On the importance of belief in the outcome

In our society, we are constantly told to believe in ourselves, in the outcome and that we can be the best. And with good reason: When we have that really deep-seated ‘knowing’ that we will win – it does indeed often seem to turn out that way. That’s true confidence, and that feeling undoubtedly does help to optimize our performance.


The problem is that unless you have been consistently number 1 in the world at something, that kind of belief is hard to come by. Even more of a problem is that while people are telling you to ‘just believe’, on those occasions when you do not in fact believe, none of those same people can tell you how to get to the point of doing so. That’s of course because they don’t know how themselves.

 The best they can offer is that you need to keeping talking positively to yourself, make daily, strong affirmations in front of a mirror and so on. Yes, it is indeed more useful to be positive than to be negative, but unfortunately the confidence that comes from this approach inevitably falls short of the unwavering belief that comes from real experience. And it shows as soon as things go wrong. Those with ‘false’ belief get stressed when the reality suddenly no longer matches their perfect expectations. This typically results in feelings of panic or despondency, ultimately leading to behaviours like choking or giving up.

The source of true confidence is in fact experience. Through experience one gathers evidence for one’s ability to achieve certain things. A toddler only knows for certain that it can walk across a room without falling, once it has achieved this a few times. The more often it manages to do so, the deeper the self belief becomes. So too, an athlete only truly believes that he/she will beat someone if there is convincing evidence to suggest that this will indeed be the case. Beliefs that are grounded in reality are far more likely to stay unwavering in the face of tough circumstances. They will enable more effective responses to difficult conditions, and ultimately to more consistent performances .

Before you can be number 1, you need to successfully negotiate many years of playing as the underdog – in which case by definition, you won’t yet have that level of belief. But don’t despair – it is not in fact critical to good performance. It is not the confidence in itself that helps you win. Rather, it is your consistently good decisions, behaviours, technique and effort levels that actually increase your chances of winning.

The good news is that unlike true confidence, these things can be turned on at will - they are totally under your control. You can learn to do them really well even when you do NOT believe that you can beat your opponent. In fact there is plenty proof of this – just consider the common case in which an overwhelming favourite struggles against a weaker underdog who is just playing freely and with no expectation.

So whether or not you truly believe that you can win on any given day, is not as important as people think. What does matter very much however, is that your decisions, body-language, effort and all the other factors under your control stay exactly that – consistently controlled by you. The ability to do this – regardless of how you happen to be feeling – is the real key to consistent, high performance. And the good news is that this is a skill that can be learned and developed just like any physical skill. 

Finally, there is great opportunity for future scientific research to focus on identifying the conditions under which something does indeed become a deeply held belief – a conviction if you like. We will in all likelihood discover that simplistic notions of just telling someone to believe more in themselves does not achieve much. More useful ways may however include manipulating conditions such that the person realizes that others already hold those beliefs about them. For example, if the cricket team were to consistently hear in the media about how tough and resilient they are under pressure, it is likely to strengthen their positive beliefs about themselves. So now if only we could get the media to manipulate their content for the good of our teams… :)