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Mind over matter: The importance of self-esteem for success

While athletes are especially vulnerable to correlating self-esteem to performances, its importance and principles are equally applicable to people from all walks of life

Words by Paddy Upton

I’m often asked what the most effective tools or techniques are to help athletes with their mental game. My answer is seldom what people expect to hear. It’s none of goal-setting, visualisation, imagery, focus training, breathing, positive affirmations, or even ways to boost self-confidence. Most of these are temporary or short-term ‘fixes’ that have an impact on the athlete’s mental state. And by its nature, states are ever-changing. We alternate on a daily basis between a sleep state, awake state, daydreaming, distracted, focussed, intoxicated, etc. 

The three most common states that every athlete experiences during performance, from the most to least ideal, are i) the state of flow, ii) focussed, and then iii) distracted. Even the best techniques or tools that address any of these states are, at best, likely to only work for a short time, until that state changes.    

Confidence, which refers to what we think about our skill or ability, is also largely a state. It can be likened to a balloon. Each acknowledgement, compliment, social media like, or success is a breath that inflates the balloon of confidence. That same balloon is diminished in size as confidence leaks out with criticism, failure, or lack of acknowledgement. 

So-called ‘confidence players’ tend to have their moods and sense of self-worth attached to their results. When they do well or are complimented, they feel good, and when they do badly or are criticised, they feel bad and have low moods. 

In this way, confidence is temporary and fluctuates according to the external influences that are applied to it, either inflating or deflating the balloon.  

What is the most effective skill or tool for success, then? For me, it’s self-esteem. It refers to how we feel about ourselves, our worth or value. It can be likened to the roots of a tree that grows stronger over time and with constant nurturing. Self-esteem is a trait, which is more permanent than a state, and thus is mostly unaffected by temporary events such as success or failure, compliments or criticism.  

The lower an athlete’s self-esteem, the more mental battles they will have to fight in competition. They will require an array of mental skills training, motivational techniques, and confidence building tools to avoid distractions from all the noise ‘out there’ and from the voices inside their head. They suffer from pressure to succeed and fear of losing far more than someone with higher self-esteem and whose identity is less attached to results.  

Conversely, athletes with higher self-esteem will be less reliant on mental skills tools to succeed. They will be less naturally distracted by external noise, and less worried about succeeding or failing, or by compliments or criticism. Self-esteem knows failure is a necessary part of the journey towards success, and is not scared of it. 

Most people want to do well and receive positive affirmations, and nobody wants to do badly, get dropped, make a mistake, fail, get injured, or be criticised. With our foundation in self-esteem, we are less attached to or affected by these compared to athletes with slow-esteem, and those that are suffer a constantly changing balloon of confidence. 

The ideal situation is to build self-esteem as a long-term approach to success and contentment, and at the same time to build confidence as a temporary boost when required. In this way, confidence can be used like a dose of caffeine to give us that extra pep up for an important occasion. But it should not be relied upon as our only source of energy. Going into an important season or event, give me an athlete with self-esteem and who is boosted by a short dose of confidence, every day of the week, and twice on game-day, ahead of an athlete that is fuelled primarily by self-confidence. 

Paddy is a Cape Town-based high-performance coach, author, speaker, and professor. He has delivered over 300 keynote talks, run corporate workshops and coached business leaders and teams in over 50 cities across 5 continents.

In sport, he helped lead the Indian national cricket team to win the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup for their first time in 28 years, and to become the World’s No. 1 Test Team for the first time. He also helped lead the South African cricket team to become the first to simultaneously hold the World No. 1 ranking in all three formats of the game. He’s been Head Coach of five different professional T20 cricket teams in 13 tournaments across three of the world’s major leagues – and has been mental coach to over 100 professional and Olympic athletes from 12 different sports.

Supporting this, he has degrees from four different universities, including two master’s degrees, is a Professor at Deakin University (Business and Law faculty) in Melbourne, Australia. He is a podcaster and author of The Barefoot Coach; Life-changing insights from coaching the world’s best cricketers.

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