The first critical step to building self confidence
When I reached 40 I was in bad shape. It wasn’t that I was turning 40 but because I had a body that felt like it was 75. I had 3 slipped disks, had an extremely limited range of movement and I was in pain 24/7. The first doctor I visited, after 2 minutes looking at my exams, told me I had no option but to undergo extensive surgery involving locking 2 vertebras, replacing another one as well as the all hip. As you can imagine, the news was a bombshell. Luckily, I asked for a second opinion from a very wise doctor – Doctor João Levy Melancia, who told me the potential surgery was dangerous and had only 40% chance of success. He recommended that i should instead seek alternative treatment and so I did.
To cut a long story short, after 4 years of total commitment to: losing weight, special diet, swimming, gym, an amazing Chiropractor, Doctor Andrew Hatch and his crew, the two wonderful and patient pilates instructors, Noélia Conceição and Inês Nobre, and the support and love of my wife Ana, I am now leading a normal life.
So normal in fact that I decided to push it to another level. I wanted to take up competitive sports again.
When I was 13, I played Squash for the first time and fell in love with it. The pressure, the extreme conditioning, the mind game, all packed into a fast paced, one-on-one game. I just loved it. Although my best result was a second place in the national sub 16 championship, I continued playing it until I had to gave it up at age 35, when my health problems started becoming more serious. Now, I knew picking up squash again would be a terrible Idea. Too much pressure on the back. So I decided to try out the closest thing and about 3 months ago I started playing Paddle. I fell in love again.
And here is where my story, still unfolding, relates to self confidence.
Being naturally competitive, once I realized I wanted to take Paddle seriously, I got a coach. Soon I figured out that I had a long way to go before I would be ready to compete. However, I assumed this time the process of getting ready would be faster. After all, I’ve been involved in coaching and training people for almost 20 years now, so my mental training would make me more suited to being coached. So I thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The lessons have been infuriating. And the upsetting part is that my technique is not so bad. A benefit, for sure, from having played squash for so long. But whenever I’m in a game I don’t seem to be able to put into practice my new skills. So, after last week’s most frustrating game, I decided to approach it from another angle. I focused on reviewing what had happened in the last game, at the emotional and rational level. I realised that although my coach wasn’t present, I wasn’t playing alone. I had myself with me. I had this voice inside me, analysing and commenting all my moves. And it was a very judgmental voice. And the more that voice talked to me, the more I got tense, became unable to allow my movements to flow and let my mind focus on what was actually happening on the court. So I kept failing. And with each new failure, the voice became louder, more dictatorial, angry and mean, that it totally undermined my self confidence. Interestingly, it came to the point where I was playing so badly that the voice gave up on me altogether. And at that moment I stopped competing. I assumed all was lost and I might as well just play for the fun of it. At that moment, my playing rose to the next level and we won the last game without our opponents scoring a single point. It couldn’t have been a coincidence.
What had happened?
What had happened was a mental process with which is too familiar to me but not in a court. In order for us to perform at our best, we need to be committed, focused and with our mind quiet, thinking only about the task on hand. That is actually easier said than done. The problem starts with our inner voice. If we don’t learn to train it, it will evaluate and judge every move we make and will do it in a foul mood which, in turn, undermines our confidence. And without confidence we will not be able to perform.
So what can we do?
The first step is to tame the voice. Allow it to be there but without judgment. Let it focus on understanding what is happening, become self aware of what the body is doing well and what needs to be corrected. But don’t allow it to make judgements. Let it say: “You put the wrong foot in front, that’s why the ball didn’t go the way you wanted to”, but don’t let it add a: “You stupid moron!”, or a: “that’s a stupid mistake”, or even worse: “you just can’t get it right, can you?”. In order to prevent that from happening, what you’ve got to do is be aware of it and secondly, distract your mind. Order it to focus on seeing the felt on the ball.
I was able to do just that in the next game and I can tell you it made all the difference. I was a completely different player. Much closer to the one I believe I can be. And I won my first set.
Although this story is about playing Paddle, the exact same techniques can be applied in order to achieve peak performances in any field, from writing a novel, to speaking in front of an audience, to managing companies.
These techniques are critical but they are not the entire process. In a near future I will share the second step you need to put in place in order to win the inner game that you are constantly fighting in your mind.