A significant challenge in the field of applied sport psychology is taking things that are intangible and making them as tangible as possible. Perhaps the best example of this challenge is confidence -- universally accepted as one of the primary drivers of performance, but difficult to define, measure, and improve.
Is confidence a feeling? A skill? Is it a choice? Or is it possible that it’s the byproduct of feelings, skills, and choices, complicated and multi-layered?
While I can’t give a definitive answer to these questions, I can offer some perspective and practical tips for those who are seeking their next level of performance.
First, let’s deal with the theory that confidence is a feeling. I don’t disagree that confidence is connected to the way we feel, but when we treat it as a feeling we run the risk of abandoning any effort to control it (or at least influence it). If we take this perspective it’s easy to downplay the role of confidence and focus on other things we have more control over -- which is a mistake. It is crucial to acknowledge honestly the feelings associated with confidence (or lack thereof), but we can’t stop there. There’s so much more going on.
Next, the idea that confidence is a skill. I certainly subscribe to the idea that confidence can be systematically trained and improved, which points to categorizing it as a skill. But calling it a true skill means it can be measured in a clear way, which is where this idea falls short. While we can measure someone’s self-reported level of confidence, it doesn’t quite satisfy the true nature of a skill.
So is confidence a choice then? In my work with teams and athletes this has been my chosen terminology, because I love how framing it as a choice gives you the perspective that you can have some degree of control or influence over it. More specifically, I have always taught that confidence is the byproduct of an endless series of choices we make moment by moment. We can choose how we talk to ourselves, how we view adversity and failure, how we define success, and how we keep our identity separate from our performance. And these choices result in the ongoing development (or deterioration) of confidence.
But I have to admit that viewing confidence as a choice also falls short -- there’s something incomplete about it. It leaves out some of the intangible-ness of confidence, like the reality that even when we make the perfect choices and say/do/think all the right things, there are times when confidence eludes us. It refuses to be compartmentalized or defined.
So after many years of competing, coaching, studying, researching, listening, succeeding and failing, here’s the best I can offer you: Confidence is an interaction between feelings, skills, and choices. And the more we understand the nuance of each component and the interplay between all three, the more we improve our chances at developing confidence that is robust and resilient.
With that in mind, here are my top three ways (addressing feelings, skills, and choices) to build and protect confidence that will last:
1.[FEELING] Use your body language to generate confident feelings
Although the idea of power posing has ventured into near-cliche territory (see over 50 million views on Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk), the science-backed relevance remains. Our physiology affects our psychology. We can stand, move, pose, and act in ways that are either helpful or detrimental to our confidence. Confident body language is tall, open, chin up, chest out -- and the opposites are equally effective in the opposite direction. It is possible to act confidently even when you aren’t feeling confident, and this simple act of choosing your body language can make all the difference.
2. [SKILL] Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself
For a variety of reasons, the default setting in our minds is to be negative and distracted. To think in ways that are positive, self-compassionate and focused, takes intentionality. The power of our inner dialogue to dictate our confidence level is extremely underrated. Research puts our volume of self-talk somewhere between 500 and 1000 words per minute -- that is likely over a million words each day! Can you imagine the impact these words could have if we used even a fraction of them to repeat focused, positive narratives? Keep your self-talk aligned with the type of person you strive to become.
3. [CHOICE] Choose an optimistic viewpoint on failure
Our attitude toward failure and our response when it happens will go a long way toward determining the quality of confidence we build. Learning to reframe failure as a source of meaningful feedback is how the greatest among us became great. You must choose to view the misses and losses as being filled with feedback and lessons. You can’t fear the feedback -- you need to embrace it as an inevitable part of the path to mastery. It’s actually quite simple -- are you pursuing success or avoiding failure?