Confidence CANNOT be Given, it Has to be EARNED!

By Changing the Game Project
Source :

Don’t we all wish our children were more confident? Don’t we wish there was a magic confidence pill, or some special words that we could say to our children that would have them step into the arena bursting with the belief that they could accomplish any task? And is there anything more painful than to see our children struggling with confidence?

A decade ago in my book Changing the Game (on sale for 40% off right now on Amazon), I described confidence as the following:

Confidence is a state of mind, a feeling inside that you are ready to perform, no matter what you encounter. It is a feeling of certainty and control that provides an athlete with a positive outlook regardless of the situation. It cannot be bought, it cannot be faked, and it cannot be wished for. Confidence is earned, refined, and developed through the acquisition of skill, and the support of confidence building mentors.

As your child develops competence in a sport, so too does he increase in confidence. Let me say that another way: confidence is a natural by-product of skill. From a small child to the world’s greatest athletes, those who are confident are confident because they have taken thousands of shots, tried and failed many times, then tried again and got it right. Come game time, they believe that the skills they have developed will carry them through. This belief is always at the forefront of their thoughts, instead of the fear of failure that many non-confident athletes possess. Whatever happens, self-doubt rarely enters their thoughts; if it does, their belief in themselves drowns it out.

I still get asked by many parents “how can I make my child more confident?” or told “His coach is not giving him enough confidence” so there is still a misunderstanding about this very important state of being. Recently I was reading a great new book by Steve Magness called Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness  (Highly recommended, click here to get the book) and it got me thinking more about confidence, and feeling the need to deepen the definition I gave above. You see confidence CANNOT be give. It has to be EARNED, and it can be taken away.

Magness’ book states that “true confidence is quiet; insecurity is loud,” and describes how we often mistake outward bravado for confidence, when more often than not it is a sign of insecurity. Citing research from Kate Hays and Mark Bawden on world class athletes, Magness describes how even the best performers have periods of doubt and insecurity, where joy and thrill turn into anxiety and despair, and competition transforms from a joyful activity to a threat. In these situations we often tell athletes to “fake it until you make it” but this is the wrong advice. Walking around with our chest puffed out will not make one more confident. “For far too long we have correctly insisted on the value of confidence,” writes Magness, “but we have gone along building the wrong kind.”

In the 1980’s in the US, a movement began to instill self-esteem in children, and school children began attending assemblies to make them feel great about themselves, and shelves were filled with meaningless participation awards. Citing a specific study, low self-esteem was seen as the cancer afflicting our society, and high self-esteem was seen as the cure. The problem was the study never reached this conclusion, yet the movement took hold. “Self-esteem is a good thing,” says Magness, “but where we went wrong is in thinking that self-esteem in and of itself should be the goal. That we should strive for the feeling, instead of having self-esteem be a by-product, something that occurs instead of [something] that is sought.”

There is a huge problem with self-esteem and confidence that is contingent of someone giving it to you, instead of being earned. Your worth become contingent on outside forces, and you hand over control of your self-worth to others. It is actually a more likely path to low self-worth and loss of confidence as soon as the environment gets difficult. Magness actually conducted his own research on a bunch of collegiate runners he coached, studying among other factors whether they preferred extrinsic motivation or whether they were intrinsically motivated. He found that extrinsic motivated athletes, those who did not participate for the joy of sport but instead for rewards (praise) or to avoid negative consequences (parental criticism), improved far less than athletes who were intrinsically motivated to do the work, embrace the grind, and be patient in the journey. “Just like with self-esteem,” says Magness, “with confidence, there is a real version – one that is deep, based on evidence and understanding – and a fake version that is based on bravado.”

The only way your child will develop true, deep, and long lasting confidence is to develop competence, to put in the work, and to believe in himself/herself. There is no shortcut; it must be earned. The words of a parent or coach might be a temporary boost, but they will not result in meaningful change of performance, nor the formidable confidence it requires to perform at an elite level. We must teach this to our kids, and stop hoping for that magic pill.

Now, while we cannot give an athlete confidence, we can certainly create an environment at home or on our teams that takes it away. We can tell people to fake it. We can create an environment where athletes fear making mistakes and do not understand the process of learning and development. We can lose patience on the journey, and expect perfection and for children to adopt adult values in sport. We can shun adversity, or turn it into a threat instead of a challenge. And worst of all, we can withhold love when our children struggle or fail at sports. We have the power to take away self-worth, self-esteem and self- belief if we are not careful.

I certainly hope that your children play with great joy, are intrinsically motivated, and understand that improvement in sport is a journey. I also hope that they are in an environment that promotes both competence and the growth of confidence and risk taking. It is up to us as parents to seek out these environments, and create one at home. As much as we love our kids, and we want to help, we cannot give them confidence. Neither can their coach. Confidence is earned, and the pathway to greater confidence is not a magic pill. It consists of hard work, dedication, continuous improvement, struggle, adversity and sacrifice.

Good luck!