Confidence is a Feeling, Competence is a Behavior

By Changing the Game Project
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We have all seen the interview many times. The star athlete comes off the field or court, and the first question the interviewer asks is “You were looking really confident out there today, what was your secret?” We might even say the same thing to our own young athletes that we coach and mentor: “Wow, you were playing with so much confidence today, well done!’


But is that the case? Can we really see confidence? Can we read minds? Or as Jonah Oliver, one of the world’s top performance psychologists told me on a recent episode of the Way of Champions Podcast, “What looks like confidence or is called confidence is actually competence. Confidence is a feeling, competence is a behavior.”


Every once in a while we do an interview that spurs me on to write an article and my interview of Jonah Oliver was one of those talks. Oliver, as mentioned, is one of the world’s leading performance psychologists. Combining his training in sport psychology and neuroscience, Jonah brings a unique, simple and effective approach to facilitating peak performance, and his clients include a who’s who in professional golf, Olympics and World Championships, professional soccer and AFL, even the Porsche Le Mans World Champion Racing Team. As he says, his philosophy is simple: “I try to help my people focus on the right thing at the right time.”


Our conversation is relevant because so often we mistake confidence for competence, or believe that we can “make” people confident without them going through the long, arduous process of improving. And sure, confidence is influenced by parents, coaches and teammates, but the greatest influence on confidence is the development of competence. You want to feel better about your performance when you step onto the field? Then know you are ready to perform.


One of the myths Oliver likes to dispel is that the top performers we watch on TV every weekend do not feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry and doubt. They do, just like your young athletes do. They have just accepted that these things are the terms and conditions that they agree to when they play a sport, commit to a team, and chase something that matters to them. The problem, says Oliver, is that athletes often interpret that something is wrong with them when they have natural worries and concerns. “Why am I feeling this, there must be something wrong,” they often say to themselves. Then they are told by parents, coaches, books, etc., “You have to be more positive, more confident, more calm, believe in yourself more, block out those thoughts, don’t let them creep into your mind, you need to write a vision board, etc.” Yet that is the worst thing you can do, says Oliver. Instead, you must accept them as natural and expected feelings and emotions. Or to put it more succinctly, in Oliver’s words:


“We worry about the things we care about. Welcome to being human!’


So how can we help our athletes understand this, and perform better in the moments when it counts? Oliver suggests three things:

  1. It’s not about positive thinking, it’s about taking positive action no matter what you fear or feel: “There are no gold medals handed out for the best positive self talk,” says Oliver. The medals are handed out for being able to perform no matter what the conditions, and you can only do that when you continuously focus on taking positive action, on the moment in front of you. Be where your feet are. And as you prepare for an event, practice well, practice often, develop competence so that you can perform your normal actions even under pressure. That is what will get you to the top.
  2. It’s not about reducing pressure, it’s about building the capacity to embrace more: The secret is not telling athletes to forget the pressure, distract yourself, or ignore the moment. Those things are counter productive. The secret is to grow one’s ability to embrace pressure and stress, overcome perfectionist tendencies, deal with anger and disappointment, and retain full focus. In team sports, this means creating a team culture that promotes psychological safety, and creates accountability that celebrates an athlete’s willingness to take the potential winning shot, or ask for the ball when the game is on the line. For elite performers, “Competition is an ordinary performance on a special day,” says Oliver. Don’t make it more than that.
  3. It’s not about motivation, it’s about connecting to what matters: The ra-ra speech makes for good Hollywood movies, but it’s not what gets athletes to perform at the highest levels under pressure. Motivation must be intrinsic. As Oliver says, “It’s not how hard, painful and scary things in life are, it’s how important things areIf you lose connection to the importance, our brains will always orient to the pain. Because our brain has neural architecture that is so threat and fear oriented, it always wants to focus on threat and pain. But, it’s not about that, it’s about connecting to what matters. If you can connect to something that is so deeply and intrinsically important to you, then you are willing to feel immense pain. You don’t try to block out the pain or distract the pain, though. You connect with why you are doing it, what it’s about and why it’s important to you.” Give your athletes the autonomy to find their why, and they will endure more than you think they are capable of.

So how do we best help our athletes when they encounter stress, fear, anxiety, pressure, and so much more that can negatively affect performance? Just normalize the human experience. “Let the truth be the truth,” says Oliver. “Acknowledge fear, anxiety and the other challenging feelings and emotions in your child athlete. Use available moments to help them understand the normality of human cognition and brain function and the fact that we all experience the rich tapestry of feeling human. And, if we can help them just see that as just being human, it then frees up their pre-frontal frontal cortex to focus on executing motor patterns, rather than spending all their time in their head.”


“Normalizing frees up so much of people’s energy trying to control their internal psychological state vs. realizing that it’s the price of entry, that it’s ok,” concludes Oliver. “All you need to do is make room for it, embrace it, bring yourself back into the present in order to focus on the task at hand and get after it!”


So go ahead, give it a shot. Help your athletes focus on developing their competence, and embracing any fear, stress and anxiety as the welcome price of admission for signing up to play a sport. Treat it like a muscle group in the weight room. You cannot ignore or distract your way to a new personal best in the deadlift. You show up, do the work, and build capacity and strength over time. Good luck!