The Questions

What is your biggest fear in sports?

What are some typical critical comments I make to myself?

Which of these critical comments could be explained by my fear?

Is my belief useful? If yes, why? If not, what could I do better?

How would I choose to think if I accepted my fears? How would this help my confidence in my sport?

Confidence is a lack of self-defeating thoughts

This article is really about self-criticism, not confidence. Your criticism can be a friend or an enemy. It is your friend when it never tells you ‘you’re not good enough’. Instead, you must tell yourself, “I am not good enough yet”.

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Self-criticism is an automatic response to making a mistake or failing. You know that things didn’t go your way, so a thought arises in your head: why? Maybe there is an even an explanation… the kind of thought that tells you about your mistake, usually with too much emotion. Too often athletes allow these negative thoughts to hurt their game. Too often athletes don’t ask why.

Your negative thoughts start when you fail, but they can progress to places full of doubt and nervousness.

The occasional negative thought is okay (even helpful), but negative thought after negative thought has a serious effect on your confidence.

In the long term, criticizing yourself too much can completely change how you see yourself in your sport (for better or worse). That is why you must learn about the way that you speak to yourself, including the emotions and beliefs that are behind both useful and harmful self-criticism.

What does your inner-critic say?

You might know what it’s like to tell yourself you suck. The voice in your head often only tells you what you already know: “I should have shot there”, “I can’t get caught looking at strike 3”, or “I completely ruined that play”. So if you know what you did wrong, why did you do it wrong in the first place? Here’s one answer: something in your mindset was lacking.

Don’t let your critic fool you. It wasn’t just the ‘mistake’ that went wrong. Perhaps you were not in a clear state of mind, so you didn’t notice that the pitch high and inside was actually a curveball that would come back across the plate. Or you had no confidence from the last time you got mad at yourself, so you tried to get a little closer to the net instead of taking a decisive shot. Or you lacked focus, or so on.

The way to change this process is quite simple. You can follow these steps:

  1. Try your best.
  2. Accept that things will go wrong.
  3. Be completely obsessed with the facts. Reflect and learn from the things that do go wrong.
  4. Return to step 1.

So when you make a mistake in your sport, no matter the stakes, accept what happened. Then listen to you critic to figure out what really went wrong. Step 3 is where athletes either get too critical or . There are two reasons:

  1. Recency bias: a bunch of bad plays in a row makes you more reactive to the next play. It is difficult to stay level headed when more and more has gone wrong. For example, three bad shifts in a row in hockey means you will probably be more upset if you make a mistake on the fourth shift. Each of these mistakes, in reality, can teach you a lot about your game.
  2. Catastrophizing: this is the tendency to make a big deal out of mistakes. For example, assuming this mistake will completely change the course of your season. It won’t, unless you let it kill your confidence and distract your focus.

Instead of being caught up in emotions and thoughts that don’t help, think to yourself, “yes it went wrong, but why?” Why did you watch strike three? Why did you stickhandle once more before shooting? That way, the critic is forced to be quiet and wait for another voice to provide something useful: “You didn’t notice the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand,” for example.

Now your mistake will have an impact on your future play in a positive way, instead of hurting your focus or confidence. This is a well-known concept in psychology called having a growth mindset.

Remind your critic who he works for

Reframe your self-criticism as a tool for you to learn lessons. Sometimes you can get stuck listening to your critic without resolving any of the problems the critic is suggesting. If you let the critic talk for long enough, it will both distract you and kill your confidence. The best way to avoid this confidence killing relationship is to become friends with your critic. Listen to it and ask good questions.

In the heat of the moment, during games especially, sometimes it is not useful to have a conversation with your critic. It can be distracting. In these situations, know that you can always review a certain play in your head or on video later on. Move on in the moment so the moment does not move on without you. That means telling your critic to be quiet.

Your critic works for you. You can have the ultimate say in when the conversation happens. This skill requires you to fully stop your critic so that you can focus. There will be another play coming up. So you need to work to bringing yourself back into the mindset to make that play (often the best mindset is the one where you think the least).

Silencing your critic is more difficult with bigger mistakes and pressure. But it is something that you can practice. In training and low-stakes situations, build the habit of noticing when your critic pipes up. You can then choose to refocus immediately or listen to the critics’ more useful comments.

Why is your critic so loud?

What happens if your critic is too overwhelming to ignore? Your critic might be very loud. You may sometimes have difficulty asking your critic to wait until things slow down to hear its comments.

Athletes who are high in Dominance (‘D’) and high in Conscientiousness (‘C’) might be susceptible to having their critic become loud because the mistakes you make directly hurt the result (‘D’) or seem like a reflection of your failure on a task (‘C’).  Athletes who are high in Influence (‘I’) or Steadiness (‘S’) might fear making mistakes that hurt your social standing (‘I’) or the team’s well-being (‘S’).

Every athlete has something that makes their critic especially ruthless. So ask, what is it that I am most afraid of? What irritates me the most? An AthleteDISC profile report offers suggestions based on your behavioral tendencies.  They are listed here based on the 4 behavioral styles (D, I, S, & C).





Not having complete control. Think about the kind of mistakes that you might not have control over. How do you react to these mistakes?

Inefficiency and indecision. Do you hate when you or others cannot act quickly? Do you struggle to see value in people who don’t have the answer right away?


Loss of social recognition or respect. Do you tend to worry about what other people will say when you make a mistake?

Routines and complexity. Do you hate when other people make the sport too rigid or difficult to understand?


Sudden changes and instability. Do you worry about people treating you differently if you are struggling?

Insensitivity and impatience. Do you hate when people are insensitive or impatient with you?


Personal criticism of your performance. Do you get caught being too hard on yourself?

Disorganization and informality. Do you hate when your play or your teammates’ play is sloppy?

A good relationship

A good relationship with your critic is one where the negative thoughts that you have become useful ideas for you to improve your game. You can still have negative thoughts about your play, your mindset, and your relationships with others, but you must make them useful to you.

When you accept and listen to negative thoughts, they can be the key to growing your game. You can take action to improve from negative thoughts.

Your self-criticism can be a friend or an enemy. The key for you is to figure out when the little voice in your head is worth listening to. That means you are hard on yourself for things you can do better but easy on yourself for things that you cannot change. That way you keep your confidence.

You can be self-critical and confident at the same time… but this is a skill that takes mastering.

Try the exercise below to see how you can start playing and feeling better with the help of your critic.

Exercise: negative emotions as obstacles

For this exercise you will have a chance to reflect on how your key fears limit your success and well being. Think about real thoughts and emotions you have had in the last week of playing your sport.

The point of this exercise is to begin to think about a new strategy for dealing with your critic. It is also to help you practice recognizing the link between your emotions and your critics comments. For example, you could step back when you are about to get mad at yourself and realize you are only doing it to show the rest of your team and your coaches how you still deserve their respect because it was such an obvious mistake (an example of a high ‘I’ emotion). There are numerous examples. Think about times you are mad at yourself or down about your play.

Get started on the questions to learn more about the relationship between your emotions, thoughts, confidence, and performance:


What is your biggest fear in sports?

What are some typical critical comments I make to myself?

Which of these critical comments could be explained by my fear? (ex. I’m a terrible player, I might as well not embarrass myself… explained by my fear of losing my teammates respect)

Is this thinking strategy a good strategy? If yes, why? If not, what could you do better? (ex. It is a bad strategy because it hurts my confidence. I could know that I am worried and calm myself down.)

How would I choose to think if I accepted my fears? How would this help my play and growth in my sport?

Click the link below for a PDF print-out of this exercise:

Self-Criticism Exercise