Confidence Isn’t What You Might Think It Is

Most often, the stories we hear about confidence are the ones where the athlete (or musician) was certain that success would be theirs. Where they went to the Olympics (or the big audition for principal trombone) absolutely convinced that they were going to win.

That kind of confidence is nice, and it can definitely be an asset in tough high-pressure situations. But if you are having trouble finding the self-assured uber-confident hotshot within, don’t stress out about it too much.

Why not?

Because that level of absolute certainty, where there is a total absence of self-doubt, is pretty rare.

Confidence is actually a fairly complex and individualized experience – it’s not as black and white as it’s often made out to be. And the good news is that experiencing doubts and worries doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t or won’t perform well.

What does confidence really look like?

Interviews with world champion athletes indicate that they too experience self-doubt, hesitancy and mental chatter as they approach competitions. However, this is balanced out by the following factors.

Factor #1

They consistently demonstrate a willingness to put themselves on the line and risk failure.

Factor #2

They have an awareness of their self-doubt, but also have the ability to remain focused on the immediate demands of the task at hand.

Factor #3

They report a broader perspective on competition and life. Meaning, they see their value as an individual being independent of how well or poorly they perform in any given performance. This is not to say that they are any less committed to their sport. But as so aptly articulated by psychologist Dr. Michael Mahoney,

“The term confidence comes from the Latin con fidere, meaning “with fidelity.” Hence, it appears that people who remain faithful to themselves – positive and affirming in their self-regard irrespective of any specific successes and failures – may ironically be more likely to render more exceptional performances.”

Take action

Regarding Factor #1

Cliche though this may sound, courage is developed in much the same way that we strengthen a muscle. Taking baby steps, push yourself to take risks and confront the possibility of failure on stage and off. As you do this, make it a point to remember your successes (and how even the failures weren’t so catastrophic that you’ll still be thinking about them when you’re 80). With time, you’ll have built up a whole highlight reel of courageous moments to embolden you when the next big moment comes.

Regarding Factor #2

The key is to identify what is important to focus on at any given point in time. Is it listening to your own sound? Feeling the rhythm? Paying attention with your whole body to the ensemble around you? Immersing yourself in the kinesthetic sensations of playing freely?

Regarding Factor #3

What are the myriad ways in which you matter outside of any specific performance? Take a moment to remind yourself how you matter to those around you as a sibling, son or daughter, parent, friend, teacher, neighbor, volunteer, member of a community/organization/ensemble, and the countless other ways in which you can and do make a difference to others in the world – none of whom care if you crack a note or have a memory slip.

As Pablo Casals once said, “A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life.”

The one-sentence summary

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”  ~Vincent Van Gogh

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


6 Responses

  1. Dr. Kageyama,

    You posted this article the same day as my senior recital! What a wonderful reminder. Thank you.

  2. Your factor #3 reminds me of something I read in a sports psychology book about different types of goals. When we focus solely on outcome goals (e.g. winning, passing the audition), we put ourselves under unreasonable pressure. When we balance these with process goals (executing particular skills we have been working on) and individual goals (achievements in our personal journeys, independent of team/ensemble outcomes), it helps us both get more control over the situation and to view it in a wider context.

    1. Hi Liz,

      Indeed, the difference between an outcome focus and process focus, and knowing which to use when, can’t be understated. It was one of the “aha” moments that changed my own experience of performing, and it sounds like it has yours as well.

  3. Noa, you are as-always insightful. From whence does your wisdom spring?

    I consider myself to be a very confident person (most of the time), but I’m not unrealistic to be so certain that I’m going to succeed. I think confidence means going for it, knowing that you might not succeed. Sometimes I try things just to see how they go because I think it’s important to try new things!

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