Confidence and its role in Peak Performance
What is confidence? It is a quality that is almost universally associated with peak performance in almost every sport and endeavor, a quality that almost every successful person in almost any field seems to have in abundance at their pinnacle moments and yet a quality, which can just as easily disappear from those very same people at other moments. It is a much-used term and yet has it ever really been examined or understood so that players can be taught to use it when they most need it. A greater awareness of what it is, how it can be obtained and its significance is crucial to all players of all levels if they wish to reach their full athletic potential.
No one who is involved in performance training of top juniors or professionals will doubt the vital importance of confidence in peak athletic performance. If you look at any player who is playing well, an air of confidence will inevitably be a part of their demeanor. Conversely, if you look at a player who is playing poorly or well beneath his or her own potential, you will usually be looking at a player fundamentally lacking in confidence. This observation is almost universally true and there are very few exceptions. Consequently, it becomes obvious, and this is true at beginner and intermediate levels too, that confidence seems to be an integral emotional ingredient if athletes wish to excel and be the best they can be.
But what is this air of confidence that all ‘winners’ seem to have and that all ‘losers’ so obviously lack? Confidence, at its core, regards feeling good about oneself. Generally, players feel good about themselves when they win, when they hit a good shot or if they are generally playing well. However, when players lose, miss a shot or if they are generally playing poorly, they correspondingly feel bad about themselves.
This creates a dilemma. Confidence and playing well or winning seem to follow each other like a shadow. But the question is, which is the shadow? Does confidence nurture playing well or does playing well result in confidence? As it stands now and for most people the latter is the case. A player who is playing well or winning exudes confidence; he is filled with a feeling of ‘I can do this’. Conversely, when a player plays a string of poor matches or loses a few matches in a row; a feeling of ‘I cannot do this’ arises and a lack of confidence surfaces.
In this scenario, confidence, as a tool to facilitate peak athletic performance is completely useless because a player will feel confident when he or she is winning or playing well, in other words when confidence is not needed to improve performance. However, at those times when execution is lacking, confidence will disappear; and yet, this is the time when it is most needed.
Players need to understand that if they are to create an emotional climate from where they can fulfill their athletic potential, confidence cannot be based on outside criterion. In other words, if winning makes me confident, losing HAS to illicit the opposite response. This has to be the case there can be no getting away from this. If one falls into this trap, then one will be on an emotional roller coaster and one’s emotional state will not help to improve one’s athletic performance, but simply reflect it. This is the case with 99.9% of the competitive players that I come across. The reason this is so consistent across the board is because this is a human failing, not just a tennis dilemma.
This understanding of confidence has to be completely transcended. We have to let go of both ends of the spectrum. We need not feel that we ‘can do it’ or that we ‘cannot do it’! Instead, transcendence would be replaced by a not knowing. The state of not knowingis a wonderful place to be because it is a state of wonder or what the Chinese call the beginner’s mind. It is a state of complete openness and in this openness one be alert and yet relaxed or what I like to call a state of ‘Relaxed Intensity’. The ‘confidence ‘ inherent in the feeling of ‘I can do this’ disappears dramatically in the face of a little adversity. For mentally fragile players, the frailty can show immediately after a few missed balls, while for others the doubt may arise after a few lost matches, but the point is that doubt will follow inevitably once the situation changes because the ‘confidence’ is situational-based.
Understand that the reason that transcendence is so important is because you cannot have one without the other. Emotional states come in pairs and these pairs, which are opposites, cannot be separated, they are like 2 sides of one coin. That is why coaches that urge their players only to be positive get frustrated when their players try to focus on being positive, but negativity creeps in at the most inopportune times. Obviously, players too become frustrated because they seem to have no control over this emotional state that seems to come and go of its own volition. It is important to understand, however, that this is not a coincidence or a failing by the player, but a natural consequence of introducing positiveness into the equation. By urging our players to show positive emotions; we are forcing them to become negative at times also! If we feel negative emotions hurt the player, then positive emotions also have to be transcended because they are not two separate emotions, they are actually connected as one indivisible whole. They both have to be transcended and the only way to transcend them both is by moving to the mid-point; that emotional state, which lies exactly between those two extremes.
The truth is that the ideal performance state transcends all emotions. Peak performance happens when a player is calm, centered and silent, not when he is screaming, shouting or otherwise a victim of out of control emotions.
Many players or coaches may be thinking, that I am not a robot and who would want to play in this mechanical way, even if it was possible. The truth is that I am describing the zone stateand this is a state of being that almost every competitor has experienced at some time in his or her athletic career. This state is anything but robotic; actually it is the exact opposite. It is a completely freeing state of being and an extremely joyful way to experience tennis, any another sport, or even Life in general for that matter. This zone state is an elusive and enigmatic state of being and one needs to really be open if one is to experience it.
So, in my understanding, if we are to reach our athletic or human potential the state of confidence has to be transcended. In that transcendence there is only acceptance; a total acceptance of who we are. This is at the root of feeling good about ourselves. Feeling good about ourselves cannot be based on any external factors because the absence of those factors that help us feel good about ourselves will make us feel bad about ourselves. Transcendence is the only way out of this viscous cycle and the key to transcendence is total, unequivocal acceptance. An acceptance that is not based on anything, not the way we play, what our ranking is, how we look, what are grades are in school, or how we hit throw or catch a football. Just acceptance!