Twitter Memes and a Revelation
With its recently increased 280 character limit, Twitter's ubitquitous microblogging platform appears to be perfectly suited to the world of Internet memes. In case you are out of the loop, memes are humorous images, videos, pieces of text, etc., that are copied, altered, remixed, and spread rapidly by internet users.
One meme that seemed to have "blown up" in popularity over this past summer has been the "You Can't Rank Them" meme. This particular meme centers around a random category, a "list" consisting of words promoting the impossibility of ranking the category, and the punchline: the author's passionate statement about the clear "best" member of that category. Because of its easy to replicate format and avenue to promote strong opinions, it seemed ideally suited to Twitter, where opinion, passion, and debate tend to rule. Whether it pertains to . . .
Snacks for your next party:
Pittsburgh Steelers' Wide Receiver Antonio Brown's defense of his team's Quarterback:
And, finally, characters from the TV Show "Parks and Recreation" (can't argue with this one).
The meme seemed to pop up everywhere over the last few months, generally focused on elements of pop culture and sports, like those listed above. So, while I should not be surprised, I guess I was quite surprised when it even infiltrated my world of sport psychology when I saw this particular version of the "You Can't Rank" meme:
Confidence as the number one mental skill for athletes, huh? Well, confidence is certainly key for athletic performance. Athletes know that when they feel confident, they perform at their best. Or that when they lack confidence, that their performance generally suffers. And we can agree that much of confidence is mental, right? But is confidence a mental skill? And by that, I mean: is confidence something that can be taught, learned, practiced, and developed? Is it the same as other core mental skills such as breathing, positive self-talk, imagery/visualization, etc.?
I think this is where my beliefs and approaches with athletes differ from the sport psychology/mental skills "You Can't Rank Them" meme pictured above. Because, for me, confidence is an end result. Confidence is the product we get from investing time, effort, and energy in the building blocks that create and nurture it.
Confidence is the end result of your investment its elements
Elements of Confidence
Element #1 - Physical Fitness
Take care of your body. It's the only place you have to live.
- Jim Rohn
The first core element of confidence is physical fitness. And by this, I mean, the time, effort, and energy that an athlete puts into the physiological elements of performance. This means time spent on strength and conditioning for their sport as well as other important factors that impact fitness such as nutrition, hydration, and sleep. When an athlete can trust that they are ready for the physical strength and endurance demands of their sport, this leads to feelings of confidence. Alternatively, when an athlete's physical condition is impacted, either through outside circumstances (such as injury) or personal choices (lack of training, improper sleep, nutrition, or hydration), doubts and uncertainty can creep in to the athlete's mindset.
Element #2 - Sport-Specific Skills
I never left the field saying I could have done more to get ready and that gives me piece of mind.
- Peyton Manning
The second core element of confidence is directly related to the time and effort spent on deliberate practice of sport-specific skills. This includes both technical skills for their sport (for example: stickhandling, shooting, and dodging for lacrosse players, dribbling, passing and shooting for soccer players) as well as investment in skills related to strategy in their sport, such as breaking down film of past practices or performances, watching film of opponents, and understanding gameplans and execution in competition. An athlete who knows she has developed the necessary skills to perform and knows how to react during the heat of competition, will be well on her way to building confidence.
Element #3 - Experience
I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
- Michael Jordan
The third core element of confidence is connected to past experience. Why do young teams often fail to live up to their tremendous talent or potential? Why do coaches value "veteran" players? Put simply, the experience of performing in high-pressure situations prepares you for the next big moment you face. Whether you were successful or not, knowing and understanding what is expected of you in competition helps with readiness. Feelings of uncertainty can be a tremendous obstacle to feeling confident and performing your best, so when you know what is expected and what you will personally experience in a big game, under the lights, or at center court, you are prepared to face those challenges.
Element #4 - Mental Preparation
Concentration and mental toughness
are the margins of victory.
- Bill Russell
And here is my favorite element of confidence. The one that drives my work with athletes. When I first meet with athletes, they see the mental part of their performance as an "on/off switch". When they are "on" mentally they feel great, play well, and exude confidence. When they are "off" mentally, their performance suffers, even simple tasks become difficult, and the demands of competition overwhelm them mentally and emotionally. But the important part is this: mental skills can be learned, developed, and nurtured, so that athletes can get the most out of themselves in any situation. Through development of cognitive skills like positive self-talk, emotion regulation skills like breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, process goals to help with focus and concentration, and imagery for mental practice of sport-related skills, athletes can fully commit to being their best in all facets of performance. And once these skills are developed and practiced, athletes can also create a "mental gameplan" to help them manage the stress of competition, and keep their mind clear and focused on the present moment in their performance. Once this gameplan is developed, that's where the real magic happens: athletes begin to realized that these mental skills are not just for their sport. These mental skills are LIFE SKILLS that will help them to manage the challenges and stressors they experience well after their competition days are over.
Putting It All Together
In summary, Physical Fitness + Sport-Specific Skills + Experience + Mental Preparation = Confidence. Taking care of all of these elements, all of which are in the athlete's sphere of personal control, is what leads to confidence. However, being strong across a few of these elements can help with building a confident mindset also. For example, an athlete who is physically ready, has invested in their skill development, and has worked on their mental preparation can compensate for a lack of experience. Or an athlete who is experienced while being mentally and physically prepared can be confident in her ability to defeat a more skilled opponent.
So, with apologies to my fellow sport psychology colleague, confidence is not a discrete mental skill, much less the "most important" mental skill. Instead, it is the end result of time, effort, and energy that an athlete puts into their physical fitness and sport-specific skills, the experience that they have accrued in their sport, and the development of mental skills and a mental gameplan to prepare them for the pressures of training, competition, and stress outside of their sport.