Competence Before Confidence

Canberra based Performance Psychologist Harley de Vos muses about how overstated CONFIDENCE is as a performance predictor in most sports and other performance domains.

What are these race car drivers thinking and feeling? Or does it matter …

“I just need to feel more confident, and I will be able to perform at my best. Can you help me to build confidence?”

This is one of the most common reasons why athletes and performers reach out to us at Condor Performance. This article will seek to debunk some common misconceptions around confidence. It may even help you to be more confident when you are performing!

What Comes To Mind When You Think Of Confidence?

Is it feeling a particular way, assured or trust of yourself and what you are doing? Is it based on what you do when you feel confident, your actions and your behaviours? But what actually is confidence? Confidence is simply the belief in one’s ability to perform a particular behaviour or action. What confidence is not is some magical state that will guarantee you perform at your best. If only!

If we pull back the curtain and examine what is behind the belief that we have in our ability to perform a particular action, we will find competence. Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Competence is what we develop over time, at training and practice, through hard work and repetition. And in the long run, competence is far more valuable for us from a performance perspective than confidence will ever be. Competence on the most part is permanent, reliable and predicatble. Confidence on the hand can be fleeting and unpredictable.

Consider The Following Scenario

You are an experienced driver (i.e., you’ve been driving for a few years), and you are driving your car on your way to training. In this scenario, your ability to drive the car, to use the brakes and accelerator as you need, to indicate when you are turning, to change gears and so forth is about your competence. In other words, you are a competent driver. And so where does confidence fit into this scenario? You may be feeling confident about your driving ability, but you may not. Perhaps the weather conditions are challenging for driving. Maybe it is dark. Perhaps there is a lot of traffic, or the roads are unfamiliar. Regardless of the circumstances, you don’t need to feel confident in your ability to be able to drive the car in order to drive. And the same is true when it comes to performance. 

What the scenario above demonstrates is that consistent motor execution (i.e., actions) is possible regardless of how you are feeling. We don’t need to feel confident in order to be able to perform. Most athletes and other performers should have experienced this at least once; the “Suprise Performance”. A situation where the performance was excellent despite all sorts of self-doubt. Sometimes our clients describe this as been surprised at their ability to perform so well whilst lacking confidence. As evidence based sport psychologists and performance psychologists this is not surpringing to us in the slightest.

I understand how competence before confidence may be relevant to driving a car, but I don’t see how it will help me to perform better?

As a performance psychologist, part of my approach to working with my sporting and performance clients is to focus on learning to accept our thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. It is an approach shared by several of my colleagues at Condor Performance, including our founder Gareth J. Mole. With this approach, I focus on using our actions to generate the thoughts and feelings that we want and not the other way around.

If we take the view that we need to feel confident in order to be able to perform, we are relying on our feelings to influence the thoughts and actions that we want to have. The pitfall of this approach is that we are (highly) unlikely to wake up one day suddenly filled with confidence and ready to perform. So, by holding onto the belief that confidence is the key to performance, we are actually likely to undermine our ability to perform in situations when we do not feel confident.

My view is that it is more effective to focus on our actions (i.e., what we are doing) and use these to generate our feelings. So when it comes to confidence, we want to be focusing on actions that help to develop our confidence and let the feeling follow. These actions can include our body language and displaying confidence even if we’re not feeling confident (“Fake It Til You Feel It”) as well as our preparation, and performance routines. By focusing on our actions, what we are doing is focusing on our competence. Focus on actions first, feelings will follow. In other words, competence before confidence.

Not Convinced Yet, Then Read On …

Another reason why focusing on competence before confidence will help you to perform better is that competence can be measured easily and directly, whereas confidence can’t. If we take the driving scenario from above, we can measure our competence as a car driver with a driving test or the number of speeding fines we get. In order to be able to drive a car, we need to get a licence. Passing a driving test is evidence of our competence as a driver not our confidence. But how can we measure our level of confidence at driving? The answer is that we can’t, not objectively anyway. We may feel confident as a driver, and then we find ourselves in a challenging and unusual environment (such as driving at night on unfamiliar roads in the rain) and all of a sudden, our confidence has gone.  

Focusing on our competence, which we can easily and directly measure, helps to guide us at practice. We can focus on developing and refining our skills, and we can measure our progress. This helps us with motivation, motor skill development and execution, and over time this will build deep confidence in our ability.

Ok, I understand why competence before confidence is useful for performance. But the best athletes and performers are so confident? 

One common misconception about elite athletes and performers is that we often overestimate their level of confidence. We assume because of how skilled and experienced they are, how they leave us in awe with what they are capable of doing, that they must feel supreme confidence. But this is far from true. Some performers never feel real confidence. Some performers are so plagued by self-doubt and performance anxieties and insecurities that they cannot feel confident before and when they are performing. Yet they can still produce exceptional performance despite not feeling confident. How are they capable of this? Because they focus on competence before confidence.

So to help feel more confident, focus on developing your toolkit of competencies. Focus on your actions, on developing your skills. By doing this, you will build competence. And with competence, you will feel more confident (maybe)!

Conclusion / Plug

If this article has encouraged you to consider going about your performance from a more psychological point of view then get in touch and be guided by Harley (author) or one of our other psychologists. Even better complete one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here and one of the crew will get back to you in less than 48 hours.