Child showing self-confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy

8 ways to build children’s self-confidence through your martial arts classes

‘Confidence’ is often one of the main benefits listed in children’s martial arts ads alongside discipline and other such trigger words we think parents want to hear. While I don’t doubt many martial arts clubs do build confidence in their young participants, I am not sure how many coaches could tell you the strategies and tactics they use to achieve this goal.

When we talk about confidence, we generally mean self-confidence. You can have confidence that a certain process will produce a specific result but when we are talking about our belief that our own actions or behaviours will result in specific outcomes, we are talking about self-confidence.

At a basic level, having self-confidence is the belief you have in your ability to do a task. The theory of self-efficacy coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, has a very similar description, ‘an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviours necessary to produce specific performance attainments’. The common thread running through both self-confidence and self-efficacy is that they both focus on future performance but are actually based on past experience.

If you think that Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset is the confidence in your ability to learn how to do something. Self-efficacy theory is the confidence you have in being able to actually do the activity.

“Confidence is not a constant. It fluctuates. It comes and goes. It can be easily gained but also easily lost. We become more confident when we are more familiar and have less fear. Trying a new activity and being successful helps us conquer fear and build confidence. Much of learning to be confident is learning to overcome fear”

The tools to building confidence in your children's martial arts classes

Self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-esteem

Another theme closely linked with self-confidence and self-efficacy is self-esteem. Sometimes linked with a person’s self-worth, self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves. Often seen as a personal trait, self-esteem is generally stable over the long term and tends to influence our belief that we are deserving of success and happiness. Personally, I feel my general self-esteem levels are good but I have little confidence in my ability to fix my car when it starts making strange noises.

Is there such thing as too much self-esteem? Those who have too much may be labelled as narcissistic. A psychological definition of an excess of self-esteem would be an extreme amount of selfishness, with an overblown view of one’s own talents and a craving for attention and admiration. If you have been around in martial arts for long enough, I am sure you probably have one instructor, player or fighter that springs to mind while you are reading this?

Is there a link between competence and confidence?

There is strong evidence to suggest that competence can increase levels of confidence and while it could also be said that confidence can influence competence, just thinking you are great at something is not enough to make it so without any other action.

It may come as no shock to any martial arts coach that if you want your students to be confident at performing specific martial arts techniques, they need to practice them until they feel competent. While it is true that doing ‘hard things’ can influence a student’s growth mindset towards learning other ‘hard things’, confidence is not necessarily transferable without the corresponding level of competence. Passing your driving test does not increase your confidence in public speaking.

Why try and build self confidence in your children’s martial arts programme?

Self-efficacy has been associated with improved well-being and lower levels of stress and depression. Much like the results of a growth mindset, students with a strong feeling of self-efficacy will be more inclined to try new activities and recover faster from failure. In fact, it is probable that these students just see failure as part of the process of learning.

Research suggests that children with high levels of self-confidence not only perform better in school but also have better outcomes later in life. There have been thousands of papers that have linked high levels of self-confidence with more success in life.

Many studies have also shown a strong correlation between self-confidence and positive mental health. As Project MAPLE is specifically designed to help children build a strong mind and body, this is of specific interest to us. Though it’s great that self-confidence has increased over the last 50 years, it seems much like self-esteem, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much self-confidence can lead to unrealistic expectations as well as the already mentioned narcissism.

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How to build self confidence in your Martial Arts students

You may have been teaching a class before and asked students to try a new technique that looks particularly challenging. Even after breaking everything down and explaining it in detail, you will still have students that are more tentative than others when it comes to having a go. This is where baby steps can help. If a martial arts student has a go at a new activity and as a result, they experience even a little success, this can help them feel like what you are asking them to do is not beyond their capabilities.

There are quite a few tactics you can use within your martial arts classes to help develop confidence in the children you teach. Here are a few:-

  1. Set up your practice so that your students can experience small, regular wins. They should still have to work for these wins but set the challenge level to ‘achievable’. This does not mean they will always achieve the goal, but it should be ‘doable’ for them personally.
  1. Recognise and give genuine praise for effort and the process the student follows regardless of the outcome. We cannot model success, just what it takes to be successful.
  1. Use differentiation to make sure the challenge level is right for all participants. As we know, children’s development is non-linier and they are often at different stages of their development journey. Where necessary, adapt each activity so that all participants are challenged while also experiencing some success.
  1. Provide a level of support that is proportional to the challenge at hand. It’s ok for students to feel challenged and even fail now and again. We just need to scaffold the learning process so that they feel supported and know the next step while still keeping ownership of the process.
  1. Deliver constructive feedback focusing on aspects of practice the students have control over like effort and process. Be specific and timely with your comments and where possible, use questions to help the children provide their own internal feedback.
  1. Set challenging but realistic process-based goals with your students. The Pygmalion effect describes the phenomenon where setting higher expectations can lead to an increase in performance. This does need to be calibrated against the student’s current competence levels if you are trying to nurture confidence.
  1. Reflect on past accomplishments. During challenging times, teach the children to draw on past experiences where they have been challenged but showed grit and determination to rise to the challenge. Using this method, the children can actually model their responses from their past performances.
  1. Encourage positive self-talk. Negative self-talk can often mean that a child has failed a challenge before they have even made attempt. Most of you will have heard the quote “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” from Henry Ford. Help the children think they can by encouraging positive self-talk.

I hope this article helps demystify what self-confidence is and how to create an environment in your children’s martial arts classes that nurtures it. If you want to join the conversation on current best practice for coaching children in martial arts, feel free to join our Facebook group. If you want to hear a little more about the development of our coach education project specifically for martial arts instructors (MAPLE), sign up for our free ‘MAPLE Insiders’ newsletter.

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