The surprising thing about confidence

Imagine you possess all the material success you’ve ever dreamt of. You have a career full of accomplishments, you live in the house you’ve always pictured, and you hold the respect and admiration of your peers, colleagues, and friends.

In other words, you’d expect to be wildly confident in yourself, right?

Well, not exactly…. While we all picture a future where we ‘arrive’ at our most confident selves, the reality is that’s not how confidence works.


How does confidence work?

When I'm working with athletes, it’s easy for me to look at the ones who have been successful and think, “Now, that’s confidence!”

However, many times I don’t know the backstory of how they got to that point. So while, at times, I'm witnessing true confidence, the result of hard work, failure, and perseverance other times I'm seeing mere “surface confidence”, or an unsustainable, skin-deep confidence that doesn’t stem from failure.

Here’s what I mean:

Take Athlete A: She’s the best player on every team. Always ‘on’ and usually head-and-shoulders above the competition. Things come relatively easy for her on the playing field. To top things off, she’s also attractive, very likely the girl everyone wants to be friends with (and maybe the one they’re secretly jealous of). Athlete A seems to have it all, and each victory or success only seems to make her more confident. 

Now take Athlete B: She’s in the middle-of-the-pack as far as talent and results go, but she’s worked her way there via a lot of adversity, determination, and failure. She’s not particularly special in any obvious way, but she’s a hard worker and is always willing to step up and do what needs to be done. She fails, but her failures don’t deter her. She learns and moves on.

From the surface, it sure looks like more fun to be Athlete A, bouncing through life’s successes.  But when we examine it a little closer, our experience tells us Athlete A isn’t mentally prepared to handle true adversity; while she seems poised on the outside, she has not developed a lasting confidence that will sustain her. When failure arrives, she won’t know how to handle it. She may push through, but Athlete A is likely to crumble beneath the pressure as her surface confidence evaporates, exposing the insecurity inside.

Athlete B, on the other hand, has worked her mental muscles to arrive at her current confidence level. She’s laid down a foundation of true belief in herself through hard work. She knows how to stare risk boldly in the face and, if it comes to it, deal with failure and disappointment. Athlete B knows how to learn lessons from setbacks. Knowing that her supposed failures are not really failures at all, Athlete B takes failures as opportunities for growth.

Unfortunately, we can't always see the differences between surface and true confidence. It's easy to assume that Athlete A has this confidence thing figured out, when her confidence is actually only skin deep, and pass over the better role model for confidence, Athlete B.

Often what’s missing from an Athlete A’s life is failure; the surprisingly necessary building block of true confidence. There’s no way around it, folks, the truth is, real confidence comes from taking risks and failing, not from never failing.

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Let me clarify at this juncture that too much failure is a confidence killer, while too little is a confidence inhibitor. But experiencing an appropriate amount of failure is important in developing true confidence. Failure, overall, is a concept we’d be smart to embrace.

Why do you need failure?

Consider this: When we haven’t learned to fail, it frightens us. Then we try to avoid failure by avoiding risks, which means hesitation, overthinking, and less action. And, when we don’t take action, confidence doesn’t have the chance to develop.

In other words, when we avoid failure out of fear, we actually begin living our lives in perpetual fear and constant failure.

Quite the catch-22, isn’t it?

Because this conundrum is so difficult, I’ve embraced a few tactics that work to help me embrace failure. So, without further adieu, here are my:


6 Go-to rules for embracing failure

#1. Reframe it 

Like most things regarding failure, it’s easier said than done, but I really, really try to reframe failure as an opportunity for growth. After all, as the overused motivational poster from Michael Jordan says, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

More poignantly, if an athlete isn’t failing AT ALL they can’t possibly be pushing themselves to be their best, which means they’re falling far short of their true potential.

Failure IS a part of growth and confidence. You cannot get to true confidence unscathed without battle wounds to show for it.

Coaches Note: It’s easy for athletes to get discouraged by failure, especially when it’s taking longer than desired to master a necessary skill. Maybe your athlete is losing sight of their potential in light of.disappointment, and your words of encouragement just aren’t cutting it anymore. Don’t feel bad; sometimes it takes the understanding of a teammate, instead of the push of a coach, to make the point. In that case, consider pairing your less confident athletes up with more experienced athletes who can speak from experience, and serve as an example of the success your athlete can achieve post-failure.

#2. Avoid avoidance

In my own life, I’ve noticed the danger is not necessarily in the failing itself, but in those moments where we anticipate the failure. More specifically, sometimes it’s the chances we don’t even know we’re avoiding which put us at greatest risk for loss. Coasting through life with surface confidence, and avoiding actively seeking out growth opportunities due to fear of failure, prohibits us from being truly successful and truly confident.

Whether it’s the networking event we aren’t going to, the phone call we aren’t making, or the question we aren’t asking, when we avoid a potential failure we’re also avoiding a potential success.

Coaches Note: In sports, this avoidance policy is pretty obvious. An athlete who struggles with avoidance shows it by doing things such as not volunteering to take the winning penalty kick. What might be less obvious is the athlete who hangs back just slightly in practices or competition, the one who comes up consistently second in conditioning drills when they could easily come in first at least some of the time.

#3. Get support

I was stressed about my career a week or two ago and called my best friend for a cathartic bitching session about how difficult things are. She responded by bringing my attention to how brave I am for starting my own business, how much courage I’ve shown by persevering, and how proud I should be for all the risks and challenges I’ve willingly taken on.

There’s good reason I call her my best friend: She’s incredible when it comes to giving me strong words of affirmation, and encouraging me when I’m feeling pretty down (even the most confident individuals need an occasional pep talk!). We all need people around us like that to celebrate our risk-taking when we cannot. Find yours.

Coaches Note: Make sure words of affirmation are a solid part of your team’s dynamic, both on and off the field. Criticism has its place and its own unique push, but there’s nothing like positive words of encouragement to remind athletes who are feeling down that they are truly worthy of playing the game. Keep in mind I’m not talking about generic “you can do it’s”, I’m talking really valuing and appreciating the courage it takes to risk failure, and then putting words to it. 

#4. Pay attention to your words

I’m a big believer in the power of self-talk. I believe it’s one of the most powerful and underutilized tools we have at our disposal. The language you use toward yourself regarding failure and risk is tremendously important. Statements starting with, “I’m not good enough to...” are insidious and limiting, while power statements like “I know I can do....” allow you to focus on growth (see tip #1), and can give you the strength and desire to seek and embrace risk as part of the process.

Coaches Note: Sometimes leaders feel the need to overcomplicate positive self-talk. However, self-talk doesn't need to be complex! It can be as simple as five words that say, “I am a fast runner.” Check out this article for more on how self-talk can help your athletes. Saying words of affirmation daily will soon make positive self-talk second nature.

#5. Practice self-compassion

At the end of the day, celebrate that you’re a good person, and you're doing the best you can at trying to grow and improve. Remember that you’re a constantly evolving being, and the only real failure is giving up on yourself and avoiding the journey that leads to a better you.

Failure should never touch the core of who you are. Ever. Failure can be painful, of course, because that’s part of really trying. If it didn’t hurt, you probably weren’t trying that hard and, if you weren’t trying that hard, did you really want it that much? If not, does it really matter that you failed?

Think about it.

Keep in mind that you as a person are not defined by your actions, but by your intentions. You are, after all, only human. Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind to your teammates. Would you speak to them the way you speak to yourself? If not, it’s time to reconsider your self-compassion.

Coaches Note: At the close of a difficult training session or after a loss, have athletes review what they learned about their performance (whether from memory or when reviewing tape). Differentiate between critiquing (analyzing) and criticizing (finding fault) and practice the former. If a player is callous toward themselves, remind them of this quote by spiritualist Marianne Williamson and suggest they treat themselves a little more kindly: “If someone talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you would have kicked them out of your life a long time ago.”

#6. Perfectionism is the devil

“Great” is the enemy of good. In other words, “good enough” is sometimes just fine!

I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I know that holds true. While no one expects you to reduce your high standards, the ideal of perfection is elusive, often impossible, and creates more fear and frustration than it’s worth. If perfection is your goal, you’re going to fail a lot more than you win, and it will get old, fast.

Never confuse “good” with “mediocre”, because they aren’t the same. Our society has embedded a “perfectionism or bust” attitude in us that is often more damaging than encouraging. It rejects the reality of growth through failure, and belittles anyone who is less than perfect (i.e. all of us!) into thinking they’re just no good. That’s one big, FAT lie. As Courtney Thompson said,

You can still kick your own ass. [Being positive] isn't about rainbows and butterflies, it's about believing in yourself so much that you hold yourself to high standards." - Courtney Thompson, Olympic Volleyball Setter

While we should want some failure, failing every time because nothing is ever good enough will demotivate you from trying. Aim for rainbows, but expect a little rain sometimes, too.

Coaches Note: Be mindful of the athlete who appears to be coasting, because they might be playing into the avoidance policy due to their overly perfectionist expectations. They might think “If I don’t try that hard, I will keep my expectations low and won’t be disappointed.” Alternatively, do they obsess over past mistakes, overthink their plays, and beat themselves up over mistakes? Avoiding true challenges and self-deprecating behaviors are habits of the perfectionist. Break the perfectionist habit by helping athletes remember why they’re playing the game—do they just love running, throwing a ball, competing?—and help them to enjoy the process again and not just aim for the desired result.


When you [or your athletes] get discouraged, how do you help reinstate confidence?

Share your tips in the comment section below!

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