Sports psychology studies and anecdotal reports from winning athletes confirm that confidence in basketball is crucial for success on the court. Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young credits his self-confidence for his success in the league. “You work extremely hard, and that’s what builds confidence. For me, that’s all it is.” he said. So today, we’re going to take a look at how to build confidence in basketball.
Self-confidence is your belief in your ability to achieve and activity or task. Specifically it’s a strong belief in your skills, preparation, and abilities. For example, you can have high confidence in your ability to be a great basketball player.
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus after winning a major championship said, “As long as I’m prepared, I always expect to win.” And in saying so, he revealed the two primary ways to gain confidence for competition: Demonstrated performance (reflecting on previous successes and high points) and proper preparation (in terms of quality and quantity). Here’s how The Champion’s Mind recommends pursuing both.
Demonstrated performance means you’ve done the skill before. So to build your confidence identify similarities between the challenge in the moment, and previous situations in which you have excelled or surpassed your expectations. Tell yourself, “I have done this before. I can do it now.”
Be sure to focus on your performance (ex. “I’ve made this shot.”), not unwanted outcomes (ex. “I don’t want to lose”). Try to have a long-term memory for success, and a short-term memory for failure.
Proper preparation means you’ve put in the work. Do this by training like you are number two. But then compete like you are number one! On game day, play confidently by emphasizing your skills and strengths, drawing from past successes, and appreciating the encouragement from your coaches and teammates. Emphasize your strengths and your opponents’ weaknesses – not vice versa.
“I’ve never been afraid [when taking the court]. Obviously you’re nervous. But afraid means you’re not confident in your skills. And I have total confidence in my skills.” recapped Michael Jordan. “I never feared about my skills, because I put in the work.”
True toughness isn’t just about what happens on the basketball court. It actually starts way before we even get there. It all begins with how we think about ourselves and the situation we’re in, shared Steve Magness in Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.
Basically, the way you view things sets the stage for how you’re going to react to them. And this can affect every step of the way. If you’re feeling nervous or scared, your body can react by making you feel more pain and making you more likely to freak out.
So, before you even step onto the court, you need to have the right mindset. Your body is already getting ready to handle whatever challenges you may face, but it’s up to you to decide which direction you want to go. The way you see yourself and the world around you can have a big impact on whether you bounce back from a tough situation or not.
Ming Ming Chiu a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, set out to evaluate the impact of confidence on children’s reading levels. In looking at students across thirty four countries, Chiu and his colleagues found that while a little confidence might help, too much can be detrimental. Overconfidence was linked to worse reading comprehension. In explaining the findings, Chiu reported, “If an overconfident student chooses a book that is too hard – such as The Lord of the Rings rather than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – they might stop reading after a few pages and let it sit on a bookshelf. In contrast, a more self-award student is more likely to finish an easier book and continue reading more books.”
If you artificially elevate your confidence, telling yourself this will be a piece of cake or you’ve got this in the bag, your brain is constantly receiving the message that you won’t have to work hard to achieve your goal. Cultivating fake confidence creates insecurity for your minds to exploit. That’s the difference between a fragile outer confidence and a secure inner one.
In a study on more than 12,000 individuals, researchers found that faking it might help a touch when compared to those who lack any confidence. But when compared to those who had inner confidence it failed. Pretending to be confident can be effective to some degree. However like any facade we create, it won’t last. To develop true, inner confidence, there are four steps:
When trying to improve, most of us go for the lift-the-ceiling approach, judging ourselves by our best performance ever. In basketball, we would define ourselves by our personal best in terms of buckets. However, instead of going for a massive breakthrough, it’s better to set a minimum expectation. When you raise the floor, it allows for those days when everything is clicking to exceed expectations. It’s not that you are lowing your ceiling to play it safe; it’s what you’ve developed the confidence to know that X performance is repeatable. That as long as you do what’s in your control, you can achieve a certain standard, no matter the circumstances. Try averaging out your five more recent performances to give yourself a tricky, but achievable goal. By developing the belief that you can achieve a certain standard, you free yourself up to take risks when the opportunity presents itself.
Being truly confident means that you know yourself really well. It’s not about acting tough all the time or pretending to be someone you’re not. You can’t build yourself up by pretending you’re better than you really are.
Real confidence comes from being honest with yourself. It means looking at yourself and your abilities in a realistic way. You need to think about what you can do well, what might be hard for you, and what you need to work on. That way, you can be tough in a smart way, by being humble enough to know when you need to improve and being proud of what you’re already good at.
Late NBA Champion Kobe Bryant often talked about the importance of working on your weaknesses. “You know what makes you uncomfortable when you play, and I think that’s the biggest thing for kids nowadays is that they want to rely on coaches too much and workout guys. Which is fine to have him help you work out, but you have to tell them what you need. Right, you have to be able to say, ‘Okay, I feel uncomfortable with this,’ and if you don’t know, then you’re not as prepared as you should be. You need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are first…you gotta know your game.” he said.
True confidence is found in doing the work. When work is done in the name of getting better, of enjoying the process, of searching for mastery of the craft, then confidence gradually grows. It’s that feeling of: “I’ve been here before, I’m prepared for this challenge.” Like Michael Jordan once said, “If you have doubt or concern about a shot, or feel the ‘pressure’ of that shot, it’s because you haven’t practice it enough. The only way to relieve that pressure is to build your fundamentals, practice them over and over, so when the game breaks down, you can handle anything that transpires.”
Find a love for the process of growing and it will build your confidence. As Kobe Bryant said, “I loved the preparation more so than the competing part. I prepared so much we got out on the court I already knew what was going to happen. I loved the grind. I loved the feeling of my body changing. I loved the feeling of starting out on the track and being gassed – but by the time the season rolled around I could run all day. I loved that process. Absolutely loved it. And a lot of my competitors didn’t. They’d try to cut corners. It didn’t work out too well for them.”
We all like to walk around with a story in our head that we are a good, decent, competent person. Whenever evidence presents itself to the contrary, our ego goes into overdrive to rationalize, justify, or explain away why the opposite cannot be true. Our ego does many good things for us, acting like a social immune system that swats away psychological threats. But if it’s overactive, propping up a sense of self that doesn’t reflect reality, then it’s just as damaging as a hyperactive immune system.
You don’t want to shut off your ego. You just want to dampen it down to a reasonable level. As social psychologist Helen Wayment told Scientific American with a quiet ego, “the volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”
It’s having the ability to zoom out, gain perspective, and understand that a short-term loss is often part of a long-term gain. To quiet your ago ask: “What causes you to sting, ruminate, and pull away? What causes you to default towards defensiveness? Do you dismiss criticism out of hand or do you consider and evaluate it?” What you’re after is a dash of self-awareness and reflection combined with a secure sense of who you are.
Confidence is doing difficult things, sometimes failing, but seeing where you life, and then going back to work.
Dr. Wendy Borlabi, Director of Mental Performance & Health at the Chicago Bulls said there are four ways to improve your self-confidence in basketball:
Vicarious learning is watching somebody else do an activity. Watching pick up games, other teams compete, and film study will all help. You can also workout with higher skilled players to both challenge yourself and see how they do things.
For example, WNBA Champion Jordin Canada was able to gain confidence from the players around her on the Seattle Storm. “When Sue [Bird] was out, [Alysha Clark] really took that leadership role to another level. She was always hard on me at that point because she knew that I knew what I was capable of. If I didn’t put in 100%, ever, she was always there to let me know it,” said Jordin Canada. “Then at the same time, she was always giving me confidence and encouraging me. I definitely think she was a big part in my growth these last couple of years.”
Imagery is when you envision yourself doing an activity. This process involves creating the whole or part of a basketball event in your mind including the sights, smells, sounds, tactile impression, and powerful emotions. Don’t allow negative thoughts to have any time in your head. Be like Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry, who said, “Every time I rise up, I have the confidence that I’m going to make it.”
Set smart goals and creating a clear action plan. Make sure your fitness level is high. And practice making split second decisions.
Be sure to consistently measure how you’re performing against your goals. You can keep a practice journal to see your progress. Using video to record is also helpful to see your progress (it even can help you visualize better in the future). We’ve found the free Nike Homecourt app is a great way to do both.
Increase your belief in your ability to accomplish a single task. That means practice, practice, and more practice. Make sure you’re going at game speed in your workouts. True confidence comes from putting in the work.
Game play can also be used as practice. Dallas Wings‘ sharp shooter Marina Mabrey shared that she was able to gain confidence by getting up reps against other players. “Well first I played in EuroLeague my rookie year with TTT Riga and I had some moments where you know I had to recognize my weaknesses and stuff. And that’s where I kind of spent the time to myself to try to get in shape and really make myself an impact player in the league. I got to really develop my confidence against WNBA players there.”
Here are some self-reflection questions from The Champions Mind, based on pioneering work on self-efficacy (a specific strength of belief) by Stanford psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura. These questions are designed to raise your confidence as you review accomplishments, recall positive feedback, resolve to mirror and model your athletic heroes, and listen to reminders of your capabilities. You might also enjoy filling out a similar worksheet regularly in this helpful printable basketball journal.
Almost key to unlocking confidence is a growth mindset. Every hooper who has had long-term success has a growth mindset. Hoopers with this mindset believe their talents can be developed – through hard work, good strategies, and input from others. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). Basically, while genetics determine your starting line, hard work can determine your finish line.
When you push your current limits, eventually you’re going to fail. But that’s OK. Because failing helps you grow. You can only continually grow if you fail, learn, and grow some more. With this mindset, you come to learn that winning isn’t everything – growing is!
Marina Mabrey pushed her limits upon her arrival in the WNBA. The Notre Dame product was able to tap into her growth mindset to break through. “I think for me it didn’t hit me till like a little bit into the season, cuz I had a really good training camp. And I was like ‘Oh this isn’t really that bad.’ You’re a rookie, you have no idea that they aren’t really playing hard. So you get into the first game, and someone that was just supposed to be a shooter got like an and-one on me. And I was like ‘Oh my God.’ and I only played like 4 minutes.” she reflected.
“And it took like a big wake-up call to just get exposed every time defensively, going after you, going after you, getting your move cut off, getting your shots blocked. It’s a real confidence hitter. But if you can go and turn that around and change your perspective on learning something, you can become one of the great players in the league.”
Speaking of the greatest players in the league, Michael Jordan also has a growth mindset.
For the NBA Championship series in 1992, Michael only packed one suit and told his teammates, as the Bulls traveled to Game 6. His goal was to inspire his teammates and instill confidence, to end the series there.
That confidence is how Michael Jordan has become a six-time NBA Champions and four-time gold medalist, and was twice named the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year. “If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” he said.
Michael embodied a growth mindset and was always looking for new ways to compete with himself to find new challenges.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” said Michael.
The late Kobe Bryant was a five-time NBA Champion and was named MVP. He also had a growth mindset. Kobe mentioned, “Confidence comes from preparation. When the game is on the line, I’m not asking myself to do something I haven’t done a thousand times before”.
His self-belief and confidence came as a result of the work he put into his game. For example, one summer Kobe went to the gym and made 100,000 shots to correct a flaw in his release.
The final step towards building your basketball confidence is to ensure you’re in a positive environment. Attitude is infectious, so surround yourself with an optimistic squad that provides support and encouragement.
After getting cut twice after training camp, Alysha Clark made her first WNBA team: the Seattle Storm. But making the team didn’t relieve the pressure on her because she felt like the dream could end at any moment. “A lot of days, in the beginning, I would go home and I would cry. I would just be feeling like I’m not good enough, that I was a failure, and that any day now I’m going to be cut or released,” explained Alysha.
Alysha Clark’s blueprint to overcome imposter syndrome required hard work, stubbornness, vulnerability, and leaning on others. “When I go through things, I very much go through them alone. I internalize things a lot,” she said. “So, one of the biggest assets through all of that was having just amazing teammates that constantly were encouraging, and made you feel important – made you feel like you did belong.” Eventually, she was able to convince herself that she belonged.
Seattle Storm dynamic guard Jewell Loyd’s teammates also helped bolster her confidence as it faltered during her rookie season. “Just getting more aggressive and having more confidence in myself,” Jewell said in terms of what helped her improve in the second half. “When you have great teammates who make it easier, find you in the open lanes, and tell you to keep shooting, it makes it a lot easier to make things happen.”
Keep in mind that confidence is not a one and done thing. It’s a journey, and should be something you’re in constant pursuit of working on.
Years later, Jewell found herself in a shooting slump during Seattle’s run to a 2018 WNBA championship. “I never got comfortable. I think I played two good games the entire playoffs. … You try not to be nervous and you try to be solid when you get there, but then you realize what’s at stake, and different emotions take over. That’s the first time I’ve ever felt that way.” Jewell reflected.
“The physical stuff is easy. You can always just push through, but mentally, sometimes, it’s hard to get out of your own way.” Jewell said.
Sometimes it’s not just a series of games that can test your confidence. Instead it’s a series of years! Pro hooper for Athletes Unlimited Basketball, Sydney Colson knows its key to maintain confidence throughout all types of situations, in order to get to where you want to go with your basketball career.
On All On the Table, Sydney explained, “How it can go for people is that you’re in situations with coaches for several years in a row and nobody sees you for who you are. And you have a view of yourself that nobody has understood yet. And you could get to your 7th year in the league, and there’s finally that coach that lets you be you, and who lets you do what you know you’ve been capable of doing but it’s a matter of: for those 6 years, did your confidence drop? Did you stop working? Or did you become a bad teammate? Did you become cancerous because things weren’t going your way?”
“And then that 7th year when somebody maybe would have been ready to give you a chance, were you too jaded from all of that stuff before to be ready for that moment? And I think a lot of people don’t make it to that moment because you let these people change you – they get caught up in the negative or the now.” she said.
Now you have the tools to build confidence in basketball. Get after it – and don’t let anything change you! Up next, learn about pre-game routines that set you up for success.
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