I am very excited to present to you an interview with Paul Schlütter from Fundamentalkraft today. Paul is an experienced sports psychologist and has shared fascinating insights with us on the topic of self-confidence in strength sports. We talked about the importance of self-confidence in training and competition, how athletes and coaches can influence it, and delved into other nuances of this multifaceted subject. But enough talking, let’s get to the real content :)

First, can you give us a quick overview of what confidence in the context of strength training actually means and what makes this topic so interesting?

“Self-confidence does not have an exclusive context in strength sports. It’s not just about confidence in the context of strength training or powerlifting; it’s a general concept. It’s exciting because it’s a factor that can make a positive contribution to performance, even if it’s just one of many. I find it especially intriguing because the work I do in this area, and the work I do according to the guidelines from this field, supports this. It’s always a very individual matter, and different people can apply and train their self-confidence in various ways.”

How exactly do you define confidence?

“That’s a bit difficult. There is no single operational definition of it in the research. That means there’s nothing you can definitively say. The definition I like to use is from Dr. Nate Zinser and Bob Rotella. Self-confidence is a feeling of certainty about my own abilities, which allows me to bypass conscious thoughts and perform a task unconsciously. This means it implies a certain automatism, a certainty in my own abilities, and an automatism in the things I do.”

First, are there scientific studies on the topic, or is it more about working from experience?

“Yes, there are plenty of scientific studies. There is also a very good systematic review by Mark Lochbaum. Mark Lochbaum is someone who generally does systematic reviews in sports psychology and does them very well. They included 41 studies from 1986 to 2020, in which over 3000 athletes were studied. The research in this area is therefore very present and representative in various sports disciplines. So you can rely on it quite well.”

Is confidence more of an “innate skill” or something that can be taught or learned?

“Self-confidence is learned and context-specific, and above all, it’s something that can be trained. For example, my self-confidence in the context of mathematics is significantly lower than my self-confidence in the context of sports psychology. Within sports psychology, my self-confidence is higher in the area of mindfulness-based interventions than perhaps in the area of gestalt therapy interventions. This means that self-confidence is always highly context-specific and dependent on the area in which I am involved. It is also something that needs to be cultivated. It doesn’t come just like that; it is the result of how I evaluate things. It is not only related to actual performance, whether good or bad, but rather to how I evaluate these performances or situations.”

More in detail, how can increased confidence have a positive impact on training?

“Increased self-confidence usually helps me perceive tasks as challenges rather than threats. With increased self-confidence, I also have a heightened perception of my resources. This allows me to evaluate tasks given to me more positively and see them as achievable. There is also good research that distinguishes between threat and challenge states. The research shows that when I am in a challenge state—seeing the task as a challenge and believing I can accomplish it—I actually perform better physically. This provides a very positive contribution, especially in the context of training and competition. But even beyond that, it is useful because self-confidence is context-specific and can be used in various areas of life.”

How can lower confidence negatively impact training?

“Well, it’s quite the opposite. If I have very low self-confidence, I may tend to evaluate both good and bad performances negatively, further digging myself into an endless pit of lacking self-confidence. I might eventually reach a point where I don’t even want to face these tasks anymore. In the negative sense, and very far-reaching and of course multifactorial, this could lead to me quitting the sport, looking for another sport, or seeking a completely different context. It could also be that I exercise excessive control to gain more validation for my self-worth. This often overlaps with perfectionism. When it comes to things like self-worth, it can backfire spectacularly.”

How do I increase my confidence? What can I do as an athlete?

“Yes, train or practice, practice, practice. What I can really recommend is the book The Confident Mind by Dr. Nate Zinser. He clearly outlines several approaches on how to tackle this. It includes evaluations of training sessions, evaluations within the training sessions, positive self-fulfilling prophecies, visualization, and much more. The simplest thing I can initially recommend is to ask yourself three questions after each session and answer them briefly:

  • In which part of this session did I put in effort? Where did I really push myself?
  • What small success do I take away from this session? This can be something really small.
  • What have I improved as a result of this session?

For example, if the last exercise in my training is a grip strength exercise and I still push myself fully and maybe set a small PR by holding 150 kilos for 35 seconds instead of just 30, then I can write afterwards: ‘I put in effort today in my grip strength training, I pushed myself, as a result, I set a small PR, and as a result of the session overall, my grip strength has improved.’ And then you do this over and over again. Especially in this resource work, it is important to take the time to actively reflect on the things you did well and the things you want more of. This also directs the focus within the sessions to these things and makes the sessions more enjoyable.”

And as a coach, how can I positively influence the confidence of my athletes?

“I approach this by doing a lot of psycho-education with my people and have also held a few webinars on the topic to teach these tools and bring them closer to the athletes. In the context of competitive sports, I am also a sports psychologist for the German Cycling Federation and work there with various national coaches. Some of the coaches incorporate training evaluations into formal training feedback. This means that athletes are encouraged to actually do these brief evaluations after each session, and this can be established as a routine. I believe it is also important to be mindful of language when I ask for feedback, but also when I give feedback, to always express what we want more of. It is not very helpful for a coach to say: ‘Yes, your squat was too high.’ It’s much more valuable to say: ‘Make sure to squat lower next time.’ The instructions we give, and the motivational inputs, should generally always express what we want more of. There are exceptions in endurance sports, but we don’t need to go into that here.”

Are there differences in strategies for beginners and experienced lifters?

“No, not really. It’s generally a myth that people at a certain level in organized sports have an extremely strong mindset, whatever that means. I don’t even like the word ‘mindset.’ It’s simply not true. Of course, there are certain personality traits that are overrepresented at a certain level, but fundamentally, the human brain works pretty similarly in these matters. There are individual differences, and it may be that work on self-confidence helps one person more than another. But overall, you can say that the approach to the topic of self-confidence for someone preparing for a national championship is exactly the same as for someone preparing for a world championship.”

How can setbacks be overcome, e.g., training or competitions that didn’t go as planned, to avoid a loss of confidence?

“It’s all about how you respond. It always depends on how I react to the situation. Of course, I can take a good session and completely tear it apart, saying: ‘Yes, the numbers were good, but my back angle was terrible during the lift, my grip felt off, and maybe my elbow wasn’t fully extended during one of the bench press reps. So, it was a really bad session.’ Conversely, I can say after bad competitions or bad sessions: ‘Yes, the performance wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but I made an effort to stay well hydrated. I timed my warm-up correctly. I quickly moved on from a bad attempt. Next time, I want to make sure I pay more attention to my nutrition and maybe have a more relaxed day before.’ It’s always about evaluating and considering: ‘Okay, do I want to withdraw from this bank account (which is a good metaphor for self-confidence) in the way I react to this situation, or do I want to make a deposit?’ This is work that you do on a rational level by evaluating these things repeatedly and consistently focusing on what you want more of. It should also be said that it’s perfectly normal and okay to feel bad after a lousy training session or a bad competition. The question is always: Where is the limit? When does this feeling bad no longer make sense for me? It’s maybe even important and right to feel bad after a bad competition because then you can draw motivation from this experience to do better. The idea that you can say: ‘I had a bad session or a bad competition, and I don’t care at all,’ isn’t realistic either. There are differences between people. At the end of the day, from a sports psychology perspective, the question is always: Where is the limit of the distress? If someone has had a bad competition and is still completely devastated four weeks later and can’t get any decent sessions done, then maybe it’s time to intervene and say: ‘Okay, it’s enough now.’

How do injuries affect athletes’ self-confidence, and what strategies are there to regain confidence in one’s body after an injury?

“Well, this brings us quickly into the biopsychosocial model of pain and what it does to us. It’s also highly context-dependent. Of course, an injury can have very different impacts depending on the severity and what the support system around the person looks like. In my experience, the most important thing with injuries is to shift focus to: ‘Okay, what can I achieve now, instead of what I might not be able to do at the moment?’ It’s important to take time to process it, for example, if it’s an injury before an important competition, and to say: ‘Okay, it’s okay to find this annoying and to be sad that I can’t compete. But what’s the next step?’ Where do I want to direct my attention and resources so that I can develop well in the long term? This shift in goal setting is, I believe, very important. Regarding self-confidence, of course, it’s affected when you get injured. Or it can be, it doesn’t have to be. It’s understandable if that’s the case. It’s important to take the time with this adjusted goal setting to consider: ‘Okay, what are the things I can improve and where can I draw self-confidence from? What are the possibilities?’ That’s a reasonable step. When it comes to trust in one’s body, I wouldn’t directly categorize that under self-confidence. There is a lot you can do in the area of self-compassion, mindfulness, and acceptance. But that would be beyond the scope here.”

Are there specific challenges regarding self-confidence for female athletes (and also for male athletes)?

“I don’t know if I would base this on gender. I think there are certainly individuals who have difficulties in the context of their cycle, especially if performance fluctuations are strongly linked to the cycle. That can be an issue, but I wouldn’t generalize it by gender. There seems to be a small effect regarding the differences between men and women. In my practical work, I would always make it dependent on the individual person. I believe the individual differences are much greater than saying: ‘I do X with all men and Y with all women.’

How important is the social environment in the context of confidence in training?

“It is. In my experience, a few key points are boundaries. So, what boundaries do I communicate regarding unwanted feedback in training when I’m in an environment where people like to chime in? Can I set a boundary? Is it respected? That’s an important point. You can certainly create a training environment, and I usually make an effort to do so, where communication is focused on what I mentioned earlier, that is, when feedback is given, it’s always about expressing what you want more of. If I am a training partner and see, for example, a typical bench press set with too short pauses, I don’t go and say: ‘Your pauses were too short.’ Instead, I take a moment and say: ‘Hey, I saw your set. Are you open to feedback? Can I give you some input? Do you want that?’ If the answer is yes, then I give feedback, if not, then I don’t. And then I would say something like: ‘I noticed that your pauses could be a bit longer. In competition, they are likely to be longer.’ This kind of communication is important. This communicative element greatly enhances the training experience for most people.”

Thank you, Paul, for taking the time and giving us so many fascinating insights into this topic!

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