Open any sport psychology book, listen to any interview about athletic success, watch a sport conference after any match, or remind your personal athletic experience, if you had some, and I am pretty sure that one topic to come up, will be confidence. Now and then we get to hear that to be successful in sport, one needs to be confident. And here is where all the misconceptions start…
Is it confidence in one’s abilities that matter (e.g. I am confident in my free throw ability)? Or is it confidence in preparation (I am confident that I did everything I could to prepare for this competition)? Would it be enough to just have confidence in one’s efforts (I am confident that I will fight until the end in this competition)? Or maybe still it is important to be confident about winning (I am confident that I will win)?
Not looking into the book definition of confidence, because I really doubt athletes and coaches know it by heart, I would argue that confidence in terms of winning, being better than opponent, and outperforming others, is one largely spread understanding of what ‘being confident’ means. Loving parents may reassure their childishly naive kids of such confidence, by simply agreeing with them: ‘sure you will win, darling’. Coaches try to evoke such confidence in self-doubting teenagers by saying something like ‘do not think about losing! You are going to this competition to win’, or ‘losing is not an option for our team! We will win!’
The problem I see in both scenarios is that while setting goals to win, the prospect of losing is either not acknowledged at all, or it is rejected. Why is that a problem? First of all, not considering even the theoretical option of losing will hit unexpectedly and hard when it happens in reality, and every athlete sooner or later will inevitably lose in a competition. I mean, if even current world No. 1 tennis racket Nadal has a winning rate of “only” 🙂 70%, meaning that he is losing about 30 games out of 100, what more is here to say?! Therefore, as I already mentioned, being 100% sure of winning is rather a naïve and childish perspective. As soon as our views of life become more realistic, the thoughts of ‘I could actually lose’ start coming into our minds. Here is where many start trying to silence this inner voice of self-doubt, ignore it, or override it with ‘I will win’ kind of positive statements. Ironically, the thoughts about possible losing do not vanish anywhere, what actually happens is that from mere acknowledgement of failure possibility we cultivate the fear of failure. On the other hand, by emphasizing the goal of winning and cultivating our confidence in such an outcome, we strengthen our need to achieve. As a result, we have athletes, who NEED to achieve and FEAR losing, which naturally is a very risky mentality.
Billie Jean King, 39 times winner of women’s tennis grand slam finals, once said: ‘A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning’. As such, need to achieve and fear of loosing may be motivating for some athletes and to some extent, but it can also very well inhibit or cramp performance for some others.
Kremer and Moran (2013) suggest, that in order to win, one needs to dare to lose. Does this ‘daring to lose’ mean that athletes should accept the possibility of losing and take it more easily? Well, not at all! The point is to replace the NEED to achieve and FEAR of failure by something still motivating, but less threatening and pressuring. Acknowledging possibility of failure means simply being realistic that it can happen, and that one can handle it happening. Yet, athletes should fight at their best to prevent it from happening, thus Kremer and Moran (2013) proposed that athletes should have HATRED of failure. To hate the prospect of failure is something very different from being afraid of it, isn’t it? An example of such mindset is Michael Jordan, whose quote is: ‘I’m a competitive person. I hate to lose and competition is everything.’
Moreover, Kremer and Moran (2013) suggest that NEED to achieve can be replaced by a healthier term of WANT to achieve. Again, subtle but enormous difference… Need to achieve sounds like something imposed and out of control: for example, as human beings we have a need for food and sleep that we cannot really control. Contrary, ‘wanting to’ implies personal charge of affairs, as it is about choice, motivation and regulation of one’s own behavior.
Coming back to my initial notions about confidence, what would aforementioned imply? I believe that setting competition goal on the end result of winning and stimulating confidence in achieving this goal is what supports the need to win and fear of losing. Contrary, we could support athletes’ confidence in their effort, ‘fighting until the end’ mentality and achievement of process and performance goals (which are under their control). Going to a competition with a confidence about doing your best in there to win and not to lose, is much better and healthier than trying to sustain confidence in actual winning, rejecting and fearing any thought about possibility of losing.
All in all, let’s enable athletes by their healthy desire to win and hatred of losing, rather than vital need to win sustained by fear of losing.
Kremer, J., & Moran, A. P. (2013). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.