How to Exude Self-Confidence When Failure Seems Certain

Have you ever sensed you’re destined to fail at an important goal, and saw no way to muster up even a shred of self-confidence? If so, you’ll empathize with my predicament this summer.

Two weeks before the pentathlon at the USA Track & Field Masters Championship, three of my events–the long jump, javelin, and 1500 meter run–are seriously unraveling. All signs point to a crash and burn failure in store for me. After a year of intense 20+ hour weeks of training, I’m heading into a competition with zero confidence. I called my wife, Haley, for coaching on what to do next. Our conversation produced the most profound lessons learned from failure in my entire life.

If you’re like me, you look for confidence in all the wrong places—your recent successes and current circumstances. Where else would you look to gain confidence? How can you possibly exude confidence when all you have to show for your recent effort is complete failure?

In this blog, I’m going to reveal a secret source of confidence reserved for elite performers. It helped me win the silver medal.

MY MONUMENTAL MINDSET DISTURBANCE

At the exact time I want to be peaking for competition, my athletic skills are disintegrating. In my final time trial for the 1500 meter run, I lost all sense of coordination in my entire body, and my last 100 meters is a spastic sprint. With my competition in four days, this is the last straw. I’m ready to quit. But first, let me call my wife to get her take.

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After I share my all-but-certain decision to bypass this meet, Haley remarks, “For the 20+ years we’ve been married, I’ve never seen you quit at anything you’re committed to accomplishing.  So what’s your commitment?”

I answer, “I am committed to training at an elite level needed to win a gold medal at a national competition.”

“It sounds like you delivered on that commitment already,” she says. “You’ve dreaded putting your body through exhausting workouts, and yet gave your best effort. You’ve followed all your coaches’ recommendations. Showing up for the meet is a win. It completes your commitment.”

“I’m defining success based on a point total at one track meet. I’m disregarding the fact that I’ve given my absolute best effort for an entire year. That’s ridiculous”

But after this fleeting flash of fresh insight, I return to cleverly dodging the real issue at stake. I offer up another option, “There’s a new track meet hosting a pentathlon in two weeks. I might regain my physical abilities by then.”

“There is no tomorrow!,” Haley shouts, invoking the words of Apollo Creed exhorting Rocky not to blow off training for his upcoming fight.

Haley won’t accept anything less than the unvarnished truth. “Art, since quitting is out of character for you, I suspect you’re making this decision out of fear. What are you afraid of?”

“I’m afraid of posting a lousy score and having my track buddy’s wonder what happened, especially after I won a bronze medal last year.”

“But how will people react if you don’t go?”

“My coaches will be very disappointed. All their efforts will have been wasted.”

Haley then nails my dilemma. “Whatever choice you make—whether you falter during the competition or don’t go—you’ll lose people’s approval.”

“So I can’t make this decision depend on how people might react. I must base it on a choice aligned with my commitment.”

“What are likely long-term consequences if you choose to quit on fulfilling your commitment?”

“Quitting will become much easier. Seeing myself as a quitter sounds awful.”

“Even worse than putting up a lousy score?”

“Yes. Without question!”

Sensing my change of heart, Haley asks, “So, how can you view next week’s meet so you feel supreme confidence?”

Suddenly, I feel exited. “This competition is a unique experiment to test how far my mental skills can take me in an athletic competition. I get five hours of practice in generating a mindset that gives me confidence and access to my full performance capacity. I’ll practice staying focused on each jump, throw, and run, while I discard distracting thoughts that undermine my confidence. Okay, I’m packing for the meet!”

By recognizing myself as a quitter and acknowledging my pathetic need for approval, I am freed up to generate a monumental mindset disturbance. To adapt the Biblical phrase, John 8:32, “The miserable truth sets you free.” Freedom comes in making up a new mindset.

I define “mindset” as the filter or perspective from which we interpret and respond to our life experiences. To shift from self doubt to feeling supreme confidence, my original interpretation of the situation—no indicators of success to serve as a basis for having confidence—was fundamentally altered in four ways:

  1. Decision-making criteria: From basing my decision on “what choice will gain other people’s approval” to “what choice will deliver on my commitment?”
  2. Juxtaposing short-term comfort with long-term consequences: From avoiding loss of other people’s approval to increasing the likelihood of becoming a “serial quitter.”
  3. Exposing a distorted definition of winning: From winning being based on a single competitive score to winning being based on finishing  the rigorous training required to vie for a gold medal—my original commitment.
  4. Creating a compelling value for the track meet: From viewing the pentathlon competition as an occasion for public failure to viewing it as a bold experiment in generating confidence despite little recent success.”

I had to undergo my shaky pentathlon preparation which offered no reason for having confidence, in order to discover a little known source of self-confidence.

THE SECRET SOURCE OF CONFIDENCE RESERVED FOR ELITE PERFORMERS

Confidence is the core belief that you have whatever skill proficiency, mental fortitude, or emotional makeup necessary to deliver on your desired results.  So where does this positive expectation come from?

There are two obvious sources of confidence:

  1. Recent positive results and
  2. Favorable circumstances.

You’re not surprised.

In addition, I want to reveal a secret source of confidence known only by elite performers. They don’t require evidence of recent positive results or favorable circumstances to perform confidently.

So let’s examine all three sources of confidence.

Source #1: Confidence depends on having evidence from your recent results.

Most everyone presumes success comes before confidence—and the more recent success, the better. The notions of “being on a roll” or “peaking” for an event are predicated on a steady uptick in results. Football coaches often say, “We had a good week of practice so we will play well in the game.” They even blame a loss on a faulty week of practice.

Even Olympic legend, Usain Bolt says, “You put the work in, it will show at the end of the day. So as long as I’ve been training well and things have been going smoothly, I’m always confident.”

Past success can be used as a reference for building your self-confidence.  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out using your past track record to instill confidence.

But past success isn’t a pre-requisite for feeling confident.  It doesn’t have to come first.  If your recent results are great or abysmal, these results themselves buy you nothing in terms of guaranteeing an elite performance when it counts.

Source #2. Confidence depends on circumstances being favorable to achieving your desired outcome. If circumstances don’t line up right, then we wallow in self-doubt.  

The following phrases show how we size up circumstances to limit self-confidence:

“I’m great at building rapport with buyers, but lousy at closing the sale.”

“When the group fits into a small meeting room, I’m okay giving a presentation. But on a stage before a large audience, I panic.”

“I like selling to past customers, but I hate cold call marketing to prospects.”

Drawing confidence from seemingly favorable circumstances can definitely work. But what if you consider the circumstances to be unfavorable? You appear to have no choice but to shut down effort and accept failure. Unfortunately, you’d be making a huge mistake. Whether circumstances fit your imaginary conditions needed for success or not, you must still bring your A-game to perform vital tasks in real time when results are achieved or lost.

Now you see the limitation of these two sources of confidence nearly everyone relies upon. What if confidence is something you can make up from “nothing”—meaning it’s not based on past success and favorable circumstances?

Source #3: Elite performance mindset: Confidence depends on an individual’s ability to generate empowering beliefs, physical presence, and high skill proficiency in the actual moments of a performing. 

For most of us, the content of our mindset–our beliefs, assumptions, and predictions—remains fixed, hidden, and unexamined. In contrast, elite performers take accountability for the content of their mindset, so it stimulates their full performance capacity, including:

  • Feeling supreme confidence
  • Focusing intently on the task at hand
  • Discarding distracting thoughts conveying self-doubt
  • Expressing high skill proficiency
  • Setting stretch goals
  • Taking on big risks
  • Choosing to expend what seems like unreasonable effort
  • Analyzing decisions from a relaxed mindful state
art

On the victory stand wearing a silver medal

When you’ve leveraged both evidence of past success and favorable circumstances to fortify your confidence, you’ve gained access to this robust performance capacity. What if you could harness this very same results-producing power at any moment and didn’t depend on the two conventional sources of confidence? This enormous opportunity to generate confidence-on-demand now becomes possible from this mindset disturbance you and I just collaborated on:

Confidence doesn’t depend on your past results or being blessed with favorable circumstances. Confidence is a mindset and emotional state you generate in the midst of giving a performance which provides access to your full capabilities.

In part 2 of this blog, I will describe specific techniques to generate supreme confidence and gain access to your optimal performance capacity during challenging tasks. Stay tuned next month.

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