Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Truth about Self-Confidence in Sports

One of the most over-used concepts in sports and performance psychology is self-confidence. Nevertheless, this concept holds considerable legitimacy and power as a key ingredient in success and winning in sports, politics, business, and life.

The limitations of this concept lies in the individualistic nature of its use.  When we think if self-confidence, our view remains within the confines of the individual athlete.  Though some sports are obviously team sports and some are individual sports, the burden to maximize self-confidence lies in the individual performer.

Individually, perhaps no one had more self-confidence that Muhammad Ali, an individual boxer. We consider professional tennis players Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, the Williams sisters, and Maria Sharapova to have supreme self-confidence.  At the team sport level, we have assumed for years that the Chicago Bulls lived off of the off-the-chart self-confidence of Michael Jordan. Most people believe, that the New England Patriots live off the self-confidence of  Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.  Andy Murray, the new men's Wimbledon champion, is the new poster boy for self-confidence.   

Regardless of the sport, mental conditioning coaches and sports psychologist talk about self-confidence and mental toughness primarily in individual terms and typically intervene at the individual level.  Though somewhat effective, perhaps the truth of confidence lies at the group or organization level and beyond.  Even individual athletes in individual sports have coaches, trainers, agents, caddies, families, etc.  

If self-confidence is affected by how unsure an individual feels as a result of each setback or barrier to success, then their individual mindset is the unit of measure.  This maintains the burden to remove that feeling on the individual, and, perhaps, his or her willing to be influenced by others (coaches, teammates, fans, etc,). The ultimate focus and burden lies on his self-confidence and his performance.  

Self-confidence is commonly defined as the sureness of feeling that the individual (even if a part of a team) is equal to his or her task at hand.  The media and the fans as well as coaches and players tend to see the problem of self-confidence to ultimately lie at the individual level.  

A better definition of confidence is one offered by Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  It is the ability to envision a positive outcome.  This definition of confidence does not contain the limits of the individual but focuses on the outcome.    

But let's look at this systemically.  What if confidence were not placed at the feet of individuals to be collected individually like bowling scores?  What if the real burden of confidence and success were shared by all of the major stakeholders of the team, the players and the coaches as a collective entity?  

What if there were a greater collective score, called Collective Team Confidence, multiplied by the alchemy of all stakeholders in the outcome of a practice session, a game or a season?  Then, confidence would not be held in small buckets with little influence or interaction with other amounts in other buckets. Confidence would be free to interact, to influence the entire team, as a whole through their collective sense of confidence.    

With this new mindset, the responsibility for the level of confidence and, therefore, performance, could placed at a higher level, a more effective level:  at the system level, the social or community level. What if we really begin locate, measure, and hold the larger entity with the responsibility and burden of performance?   Then, confidence would no longer be held at the level of the individual athlete.

For example, if an individual athlete were no longer the locus of confidence, he would also no longer individually responsible for exihibiting, maintaining, and evaluating their level of confidence at a micro level. What if their swagger or the vibe they project was no longer the measuring stick. What if their individual play, through the ebb and flow of individual performance, mistakes, missteps and moment-by-moment was no longer the unit of measure or all to praise or ridicule. What if confidence were managed at the macro level.    
Experts in the field have concluded that Confidence is effected by six factors:  
  • Performance Accomplishments
  • Involvement in the Success of Others
  • Verbal persuasion
  • Imagery Experiences
  • Psychological States
  • Emotional States
Performance accomplishments are the strongest contributor to sport confidence. However, if we only see this happening or only evaluate this factor at the individual level, through individual scores, individual statistics, and individual accomplishment, we leave much to chance and leave much collective confidence on the table. Particularly, only team success should breed confidence, while only repeated team failure should diminish it. Individual self-confidence would then have little to do with it.   

Individuals who experience success while being involved with the success of others can also significantly bolster collective confidence.  It is contagious, regardless of the individual talent levels of the teammates.  

Verbal persuasion involves attempting to change the attitudes and behavior of those around us, and this includes changing their self-confidence. In sports, coaches often try to boost confidence by convincing individual athletes that the challenge ahead is within their individual capabilities: ‘I know you’re a great player so keep your head up and play hard!’  However, if confidence is not centered on the individual but the collective group, the task is more manageable and, once again, relies on contagion.  

Imagery experiences have to do with athletes recreating multi-sensory images of successful performance in their mind. This imagery also should be team rather than individually focused. Imagery that is focused on the team is more likely to be successful and less dependent on the abilities of accurate evaluation by the individual. Through creating such valuable team mental representations, mastery of a particular team task is far more likely. 

If the responsibility for confidence mistakenly lies with the individual, then, the physiological state of anxiety can quickly reduce feelings of confidence.  This anxiety in turn can affect performance through phenomena such as muscular tension, palpitations and butterflies in the stomach.  The psychological and emotional states that negatively affect performance at the individual level can be controlled more easily if the responsibility for confidence lies with and is shared by the team and the entire organization.

When we look closely at the concept of confidence in this way, it is much easier to manage and master.  

Next time you consider Self-Confidence in sports, consider Collective Team Confidence instead.  



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