Plenty has been written about the need for confidence.  If you are an athlete, it is considered almost an essential character trait.  After all, how can you win if you don’t believe you can?  If you don’t have confidence in yourself?

Sometimes however, we get a little confused over which type of confidence we are actually talking about.  Do we mean the brash cockiness that teenage boys display when they predict how many goals they will crush their opposition by?  Do we mean the confidence we get when performing a skill that we’ve practiced many times in the past?  Or is confidence an even more multi-faceted psychological trait?

‘Be confident’ is such generic advice that it is hardly useful.  For a change, let’s consider the different types of self-confidence, in order of least to most useful.

1) ‘Unwarranted’ confidence

Also known as cocky arrogance.  It’s our teenage boy example from above.  You can be confident when perhaps you shouldn’t be.  This type of confidence arises from one or both of the following:

  • Overestimating your abilities
  • Underestimating your opponents or the magnitude of the task in front of you

Obviously neither of these is a good thing.  It almost always results in failure, and if you were unfortunate enough to brag about the outcome in advance, then it could be a very humiliating failure.

Unwarranted confidence is particularly dangerous when the person who wields it is in a position of power.  Think of the CEO who believes he is infallible and makes risky investment decisions.  Or the fighter who slams his opponent in the media only to find himself slammed when it comes time to get in the ring.

To avoid it, seek out brutally honest feedback about your true abilities.  Ask those who have tackled the same challenge what it is really like.  Stay away from people who give you unrealistic praise – it feels good at the time but you’ll regret it when your unwarranted confidence and inflated ego get harshly punctured in the future (parents be careful on this one – well-meaning praise can often have an unintended outcome.)

2) ‘Pasted on’ confidence

There was a period where self-help gurus advised us to go to the mirror every morning and tell ourselves with conviction phrases such as ‘I am amazing’, ‘nobody can beat me’ and ‘I can do it’.  Let’s call this pasted on confidence.  Deep down we don’t really feel confident, but we are trying to brush a thin layer of confidence over the top of our doubts.

It’s pretty obvious that pasted on confidence can crack as easily as an egg – it certainly isn’t resilient or enduring.

However, it can be mildly useful as the impetus for starting something difficult, or doing something scary for the first time.  Imagine a first time actress in the school play who suffers from stage fright.  Telling herself ‘I can do this’ might be the small extra push she needs to take the couple of steps from the wings to the spotlight.  The same goes for the gymnast who is terrified of trying a new skill on the beam.  A little pasted on confidence might help her to try the trick for the first time.  After that, the third type of confidence can kick in…

3) ‘I’ve already done it’ confidence

Once you’ve done something once, you automatically have more confidence the second time around.  And by the hundredth time you’ve successfully achieved it you don’t even consider the doubts you had at the beginning.  In fact, it may have become so automatic that you’ve reached a level of unconscious competence.  Driving a car is a good example.  Your first time behind the wheel you are likely using the small amount of brainpower not required to focus on the gears, braking and oncoming traffic to talk to yourself and paste on some confidence.  6 months later you are singing along to the radio, chatting to your friend in the passenger seat and not even thinking about how to change gears.  You’re supremely confident in what you’re doing because you’ve done it so many times before.

As an athlete, if you’ve won a competition before don’t you feel more confident going in to the same event next year?  You already know you are good enough to win.  And the same goes for skills – the first time you try something it’s difficult and you lack confidence.  But with each repetition your self-confidence grows.

It may seem like this is the most authentic type of confidence.  However, it is only listed as the third most useful type of self-confidence because while it’s good for repeating things we’ve done before, but it doesn’t help us grow.  For that we need the fourth kind…

4) ‘Effort will lead to results’ confidence

This is the most useful type of confidence because it is the fuel that takes us from not being able to do something, to mastering it.  This type of confidence manifests as a certainty that if I work hard, then over time I will achieve what I’ve set my sights on.

Sport is a risky endeavour.  Many, many kids start out with dreams of playing professionally or making the Olympics.  Very, very few of those kids actually do.  The ones that do all have this type of confidence.  An unwavering belief that effort and time will lead to success.

The same holds true for all the most accomplished people in any industry.  In-born talent and overnight success are both myths that make a good story in the media but are utterly untrue.  The truth is that all successful people have put in thousands of hours of work, and bridged the gap from beginner to master with the confidence that ‘my effort, sustained over time, will lead to results’.

A good word to bring into your vocabulary when thinking about your goals and skill development is ‘yet’.  This tiny word teaches your brain to develop this type of confidence as it implies that success will happen, it just hasn’t happened yet.

  • ‘I haven’t learnt how to do that skill yet’ (but I will master it)
  • ‘I haven’t won a competition at that level yet’ (but I will in time)
  • ‘I don’t know how to solve that type of problem yet’ (but with effort I will figure it out)

This final type of confidence is built over the long term.  It emerges when you see that the extra time you put into studying resulted in a better grade.  It builds when you perfectly execute a difficult kick that you’ve been staying late to practice at soccer training.  It grows when you struggle to listen to and incorporate your coach’s feedback even through it’s difficult.  It flourishes when each day, week, month, year and decade of effort accumulates to yield a major victory.

Self-confidence. We all want it. And we’ve probably all received some not altogether useful advice on its necessity.  Perhaps this guide will help you identify the more useful types of confidence, and help you to build and develop them. Remember to:

  • Avoid the arrogance of ‘unwarranted’ confidence
  • Use ‘pasted on’ confidence sparingly, and only to spur you into taking that initial, scary step forward
  • Don’t get too comfortable in the confidence of ‘I’ve already done it’ or you’ll cease to improve
  • Deliberately cultivate the most useful type of confidence – a certainty that ‘effort and time will lead to results’

Still not feeling confident?  Perhaps you just don’t feel confident…yet.