The Dark Side of Confidence

I was watching the US open golf tournament a couple of years ago and the announcer said that it is important to make your first couple of putts because that gives you the confidence you need to play a good round.  But what happens if those first two putts don’t go in?  Your confidence disappears, you start to second guess yourself, and your whole round is affected. This is a situation curlers can find themselves in.  You miss a shot or two early in the game and it throws your whole game off.  One bad shot causes more bad shots, one bad end causes more bad ends, and one bad game causes more bad games.

Everyone misses a shot now and then.  The challenge is to prevent one miss from causing more misses.

The problem with confidence, the way most people think of it, is that it is outcome dependent.  Instead of focusing on outcomes, you need to focus on process.

Outcome-dependent confidence has a number of negative effects:

  1. It is distracting.  If you are thinking about outcomes, you can’t be thinking about process.  You will lose your focus and neglect to do the process-related things in your pre-shot routine that will make you successful.
  2. It causes you to doubt the fundamentals you have worked hard on.  You may try to “patch” your delivery.  Like the golfer who slices one drive, then on the next hole aims at the trees on the left just in case she slices it again.  These patches are unreliable, and are especially likely to fail as pressure mounts over the course of a game.
  3. It creates anxiety.  You start thinking about the consequences of making or missing, your body becomes tense, and your delivery suffers.

Instead of thinking about outcome-based confidence, you need to develop process-based confidence.

This has two components:

  1. You believe that you can execute the fundamentals that you have developed with practice.  You know you can work through your preshot routine.  You know you can accomplish your setup (alignment and posture).  You know that you can release the rock smoothly.  This is all you should think about.
  2. You believe that if you execute the fundamentals of your delivery the outcome will be positive most of the time. You can only control part of the shot.  Things like icing, sweeping, and changes in the ice surface are beyond your control.

So think about and take charge of those things you can control…the process.

One of the most impressive athletic performances I’ve ever seen came from 5-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg.  In the hard-fought 1980 Wimbledon final Borg was up 2 sets to 1 and had McEnroe on the ropes in the 4th set.  But McEnroe fought back, saving 5 match points and sending the set to a tiebreaker.  That tiebreak went on for almost 25 minutes and eventually McEnroe finally won the set 18-16 to tie the match.

It was one of those defining moments in sports when you can just see the winner’s confidence soar and the loser’s shoulders drop in despair.

The outcome of the match seemed no longer in doubt.  McEnroe had tied the match at two sets all. To have had seven championship points and not won a single one of them, and to find himself in a fifth, exhausting set, should have been a mortal blow for Borg. When interviewed after the match, Borg said, “When he won that tiebreaker I thought that he would win the match.”  McEnroe, on the other hand, could barely restrain himself from crowing. He knew that Wimbledon was his.*

And then there follows, as Tim Adams has written in On Being John McEnroe, ‘a moment which must rank among the greatest in sport. It is the moment when Borg walks out to serve once more, two sets all, one set to play, as if nothing had happened.’  Instead of cracking, Borg simply played as he always played. That is, he refused to acknowledge what had gone before: his concentration focused until he saw only one thing, the ball that he was about to hit.

His confidence did not depend on the outcome of the previous set.

His confidence in process, his ability to focus and execute each shot, never diminished.  Borg won the final set 8-6. Perhaps Glenn Howard said it best after he drew to the four-foot in the 10th end to win a match in the 2012 World Championships;

“You just divorce yourself from the outcome, just throw a quality curling shot and good things will happen.”**

That is process-based confidence.

*from “When he was king” in the Observer Sport Monthly, June 5, 2005.  Author Tim Spears.

**from, April 1, 2012.

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