When you watch elite Olympic athletes compete, what characteristic do you envy most? Blinding speed? Cat-like reflexes? The ability to eat like a horse and not gain any weight? Or maybe something they possess on the inside – like self-confidence and a deep-seated belief in themselves?

Confidence seems so natural to elite performers that it’s easy to think that they were just born with it, or that it happened naturally because of their natural gifts and success.

This might be true of some folks, but most elite performers have to work at it.

How, exactly?

I believe I can…

Here are a few hints (from Psychology of Champions):

Confidence is believing in your own ability, knowing what you have to do to win. My confidence was developed through preparation.  ~Jack Nicklaus (golf)

I had complete confidence in my ability to carry out the game plan. I studied and accumulated knowledge of the game. I accomplished this in practice by practicing over and over again, hard work.  ~Johnny Unitas (football)

Confidence is a belief in myself and my ability. I built my confidence through hard training. I believed there was no one out there working any harder than me.  ~Joan Benoit (track)

Two themes

Notice how each of these athletes are saying essentially the same thing.

They all equate confidence with a belief in their inherent ability or capacity to perform at a high level – as opposed to their win/loss record alone. Realistically, they understand that they’re not going to hit every shot, make every pass, and win every race, and they don’t let these ups and downs affect their belief in their underlying ability.

Secondly, they describe confidence as an outgrowth of their hard work and training – as opposed to natural ability and wins/losses alone. Their beliefs are built upon a solid foundation of factors that are under their control (being a student of the game, constantly learning and striving to improve via effective preparation), rather than external results that are out of their control (like whether they won or lost their last match, race, or competition).

How to become a believer

So what can you take from this? What can you do to start believing in yourself and your abilities?

Well, your inner skeptic will probably need some convincing at first, so like any good attorney, you’ll have to build a case with some concrete evidence.

1. Hang onto past successes

One of Michael Jordan’s most famous shots was a shot he hit as a freshman in college. Here is what he says about what that did for his confidence:

“I wasn’t afraid to take that big shot in the professional ranks. I had made one before in 1982 to beat Georgetown in the NCAA title game. Once I made that shot I was fearless after that. What could be more pressure than hitting that game-winning shot as a freshman?”

Jordan could have chosen to see that as a fluke. But he chose to see it instead as a sneak peek of the greatness that might be possible.

So hang onto the highlights, the shining moments, the fleeting glimpses of your potential. Use these to remind yourself of the greater possibilities that might exist, especially during tough times.

Learn from your mistakes and failures of course, but don’t just dwell on all the bad apples in the bunch. That’s not going to embolden you to be the best you can be. Choose to focus more intently on what you know deep down is possible.

2. Manufacture tiny wins

This is where the deeper, stronger, more resilient beliefs about ourselves are developed.

We’ve all heard the saying “success begets success”, but most of us assume that this means we have to experience a run of successful performances and auditions to believe in ourselves and our abilities.

Granted, successful performances never hurt, and yes, we might need a good performance here and there to keep our inner critic quiet, but we don’t need huge standing ovations and spectacular competition wins to strengthen our belief in ourselves.

We just need lots of tiny micro-victories. Micro-successes that prove we have the ability to improve and grow as musicians and artists. We’re not trying to convince the skeptic that we are definitely going to win the audition. We’re just trying to prove that we have the ability to grow, improve, and play the way we want to play. Play up to our abilities consistently, and good things tend to happen.

And all of this starts with setting tiny goals. Like figuring out why a particular note doesn’t speak. Why your shifts are jerky. Why a phrase sounds stuck.

Figure out how to solve these problems and you can add a little check to the “Yes! I can do it!” column. After all, you’ve just proved to yourself that you have what it takes to solve that problem. This will give you more confidence to tackle similar problems. And then even trickier problems. Soon, you’ll have an entirely different expectation of what you’re capable of, based on solid, concrete evidence you have worked hard to accumulate.

Keep track of these small wins on paper (it’s important to be able to see the evidence), and see what happens when you see these checkmarks begin to pile up.

The one-sentence summary

“Confidence is preparation. Everything else is beyond your control.”  ~Richard Kline

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.