There are a number of words you come across in psychotherapy that are a complete nuisance, because although they are in common use, they are for practical purposes meaningless yet you are obliged to lock arms with them.

“Addiction”, for example, a word used to relate whole slews of frankly unrelated forms of compulsive behaviour. Generations of hard work by (mostly) men with no etymological background have led to “addiction” being seen as a kind of condition you can somehow be born to or otherwise tumble into if you’re not careful. Occam’s razor would knock all of this on the head, had those responsible heard of it and had those responsible not put so much momentum behind the word. “Addiction” is descriptive, but tells you nothing useful about what’s going on.

“Cravings” is another. (Arch.) as the dictionary would say. Used solely to describe the mental experience behind compulsive behaviour, it sets an artificial barrier between one form of desire and another. “What about the cravings, doctor? I can’t stand the cravings..” Assoc. the myths surrounding “withdrawal” from e.g. heroin.

And then there’s “confidence”. A lot of people come to me complaining that they lack confidence. As I’m a hypnotherapist, they assume (not unreasonably, given the coverage hypnotherapy brings onto itself on TV these days) that I can inject them with a dose of it. I’ll somehow put them into a trance, (don’t ask how!) and put suggestions into the back of their mind that they are going to feel “confident”, outgoing, comfortable with people etc. Unfortunately, I expect that’s what a lot of hypnotherapists actually would do, which is why I have so much trouble finding reputable colleagues in my area of England, obsessed as that area is with magical cures, witch-doctors and charlatans who’ll promise to take away all responsibility for a problem from the person suffering it.

The trouble with confidence is that it covers such a wide range of fairly unrelated matters. There’s what you might term “long term lack of confidence”, i.e. you’ve always been a bit shy. Then there’s the experience of being in a new and challenging situation or environment and wondering if you’re going to be able to cope. Or there’s the feelings you get in the aftermath of a shocking experience or bereavement, when your abilities seem to desert you.

Or there’s that moment, familiar to us all, when you step up to take your penalty in a shoot-out taking place in front of an audience of millions. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

When it’s long-term lack of confidence, I tend to explain it not in terms of a lack of something – a shortage of that strange, invisible yet precious ore called confidence – but in terms of presence, the presence of feelings of shame about the self in various degrees. (To cut the story short, obviously). The job there is to resolve whatever emotional background experience is driving those feelings. The person you’re working with comes with a whole raft of inter-related things – their genetic inheritance; their values and beliefs; their life experience; the situation they’re in now; their upbringing etc., and any lasting improvement in their experience of life has to take all of that into account. (Or, you could put them into a trance and give them confidence suggestions. If it sounded childish before…)

Confidence in the sporting arena isn’t like that. On the football field, it’s more like a series of questions. For sure, when playing your sport you’ll meet yourself in full with whatever problems you are already carrying through life. But the drives behind top sportsmen often turn on them in civilian life – they aren’t always…ahem… healthy, and although they can be dealt with, you have to be prepared for a future in which your interest in success in your sport is diminished.

By questions, I mean the continual “can I do this? can I do it now?” that pass through the mind during the event or during the game. At the top level, the answer is often “I think so, or I’m going to have a go, and I don’t consider the cost of failure excessive”. All passing through the mind in a fraction of a second, obviously, at an almost unconscious level. (Tony Cascarino’s superb autobiography is packed with this kind of thing).

Come the penalty shoot-out, the answer to the question can change. Alan Shearer felt reasonably at home with penalties (another link for Pierre) – believing himself to be a pretty good footballer, he supposed that he had a fair chance of scoring on most occasions, and, even if he missed, he’d remain the same player and same person. Other players quite clearly don’t feel that way – penalties, especially to decide important games, are an experience outside of the football they’re confident in, and, during the shoot-out, they aren’t the confident experienced players anymore, but terrified newbies on trial (for instance). They aren’t in their own comfortable place any more.

I mentioned in part 3 of my series on taking penalties that under pressure an individual’s own internal representation of themselves can become incoherent. I mentioned that the less a person’s general feeling of comfort in their own skin, the harder they found it to represent themselves to themselves as a coherent human figure.

I am finding also that it is more easy for such people to achieve that coherent internal mental representation if they first create a background – that is, imagine a place where they like to be, where they are comfortable, where they are accustomed to being able to cope. Get someone who sees themselves in Bacon terms to imagine the interior of their favourite pub, and – suddenly – they can find themselves able to see themselves in Sargent terms.

What results is a temporary experience of self-comfort and expectation of coping. After a few minutes, it all goes away again, as you might expect. After all, the feelings that were driving the initial sense of self-doubt are strong and real and not to be magicked away with a bit of successful visualisation. But in the context of sport, a few moments may be all that you need. Making a shot, taking a penalty, making a jump, moving to the head of the pack – these don’t need hours of internal well-being. Sixty seconds would do.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something very literary as well as literal about the way imagining a comfortable place facilitates comforting self-representation. The first time I saw it happen, I must admit it all seemed too neat – I had a “this can’t possibly be working this well” feeling, and it was actually comforting that the result was so temporary. Normal service being resumed, as it were.

I’ll come back to this in more detail in part 4 of the Penalties series, when I’ll be giving step-by-step instructions for using all of this apparent twaddle to prevent a situation as brief yet as overwhelming as a penalty shoot-out robbing you of your ability to decide and act.

2 Replies to “Confidence!”

  1. My memories of playing rugby are that I found decision-making easiest when I had least time. Give me the ball with a tackler right in front of me and I would choose between passing, dropping my shoulder or side-stepping in a trice. Give me 15 yards to ponder the question and I’d muck it up. Is this pattern common?

  2. Yes, very much so, and outside sport as much as within it. It’s an interesting question on its own – your experience reminds me of Clive Woodward’s TCUP concept (thinking correctly under pressure): how to maintain a high level of decision-making when everything militates against that.

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