A dear friend recently told me that, for her, confidence is not waking up in the mirror and telling yourself you look like you got this. Confidence is a survival strategy. It’s what gives you the greatest odds of success.
Because I have all the curiosity and none of the chill, this conversation sparked a knee-deep foray into sports psychology. I also wrote a poem that is kind of about this topic a week prior to the conversation. I’ll share the full version with you here:
How pointless are our measures:
Our performance, our pretense
To secure the inestimable
And capture the immense—like a lion
Calling to the sky, roaring into darkness
So loudly that the clouds excuse themselves
And then asking, nervous and timid as a churchmouse,
‘Did I strike the right note? Do I not entertain?
Why can I not sing like the birds?
Do you not approve? Why, O Clouds,
Do you not clap for me
Like you applaud the cries
of birds?’ What folly, child—
You are no beautiful warbler,
No Beethoven, no composer;
You are a savage cat, both foolish and wise,
Insecure about the shape of claws
That could, for their sharpness,
Tear open crocodiles
And trace the bloody entrails
Of life and death, blood and bone,
Of quantum spectroscopy
And the parabolas of love.
(This hyperbolic and poetic celebration of the indefinability of the self shall be followed by a more science- and metric-based exploration of the nature of confidence.)
As a lover of climbing and of all things outdoors and endurance, this conversation with a friend took me aback. I was surprised that I hadn’t explored this subject much at all.
When coaching young climbers or beginning adult climbers, I recognise that they need confidence and a calm focus on the next move in order to accomplish their goals. As a result, I try to coach for calm and confidence as much as skill.
Instead of constantly yelling, ‘DO IT DO IT SEND IT’ (though psych totally has its place), I try to get students to focus on the individual moves. ‘You can place your foot there,’ I’ll say. ‘Just remember to keep breathing.’ Keeping my voice calm seems to help people remember that they’re in control and they’re capable, rather than sending them even further into an adrenaline frenzy.
Ironically, this is a subject I often neglect in myself–especially when life off the wall feels confusing.
Even though I’ve known it’s silly, I’ve often implicitly believed that confidence is something that just…happens. Develops by itself and then breaks free from the soil, like a lucky sprout from a neglected seed. I’ve also believed that confidence is the result of working hard at something and becoming good at something–then, poof, because of prowess, you’re confident.
That’s not the whole picture, of course. Because according to sports psychology, confidence itself is a skill that must be honed through focus, effort, and repetition. Confidence isn’t an arrogant belief that, in my friend’s words, ‘you’re the baddest shit,’ but rather that you can figure this out, regardless of your most recent performance or the challenges. It’s saying you’ll give yourself an honest chance in spite of the odds of failure.
One study published in 2009 in the Journal of Sports Sciences delved into the complexities and intersections of confidence and performance. On a very basic level, while it cannot be said that confidence inevitably leads to success, it seems to make success far more likely. In addition, rather than rendering setbacks as abject failure, confidence turns setbacks or even moments where you lack self-belief into, you know, just something else you can face.
But confidence isn’t so simple as a word or a feeling or even a dogmatic sense of self-belief. The study detailed how there are three primary sources of an athlete’s confidence, or ability to trust in one’s ability, even under pressure: achievement, self-regulation, and social climate.
In other words, your ability in your field, your capacity to self-regulate your inner dialogue, and the surrounding environment are all interdependent sources of confidence.
(As one study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health elucidated, number and quality of social connection is deeply linked to longevity, confidence, and overall wellbeing. Like: if you have good friendships, you’re far less likely to die young.)
With that in mind, strategically drawing on these varying sources of confidence during different life challenges becomes an important skill. If the social environment is unsupportive, you might use past achievements to help bolster your focus and belief in your own capability. This boosts your odds for achieving your goals (be that keeping your room clean, writing a book, not being a douchebag, or whatever).
Conversely, if you’re new to a sport or coming back from injury and lack prowess, you might turn to your ability to self-regulate and supportive friends for confidence. You might take deep breaths, practice good self care as you learn a new skill, and improve your self-talk.
This third source of confidence–self-regulation–is often the most difficult, because it’s not measurable in social connections, in grades, in performance, or in the hours you spend deep in conversation with a friend. It’s literally just you, your doubts, and your beliefs.
Whether it’s been a therapist telling me ‘Emily, maybe try telling yourself more positive things’ or a friend encouraging me to talk to myself the way I talk to them, I’ve always struggled with self-talk.
BUT WHAT IF THAT POSITIVITY ISN’T ENTIRELY OR EMPIRICALLY TRUE, I would counter inside my head. WHILE I CAN SEE WITH SOME RELIABILITY THAT MY ESTIMATION OF YOU, MY FRIEND, IS LIKELY CORRECT AND IS CORROBORATED BY OTHER SOURCES, HOW CAN I ASSESS OR AFFIRM MYSELF WITH ANY DEGREE OF OBJECTIVITY OR ACCURACY? AS IS EVIDENT FROM THIS CONVERSATION, EVEN MY SUBJECTIVITY IS INHERENTLY FLAWED.
Me: Encouraging and down-to-earth with students, existential as fuck when left to my own devices.
(I read some Camus as a 16-year-old when I was already encountering the Sisyphean nature of brain injury recovery and way before I was ready for French existentialism, and it messed with my head in good ways and bad. Don’t feed your concussed child Albert Camus. Or do. Idk.)
Fortunately, I’ve found multiple scientific studies to help me sort this out (feel free to laugh).
In one study, just one week of self-talk training helped improve the performances of junior sub-elite athletes when compared with peers who received no self-talk training. For the lucky kids who received this training, their somatic anxiety markers (bodily symptoms of anxiety) decreased, while performance, self-confidence, and a sense of overall capability increased.
Basically, just one week of self talk training helped some kids seriously send. Plus, the more intensive the self talking training was, the better the kids did.
Another study with elite and sub-elite adult tennis players suggested that performance improves when self talk training and relaxation techniques are used repeatedly. Like, the more you practice, the better it gets.
In other words, confidence and learning to talk to yourself isn’t about lying to yourself. It’s about instilling a sense of capability to withstand challenges and giving yourself mental tools to turn ambition into reality, to be less of a douchebag, and to be there for others.
While self-talk is just one facet of confidence (self-regulation), it feeds into the other facets of confidence I mentioned earlier from the other study. How we talk to ourselves impacts the kind of environment we create for others. It impacts how we perform, which in turn impacts our confidence levels based on performance skill.
Confidence is a practice that is, in turn, integral to making other practices worthwhile. It’s a tool, and using it doesn’t have to feel natural starting off.
As a biological and psychological survival strategy–as authentic armour–confidence is both endogenous and exogenous. It’s from within us, but also something we source from outside ourselves: friendships, people, experiences, places, books, articles, social media, walks, runs, mountains.
It also shows us the role of environmental and socioeconomic factors in shaping external sources of confidence. It shows us that how we can shape our environments in order to encourage more confidence in ourselves and in others.
The fact that I didn’t connect these dots previously is still a little surprising to me, given that this is how I coach or guide. I assume that new climbers will take time to develop confidence, that confidence is itself a practice, and I try to find ways to help kids develop that mental muscle. But I have often been my own worst coach ever.
In the multiple veins of confidence, we encounter opportunities to connect the collective, the existential, the experimental, and the empirical into a complete whole. We form connections between these various spheres as we perform, as we recover, as we push, as we challenge, as we break down, and as we get back up and learn to believe in our ability to figure shit out.
Practicing the multifaceted skill of confidence allows us to connect to others and to the outside world. It is a bridge as well as authentic armour, a survival strategy and a deeply social gesture of human strength.
I am learning this as we speak, and I’ve shared this poem, this art, and this post today in the hopes that they help also someone else who’s developing their own confidence in climbing, academics, life, and love.
We are all growing.
We are all our own biggest and most beautiful storms.
Sources and additional reading:
–Psychology Today article ‘Sports: An Introduction to Confidence’: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/200911/sports-introduction-confidence
–Journal of Sports Science article ‘The role of confidence in world-class sports performance’: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640410903089798
–Sports article ‘Effects of Self-Talk Training on Competitive Anxiety, Self-Efficacy, Volitional Skills, and Performance: An Intervention Study with Junior Sub-Elite Athletes’:
-The Neurocognition and Action – Biomechanics research group’s article ‘Exploring temporal patterning of psychological skills usage during the week leading up to competition: Lessons for developing intervention programmes.’
–International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health article ‘Maintenance and Development of Social Connection by People with Long-term Conditions: A Qualitative Study’: