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The confidence paradox, as a coach, how do you solve it?

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Have you ever heard of the confidence paradox? You certainly know, confidence is a major issue for your athletes but have you ever really solved it yourself? How confident are you as a coach and where does that confidence come from?

 “Every man should believe in something. If not.. he would doubt everything, even himself.”

Toba Beta

 “Dubium sapientiae initium. (Doubt is the origin of wisdom.)”

René Descartes

 It is an unfortunate paradox, doubt and belief: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance and will therefore make an assessment of your standards that is highly inaccurate and may never even know it, nor want to accept it, even if it’s obvious to everyone else. And if you can’t accept this true starting point, you can never move from it. So if you don’t know enough about a topic, you’re also unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance. This amazingly, is also a problem for “intelligent” people.

 “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”


“Doubt … is an illness that comes from knowledge and leads to madness.”

Gustave Flaubert

 Experts are usually aware of the vastness of the knowledge landscape in their fields. Ask any scholar and they will likely acknowledge how little they know relative to what is knowable.

So experts fall into the paradox of, “they know a lot about very little.” I met someone that is the worlds expert on Sand, he admits, he knows very little of anything else.

 “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

Robert M. Pirsig

 Unless you’re a beach-volleyball coach, what has sand got to do with you as a coach? Apart from a few readers here, most of you know and accept you’re not perfect and by implication and admission, you don’t know everything and by logic you think anyone that claims to know everything, “is arrogant.” If you’re a logical coach, you then know your confidence is based upon how much you know and whether you can pass that knowledge on. Conversely, your confidence must also be based upon how little you know; your amount of knowledge to date. We can only do what we know, when we know better, we do better. Even with positive or negative thinking; glass half empty or half full, it’s still the same glass.

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.”

Kahlil Gibran

“Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief, but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief that sustains thought and holds the world together.”

Søren Kierkegaard

By logic it’s reasonable to think, that in 10years time you will know a lot more, you will look back at how little you know compared to what you know in 10years and think, “wasn’t I rubbish, compared to what I know now?” The paradox is, that’s not very confident and so we often base confidence on our belief on how “amazing” we are, we are all “legends in our lunchtime.”

“I never seek to defeat the man I am fighting. I seek to defeat his confidence. A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory. Two men are equals - true equals - only when they both have equal confidence.”

Arthur Golden

The reason this is a paradox for coaches is, if you are highly confident, you may never learn anymore, and you will only look to reinforce what you know now rather than anything new and never change or get rid of what you know, because you based your confidence and career upon it. You will reinforce how little you know, without even knowing it because even if you learn anything new, it will only be stuff that confirms your confidence.

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

Mark Twain

If you do question it, if you have enough logic, you will be forced to admit, you were wrong back then because now you know better. Highly confident coaches (people) don’t like to admit they were wrong. Why is this? And why do a few highly confident coaches see strength in admitting they were wrong?

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.”

Richard Feynman

It may seem, if a child’s confidence can be dented, then it isn’t “complete confidence” and if not complete, then by logic, confidence has to be learnt, developed, grown or bred. Does this mean, confidence is not a state of mind and is more complex than; you are or are not? Unlike an on/off switch state of mind, perhaps confidence is really a like a dimmer switch, a journey to the light? Or perhaps complete confidence is only the state at which, you know, you couldn’t possibly fail? If this is true, then this is not true competition. It’s that element of doubt that makes competition thrilling, you’re never absolutely sure you can win no matter what.

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell


“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win,

by fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with. If you start without enough knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.

This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. They showed that the more poorly people actually performed, the more they over-estimated their own performance. In a recent survey, 80% thought they were above average drivers. For those not into math, only 50% can be above average, which means 30% of people are driving with a higher confidence than their ability and they are probably behind your car that you and your child are in. That statement also presumes you aren’t the 30% of over estimators. Few people want to admit they are stupid and so they are doomed to do nothing about it.

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize."

Robert Hughes

People whose logic ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.

“Sometimes, some lies that are spoken with high confidence could be more receptive than facts that are spoken with doubt.”

Toba Beta

This can give us coaches yet another paradox. We want our athletes to believe in themselves before they’ve even had the evidence, they are any good. We want them to go out thinking they can win and are winners, before they’ve even stepped on the court.

“Defeat is for the valiant. Only they will know the honour of losing and the joy of winning. I am not here to tell you that defeat is a part of life: we all know that. Only the defeated know Love. Because it is in the realm of love that we fight our first battles – and generally lose. I am here to tell you that there are people who have never been defeated. They are the ones who never fought.

They managed to avoid scars, humiliations, feelings of helplessness, as well as those moments when even warriors doubt the existence of God.’’

Paulo Coelho

Belief can allow us to solve those paradoxes by ignoring all the logic. Some see confidence as a “God given right” yet another paradox called the Ontological Argument.

“Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

Paul Tillich

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

Marcus Aurelius

In summary, FEAR is NOT a thought about a future event that may or may not happen. Fear is a by product of perceived harm that future event may bring. It’s the harm athletes are afraid of, not the future event. Fear really is lack of understanding, and once the athlete understands, fear dissolves, we are only afraid of what we don’t understand. If we don’t understand we can create a pycho-drama of fear with that lack of understanding.

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Mark Twain

 There is nothing to fear but fear itself. So one mustn’t remove fear in its entirety, just in it’s situational context. In other words, perhaps confidence has nothing to do with winning or losing, but the belief that what ever happens, there’s a belief that things are going to be ok? “Nobody died, worst things happen out of the sporting arena.”

 Doubt can increase your chance of harm or protect you from harm. Confidence can increase your chance of harm or protect you from harm.

 Do you as coaches, see the above paradox as a problem?


“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”

Ansel Adams

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Comments (3)

Confidence and credibility

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

Here is the next catch: in the eyes of others, what matters most to judge a person’s credibility is their confidence.

Research into the credibility of expert witnesses has identified the expert’s projected confidence as the most important determinant in judged credibility. Nearly half of people’s judgements of credibility can be explained on the basis of how confident the expert appears — more than on the basis of any other variable.

Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.

But even short of this extreme possibility, the data on confidence and expert credibility give rise to another concern. In contested arenas, such as who is a good sports coach, the Dunning-Kruger effect and its flow-on consequences can distort public perceptions of the true scientific state of affairs.
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Prof Beattie and Lawrence
Since the 1982 Argentinian World Cup, 22 matches have been decided on penalty kicks. For the record, Germany has won all their penalty shoot-outs since that time (1982, 1986, 1990, and 2006). In stark contrast England have lost all of theirs (1990, 1998, and 2006), so perhaps a consolation of not making it through the group stages is not having to face that trauma again.

You may have seen Ronaldo miss a penalty within a match, he traditionally takes the last penalty out of the match in the shoot out. It’s been said, the last guy take the glory, as he wins the extra goal. Interesting that after his miss, he then takes the first, in the very next shoot out.

Dealing with high pressure
You’d think the training footballers receive, should not only enable them to perform sporting tasks to a high standard but also train them to deal with high pressure situations?
Research suggests that providing specific mental toughness programs and training under conditions of anxiety may help to prepare footballers for such high pressure scenarios.
Elite cricketers who were described as being “mentally tough” by their coaches were more aware of the prospect of negative repercussions from under-performing. We found that these athletes look for threats that could lead to repercussions and deal with them far in advance than their less mentally tough counterparts. In other words, their natural character trait gave them the edge through an inbuilt “early threat detection system”. This enabled them to set in motion coping strategies in order to deal with such threats early and as a result, they performed better under stress.

Great for those players, but can we apply this understanding to help those without this natural tendency? Yes, and counter-intuitively the answer is to make athletes more sensitive to threat.
Counter-intuitive thinking
We have to think counter-intuitively because a perceived threat of any nature is usually accompanied by an emotional response such as worry. Cognitive anxiety is a well-known precursor to poor performance, but this is exactly what we need to induce.
The players were made aware of the likely punishments prior to every pressure scenario, along with clear instructions about what constituted the failure. The punishments were tasks that each team member wanted to avoid and gave the players opportunities to experience threats and disappointments associated with performance failure. In doing so, it sensitizes the athlete to the threat that caused performance failure.
To counteract emotional responses such as worry, the research and coaching team provided the athlete with an array of coping strategies aimed at dealing with the initial performance failure. As a result, athletes regularly exposed to punishment-conditioned stimuli in the training environment, picked up threat early and dealt with it.
Athletes showed significant improvement in their coach’s rating of mental toughness and objective performance levels.
Training with constant stress
As well as training athletes to pick up and deal with threat early, a second approach is to practice under conditions of high anxiety.
It’s common for some athletes to “choke” under pressure. But regularly training under higher anxiety conditions could help acclimatize players. These conditions should closely represent the movements and emotions of the upcoming event, such as those experienced during competition (for example, ego threat and loss of financial reward). But perhaps because it better motivates players during training, typical sessions in many sports are structured so that the pressure to perform isn’t as great as that experienced during competition.
Using a variety of simple and complex tasks showed that performers exposed to anxiety for differing numbers of practice trials performed better under pressure. Specifically, practicing with anxiety in at least half of all training sessions resulted in an increase in performance in the subsequent stress test, compared to more low anxiety training.
When it comes to complex skills, introducing anxiety at a later stage of learning also resulted in improved performance compared to introducing it from the start of learning. Good performance, then, cam be maintained by at least introducing stressful conditions during practice.
Training for success in penalties at the World Cup could be the difference between putting the ball past the keeper and scuffing their shots. If teams are to improve their penalty shooting and give their takers the greatest chance of success, recent research recommends that a tailored mental toughness program which trains footballers to detect threat early, coupled with practicing under stressful conditions may just help.
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Nigel NewtonPhD
Do you ever believe you’ve reached as far as you can go that day, or do you feel energised for the next task, believing that your powers to keep focused are not depleted?

Research led by psychologist Veronika Job at the University of Zurich and others shed valuable light on the question of willpower and a person’s beliefs about it. Job found that if people believe their willpower is limited – and that they have a certain amount of it that will be used up – will impact on their performance, particularly when they feel under pressure.
Their research was based on the “limited theory” of willpower, in which some people believe it is limited and needs to be replenished. However, others believe the opposite – that willpower is not limited and that they can activate it when they want to.
Psychologists conventionally thought that people who thought their willpower was limited could become more productive by conserving their energies and being selective in how they self-regulated their behaviour. There has also been a belief that the waning of focus is mainly a product of fatigue.
Job’s research has overturned both of these assumptions. In her study, students with increasing course demands who thought their willpower was limited procrastinated more, ate more junk food and reported excessive spending compared with students who thought they had no limits on their willpower.
The research also showed that students who believed there were no limits to their willpower benefited from more demanding circumstances. These students appeared to perform better when having to work on several assignments due in close together. It seems as if they responded to increased pressure with greater engagement, whereas those who thought their willpower was limited found it more difficult to stay focused on a task and manage their independent study effectively as the demands increased. The evidence suggests that this difference is not influenced by academic ability.
Grit and self-regulation
Grit relates to a person’s ability to take ownership of a goal and strive toward it, even when difficulties and setbacks occur. It is associated with what’s called “cognitive control”, or “self-regulation”, the capacity to keep focus where you want it to be.
There is evidence that the same part of the brain which is used in self-regulatory behaviour is also used for managing harmful emotions. So the more grit a person has, the more likely they will be able to manage those emotions of frustration, discouragement and anger which can overwhelm a person’s thoughts.

The more we begin to see that we can learn effectively and believe that our effort and stamina is not exhaustible, the more we develop resilience in the face of challenges.
One of the reasons we need to consider all these different approaches to learning together is because a sense of purpose is closely related to their development. People who have clearer long-term goals and positive aspirations for the future are better at growing resilience.
The recent research on willpower helps to show that we don’t need to and shouldn’t give in to self-imposed limits. This isn’t to say we can’t take a break during a busy work or study period. But that’s not because we’ve exhausted or depleted our powers to focus and achieve. The best way to stay engaged and increase our sense of well-being is to keep in mind the goals which inspire us and our inexhaustible resources to achieve them.
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