How to Exude Self-Confidence When Failure Seems Certain – Part 2

How do you generate confidence to embrace big challenges when you have no tangible evidence to base it on? You may be enduring a string of disappointing performances. You could be facing unfavorable circumstances. Failure seems inevitable.

In this two-part blog, I offer two pivotal guidelines. First, stop looking for confidence in conventional places, namely external factors like recent success and favorable circumstances. (Click here to see part 1 of this blog) Instead, draw upon an inner source of confidence—your own ability to generate empowering beliefs, proper energy, focused concentration, and high skill proficiency while performing.

I will describe a set of skills from the mental training program of the U.S. Olympic Team which are transferable to business leaders. I call them “power optimization skills.” These skills will enable you to exude self-confidence and gain access to your full performance capacity.

I’ve practiced these skills for over a decade on two fronts–developing elite business leaders and competing as a pentathlete in masters track. I never fully appreciated the critical nature of these skills until this July when I found my athletic abilities diminishing instead of peaking just two weeks before the USA Track & Field Masters Championship. All I had left to rely on was these power optimization skills–and they did not disappoint.


For decades, deliberate practice has been my winning formula in business and in sports. Due to extraordinary preparation, I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t supremely confident walking into a high stakes situation. So I was dumbfounded to find deliberate practice seemed to be making me worse in the jumping, throwing, sprinting, and distance running required in pentathlon. As you’d expect, I had zero confidence.

This adversity proved to be an unexpected gift. Since my physical abilities were apparently deteriorating, I was forced to significantly increase my deliberate practice of mental skills, especially in focusing attention to the task at hand. Repeatedly, I compartmentalized by instantly discarding any subpar practice attempts and concentrating on the very next throw, jump, or sprint. While my physical decline was blatantly obvious, in the background, my mental skills were dramatically improving. While sports psychologists and Navy Seals use terms like “mental toughness” in reference to mastering adversity, I use the terminology, power optimization skills, when I talk with business leaders. Power optimization skills address the one factor people have power to control—we can access our full performance capacity including emotional fortitude, thinking capabilities, energy level, and physical prowess.

We don’t control the eventual outcome. During the moments of giving a performance, any emotional attachment to the meaning of the outcome can become a distraction. Unfortunately, we usually place inflated significance on end results. As Hall of Fame college basketball coach, Dean Smith said, “If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.”

So what does emotional detachment really mean? Go ahead and hold definite preferences for desired results. But steer clear of emotionally-charged expectations for outcomes, which may become distractions that set you up for failure. While failure can be disappointing, it’s never as devastating as we make it out to be. With thoughtful debriefing, lessons learned from failure lead to robust performance improvements.

Here are six power optimization skills discussed in the United States Olympic Committees’ Sports Psychology Mental Training Manual:usoc

  • Micro goal setting: Break down the components of a task in order to perform with high proficiency and avoid feeling overwhelmed by the effort required to complete the full task.
  • Mental rehearsal: Mentally rehearse the visual, kinesthetic, and environmental cues involved in a performance just before embarking on it.
  • Mastering self-talk: Control what you say to yourself by changing confidence depleting thoughts (i.e., negative predictions, blaming uncontrollable factors, self-deprecation) with confidence-building strategies (i.e., rational beliefs, cancelling self-deprecating thoughts, and self-encouragement).
  • Energy management: Use controlled breathing techniques and physical poses to throttle up or wind down energy and emotion.
  • Focused concentration/mindfulness: Pay attention to the right things at the right time.
  • Pre-performance routines: Execute the in-between performance necessities for eating, hydration, plus effective warm up activities prior to an event.


I went from a lousy night of sleep to throwing the discus against extreme headwinds, and the adversities kept emerging during the five hours of pentathlon competition. I was about to find out if my years of practicing power optimization skills would help to master several emerging threats to my confidence.

javelin-throwThreat #1:  A track official’s distracting remark

While warming up for the javelin, a track official warns me, “Your practice throws are going flat. For a legal throw, the javelin’s metal tip must strike the ground first, before the rest of the shaft.” Now I know my throws will receive close scrutiny from the officials. Just what I didn’t need—more pressure.

I came prepared for this sort of unanticipated distraction. For each of the five events, I carried index cards containing key phrases to focus my attention on precisely the right things, namely my coaches’ key instruction and my ignition cue. During all five of my event warmups, I focus on my coaches’ key instruction that reminds me of the key physical moves to execute. When it’s my turn to perform, I recall my ignition cue and instantly unleash my well-practiced fluid body movements.

My javelin coach, Cody Melnrick, uses the phrase, “Push, glide, rigid,” to describe the discrete movements to catapult my whole body’s force into the throw. It’s a perfect focal point for making warm ups tosses and then for visualizing my form seconds before each throw in competition. As the officials call “Turock is up,” it’s time to discard such intricate pointers and trust my prior practice will automatically take hold. So I shift attention to my ignition cue, “Be athletic,” and began running down the runway, and I’m only aware of how my body feels and the target point to aim my javelin.


I did make two flat throws. But my one legal throw is my 2016 personal best.

Threat #2: Taking attention off my event by learning competitive scores

During competition, I intentionally avoid checking my competitive standing, because I’m going to give my best effort to each event regardless of the point totals.

Knowing my ranking in the midst of competition is a potential distraction, possibly adding pressure or enticing over-confidence.  Each time the officials pass out score sheets, I turn my head and tell myself, “Focus on your warmup routine for the next event.”

Threat #3:  Total physical collapse

The 1500 meter run is the last of the five events. Most pentathletes dread it. It’s boring, taxes our hamstrings, and demands non-stop rapid breathing. I am no exception.

To counter this uncomfortable feeling, I rely on a tightly choreographed routine. Slow jog for five minutes to get my heart rate up. Pause to stretch. Assume the super hero pose for one minute. During this minute, I stand with legs shoulder width apart, hands on hips, face tilted upward, and quietly utter the words of an Olympic distance runner, Louis Zamperini, “One moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” What an inspiring ignition cue!

Instead of thinking of the event as a 1500 meter race, I break it down into fifteen micro goals, consisting of 100 meter runs, seven curves and eight straightaways. To curtail boredom, I periodically shift focus on facets of my form. I feel my feet strike on the sole, then check my compact arm swing, and later concentrate on rhythmic breathing. On each curve, I consciously run close to the inner edge of the track in lane one to ensure I run the shortest possible distance. In the final 100 meters, I change my gait to a full out sprint to the finish line. At least, that’s my plan.

However, when I start my finishing kick my body doesn’t cooperate. I lose all sense of coordination. Not one limb is doing what my brain is telling it to do. With 50 meters to go, my body is reduced to walking like a mummy in a 1950’s horror movie.

I collapse at the finish line telling the medical staff, “I suppose this is what they mean by ‘Leave it all on the track.’” I couldn’t have written a better script to cap an amazing day.

On the victory stand wearing a silver medal around my neck, I feel profound satisfaction. My confident emotional state drove my medal-winning performance and illustrates the make-or-break value of power optimization skills.


Most of my blog readers aren’t going to be throwing a javelin in the coming weeks. But you are likely to encounter two categories of performance where confidence could wane and power optimizations skills make a profound difference.

So far, I’ve discussed the first category of situations where your confidence is shaky or unraveling.  The second category is when you want to raise your skill proficiency and more practice in the specific task itself (e.g. public speaking, cold calling, conducting a performance review) doesn’t help you get better. Making significant improvement requires confidence to trust your prior practice and stop consciously adhering to a step-by-step breakdown of a task.  Instead, you focus on becoming immersed in the holistic performance of a task, and gain access to express your full capacity. To generate and sustain this optimal performance state, you must orchestrate power optimizations skills in concert with the basic skills to perform a task.

As an example of this second category, Angela, one of my clients, has done lots of public speaking, knows how to organize and deliver a speech, but still comes across as scripted and restrained in expressing her range of vocal variety and physical gestures. She wants to improve her ability to rivet attention and increase audience interaction. During our coaching session, she declares, “It’s time to trust my practice and speak with more conviction, bigger gestures, and pace the entire stage.”

To execute this intention, Angela must incorporate power optimization skills. First, she develops a pre-speech routine to channel her anxious energy into confident energy. She arrives at the meeting room early and practices being fully present while welcoming people. She offers a two-sentence description of her topic, asks, “What would you especially like to learn?” and listens intently.

During the presentation, she repeatedly focuses attention on the right things. She concentrates on projecting her message to reach individuals seated in the back rows. Her ignition cue is “Let it rip.” She feels freed up to discard her self-imposed constraints on expressing her physical and emotional energy.

When Angela notices two participants gaze at their smart phones, she concludes, “This isn’t going well.” To instantly refocus her attention, Angela manages her self-talk by issuing a command, “Cancel that thought!” She resumes speaking conversationally while making eye contact with individuals who smile or lean forward showing rapt attention.

Angela focuses on the group’s moment by moment reactions. After making a provocative point, she hears a murmur of puzzlement, and says “I think that point hit a nerve.  Tell me what you find significant?” By asking spontaneous questions, she stirs up helpful dialogue.

Angela expands her vocal and physical expression to captivate her audience.  She discovers her hidden reserves of performance capacity, not from more practice of presentation skills but from orchestrating power optimization skills to unleash her existing speaking abilities to her highest possible level of proficiency.


I recommend you implement these four steps:

Step 1: List at least three upcoming bold challenges where you’d like to generate supreme confidence. Pick situations where you can’t find any basis for having confidence and/or where you’re not getting any better with your current practice.

Step 2: Determine the power optimization skills to deploy for each situation.

Step 3: Execute your plan for using the power optimization skills in giving your performance.

Step 4: Distill your lessons learned from your performance whether you nail it or stumble.


blinders-offIn my pentathlon competition, I brought a repository of power optimization skills to unleash when failure seemed certain. Most business leaders aren’t so fortunate. Power optimization skills are a major missing ingredient in leadership training offered by business schools, corporate training departments, and management consulting firms. Without mastering power optimization skills, business leaders will never achieve their top performance. Not even close.

Fortunately for you, it’s blinders off time! You now realize that power optimization skills underpin the elite performance of the full array of thinking skills, communication skills, and physical skills of any role. Make them part of your personal skill set. Teach them to your team. Practice them task by task.

Imagine the cumulative effect of this ongoing practice. With power optimization skills at your disposal, you and your team will consistently gain access to your full performance capacity. Time after time, you will exude supreme confidence and turn “failure in the making” situations into colossal successes.

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This is a universal lament from business leaders in fast-paced organizations… until they apply the unique and time-efficient practices outlined in this book. Competent is Not an Option shows you how to adapt the talent development process used by championship sports teams to produce all-star leaders in your business.

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