How to Overcome the Catch-22 of Self-Confidence

As competitors we are all told, "It is crucially important to believe in yourself." Our coaches regale us with tales of how great players believe in themselves and how this belief carries them past obstacles and leads to victory in major championships.

We are admonished that unless we believe in ourselves, we can work on our strokes and conjure up cunning game plans all we like. Victory will, nonetheless, remain elusive. In fact, if we don't believe in ourselves, we are exhibiting the dreaded "loser's mentality."

It's hard to talk yourself into it

Convinced of its value, we continually search the recesses of our hearts for this vital conviction. As we walk on court to face an opponent who is ranked above us and who is expected to beat us, we look everywhere for self-belief and, horror of horrors, come up empty!

The Winner's Mind

by Allen Fox, Ph.D.


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Try as we may, we simply can't bring ourselves to presume, with ample certainty, that we are going to win. We have been assured that "winners" believe they will win, but we don't. The humbling conclusion is that something is wrong with us.

We are missing that crucial mental element common to winners – belief in ourselves.

So we try to get it. We meditate about winning, thinking over and over, "I am going to win. I am going to win." It doesn't help.

We visualize winning. In our mind's eye we picture hitting great shots past a helpless opponent. Again and again we mentally pound our opponent into oblivion. We imagine the flush of victory and the admiration of onlookers.

It momentarily feels good, but reality sets back in quickly. Unfortunately, we still have to actually do it.

As a last resort we try positive self talk. "I am powerful. My opponent can do nothing to defeat me. My forehand is great. My backhand is magnificent. My serve is devastating. I am certain to win." In the end, however, it all comes to naught when we walk on the court. Our highly-ranked opponent looks as ominous as ever.

You can win without it.

Are those of us not blessed with the champion's certainty doomed to defeat? Not by a long-shot! Consider the words of Marat Safin after he won the 2005 Australian Open: "This is a huge relief for me, because I didn't believe I could win. I've already lost two finals here before and I started to doubt myself. I thought it was going to happen again." Obviously it is possible to win without believing in yourself. It is easier, of course, to win if you do, but if you don't there are a number of ways you can improve your chances of winning.

Self belief = Confidence

First, however, lets take a deeper look at what we really mean when we talk about "believing in yourself." We are really talking about confidence. (Hereafter, I will use the terms "confidence" and "self belief" interchangeably.) And we all know, of course, that having confidence (self belief) is a great help in winning tennis matches. But what causes confidence, and more importantly, what can we do to get more of it? Can we get it out of some psychologist's self-help book or, better yet, is there a pill we can take? (And if so, in which drug stores are they sold?)

Confidence comes from history of success

Keep your wallet in your pocket, because there is, unfortunately, no intellectual way to create confidence out of uncertainty. As they used to say at Smith Barney, it must be obtained the old-fashioned way, you must "earn it." And this is done by winning. Only winning begets true confidence because confidence is a subconscious and emotional "expectation of success," and we develop these expectations, in large part, because of past experience.

For example, since the sun has, without fail, come up in the morning for the past billion years or so we expect it to come up tomorrow morning. In fact we are completely confident it will do so. If it had, historically, come up only nine mornings out of ten we would still be pretty confident of its rising tomorrow, but not absolutely confident, and if its history had been to come up one morning in ten we would be downright dubious about it.

It is the same with tennis. The more you win the more you subconsciously expect to win. Another way of expressing this is that you become more "confident." With this increased confidence (self belief) in hand, you become stimulated rather than frightened in the clutch and are, therefore, more rather than less likely to produce your best tennis. (This is the circular nature of confidence. Winning begets confidence and confidence begets winning.) On the other hand if you have been losing a lot you develop the lurking fear, particularly when the score is close and it is near the end of the match, that something bad is about to happen – that things will go horribly wrong and you will be beaten. Simply put, you will lack "confidence." And, of course, having or lacking confidence will profoundly affect the quality of your play.

Increases in confidence (self belief) with victory are cumulative – the more you win, the higher your confidence gets. Moreover, recency of victory is another factor. Winning a match yesterday has more impact on your present level of confidence than winning one last week or last month. By the same token, the confidence caused by a victory gradually decays with the passage of time, although the decay never completely reduces your level of confidence back to where it was before the last victory.

Some people are just naturally more confident than others

Underlying this type of confidence is your basic confidence level (level of self belief) – the confidence level that you were either born with or that was formed during early childhood. (Nobody knows, for sure, the relative importance to our basic levels of confidence of genetics and early experience.) This means, simply, that, for whatever reasons, we are not all equally confident to begin with. Some fortunate individuals just start out more confident than others. Although all of us become more confident with victory, regardless of our initial confidence level, these same confident individuals seem to experience a greater increase in confidence with each victory (as well as a lesser decrease in confidence with each loss) than the rest of us.

Hope is a vital replacement for self-belief

What does all this amount to? First, self belief is not something that coaches ought to admonish their pupils to have. No one can tell you to have it. You are born with some but get most of it by winning. Second, there is nothing wrong with you if you don't have self belief when you step on court to play someone better than you. Self belief implies certainty, and reasonable people simply don't feel certain of beating people who are better than they are. The big danger here is that you will think that lack of self belief means you have some particular character weakness. This is debilitating. Since there is nothing special you can do about getting it, the best option is to put the issue entirely aside.

All anyone really has to believe is that victory is possible. (Let the other guys worry about whether they are endowed with a sufficient amount of self belief.) All you need to walk on court with is a hopeful attitude, emotional control, fortitude, and a well-practiced set of strokes, and you will win your fair share of matches.


Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a former NCAA champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Dr. Fox also coached the Pepperdine tennis team to two NCAA finals. He currently lectures on sports psychology and is the author of several books on the mental side of competition.

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