Confidence is overrated. Go for this instead

By: Jim Murphy


  • Where confidence comes from
  • What is more empowering than confidence
  • A tool to use to gain more of this “better than confidence” skill

Everybody wants confidence and that’s a large part of what pro athletes come to me for. When I teach world-class athletes how to be confident, however, we go about in a way you might not expect.

When I speak of confidence, I use it in the commonly held manner of feeling you can get something done; that you can accomplish the desired task (in psychology it’s called self-efficacy). 

Confidence is complex, however. If confidence is a feeling, where do feelings come from? Well, mostly from your thoughts, but does how much sleep you got last night affect how you feel? What about what you ate throughout the day? What happens if your pet turtle died, and you loved the little guy, would that affect how you feel?

Confidence and/or self-efficacy is comprised of many things, like your past and how you processed your failures and mistakes, your childhood experiences, your parental influence, your fitness level, your sleep patterns, breathing patterns, and how well you’ve done at this particular activity in the past. 

There’s also other issues like how much the desired outcome means to you and how much pressure you feel to achieve it (perhaps stemming from things like the size of your contract, or lack of one). If your identity is riding on how well you perform (like it was mine as a professional athlete), that’s an incredible amount of pressure to carry. 

Confidence is actually a subset of a more important issue: belief—the feeling of connection to and comfort with achieving your goal. 

The reason self-confidence is not the great pearl of performance is that you can be confident and perform poorly. How many times have you had a good warm-up but not a good game, or felt confident before the event started but performed poorly?

As a pro baseball player in the Chicago Cubs organization, I quickly learned that hitting home runs in pre-game batting practice was not what I needed to perform well during the game. Confidence before a performance can lead to carelessness. It also doesn’t mean you’re ready—it can be an illusion. 

What’s much more important is to be fully present. 

What do I mean by being fully present? I mean thinking about the past or future thoughts, which is where fear and anxiety reside. Whether you’re playing golf or tennis, if you’re thinking about the last hole or next hole, past shot or future shot, you’re not present. 

The past and future

Just to be clear, it is important to go to the past and future mentally, just not as much as most of normally do. In fact, most people spend 90% of their thought life in the past and future, and 10% in the present, whereas the most extraordinary performers are closer to the opposite ratio. So when do we want to think about the past? For learning and recalling good memories. When do we want to think about the future? For planning/goal setting and visualizing. 

To be fully present is a more empowering pursuit than confidence because:

A: it’s much more in your control

B: it’s much more reliable

If you give me two equally talented athletes, and one is very confident but not very present, and one is fully present but not very confident, the present one will win the vast majority of the time (70-80% of the time). 

When you’re confident but not present, you’re more likely to:

  • be careless
  • underestimate your opponent’s abilities
  • overestimate your own abilities
  • be thinking more of the future (I’m gonna win) than the present

When you’re present but not confident, you’ve got everything you need to perform well, because you’ll be present to your routines, you won’t dwell on mistakes, you won’t anticipate outcomes, and you won’t be afraid of failing. You’ll have freedom to fail, to be creative, to see possibilities. Your ego won’t get in the way (that part of your mind that is always comparing) because your mind is focused solely on the task.

Obviously to have both is ideal, but if your main goal is to be more successful, learning how to be fully present is a fundamental pursuit. 

So what can you do to increase your ability to be fully present? One of the fundamental keys is to redefine success to something that you have more control over, that will help you learn and grow in the midst of adversity.

Introducing a tool I call the Fearless Four. A tool is something that you use in the moment when you’re not present. 

The Fearless Four

Daily Process Goals

  1. Give my best (100% of what I have today) 
  2. Be present
  3. Be grateful
  4. Focus on my routines and only what I can control

In 2019 one of my PGA Tour golfers began a routine of meeting his caddie before every round and going over these four goals for the day. After reviewing the goals, they took a minute of silence to visualize themselves pursuing those goals that day. After several weeks of doing this, it paid off. They won (over $1 million USD). 

Note: if you want to learn more about this tool and performing with poise and presence under pressure, go to Chapter 4 in my book Inner Excellence. You’ll want to read Chapter 8 as well, A Clear and Present Beauty, which shares the 5 most powerful ways to be fully present. 

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