. Then if we pick the five things we did well … even if you had a bad game, you did something well. Even if it was supporting teammates. So, it’s really about shifting the mentally after a bad game.
GG: What about the opposite, the kid who is always Pollyannaish about their performance even if they clearly have a bad game. Could that be masking something?
TM: Yes, I think it could, and that’s why it’s important to focus on the one thing you really want to get better at. Even if I have my best game there’s always something I could do better. But I also try and get the athlete and parent to make it very specific. Not that I just batted well today, maybe I hit the curve ball better today.
One more thing to add, which is in my book, is the P squared idea, where not everything has to be positive, but we can at least be productive. We should strive to be either positive or productive with how we talk about ourselves and others. Instead of that at bat stunk, say, ‘What did I learn from that at bat to help me with the next at bat?’
GG: What’s your advice on confidence-building for a kid who’s currently getting little playing time on a travel/club team but might thrive in lower-tiered environment?
TM: It has to go back to the individual. What’s the goal? Why is that child playing? If they’re playing because they see far down the road they want to be on the high school team or play that sport in college they have to be willing to push themselves They have to be ok on better teams knowing they might not play as much. They have to be trying to build the confidence without having the results.
Now, if it’s a child who just wants to have fun with their sport and be part of a team and they don’t know their goals, which I think is great. I don’t think society rewards that enough, there’s such a focus on if you play sports and you’re good, you should try and play in college. I don’t think everyone has to. It’s really important to listen to the kid’s goal and their why. It’s not the parent’s goal, it’s the kid’s goal. That requires the parent and child having frequent conversations. And I hate to put parents on the spot, but oftentimes confidence is tied into the parent and the willingness to have these conversations, the willingness to help the child understand why they’re doing it, not just to make mom and dad proud.
You don’t know how many times I ask people their why and it’s, mom and dad are making me. You’re never going to have confidence then because you’re just going through the motions. There’s a lot of parents that made their kid play club just to keep up with the Joneses. I don’t think there’s a simple answer but if you really want to be the best you can then I feel like most athletes should play on the best team. I don’t mean results; I mean the best team with the best coaching that’s going to push you, not necessarily the team you’re going to play on the most. I’ve seen so many athletes in so many different sports not get the playing time early on, but they were competing against good players, they had good coaching, and all the sudden they ballooned. You can get a lot better doing that versus being the star, scoring all the goals or having all the assists but you may not be not playing against good competition or getting the best coaching. But again, it’s all about the kid’s goals.
GG: How does technology in sports play into confidence? Kids often have easy access to their stats and teammates’ stats, not to mention social media.
TM: I think that’s one of the worst possible things. I work with a high school softball team as a bench coach and they’re usually winning a state championship or runner up. One of the things the coach does is not post the stats. She gets them and keeps them but does not post them until the end of the year. Some parents may be trying to do it but those are not the official stats. I love that. Now I know we can’t control that everywhere, but if I could do away with stats especially at the younger ages I would. All we’re teaching them to be result-focused and result-oriented.
GG: And finally, what do you believe is the biggest misconception about confidence?
TM: We touched on it earlier, but I want to add on. I hear this all the time, especially from females, I want to be confident, but I don’t want people to think I’m cocky. You have to give yourself permission to be confident. And the other thing is the notion that confidence means you’re always positive. I don’t believe that. You can be productive with your confidence. Sometimes for a rare athlete it’s productive for them to have a temper and put themselves down. That’s why I like to say productive. What gets you to produce? What gets you to get better? What gets you to get refocused for that next play?
Thanks again to Tami for all her wisdom and food for thought. Let’s go help build some confident athletes, shall we?