“Believe in yourself” is an old saying that you have probably heard a million times, especially when you engage in sports. Numerous research studies have indeed evidenced that self-confidence can lead to significant performance improvements. More recently, however, research attention has shifted to team confidence. Athletes having confidence in the abilities of their team constitutes an essential factor in the success of sport teams. Especially in tight games, when the stakes are high and the mental pressure peaks, team confidence can make the difference between winning and losing.
To address previous inconsistencies in literature with respect to definition and operationalisation of team confidence, our initial research studies aimed to obtain clarification on the concept. Here, we distinguished between two types of team confidence: collective efficacy and team outcome confidence. Collective efficacy is a clearly process-oriented type of confidence: it comprises athletes’ confidence in the skills of their team required to accomplish a certain task. For example, athletes’ collective efficacy can refer to their confidence in the team’s ability to cope well with setbacks, to encourage each other in the game, to react enthusiastically as a team when making a point, etc. Team outcome confidence, on the other hand, is clearly outcome-oriented: it refers to athletes’ confidence in their team’s abilities to obtain a given outcome (e.g., the confidence that your team has the abilities to win the game or to finish in the top three of the ranking).
It is important to emphasise that team confidence is not a fixed trait, but rather a dynamic construct. In other words, athletes’ confidence in the capabilities of their team may fluctuate in the course of weeks, days, or even during a game. Nevertheless, most studies on team confidence are cross-sectional in nature and measure team confidence as a trait concept and were not able to map the dynamics of team confidence over time.
In our study, we measured athletes’ collective efficacy and team outcome confidence of soccer players at three time points within a competitive game (i.e., before the game, at half time, at the end of the game). Our findings highlighted the dynamic fluctuations of team confidence, not just over a season, but also within a single game. Furthermore, this study revealed that both types of team confidence during half time were associated with the performance in the second half. In other words, the more confident athletes were concerning the abilities of their team during half time, the better they perceived the team performance during the second half. In other words, changes in team confidence within the game can make a difference between winning and losing.
If team confidence can change throughout a game and in the course of a season, thereby affecting performance, then it is crucial that we know how to change it. Therefore, in this research line we looked into the sources of team confidence.
Previous research had suggested that past performance was the strongest source of team confidence (i.e., you won the previous games so you are more confident in the next ones). However, our more recent research findings suggested that in-game sources were even more important predictors of team members’ team outcome confidence and their collective efficacy. Athlete leaders within the team (i.e., players taking up leadership responsibility) were identified as the most important source of team confidence, and this both a positive and negative way.
An illustrative story of a few years ago is that when analysing the worst competition start in 15 years of the Belgian soccer champion R.S.C. Anderlecht journalist Peter Vandenbempt emphasised the detrimental impact of low team confidence, thereby underlining the essential role of athlete leaders: “The main problem is the organisation and the confidence in defence. With every counterattack, the players are trembling with fear. There is a harrowing lack of leadership on the field. We already noted that before. No one takes the team in tow when the team encounters difficulties. The best proof is that not once this season Anderlecht has been able to come back after being behind.”
Athlete leaders thus seem to hold the flaming torch of team confidence. The sparks, emanating from the leader’s torch, can ignite the other team members, thereby causing the fire to spread quickly throughout the team. This fire can foster the passion in a positive way (when the leader expresses high team confidence) or (and this may be even more pertinent) cause a stifling feeling in a negative way (when the leader expresses low team confidence). A series of experimental studies in our research group indeed demonstrated that athlete leaders can have a significant positive, but also negative impact on their teammates’ team confidence, and thereby also on their objective performance.
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Fransen, K., Steffens, N. K., Haslam, S. A., Vanbeselaere, N., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2016). We will be champions: Leaders' confidence in 'us' inspires team members' team confidence and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 26(12), 1455–1469. doi:10.1111/sms.12603
Fransen, K., Decroos, S., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2016). Leading from the top or leading from within? A comparison between coaches' and athletes' leadership as predictors of team identification, team confidence, and team cohesion. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 11(6), 757–771. doi:10.1177/1747954116676102
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