Confidence and female athletes: Haves or have nots?

Men overestimate, women underestimate.

If only I had a nickel for every time I heard that from a coach when they were asked, “What’s the difference between coaching men and coaching women?”

Which brings me to a question that has literally been nagging me for years:

Do women naturally have less confidence than men?

This question is really tough for me because I have this knee-jerk emotional reaction that screams ‘Of course NOT!’

But then a quieter voice asks, ‘Hmm. Do we? And, if so, what can we DO about it?’

In my work with male and female athletes of  all ages, I will say there are clear differences between the two. And two things stick out for me: Men somehow know that appearing confident is beneficial, even if it’s just a façade, and the ‘fake it till you make it’ principle really does work in regards to confidence.

Sometimes.

But, that’s just my opinion.

What do smart people say about this?

We did what we usually do here at Positive Performance: We looked at the research and put it up against our own experiences working with athletes.

This is what we found:

Back in the day (that’s a scientific term) women were basically unable to survive without the protection of a group and, in particular, the protection of men. In order to stay alive and keep her children alive, a woman had to depend on a man to hunt and a tribe to keep her safe.

Females were physically smaller, often pregnant, and often saddled with children to manage, all which greatly increased their dependency on others.

Men on the other hand, were more self-sufficient, physically larger, and less dependent on a group for survival.

This leads us to some interesting brain biology that’s still relevant today despite the gains in self-sufficiency and independence that so many women have globally fought for. Our brains just haven’t kept up with this relatively new social development.

The male and female brains prioritize things differently as a result of those different survival needs, which then leads to social development differences. And it all starts in-utero at eight weeks post-conception! The brain is developing during that time, neurons are multiplying, and priorities are already taking shape. If it’s a girl baby, the brain uses estrogen to develop the language/communication and emotional parts of the brain. But if it’s a boy, the brain gets flooded with testosterone, diverting attention from the language and emotional portions of the brain to the parts that focus on sex and aggression.

These developmental differences are highly relevant to survival as the brain has been programmed to understand it.

Women focus on harmony for survival. They need to be able to keep the group happy, pay attention to relationships with others, and keep conflict to a minimum. They also need to get really, REALLY good at anticipating other people’s behavior—especially dangerous behavior—which in turn makes them more sensitive and able to read other people.

In a word: Don’t rock the boat or it might throw you off!

Risk and failure.

Women also have more impulse control. Because they’re reading the reactions of people around them, women tend to have less risky behavior. But this attempt to keep things calm has a significant downside in that females typically don’t get used to risk and failure as children, which are two huge building blocks toward true confidence.

But just because our brains are wired this way doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to change.

That’s why understanding our natural tendencies is so important: Unless we’re aware of the why’s and how’s, we can’t work to change any of it. (Assuming we want to change it, but that’s a whole other debate.)

Nature and nurture

Our early childhood experiences are hugely important in the way our brains develop. Because I had two older brothers to emulate, I learned that risk was a part of having fun: If there was something to jump off of, we were daring each other to do it; if there was a chance to wrestle or to race, that was happening as well. Playing was focused on winning or taking the most risks, not playing for the sake of playing.

While my best friend was collaborating on synchronized swimming routines with her sisters, I was at the other end of the pool fighting my way to the surface, gasping for air with a brother or two holding me under.

Turns out, this risky behavior develops confidence.

Solutions.

Developing confidence is a process, which is why we have a number of different tools we utilize with all our athletes including Positive Self-Talk, Visualization exercises, and developing mistake rituals.

But one seemingly simple and obvious thing that we can all be aware of is this: that girls need to be exposed to failure early and often. They need to stumble. They need to fall in the playground. They need to wrestle and LOSE.

Playing sports at a young age is a great way to participate in these confidence-building activities. But, even as we grow older, failure remains a critical part of growth. It needs to be celebrated, encouraged, and discussed. Too often we are taught that failure is something to be avoided or even worse: that there is no failure and everyone gets a trophy.

Ugh.

The pain of failure is important. It teaches us, makes us tougher, and is something that anyone who wants to accomplish anything must learn to deal with.

It’s also the best way to develop true confidence, the kind of confidence that allows you to truly believe you’ll succeed but that also helps you understand there will be failures along the way as well.

And that’s okay.

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