Self-confidence in practice

Sports Visualization

When the ice-pick was in place at just the right angle in the eye-socket, he would use a carpenter’s hammer to apply a firm, decisive tap and…..!!!

Afterwards, Walter (Freeman) would wipe down his tools silently, pack them into his bag and slip away into the night. From 1935 to 1967 he would visit over 3000 people all across the USA with his hammer and Ice-pick, entering their skulls and severing their brains with surgical coldness. Actually, he didn’t have any formal surgical qualifications but he did graduate from Yale and University of Pennsylvania medical school as a physician, he was even president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology between 1946-1947. He would tour the country in a van he called the “loboto-mobile” evangelizing his miracle cure technique for psychological ills…and people believed him! In fact in 1945, 50,000 ice-picks a year were being hammered into the brain in the name of Prefrontal Lobotomy, all apparently with willing consent from the owners of the skulls. Can you actually imagine that for a moment, someone suggesting “ you just lie back for a moment while I take this long metal spike, stick it in the back of your eye sockets and give it a good crack with this hammer”, does that sound like a good idea to you?

The titanic power of belief over a person or groups’ behaviour continues to be a fascinating subject. I would like to consider the practical relationship between beliefs, self-confidence and performance. Generally speaking, this is the idea that to be confident about something, it could be said that you believe in its existence and effects, and this guides your behaviour – you act as if it is true. Although there is plenty of research into this area I’d like you to entertain this notion as interesting and also a total work of fiction with puzzling practical implications. Beliefs themselves could be viewed as completely hallucinated, psychologically organizing constructs generated by the data filtering processes of the brain, which in turn serve to act as filters for new information. Have you ever come across someone who believes in something so strongly that they seem unable to perceive the obvious contradictory evidence to their beliefs? Walter Freeman continued to proclaim the stunning success of the Lobotomy even as his patients were left unable to dress themselves after the procedure.

Essentially, what is being suggested here is that beliefs are highly individual, guide behaviour, are instantly changeable and the capability for that change only resides with the person that holds the belief. Let’s test this assumption about the flexibility of beliefs by working out which ones serve your self-confidence and which ones limit it. Remember, you are the scientist here and the test of whets right is the same as the test of what works for you, so I encourage you to experiment to get your own results.

To make any real use of the time spent reading this article I would like you to consider your answers to these questions – Assuming that self-confidence is underpinned by beliefs,

  1. How specifically do you want to be confident about yourself? (e.g. do you want to be confident in your ability to win a race, create set shots, come in on par etc)
  2. How are you behaving/performing now in relation to your previous answer?
  3. Which belief specifically sustains this behaviour?

In a recent psychological coaching session with a rugby professional issue arose where he stated his confidence had taken a real knock recently and that it was effecting his game, so he really wanted get his self-confidence back. He was asked “How specifically do you want to be confident about yourself?” To which he replied “it’s my kicking, it just seems to have gone downhill”. “Ok, so your kicking has gone downhill but you haven’t answered my question”. He nods and says “ Well, I want to be confident in my ability to kick and hit my mark every time”. “Ok “I say, “how are you performing in relation to kicking and hitting your mark every time, give me a typical and strong example”. He doesn’t need to think for more than two seconds before stating, “place-kicks on conversions, I set up well but as I make the kick I just seem to go stupid and the ball swerves outside the posts”. “I’m wondering, out of all the different beliefs you have about yourself and your ability to perform various skills, which belief specifically is behind this behaviour, which belief is it that sustains it?” Deep breaths, puffing of cheeks, scratching of the back of the head, staring into space and raised eyebrows fill the next few minutes, and then he says “you ask some weird questions don’t you?” “Of course I do, would you pay me to ask you normal, easy questions, what would be the point of that? Anyway what’s your answer?”.   “I used to have a natural flair for kicking, drop, place, box you name it, and I guess I think I’ve lost it – I believe that I’ve lost it (the ability to kick)”

The conversation demonstrates how these questions are used to get to the heart of the matter and follow the relationship of confidence, performance and belief. It also includes a certain pattern that we have observed in coaching sessions that may be worth noting. Often, fragile or lack of self-confidence can be traced back to beliefs about where the cause of a behaviour lies and what control a person has over it. The tennis player who has a mini panic attack before going on to court but just can’t seem to stop it, the golfer who can’t understand why his drive shots swerve off target, the archer whose hands have started to shake are examples of behaviour that seems to happen out of conscious control of the performer and are perceived by the performer as events that she is ‘victim’ too. How can the athlete have confidence in their ability to perform when they never know if they will be ‘Sabotaged’ or ‘victimized’ by their uncontrollable behaviours?

Interestingly, the idea of natural talent in sport may provide support for this victimhood.

The idea that ‘you either have it or you don’t’, you were ‘born with it’ or ‘some just have it’ (whatever ‘it’ might be) can put the ownership for a persons’ skill outside of their control and down to mysterious forces. The rugby players comment ‘I believe I have lost it (the ability to kick)’ is typical of the dangerous downside to the natural talent argument, it puts the change in skill down to the same mysterious forces, places subtle barriers to investigating the practical processes that sustain the problem, disempowering the athlete by distancing them from taking responsibility for solving the problem.

Getting back to our rugby player…….

“So, you’re saying you believe you’ve lost the ability to kick?”


“Hear comes another weird question, – What’s the intention, the reason, that you’re believing you’ve lost the ability to kick?”


“You heard me correctly, whets the intention of your belief, the purpose, what does it do for you?”

“What the hell do you mean? The intention, purpose, what it does for me is to screw up my kicking of course!”

“For what reason would you (notice how ‘you’ keeps the cause of the problem with him) screw up your kicking, what do you get when you do that?”

“You make me sound like I want to screw myself up!”

“So what, just answer the question genuinely”

“Panic, I get panic!”

“What’s the intention of the panic?”

“To get me to focus”

“And when you focus what do you get, for what reason do you focus?”

“So I can calm my mind, which gets me to pay attention to everything that I need to hit my mark”

This was a moment of realization for our rugby player,- that the point, the intention, the organizing principle of believing ‘he had lost it’, was actually to ‘calm his mind’. It seems totally incongruent and it is, that’s why it was a problem for him. The theory goes that, perhaps even for one event only, believing he had ‘lost it’ motivated him to ‘focus’, ‘calm his mind’ and kick accurately. It probably worked so well that he unconsciously adopted it as an ongoing strategy which quickly became inappropriate for the context. What we did next was to help him discover real, better alternative ways to ‘calm his mind’ and, using some psychological coaching techniques, guided him to adopting those alternatives quickly and deeply so that they would happen consistently when he went to kick. Now, please pay attention to this…we are NOT saying that the whenever someone is not believing in themselves they are actually intending to calm their mind. The point of this is for you to become aware of one of the structures behind low self confidence.

The structure is that a thought or behaviour (including a belief) has an organizing principle (an intention) and by uncovering that principle you can find different ways of meeting it other than the way that is sustaining the problem. Looking for alternatives without determining the organizing principle is like posting a letter without an address on it.

The way each person express and experiences their beliefs will be different but the structure will be largely the same.  So, here are the questions that elicit the structure:

  1. How specifically do you want to be confident about yourself? (e.g. do you want to be confident in your ability to win a race, create set shots, come in on par etc)
  2. How are you behaving/performing now in relation to your previous answer?
  3. Which belief specifically sustains this behaviour?
  4. What’s the purpose/intention of this belief (what do you get)?
  5. Repeat question 4 until the answer gets to a level where the desired behaviour could be easily generated – for example a calm mind allowed easily for accurate kicking. Also check the answer is stated in the positive (i.e. what it is instead of what it’s not e.g. ‘don’t miss shot’ may become ‘hit target’) and where choice is opened up.
  6. Devise alternative ways of directly meeting the intention stated in 5 and rehearse them until they are natural.


Have fun quickly getting rid of the psychological barriers to the pursuit of excellence!