Self Confidence and the Psychological Fundamentals

By Jonathan Males

Jonathan Males is a sport psychologist and executive coach, who I met through our mutual work with the Canoe Wales Slalom Team. He has been kayaking since 1975, covering pretty much every aspect of the sport. Over the years his delight in paddling has been interwoven with a fascination for the inner world, the psychology of Performance. Perhaps this was kicked off when he first realised how much his own performance as a slalom paddler was influenced by his thoughts and feelings. Jonathan offered to write an article for the PSK Journal after we had a lengthy discussion about the role of Self-Confidence in my 2012 and 2015 UK Circumnavigation trips. This article is based on writings from within Jonathan’s book – In The Flow.  PSK

My own performance paddling has tended to take place on slalom courses, but growing up in Tasmania provided plenty of opportunities to paddle on the sea. In fact one of the best days I’ve ever spent in a kayak was trip around Cape Pillar on Tasmania’s exposed and beautiful south-east tip.  100 metre high cliffs, a touch of sea-sickness, a tricky landing on Tasman Island, and a total distance of 50+ km made it quite an adventure.

I’ve learned that self-confidence is the single most important psychological factor in successful sports performance.  Self-confidence is based on how you think about a situation and assess your chances of success.  It’s the realistic knowledge and belief that you are capable of achieving what you set out to do. Self-confidence is more than bravado or naïve optimism – although it’s easily confused with both. Truly self-confident paddlers don’t need to talk themselves up or talk their competitors down.  Truly self-confident paddlers know how to weigh up the risks, and understand that some crossings are better left to another day. They also understand that no matter how confident they are in their own ability, that the force of the ocean remains outside their control, so results or safety are never guaranteed. Being self-confident doesn’t mean you never feel anxious or scared, but it does mean you can deal with these feelings productively rather than them hampering your performance. While some paddlers seem to possess natural self-confidence, the reality is that everyone’s self-confidence fluctuates – whether you’re a veteran sea kayaker or a raw beginner.  So it’s important to understand where self-confidence comes from and how you can develop it.

Through my research and over twenty-five years practical experience with top class competitors and coaches in a wide range of sports, I’ve identified the four core psychological capabilities that any paddler needs in order to be self-confident. Self-confidence comes when you have the right attitude and goals, know that you have planned and prepared well, you know how to focus under pressure and you trust the people around you.  I call each of these factors the Psychological Fundamentals and each has an important role to play by itself and as one of the foundations of self-confidence.

The Fundamentals that underpin Self-Confidence

Here is a brief explanation of these terms and their significance for sea kayaking:

Mastery Motivation

This is your attitude, determination and commitment to achieve mastery over yourself, your competitors and your environment. Mastery Motivation underpins your fierce will to win and provides the drive to challenge yourself to find the limits of your ability.

Decision Making

This is the ability to plan ahead, think clearly and to learn from experience.  Making good decisions means more than whether you break a record – at sea they can be a matter of life or death.


This the ability to remain totally focused so you can perform under pressure.  Being able to execute your skills automatically will help you when you’re tired, facing an un-expected change in conditions or when you need to dig deep on a long stretch.


This allows you to build effective relationships and get the support your need from coaches or paddling buddies.  Having a good relationship with your coach, for example, helps sustain your competitive career, and getting on well with your mates on a multi-day self support sea kayaking expedition is pretty useful too.

The Fundamentals work together to support your ability to paddle confidently, and developing competence in one area will have a positive knock-on in other areas. The quality of your Decision Making influences your ability to Execute well, especially when these two components are powered by Mastery Motivation. When good Teamwork is in place too, all four Fundamentals come together to create self-confidence.

In my book In the Flow I look at each Fundamental in turn, and help you understand what it is and how it helps performance, the warning signs that suggest you need to work on it, and some practical things you and your coach (if you have one) can do to improve.

Jonathan Males – Jun 2016


In the Flow is available from Amazon, or directly from