Confidence, which defines as “belief in oneself and one’s powers and abilities,” is critical to athletic success. We all know this. Yet we seldom pause to reflect on the nature of confidence or to think about how best to manage it. This leads to some bad assumptions about confidence—such as the notion that more is always better—and poor confidence-management practices. The goal of this article is to give you a slightly different perspective on confidence that will help you manage your confidence better.

There are two major sources of confidence: external and internal. The main external source of confidence is experience. Like most other kinds of belief, “belief in oneself and one’s powers and abilities” requires an evidentiary foundation. Through the training process we learn what we are capable of, and in learning what we are capable of we set goals, and in pursuing these goals we look to the training process for evidence that we are moving toward them.

This component of confidence is—or should be—entirely rational. Confidence is beneficial only inasmuch as it serves to coax the best out of us, and your confidence will only coax the best out of you if your beliefs about what you are capable of are accurate. It does no more good to believe you can do more than you really can than it does to believe you can’t do as much as you really can.

This was shown in a study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and Brock University and published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2017. Seventy-five subjects answered questions designed to assess their self-efficacy (“an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments”) before being asked to hold a prone plank as long as they could. Those who scored either very low or very high on the self-efficacy test failed to hold the plank as long as they expected to, whereas those in the middle matched their expectations. When the plank test was repeated, the subjects with both low and high self-efficacy scores improved, whereas those in the middle did not, indicating that only the individuals possessing realistic initial expectations for their performance had given their best effort the first time around.

It’s not at all difficult to imagine what it was that only the subjects with a realistic sense of their planking ability performed up to their potential on the first try. Those who underestimated their ability simply quit when they had done as much as they’d thought they could, while those who overestimated their ability became frustrated when they discovered planking was harder than they thought  and quit for that reason. Do you believe you can fly? Then get ready for a hard landing. As these findings indicate, contrary to popular conceptions of confidence, you cannot believe your way to optimal performance. You achieve optimal performance by being right about what you’re capable of.

That being said, there is a role for positivity in managing confidence. Now we’re talking about confidence’s internal source. All athletes have good workouts, bad workouts, and average workouts. Insofar as confidence is necessarily dependent on proof of one’s capabilities, it is possible and not uncommon for individual athletes to experience significant fluctuations in their confidence level from workout to workout. A good workout boosts confidence, a bad workout lowers confidence, and an average workout has no effect.

The most successful athletes don’t operate this way, however. Instead, their confidence level is anchored specifically to their best recent performances, and therefore it fluctuates less and is generally higher than the confidence level of athletes who give equal weight to every single workout in assessing their capabilities. Perhaps this sounds like blind optimism to you, but in fact it is not, because an athlete’s best workouts are actually the most accurate indicators of their current fitness level and performance capacity.

Think about it: No athlete can perform beyond their physical capacity in a workout. If you do something in a workout, it is because you are fit enough to do it, period. There are no miracles or flukes. Bad workouts are a different story. It is quite easy, and even unavoidable over the course of intensive training, to perform below the level of your fitness in a workout due to fatigue carried from prior training. Therefore it is simply rational to look to your better training sessions only for evidence of you current fitness level and performance capacity, and by the same token it is irrational to allow your confidence to take a hit when you have a single bad workout. And here we arrive at the title I’ve chosen for this post: If one bad workout lowers your confidence level, you weren’t confident in the first place!

To the extent that confidence is an internal psychological trait, it consists in precisely this: a resistance to letting fear, insecurity, and other irrational factors influence one’s assessment of one’s powers and abilities. The older I get and the more I experience I acquire as an athlete, a coach, and a student of endurance, the more convinced I become that good, old-fashion level-headedness is probably the single most underappreciated contributor to success in endurance sport.

Recently in this space I wrote about a study in which French researchers looked for associations between “psychosocial factors” and the likelihood of failing to complete a 140-km ultramarathon. My focus then was the finding that runners who scored high on measures of self-efficacy were more likely to reach the finish line. What I did not mention is that another factor, “intention to finish,” was determined to be an equally strong predictor of actually finishing.

At first blush this finding seems almost laughably uninformative—almost tautological. Who the hell starts a 140-km ultramarathon without intending to finish it? But the truth is that there are degrees of determination to finish, and it is an important fact that those athletes who bring the highest degree of determination into a race are most likely to see it through. As my brother Josh told me on the eve of the 2017 Modesto Marathon, “I don’t care how ugly it gets tomorrow—I’m going to finish that f—ing marathon.” That, folks, is intention to finish! (And, yes, it did get ugly, but yes, he finished.)

Every athlete depends on two things to complete a race or achieve some other race goal: his or her effort (controllable) and luck (not controllable). It goes without saying that all the determination in the world won’t enable an athlete to finish a race if he goes down halfway through it with hyperthermia or a broken ankle. But some athletes rely on luck more than others do, often without realizing it. A runner who wants to finish a race but who stops short of saying, “I don’t care how ugly it gets—I’m going to f—ing finish!” is counting on things to go more or less his way during the race, and will drop out if his luck is too poor. By contrast, a runner who is maximally determined to finish accepts in advance that things might not go his way and has decided in advance that he will finish regardless (unless his poor luck takes the form of force majeure—hyperthermia, a broken ankle, etc).

What we’re talking about here, essentially, is a no-excuses mindset. An athlete who adopts this mindset says not “I will achieve my goal unless [fill in the blank]” but “I will achieve my goal no matter what.” Now, the athlete could very well be wrong, falling short of her goal for any of a number of reasons. But that’s not the point; the point is that an athlete who takes a no-excuses attitude into training and competition is more likely to achieve her goal.

To the athlete who is not accustomed to it, the no-excuses mindset seems scary. After all, no excuses means no one and nothing to blame but yourself. But in fact the no-excuses mindset is very freeing. When you’ve truly embraced it, everything just kind of rolls off you. An old shoulder injury flares up in the thick of your triathlon training? No biggie. Just swim with one arm for a while. Heat wave hits during your peak training period for an early fall marathon? Fine. Do it anyway, albeit a little slower and a lot less comfortably.

To embrace the no-excuses mindset is to be tough on yourself, but not in a brainless, macho way. Nothing is more reassuring than believing in your own strength, trusting in your ability to figure it out, whatever “it” may be. In banning excuses from your thoughts you are treating yourself as a strong individual who can figure it out, and it’s actually quite a pleasant place to be.

Can I persuade you to make 2019 your Year of No Excuses? I’ve already made the commitment, and I’d love it if you joined me. My big goal for the year is to qualify for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Santa Rosa on May 11. To give you a sense of what my no-excuses approach looks like with respect to this goal, I will share an anecdote.

A couple of weekends ago I did a long bike ride with a local friend, Keith, and about an hour into it we got to talking about my goal.

“How many Kona slots are available in your age group?” Keith asked.

“I don’t even know,” I told him. “All I know is that the guy who won the men’s 45-49 category last year went 9:29.”

“I figure there has to be at least three,” Keith mused.

“Honestly, I don’t even care,” I said. “I’m focusing on myself, acting as if there’s only one slot and it’ll take something close to 9:29 to claim it. I want to get as fit as possible and try to beat everyone. I figure if I do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

No excuses!

Every endurance athlete is familiar with the idea that certain physiological tests can be used to predict endurance performance. For example, the classic VO2max test is a very reliable way to assess how well an athlete is likely to do in a race or time trial. Other examples are the Wingate test and a simple maximal velocity test.

Increasingly, though, scientists are recognizing that certain psychological tests are also strong predictors of endurance performance potential. Collectively, recent studies in this hot area of research are showing that the mind is not merely a passenger in races and tough workouts but an active contributor to performance. Among the mental attributes that have been positively linked to endurance performance are pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and inhibitory control. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Mental Attributes

Pain Tolerance

Scientific evidence that a high tolerance for physical pain aids endurance performance goes all the way back to 1981. That year, in the British Medical Journal, Stirling University psychologists Karel Gisbers and Vivien Scott reported finding that pain tolerance was higher in elite swimmers than in club swimmers and higher in club swimmers than in noncompetitive swimmers.

Fortunately, pain tolerance is trainable. Gisbers and Scott found that pain tolerance increased in their subjects over the course of a season. And in a 2017 study, British researchers found that whereas a high-intensity training program and a moderate-intensity training program increase aerobic fitness equally in a population of healthy nonathletes, the high-intensity program increased cycling time trial performance by a greater amount, an advantage that was linked to a larger increase in pain tolerance.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Psychology Today, “emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Like all human traits, this one exists on a spectrum. Some people have low emotional intelligence, others high, while most fall somewhere in the middle. Psychologists use standardized tests to assess the emotional intelligence, and the results are highly correlated with real-life outcomes. Studies have shown, for example, that men and women who test high for EI tend to be more successful in their careers and are less likely to get divorced.

And guess what? A recent study by Italian researchers found that emotional intelligence was highly predictive of half-marathon performance in a group of 237 recreational runners. In fact, EI scores were more closely correlated with finish times than training variables were. It makes sense, right? Endurance racing presents an intense emotional challenge. It’s only to be expected that athletes who are well able to identify and manage their emotions will race more successfully.


Self-efficacy is a general belief in one’s ability to achieve goals. Whereas all of us tend to have a high degree of task-specific self-efficacy for things we’re good at, some people have an above-average belief in their capacity to achieve all kinds of goals, and according to a new study by French researchers, these individuals make better endurance athletes.

The subjects were 221 participants in an ultramarathon. Before the race, they all “completed a survey that included measures of: (a) motivational variables (self-determined motivation, basic needs satisfaction, achievement goals), (b) theory of planned behavior constructs (attitudes, subjective norms, self-efficacy and intention to finish the race), and (c) coping strategies in sport.” After the race, the researchers found that the runners who scored highest for self-efficacy were least like to drop out.

Inhibitory Control

Psychologists use the term inhibitory control to denote the ability to override impulses and stay focused on a goal. Inhibitory control comes into play anytime you want two or more contradictory things simultaneously and have to choose which one you want more. During races, athletes experience a conflict between the desire to reach the finish line as quickly as possible and the desire to spare themselves the discomfort that comes with pushing for maximum performance.

And guess who else scores well on these tests? High-performing endurance athletes. In a 2015 study, Italian researchers found that faster runners significantly outperformed slower runners in a standard test of inhibitory control, and the following year a different team of researchers reported a similar finding in cyclists.

Want to be a better endurance athlete? Work on your pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, and inhibitory control. And, oh yeah, your VO2max.

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