The Confidence Villains

wonder-woman-animatedAs leaders seeking to succeed in business,sports or the classroom it is key to find, inspire and develop people to be confident with a mindset to persevere in the face of uncertainty and adversity and ultimately derive energy from the challenge.

After completing Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s  inspirational book The Confidence Code, I was left feeling every good story has a villain and that this book could also benefit from one…

As a Player: Many years back, I met Stanford’s National Champion Ultimate team captain. He imparted some advice to me: prior to a game, scout the opposing team for a or the pivotal player and then line up against them with the intent of playing your heart out in the first couple of points – completely shutting them down on defense and consistently escape their efforts at defense while I was on offense. This served to build my confidence while also eroded theirs – hence I played the role of the confidence robbing villain.

Ultimate Layout.gifI applied that advice on the playing field at nationals and then the World Championships in Lucerne Switzerland and ever since in competitive sports and business. This notion of shifting the balance of confidence away from your opponent and towards yourself is something I didn’t encounter in the book. Interesting also was that though we beat the former national champion, they worked with the tournament organizer to introduce a cross-over game before finals and we found out just after finishing lunch that we had five minutes to be on the field. We managed to win that game but had to play the former champs again in the finals where we narrowly lost. I later found out that they had adjusted their strategy to switch players covering me at every opportunity to a strong defender of theirs. This switching wore me down and free up their best offensive player if their was a turnover. Hence they observed, learned and adjusted. We had to wait to adjust our tactics again to win in a winter nationals later on.

The key takeaways for me being:

    • There’s power in finding ways to instill confidence in yourself.
    • It will help your team win to instill similar confidence in your teammates.
    • It is possible to erode such confidence in your competitors.
    • Hence, the (im)balance of confidence can be shifted.
    • It’s good to be wary of such tactics used against you.

As a Team: The book Confidence Code speaks to confidence as an individual, but confidence that is also something that can exist at a team level. After breaking my collarbone, the spouses/partners of the players of my Ultimate team asked me to coach them. Three months later we flew to their first tournament and were matched up against last year’s national champs in the first game. Our team shouldn’t have completed a single pass, but at half time it was tied and at the end, we lost by one.

Ultimate-Layout-2.gifIt boiled down to inspiring them to play with confidence and earning their trust to try out totally unorthodox defensive and offensive strategies I’d come up with that their experienced opponents had never seen before. We switched between zone and person coverage within a point (previously unheard of). We also played zone coverage in the front and person in the back. Our players confidence allowed them to try these things and the effectiveness became a virtuous cycle for their level of confidence and energy. This can be the virtuous cycle of taking risks paying off. Granted, they were risks coming from a coach informed by  20 years of experience in the sport; nonetheless, the theories were never tried before and certainly risky.
Likewise, having a novice team rattle these highly competent veterans (by using tactics no experienced player would’ve ever tried and they didn’t know how to defend against) became a vicious cycle for their confidence and energy they were yelling at each other on the field and during half-time – as I recall, they also didn’t do so well in following games. We had robbed them of their confidence and shifted it to our team – hence, once again, in hindsight, I can see myself again in the villain role here. The balance shifted resulting in a totally unexpected outcome. The veteran team did eventually regain their confidence and win the tournament.
I had a few other requests to coach teams after that 🙂

math-fact-familiesIn the Math Classroom: As a 1st grade teacher, I was told by an Ed Professor that within the first week all students and the teacher do a subconscious stack ranking of “smartest” to “dumbest” and that pans out in terms of who gets picked on the playground and who gets invited to birthday parties. So, at the end of my first week in a 1st grade class I’d come to mid-year, I asked myself who was at the bottom, and it was obvious to see in a Portuguese girl that was struggling to keep up linguistically and hence otherwise.
The whole class was struggling to grasp fact families…
3 + 4 = 7,     4 + 3 = 7,     7 – 3 = 4,      7 – 4 = 3
So, I asked her to stay with me during break and walked her through it with 3 yellow blocks and 2 red blocks … until she got it.
When the class came back in, I sat down with her in the front of the room, while others were doing exercises, I did equations like 21 + 32 = 53, 71 + 12 = 83, 34 + 43 = 77, …
She started crying and shaking, but with encouragement realized she just had to apply the same concept and she then started whipping down double-digit equations that 1st graders should not be able to do. The others noticed her excitement, came up to see what she was doing and were blown away. Within 2 hours she went from looking like the dumbest kid in the class to looking like the smartest and going from giving up on her own abilities to believing she could do anything. That shift in mindset stuck with her, and she remained a star pupil engaging from a place of confidence. What only came to me later, was the confidence eroding impact on the other kids who saw this child who they thought was clueless now being able to solve problems they couldn’t dream of solving; again, I was a villain. I did take a page from the growth mindset theory and helped them appreciate they hadn’t learned it “yet,” and then helped them master the theory behind fact families.
On that day, all the students in that classroom made a transition from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset – it was no longer a question of someone being smart or dump, they could all learn to overcome uncertainty.

As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we should recognize that we may, more often than we realize, be in a position where we could plant a sense of confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those that look up to us. By so doing we may help them  appreciate that within them lies the potential to unlock abilities they previously didn’t realize they possessed.

In the History Classroom: I opened my fifth grade history class by asking for a raise of hands of who could tell me who discovered America. I got a lot of “Columbus” answers. When I asked them how they knew, I got things like my teacher told me, I read it in a history book, my dad told me. I asked: How does your teacher know? How does the author of the book know, how does your dad know? Now their curiosity was peaked as to where this new teacher was going. I asked how do we know anything? I asked them to imagine later during break Igor running in and yelling: “Mr. D., Mr. D. Johnny and Juan are fighting in the playground!” Imagine I bring the boys in and ask Johnny: Who started it? What’s he going to say? What if I ask Juan? What if I asked Johnny’s best friend? What if I asked Juan’s? Now I had eroded their confidence in what they knew and opened the doors to teaching them to seek primary sources of difference perspectives. The other great example to walk them through was the uncertainties of what really happened between the Conquistadors, the Aztecs and the Incas… The objective was to rebuild their confidence in their knowledge by helping them learn to find things closer to the truth themselves. Whether in history class, understanding an opposing teams strengths and strategies or evaluating a market a little skepticism can go a long way towards a better understanding.
This same lesson could be learned at the office or on the playing field about letting go of assumptions by asking: How do you know, and how does your source know?
See also my Orange Lesson.

amy-cuddy-poseConfidence as a Pose: in her TED talk, Amy Cuddy explains how you can derive confidence from something as simple as a pose. In her visit to Pure, Diana McKenzie mentioned how important it can be how you sit. When I asked if she also felt if it was important where you sit, as I noticed the women in the audience sitting to the back and sides leaving the front rows empty, unlike the men, she agreed. Amy Cuddy also speaks to being a poser in terms of faking it until you become it. She speaks of the all-to-common imposter syndrome women in particular can feel when they feel they shouldn’t be in a prestigious college, business or role. Much as I highly recommend the book Confidence Code, I also highly recommend her TED Talk: Your body language may shape who you are.  There’s also a related article about Imposter Syndrome and why going outside your comfort zone may be uncomfortable but also very advantageous: Why Impostor Syndrome Is Good For You.
Note, Cuddy’s research has come under some scrutiny as per the references below; however, in the end, it seems there may be some truth to her premises, and I know people who say it works for them – just believing can also be a source of confidence as we all know, confidence is all about what we believe about ourselves…

Willingness to take risks Mindset: Another thing Katty and Claire speak to in their book is how confidence can help you be willing to take risks – or as I like to think of it, discover a hunger for the challenges of venturing into uncertainty to make new discoveries and build new strengths.
If you look into Carol Dweck’s theories of Growth Mindset, you can see how that willingness to take risks is a cornerstone of the Growth Mindset.

dweck-mindsetAs a Government: One of the greatest challenges is to persevere is when your government is the villain against you. When you consider what confidence and courage it took for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Oskar Schindler, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai to find a voice to speak out and inspire others and draw courage from their convictions, you can only be left in awe.

On the Battle Field: I don’t have personal experience on the battle field, but a friend recommended Robert Coram’s Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, and it turned out to be a fascinating read applicable in many venues. John Boyd’s OODA Loop and theory behind it. It’s also clear that Boyd derived strength and conviction from those that challenged him, and the greater force they were, the more it inspired him to excel. It was born out of his experience as a fighter pilot combined with reading things like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; however, it’s applicable in a very generic sense as he concluded later in life as it started getting used in business and seemed reflected in the Toyota Production System.


IMVU-DarthMake your Villains into your Heroes: Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned and like to offer is to see the villains in one’s life stories that can rob us of our confidence as our heroes. Whether individuals, teams, businesses, events or health conditions, they challenge us to be better, stronger, more resilient and confident. In this way, we can thank them for making us stronger. It is by no means always easy, but when you make the villain in your story that seeks to rob you of your confidence become the hero that inspires you, you dis-empower them and shift the balance of power. I have always found a strong adversary on the field or in the office can be a tremendous source of strength and learning. Note, pulling strength from your opponent is one thing, if the villain appears on your own team, it’s good to establish you’re both striving for the same value, but hold different views on how to achieve it. I also share my strategies with my opponents as I prefer out-shining them to making them feel small. We can choose to let the villains in our stories rob us of our confidence or inspire us to achievement that will build our confidence. I also discovered after reading Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, that “primal cues” can help us in deep learning as we’re building myelin – primal cues are things like fear, competition, hunger, … Perhaps its not so much what we see, but how we see it.

Bless your enemies for they allow you to grow..png

Candid Compass 2x2

Kim Scott’s Radical Candor – In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. She explains a type of feedback that is obnoxious and aggression. Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. If I take it in as though it were delivered with good intent and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.

I have yet to meet a human that doesn’t carry with them some degree of self doubt and concern for their own worthiness. Narcissistic glorious bastards might come to mind, but in my experience, those are often the people that experience the greatest underlying need to prove to themselves and the world how great and worthy they are. Oddly enough, those that are willing to be vulnerable and accept their imperfections often discover that doing so can prove to be a great source of strength and very fertile ground for growth. Certainly being vulnerable can often require a higher degree of bravery than being filled with self-conviction. I believe that being fearless doesn’t equate to be brave; acting in spite of fear is what bravery is all about. As leaders, being publicly vulnerable and accepting of our own imperfections also gives license to those we lead to be more at ease with their imperfections. It dis-empowers the confidence villains and empowers those that can learn to become comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s often not as much what we run into on our path, but how we choose to process the experience.

Lou_Holtz_croppedLegendary football coach Lou Holtz, now retired and in the College Football Hall of Fame, had an uncanny ability to turn losing teams into winners.

On overcoming adversity, Lou Holtz had to say:

In adversity, there is opportunity.
Show me someone who has done something worthwhile,
and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.
I’ve never known anybody to achieve anything without overcoming adversity.
Adversity is another way to measure the greatness of individuals.
I never had a crisis that didn’t make me stronger.

Remember that adversity presents us with numerous possibilities for success,
if we are just willing to see them.

As Helen Reddy once put it

“You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”

If you’re interested in further thoughts on this topic, please refer to my follow-up post: The Confidence Villains (Continued).


See Also


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