Received a question recently about what to do about a team that seems to wilt under pressure. (That's my paraphrase and we'll leave the query anonymous so as not to potentially embarrass anyone.) I know what you're thinking: Did one of my teammates send in that question? It's a pretty common problem. It's easy to succeed when things are going well and a lot harder to turn things around when they go south.
The thing is I'm not answering that question today. I need a little more information. But it did get me thinking about performance in a competitive environment and what sets some players apart from the rest. And it isn't skill. Oh sure, skills are a prerequisite, the foundation of performance but there are a lot of players with some serious skills. Everybody who competes in the Tour de France knows how to ride a bicycle and has trained long and hard. So what separates the winners from the losers? (No, it isn't blood doping. Okay, maybe it is but this is just an example of a competition where the fundamentals are similar across the board.) Let's switch to basketball. And the question shouldn't be about winners and losers. The real question is what separates the unquestioned greats of a sport from all the other gifted, talented, hard-working & determined players? The answer is a self-confidence bordering on the irrational. A self-confidence that cannot be shaken by transitory failure. A self-confidence that doesn't ebb & flow with the tides of Fortune, the results of competition. A self-confidence that leaves no room for doubt or uncertainty. Michael Jordan is the archetype. (And why LeBron isn't.) I'm sure you can name other players in other sports whose performance routinely transcends that of their fellow competitors. This is a common trait they all share in degrees.
Of course it's one thing to identify what is, in many cases, a very frustrating factoid for those without and another thing to find a positive way to make something of it. (This is where Baca takes pity on all you mere mortals and herewith divulges one of the secrets to superior play.) But before I do I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time I began working with a team. From Day 1 it was apparent one of the players had enormous untapped potential. He had physical tools. He was teachable. His fundamentals were sound if perhaps unhoned. In a lot of respects he had all the makings of the perfect player--except he was a headcase; his own worst enemy. Over the course of that first season he made progress but nothing that suggested he was on the verge of fulfilling his potential. I was disappointed. And yet, somehow, sometime during the first month of preparing for that second season--the following January--everything changed. Almost overnight the lightbulb had turned on--and here's the important part--the same is possible for any and every player who picks up a marker but somewhere along the way hits a wall they can't seem to overcome.
Here's the secret: You can manufacture your own self-confidence. All you have to do is act as if it already exists. It's like muscle memory training for your emotions & perceptions. If you consistently act like a supremely self-confident player you will become one. This is easier to say than to do however. And I cannot promise Michael Jordan results if you don't have the skills and tenacity to go with the self-confidence but I do promise that it will open up both your mind and your game. Begin with practice. You will never do anything in a match that you haven't or won't do in practice. Push the envelope and keep on pushing. Believe it and you can be it.