Regaining Confidence: How To Overcome Setbacks

Crashes, injuries, bad races, or general poor form can be tough to grapple with and can chip away at your confidence.

The fix comes from learning how to turn a disappointing situation into a learning experience.

“You are what you think!” says Sports Psychologist Dr Andrew Lewis. In this article Dr Lewis offers insights and tips on how to move forward and regain your confidence after a setback. 

“Sport is like life: we have memorable, exciting times as well as challenging and difficult times – and everything in between. During the challenging times, we can sometimes lose trust in our sporting abilities which can lead to a downward spiral of performance and loss in confidence. This state can be brief – for a day, a week or so – or more lengthy – a month, or even a year – leading to undesirable results, negative self-talk, pressure from our sponsors, coaches and families; and even mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. Often people will comment that you will get over these challenging times if you believe in yourself, or that you will be back number one position once the injury has passed, by; or that the slump that you are in is only temporary. Thing is, it is sometimes difficult to believe these comments when you go through a challenging time and they may even lead to a whole range of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviour such as anger, frustration and even resistance. 

Confident athletes recognize slumps in confidence levels as part of their sporting lives, and embrace these times. Also, when we have confidence, it seems to be in abundance, yet during challenging times it can be ever elusive. I venture to say that all athletes have experienced ebbs in their confidence levels and need to constantly develop ways to bounce back and regain their confidence. The skill is to convert these setbacks into comebacks by embracing the challenge and take safe risks. How can we do this? In short, I believe that confidence can be learnt, it embraces our feelings, thoughts and actions; is a process, dynamic, and fluctuates on a continuum and this is how I suggest that it is approached.


Practice developing your confidence levels. Often, we tend to forget our small successes and rather focus on the negatives which do nothing for our confidence. Take time to recognize and acknowledge your small daily successes and even jot them down in a journal. Confidence can be learn’t.

Jolanda Neff at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.

Furthermore, catch yourself when you are focusing on the negative side of your skill-set and then reframe it into a positive. You have the capacity to control how you respond to your thoughts, feelings and behaviour by reframing a negative into a positive. If you couldn’t climb a certain hill to the top, for example, at least recognize that which you did achieve and then set a small goal for the next day improving on that previous achievement. 

Visualise successes. In a previous article I took you through the process of visualization. Now you can use that process to relive successful times in your sporting career in your mind’s eye. Much like playing and re-playing a favourite video, you can relive those positive and uplifting times that you have in your sporting memory. You are what you think!

Start small and then go big. Focus on one or two skills during practice of a competition that you would like to improve on and then reflect on them afterward. Seek out the positive therein, and you can even ask yourself how you can approach things differently next time. All of these small successes contribute to a bigger picture of confidence.

Mathieu van der Poel at the UCI Mountain bike world cup

Embrace challenges and difficult times. Our perception of a situation determines how we think, feel and behave. Understanding what negative anxiety is and then reframing it by means of helpful relaxation skills (e.g. deep breathing) to seeing it as something potentially helpful–anxiety can be used to sharpen your concentration and focus and is a way of confidently embracing your fears.

Take safe risks so that you can experience pushing limits and developing your confidence levels. If you are recovering from an injury and find that riding like you used to before the accident is difficult or frightening, then just slack off a bit to a speed that you feel comfortable and capable with. As you confidence returns you can then safely push the boundaries a little bit at a time. Don’t forget to acknowledge your achievement! In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing”.  

Use downtime to recharge your confidence batteries. There’s a reason why we have seasons: autumn is when nature winds down, winter is for hibernation and time-out; while spring is for preparing for an exciting summer. Our bodies and minds are the same. As nature revives itself every year, so we need to wind down, refresh, reframe and launch ourselves into a confident season. Reframe injury time by doing something different and getting in that much-needed rest that you so yearn for during peak season.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot at the UCI Mountain bike world cup

Recognise your feelings, thoughts and behaviours during times when your confidence levels vary. Give yourself permission to think, feel and behave in this way, but then reflect on how you would like to take a different approach to your current circumstances. Acknowledging that you are experiencing a difference in confidence levels can lead you to take a process-oriented approach to your sport and not just an outcomes-oriented approach. 

Re-think and re-calibrate your goals to what can be realistically achieved. Your support system (e.g. skills coaches, medical professionals, training partners, sport psychologist) can help you achieve this. They can give you supportive, realistic and objective feedback that helps you to holistically understand your situation so that you can move forward.

In conclusion, trust the process and ride safely!”

About Dr Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is a Health Professions Council of South Africa (SA) and Health and Care Professions Council (UK) registered Educational Psychologist with rooms in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. With a post-graduate qualification in Sport Psychology, he works with individual athletes and teams who compete at all levels―national and international; and those who compete for pleasure. Andrew also collaborates with institutions and schools and publishes Sport Psychology- and Educational Psychology-related articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers and popular magazines. He also presents Sport Psychology workshops to other health professionals and athletes; as well as scientific papers at international and national conferences. Andrew also has an extensive sporting background and understands the demands and pressures of competitive sport―himself competing in the Ironman triathlon.  Andrew is currently a senior-lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and was also a senior-lecturer at Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa for 19 years where he trained Educational Psychologists and teachers; lectured students and conducted research. He also taught at two primary schools for 5 years. 

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