• Dr Lottie Miles

The 3 Keys of Coping: Build Your Self-Belief

After reading my last post about rationalising the demands of an activity, you'll know that your assessment about your ability to succeed is based upon the balance of the activity demands vs your coping resources. When you perceive that your ability to cope outweighs the activity demands, you feel motivated, determined and you are more likely to be successful - you have self-belief. If your coping resources aren't enough, the situation becomes a lot harder to bare!

So, lets take a closer look at your coping resources...

What are 'coping resources'?

Your belief about your ability to cope (and succeed), is drawn from many sources, but there are 3 important ones that stick out in the research literature. These 3 factors work together to form your opinion of whether you can succeed (your resource appraisal):

  • Self-confidence - do you believe in yourself?

  • Perceptions of control - can you affect the outcome?

  • Goal orientation - are you focused on performing well, or avoiding failure?

These 3 'inter-related' constructs are all crucial in your appraisal as to whether you can succeed in a task or activity. Remember, if you believe you can do it, you will feel more motivated to get off the sofa and actually do it!

A lot of people focus on performing, but given the current lockdown situation, I think it's very relevant to consider how we stay confident, in control and optimally focused whilst training too.

Right, it’s time to grab a cup of tea and settle yourself in for some knowledge-bombs...

Let's kick things off with Self-Confidence

Self-confidence dispels negativity and allows you to direct all your energy and focus onto the task. It gives you a sense of freedom to express yourself, and it helps you cope with the effects of pressure. Confidence inspires you to work harder and be more persistent in the face of challenges and it enables you to act swiftly and decisively when the need arises.

Literally hundreds of research papers written over the past 30 years tell us that higher self-confidence leads to increased physical activity levels, better sports performances and more enjoyment of an activity.

What is Self-Confidence?

Self-confidence is an individual's belief about achieving success as a result of their abilities and skills.

Self-confidence is not about simply having the necessary ability, but whether you believe in your capability to succeed. You can find this belief in many sources such as:


You'll gain confidence through developing and improving your skills and physical abilities. You will also get a boost from demonstrating that ability to yourself and others.


Physical and mental preparation is important and can be sourced from your routines and mental strategies before, during and after activity. Remaining focused on your goals, being prepared to work hard and give your best effort will also help. Furthermore, if you feel good about your body and appearance, you generally have more belief in yourself and your abilities.

Social Climate

Having a good social network is often important for building your confidence and helping you feel comfortable in a challenging environment. Constructive feedback and encouragement from teammates, coaches and family will increase your feelings of worth, and seeing others succeed may also help you to believe you can too. Trust in your captain/coaches' ability and decisions is also a nice source of confidence (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).

The mastery of self-confidence comes from consistency - we not only want to have high self-confidence, but we want it to remain high, irrespective of any 'bumps' along the road. That is where perceptions of control, and goal orientation play an important role.

Confidence comes from Control, which feeds your Confidence!

Even when training, there are many factors outside our control and thus are things you can't change or influence. Being 'out of control' is disastrous for your confidence as you will feel powerless to affect the outcome. It does help to recognise the uncontrollables, but then put them to one side whilst you focus all your energies on what you can change.

Here are 5 aspects of training and performing that you can control (Turner & Barker, 2009). Within each of these, there are lots of specific controllable factors you can take charge of to enhance your training and performances:

  1. Your psychological state - what you are telling yourself

  2. Your preparation - a routine that ensures everything is set up correctly

  3. Your effort - you control when, how much, and the direction of your effort

  4. Communication - how and what messages you send and receive

  5. Plan B, C, D... - identify potential obstacles and plan how you will address them


Use the 5 aspects of control to help you identify all the 'controllables' you can optimise for your own training sessions. Try and think of everything, no matter how small that you can affect. I like to divide my controllables into the following headings:

My example of a controllables list
Here's an example of my controllables list for a strength training session

What I can do to plan

What I can do right before

What I can do during

What I can do after

I would recommend you do this for competing when it becomes relevant again too!

Your controllables list can act as a mental checklist to keep you focused on relevant factors before, during and after your performance - hopefully you already address a lot of these items in your 'training routine'. If you can focus on these controllable factors, and make each one as good as it can possibly be, you will have significantly more belief in yourself, and your ability to push through the session with flying colours.

Optimising your controllables is almost always enough to get you where you want to be, but I should say this isn't a guarantee - sometimes the universe will conspire against you (and one day soon you will go back to having opponents who will try to steal your glory too!). If this happens, you shouldn't loose heart. Take confidence from knowing you did all you could to create a successful outcome, and each time you train or perform, you learn more about how you can optimise your controllables for the next time.

How you define 'Success' - Your Goal Orientations

Your goals are just as important for maintaining your confidence levels, and of course these are completely within your control too!

You have a choice as to whether you pursue success, or try to avoid failure, but you might not always be aware of what direction you are pointed in. When feelings of control are lacking, or your confidence is low, many people tend to veer towards threat avoidance goals - 'my aim is to not to come last', 'I just don't want to be embarrassed', 'I want to get through this without dying'.

The problem with avoidance goals is they actually cause us to perform worse. This is in part because avoidance is associated with lower levels of motivation, a poorer sense of well-being, and a phenomenon called self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is when you intentionally do something destructive for your performance so you have something else to blame for not being successful (e.g. late night partying the night before a big match, or refusing to replace outdated or broken equipment). It is also incredibly difficult to move forward with any kind of purpose when your eyes are fixed on the rear-view mirror.

Avoidance goals often rear their ugly heads during competition with others. This is because your definition of success is now dependant on something you cannot control - the performance of your competitors.

Success should not be synonymous with 'winning'.

To be confident of your ability to succeed, you need to make sure your definition of success is both achievable and within your control. Therefore, your goal should be judged against your own capabilities and standards and never against the performances of others.

In his book, Chasing Excellence (2017), CrossFit coach Ben Bergeron refers to how his athlete, Katrin Davidsdottir (who at this time was the reigning CrossFit Games champion), maintains her self-confidence in the face of an event she is poor at in comparison to her competitors. Bergeron explains that Katrin chooses not to judge herself against the performances of others, but instead she's identified a specific target (a number of repetitions) that she knows she is capable of reaching in this event. Although this target will almost certainly not be good enough to win the event, Katrin is focused on, and excited by the prospect of achieving success by her own standard.

Katrin finished this event in what might be considered a 'disappointing' 14th place for an athlete of her calibre, but she was thrilled at the finish line. She performed close to her best, and actually exceeded her goal! Redefining her measure of success gave Katrin the self-belief she needed to take on the challenge and perform at her best, regardless of what her competitors were doing.

Phew, that was a long one! Right, let's finish by bringing it all together!

When you have a tough workout planned, or a difficult challenge to overcome, you need to make sure your coping resources outweigh the task demands. You can minimise the task demands by rationalising your beliefs about it. You can enhance your coping resources by boosting your self-confidence, perceptions of control over the situation, and the orientation of your goal.

Self-confidence, control and goal orientations are all important, inter-related constructs. This means you can affect each one to boost the others - feelings of control will make you more confident, driving for success will give you more control, more confidence will encourage you to attack your goals, control over your goals will give you confidence...etc, etc!

I will publish some 'Top Tips' articles in the coming weeks for practical ways to increase each of your coping resources. In the meantime, look for your sources of self-confidence in your achievements, through self-regulation and from your social climate. Identify all the things you have control over, and keep these at the front of your mind when things get tough. And always set manageable goals that are focused on achieving success based on your capabilities, rather than looking to avoiding failure. Optimising each of these 3 keys to coping will help you feel much more assured of your ability to succeed in whatever challenges you face.

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Bergeron, B. (2017). Chasing Excellence, A Story About Building The World's Fittest Athletes. USA, Lioncrest Publishing.

Turner M., & J. Barker, (2009). Tipping The Balance, The Mental Skills Handbook for Athletes. Oakamoor, Bennion Kearny Ltd.

Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed), pp. 324-333. USA, Human Kinetics.

sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles