Help your children build confidence: What parents can learn from Jessica Ennis-Hill

In last weekend’s Sunday Times, the Education Editor Sian Griffiths wrote a piece which highlighted how our Tougher Minds resilience programmes help people to boost their confidence. As part of these, we also teach parents how to help their children develop this important attribute. The Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill is one of the examples that we use, to help parents understand confidence.
Jessica Ennis-Hill

Ennis-Hill’s career provides a great case study. Despite the broader perception of constant triumph and success, she has also faced some challenging times during her career. The most challenging was probably when she suffered three fractures in her right-foot, during preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The Sheffield athlete has given accounts of this period and explained the injury was so severe that not only did she miss the Beijing games, but she was forced to change her take-off foot for the long jump event. For an athlete, this was like changing the hand you write with, and then also having to quickly become world champion at writing with that “new” hand.

Fundamentally, Ennis-Hill was undertaking a brand new event: the left-footed
long jump. If she didn’t master it quickly her athlete funding would be cut, and she would not fulfill her dream of becoming the world’s best heptathlete. One week she was readying herself to win Gold, the next she was being told that she might not be able to compete again. In psychological terms, what we call her A.P.E. Brain was on red alert.

This is the part of the brain which makes us see threats, danger and causes anxiety. For Jessica it would have been difficult to pay attention to anything that was not a worry or major threat to her future. In simple scientific terms, the brain reacts to moments like these with varying degrees of the fight-or-flight response, which triggers the release of certain hormones. The problem is that an excess of these hormones can potentially damage a part of brain called the hippocampus, which has been shown to be responsible for memory, learning and stress management.

So it was clearly unhelpful for Ennis-Hill to keep paying attention to worries and threats. If she was to successfully get her career back on track, she had a lot of learning to do. Having hippocampi that were not functioning optimally could potentially have a profoundly negative effect on the successful development of her left-footed long jump skills.

In short, if she wanted to move on with her career, she needed to use her self-control to rebuild her confidence, and accelerate her understanding of how to successfully compete in this “new” event – the left-legged long jump.

Research shows that if we want to be successful in life – to flourish and thrive- we need to find at least three helpful thoughts for every unhelpful one, we experience. This is called grounded positivity. However, this 3:1 ratio is a minimum and sometimes unhelpful thoughts can be so damaging that we need to overpower them by finding up to eleven helpful thoughts.

In Jessica Ennis-Hill’s case, she might have been thinking:

– ‘It’s not fair that I am not going to the Olympics’;
– ‘I might never be able to jump effectively off my left-leg’;
– ‘My career could be over’.

This mindset was simply not helpful. But the difficulty for her was that there
were just no obvious positives she could pay attention to. Nothing was
going right.

However, Ennis-Hill was at least able to pay attention to thoughts that were more helpful to her, than dwelling on the many negatives. By doing this, and apparently unbeknown to her, she was using an approach called Meaning Focused Coping (MFC). One MFC technique she seems to have used is called benefit finding, which you could describe as, ‘although things are difficult right now what are the benefits of being in his situation?’

For example Ennis-Hill said things like:

– “There must be a reason (good) for what has happened”
– “Now I can go to watch Sex in the City at the cinema, watch more DVDs,
spend more time with my boyfriend… I’ll be tougher for this experience.”

By becoming skilled at re-appraising difficult events in her life, Jessica
Ennis-Hill was able to focus on helpful thoughts, and ultimately get her
career back on track.

Most parents know that health, happiness and high-performance is built on good confidence. You will NOT have good confidence if you keep telling yourself how bad everything is going. Parents can take a leaf out of Jessica Ennis-Hill’s book by helping their children not to dwell on unhelpful thoughts.

Parents can purposefully teach their children how to re-appraise difficult events in their lives. A concept that we use to help parents understand confidence, and help their children to manage it, is the House of Confidence. This shows that you can build confidence, like you build a house. However, for your House of Confidence to be well maintained, you need to balance each unhelpful thought with at least three helpful thoughts.

Try using these re-appraisal questions with your children when things are not obviously going well. It will help them to strike a better balance of helpful and unhelpful thoughts in their House of Confidence:

Three questions I can ask my child to when things are really tough?

1. What are the benefits of this difficult situation?
2. What have you been fortunate to be able to do today?
3. How can you/we fix this problem?

Tougher Minds Training for Parents – Learn to help your children
Tougher Minds is staging a bite-size training event for parents on Thursday 10th March, at the UCL Institute of Education in central London. It will show simple and practical techniques that can be used in the home to help young people improve their confidence and other key attributes, including concentration, motivation and self-control.

The event consists of two separate sessions for parents with children of different ages.

Session One (6.45pm-7.45pm) Support children with entrance exams / 11 plus or transition to senior school.

Price: £49 per attendee.
*How to reduce stress and build confidence.
*Truly effective revision planning and goal setting.
*How to boost concentration in class.
*How to deal with the big step up in homework.
*How to maximize your learning, and have quality downtime.

Find out more here.

Session Two (8.15pm-9.15pm) Improve GCSE and A Level exam results: parent and teenager session.

Price: £49 per attendee.
*How to maintain motivation and manage stress when exams are approaching. (Iceberg)
*Truly effective revision planning and goal setting.
*How to keep track of your revision progress.
*The 20:20 rule – spend the right amount of time per topic, and maximise learning.
*How to think clearly during exams.

Find out more here.

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