While self-confidence is well-established as a variable positively linked to peak performance, little is known about the effects of being over-confident. Thinking you can win (confidence) is one thing, but what happens when you assume you will win easily and therefore do not prepare as you normally would? Does self-confidence have an ideal set point, and what are the potential negative mental processes that occur when our high degree of confidence actually gets in the way?
Confidence and getting in the zone
The concept of flow is known by psychologists and is believed to be a mental state where we perform at our optimal level. When in flow, or "the zone" as athletes like to say, focus is precise, motivation high, and resiliency strong -- all characteristics linked to peak performance. In fact, when we experience flow we often become absorbed in an activity and our thoughts become fluid and synchronized, allowing us to ignore distractions and play through mistakes.
We also know that having self-confidence in our ability is a precursor to getting in flow. When we believe we can do something, we increase the odds for actually being successful; conversely, when we are not confident, our anxiety interferes with being successful. Digging deeper, getting in flow also requires that we are challenged by the task at hand, and herein might be the key to answering the effect of overconfidence as it relates to performance -- Can you really feel challenged at the same time that you feel overconfident?
When we are overconfident in our abilities, it is normal to expect that our focus and motivation decrease (the assumption is that you don't need to be very focused or motivated because you already have an extremely high degree of confidence in yourself). The problem, however, is that without some sense of insecurity and desire to play hard, it becomes very difficult to feel challenged by the task at hand. If we want to connect dots, it might look like this:
• Playing in the zone, or in Flow, is a mindset linked closely to peak performance.
• The flow mindset is experienced by having interest in something and being focused and motivated to succeed.
• Flow also requires that we are challenged by the task; otherwise, we quickly will lose our interest and focus.
• When we are overconfident, the effect is, ironically, similar to when we are underconfident. In both cases, the challenge of the activity decreases, and focus and motivation are negatively affected. The result? A performance below our hopes and expectations.
Upsets in sports
Often when we see an underdog prevail in sports, it occurs because of a combination of one team being ready to go while the other team gets caught looking past the opponent (a classic case of overconfidence). One of the greatest tasks for a coach is to keep his or her team focused, especially when playing competition that appears to be weak. When players overlook or look past teams, they leave themselves very vulnerable to an upset. Upsets in sports might be explained by overconfidence more than any other reason when you take into account the decrease in mental toughness often associated with overconfidence.
Although it's difficult to say with precision the exact point when confidence (a healthy mindset) turns into overconfidence (a vulnerable mindset), it is important for athletes and coaches to understand the potential risks associated with invulnerable thinking. When we take teams for granted, focus widens, motivation decreases and resiliency softens -- all characteristics found with teams that lose games they shouldn't.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at drstankovich.com