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In the spirit of the Olympics, I thought I’d blog about building self confidence, a key factor to excelling at sports and life in general. If you ask most elite athletes, many will say “My game (race, event, etc.) is 80% mental, 20% physical”. Some will even put those percentages at 90% mental, 10% physical. While these are obviously overstatements, the point made is clear: if you want to succeed, you have to believe in yourself. You have to be able to reach deep inside yourself during difficult moments and come up a winner. Otherwise, the competition will eat you alive.
For my entire life, I’ve tried to develop this sort of self confidence. Despite spending my school years competing in academics, sports, and music I never quite attained the level of confidence I needed to truly outdo myself. In fact, almost every time I performed, I did so well below the expectations of myself and others. Many times I practiced better than I actually performed, leaving my coaches, teachers, and instructors scratching their heads. They saw me put the time and effort in necessary to achieve a certain goal, but were completely surprised when I failed to reach it. I constantly choked.
Much of the problem was due to concentration and focus. Elite athletes talk about “being in the zone” during their event. In this seemingly magical state of mind, they are able to tune out all the distractions around them – mental or physical – and turn in an amazing performance. Stress in their personal life, a painful injury, or even lack of training are overcome in a rush of confidence when it’s game time.
I can credit many of my frustrations to Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s been noted that people with BPD have a low tolerance for stress and pain. I agree.
When it came time to run a race, I was constantly overtaken by nervousness, often to the point of vomiting BOTH before and after a race. More frustrating was my mindset during the actual race: when my body started to ache and I needed positive reinforcement the most, my mind would overflow with negative thoughts, slowing me down and devastating my performance. Instead of building myself up, I tore myself down and in many instances just gave up. It was incredibly frustrating and upsetting. Playing a sport is supposed to build confidence and toughness, but in my case it made me feel worse about myself and wimpy. I could never muster my abilities to deliver a truly incredible result.
The same happened on stage when I performed in concert. Once, when I started missing notes during a trumpet recital, I completely fell apart and lost my place in the music. While my accompanist pushed forward, I stood in the middle of the stage completely panicked. I eventually started making up music to go along with my pianist until I was done, just to look like I knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, during this particular event, the audience was filled with professors from the college music department who knew exactly what was going on, and many shrugged their shoulders and ignored me afterwards. One even kicked me out of the jazz ensemble, a big disappointment after I spent years practicing my improvisation abilities.
How does someone truly relax, focus, and deliver? I guess it comes from two sources: constant practice and one’s innate personality. Many would call this mental talent. Some people’s personalities are much more resilient compared to others. Some people always believe in themselves even if they stand no chance of competing successfully. I can recall many races when I choked and lost to teammates who dogged practices and made no real effort at improving themselves. Despite spending 90% of their time being lackadaisical, when the gun fired, they were able to pull a win out of nowhere. This killed me and made me question why I even bothered practicing at all. It obviously made no difference because my head was never in the game.
To be an Olympian, you need the entire package: natural talent, countless hours of practice, and a confident mind. If you truly don’t believe you can do something, chances are, you won’t do it. If, on the other hand, you DO believe in yourself, you might just achieve your goals and outdo yourself.
I still struggle with my concentration and confidence every day even though I no longer compete athletically, musically, or academically. I wish I could take a pill to cure my mental shortcomings, but unfortunately this isn’t possible. While some people work at building an extreme level of confidence in themselves, my struggle lies in just having any level of confidence at all. It is a truly upsetting, frustrating, and damaging problem. Imagine what I could do if I only believed…