Confidence: The Emotion


Confidence is a big deal in sport. And in relationships. And in business. And in life. So, what’s the deal with confidence? What is it? How do I get some or more? What impacts my confidence? I have been studying confidence since graduate school and it was even a factor in my dissertation. If I had to guess, I have been obsessed with confidence because I never felt like I had any when I was swimming. It’s ridiculous to think about; I was a four year All-American at UCLA when the program was top 10, I made the National Team, won Pac-10’s, and qualified for Olympic Trials in 1988. And I can’t remember ever stepping up onto the blocks and feeling confident. Cue all those articles and interviews with super successful people experiencing “imposter syndrome.” Crazy.

In the beginning, all I could find was how to measure confidence. Use this inventory, take that quiz, see how lacking you really are. Self-report measures are tough, tough to design, tough to take, and tough to trust. Think back to your last pressure event: how confident were you going in? How confident were you coming out? How the heck can you rely on that memory! If you did well, I bet your report of confidence will be high, no matter how you really felt that day because I guarantee you can’t remember it accurately. If you tanked it, confidence was already at a low, you recall, and that must have contributed to your poor performance. I searched and searched for ways to nail down confidence. It had to be track-able, didn’t it?

Then, I went to the annual sport psychology conference and experienced the Groundhog’s Day it typically was for me (after a decade of appearances). “Confidence is situation specific!” declared a well-known consultant whose name escapes me now. Okay, I like that, I can use that. You build confidence around things you are working on because you get better at them and that doesn’t necessarily transfer to other areas. For example, I have horses. After years of handling horses, I am confident in my ability to handle my horses, even if they are upset or scared. I have worked hard to sharpen my in-hand skills and although I might get scared, I am confident I can handle many (not all) of the situations I encounter. Handling skills, check. I think I will go wrangle an elephant based on my handy skills with horses. That should work out, don’t you think? “Nope,” according to Dr. I-forgot-his-name. But he was right, and what I saw with some of my clients was an automatic assumption of skill transfer: I am a successful lawyer, how come I can’t show my horse without flipping out?

I couldn’t really answer this question completely, other than the skills have to be built in each area, until the “10,000 hours” rule hit the scene. In 1993, Anders Ericsson published a study (that took over a decade to be recognized as important) looking at how deliberate practice contributes to expert performance and found it took around 10,000 hours to become an expert. Ah ha! I was newly armed with the question: how many hours did it take you to become a successful lawyer and how many hours a week do you ride? The answers provided some important and peace-inducing respite for those struggling skill sets. Riding or being a weekend warrior in your sport or hobby typically includes less than an hour a day of deliberate practice, an impossible calculation for 10,000 hours. A full-time year of 40 hours per week results in 1500 hours so do the math. Deep breath, you can’t be that great when you are not practicing enough so no wonder you don’t feel confident; it’s really not your fault.

Still, confidence remained a consistent complaint, especially among women and young women. How can I help people feel confident, reliably and consistently, and be able to muster confidence on command? Impossible, it seemed. Some of the ingredients that seemed to bolster confidence included preparation, goal setting, and failure. Yes, failure. Fail a few times in order to figure out the right recipe and then succeed. Boom, confidence. The problem was that the confidence always seemed to come at the end, not the beginning—which is when we need it. I noticed consistently the comments about confidence were post-race or event. They were related to success, of course, but following an event, not preceding it. Damn it if confidence isn’t a byproduct of success—you have to succeed first before feeling confident! I started asking everyone I knew and worked with when they felt confident. Afterwards. Very few people every recalled standing at the starting line and thinking, “I’m going to kick ass right now.” However, look at the winner’s swagger and there you go.

So then, what is confidence? It depends upon who you ask, unfortunately. The best way I have found to define it is as an emotion. You FEEL confidence. Just like love or hate or frustration, confidence is felt. Emotions are a result of something, a thought, a sight, a conversation, a connection, and because of that, you cannot “muster” confidence, no matter how desperately you want to. I could say, “feel love right now,” and would you? No, you would need something to stimulate your feeling of love. Even a memory of love has to be stimulated or triggered in order to truly feel it. Same unfortunate deal with confidence. The main “problem” with confidence is the cultural myth that you have to have confidence in order to perform or compete well. Especially for women. Unless you feel confident, you are cooked, doomed, going to fail, so fake it ‘til you make it. But that is crap, pure crap. Confidence is NOT prerequisite for success…however it sure makes it easier.

When you feel confident, it is lovely. There is nothing like walking into a room or up to the blocks and feel like you own it, will win it, and can do it. And those moments happen, unpredictably and when they do, performance is easy. The more success events you rack up, the easier it is to doubt less, but I’m not sure I could say the easier it is to feel confident. I have been public speaking for a decade now and can qualify in a cultural way that I am confident in my abilities. When I started, it was a different story, though. I used to have to wear a suit with a jacket to hide the profuse sweating my body naturally reacted with. I would over-prepare and rehearse ad nauseum, leaving nothing to chance. But as I gained more and more experience, delivered better and better talks, I began to doubt myself less and less. I still get nervous and have doubt, especially for the ones with super high pressure, but I know a few things now. One, I know I have done it before and that my earlier success was not due to superstitions or luck, but as a result of my hard work. Two, I know how to prepare for events or meetings or talks and that is an essential component to feeling confident, well, less doubt, beforehand. And three, I know that I have been successful in the past no matter how I feel going into an event and so when my girlish mind searches for that (un)necessary feeling of confidence, I can adjust my focus to the task at hand, kick ass, and then swagger home. The point here is to look for your need to feel confident in order to perform well. Chances are, it is there, always has been, and has been an accepted fact for performance. But what if it wasn’t? What if great performance could occur even without a feeling of confidence beforehand? This is a worthy inquiry into the self and your performance mindset. Examine how often you truly feel confident pre-event vs. post-event. Walking away with that winning feeling definitely tampers down the pre-event jitters, and even has some carry over to the next one. What if you didn’t have to feel confident to perform well? It certainly would be one less thing to worry about. I would love to hear how confidence helps or hinders you… 

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