Self-confidence is one of those classic non-negotiables in sport. As athletes, we can all remember moments where the difference between the rush of victory and the sting of defeat came down to our level of confidence. Years on, we may still be analyzing how those scenarios unfolded. Self-confidence is on the shortlist of pre-requisites for athletic excellence. Staring at you from the bottom of an inspirational poster somewhere, inevitably emblazoned in all caps Engravers MT font. And along with a number of other character traits that include determination, attitude, ‘no limits,’ focus, and teamwork.


But there’s one catch: we’re human. For better or for worse, our lives don’t play out with the permanent simplicity, interminable synchrony and eternal serenity depicted in those motivational posters. We can know something that we don’t always feel. We can falter, stumble, and misstep. We can lose the things we’ve gained. We can grow weary. And we can sometimes lose our confidence. With almost laughable unpredictability, life has a way of testing our confidence at the most inopportune times and in the most unexpected of ways.

But if self-confidence is a bonafide non-negotiable for success in sport (and life), what can we do to guard against lapses in it? Are there reliable ways to manufacture it? And can confidence actually be contagious?


Short answer: absolutely! Long(er) answer: yes, but… Self-confidence is far more likely to be contagious when you put yourself in an environment where your role models and sources of inspiration are also the people to whom you can inherently, almost effortlessly, relate. If there were a slogan for this post, a longer, more cumbersome sub-title, it would be something like: “Bloom where you are planted, but first, plant where you can fully bloom.”

The six major sources of self-confidence in sport (Sport Psychology: Theory, Applications, and Issues (2nd ed) 2004) are:

  1. Performance accomplishment (“I did it before, I can do it again/do more”)
  2. Vicarious experience (experienced through others, explained more below…)
  3. Verbal persuasion (motivational talk from self, coaches, trainers, family, etc.)
  4. Psychological state (how the psychological and bodily states associated with sport are controlled)
  5. Emotional state (how the emotions associated with sport are controlled)
  6. Imagery experience (multisensory images of successful performance)

In my life as an athlete, “vicarious experience” (number 2), has featured powerfully as an effective tool for confidence-building over time. My friendship with an unassuming and diminutive Olympian, Alice, perhaps exemplifies this best.


Most sprinters have a low center of gravity (clear exception: “Insane” Bolt). Most distance runners are slender. And most jumpers are tall. This is something that’s bothered me forever because, well, I’m not! 166 cm (on a good day, while wearing shoes with tiny heels, and rounding up) is certainly above-average height for an average modern woman. But it’s below the average height for a horizontal jumper. When my motivation during training and competition waned, I looked around for inspiration. It hardly ever helped to look at other people in my event since most of them look nothing like me!

Except for Alice. A 400-meter runner, she’s a petite woman with a storied career in an event dominated by tall people. Looking at Alice is like looking in a mirror. Sports psychologists would say that this simple observation—that we are alike— is a powerful tool for confidence building. The principle of “vicarious experience” gives us a clue as to why.


Alice is one of those friends you don’t need to see all the time to maintain a powerful connection to. She’s laid back and funny but fierce, having accomplished everything I aspire to accomplish through sport (and in many ways, life). She’s been to multiple World and Olympic Games representing her island nation. She’s pushed through slumps in motivation, external doubters and serious physical setbacks, to perform high in her athletic potential consistently, over more than a decade!

When she retired a few years ago, I asked her about her journey. She said, simply, “every year, people said I was done [for one reason or another]. But I decided ‘that’s not the way this is going to go’…” She decided. Using a decision as a weapon is another topic altogether (take a mental note of that concept). Alice has certainly exemplified that but I won’t linger there. In terms of her physical size (height, weight, proportions), Alice is exactly like me!

Recently, she was in the area (for a track meet of course) so we had dinner together. I greeted Alice with a huge hug. As I did, I suddenly remembered, she’s tiny! I felt like I was hugging a high school student or maybe a slimmer, slighter, and slightly younger sister. Her untouchable athletic resume makes her seem larger than life in the mind’s eye, but amazingly, she’s my size. Beyond that, she’s the same complexion as me. We have similar hairstyles, we have similar smiles (the kinds that completely overtake our faces), and our dreams are about the same size. All of these similarities are important for vicarious experience to work.


Vicarious experience involves deriving self-confidence from watching someone else perform successfully. This is especially effective when that person has qualities or abilities that closely match your own. Every time I re-connect with Alice, I feel re-charged. Primarily because as she speaks, I see myself. Inevitably, our conversations meander over to all things track-related from coaches to teammates, competitions, wardrobe malfunctions, and “track hair.” She’s a great friend from whom I learn so much. I deeply respect her. But, unlike other friends who have had similar success on the track, she consistently motivates me to be and do better. Much better. My best. I think it’s precisely because she is similar to me in physique and in perspective that vicarious experience kicks in.

There are expressions about water finding its own level, and the importance of getting in where you fit in (probably also found on posters). They all speak to the same general idea. But these expressions are devoid of a critical ingredient: intentionally placing yourself in proximity to those to whom you both relate and derive inspiration. This will motivate you to achieve higher, re-imagine yourself better, and stir up the self-confidence that is so critical for performance.


In sport and in life, chose to place yourself near people with whom connections of all kinds can be made across experiences and domains. This means from the superficial and simple (same smile) to the powerful and profound (same drive to change the world). See to it that in your immediate environment, you find achievers who are like you in some obvious way (be it physique, vision, favourite colours, sense of humour, upbringing, personal style, family structure, world view). They will do more than simply reflect who you are now. They will motivate you to become a better version of yourself by showing you that it’s possible just as you are. They will be a source of self-confidence when it’s tough to find internally.

And when you find teammates, friends, colleagues, and partners that consistently remind you who you are and what’s possible just as you are, idiosyncrasies and all, cherish them. They will help you manufacture the self-confidence you need to fully bloom as an athlete, and as a woman.


  • Yetsa A. Tuakli-Wosornu is a sports medicine physician, disability rights advocate, and elite athlete representing Ghana in the women's long jump until 2016. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale School of Public Health. As a physician-scientist, she has worked with numerous global sport organizations and is the founder and director of the Sports Equity Lab, an academic research group delivering athlete-centered content that tackles inequities in sport such as discrimination, social exclusion, harassment, abuse, and bullying, using rigorous bio-psychosocial science.