Confidence & Competence: Perception vs Reality

I have been thinking a lot about confidence lately, in the context of my own training. I go through cycles of feeling like I’m making great progress and solving problems, interspersed with cycles where it feels like I have run into a wall and am doing the “wrong” thing over and over again. I have come to view these phases somewhat fatalistically, accepting that if I just keep grinding, each phase will yield to the other in its own time.

That’s not to say that I don’t experience emotions in association with these states. When I feel like I’ve reached a plateau, I feel frustrated and inadequate, and I start to doubt myself and – yes – lose confidence.

Recently I’ve felt that I have been experiencing a plateau in my MMA training. I never feel that I am transitioning as fast as I want to be; I’m not winning as many drills as my team-mates; I don’t feel like I’m showing dominance in sparring or making enough progress from week to week.

While continuing to work with my team to increase my competence, I’ve been exploring ways of improving my confidence, which I consider my own responsibility.

As circumstance would have it, while all of this has been going on, Muay Thai fighter Sylvie von Duuglus-Ittu sent me an article called “The Confidence Gap” about the difference in confidence levels and perceptions of competence between men and women. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write:

“For years, we women have kept our heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognized and rewarded.

“We’ve made undeniable progress. In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Our competence has never been more obvious. Those who closely follow society’s shifting values see the world moving in a female direction.

“And yet, as we’ve worked, ever diligent, the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. The statistics are well known: at the top, especially, women are nearly absent, and our numbers are barely increasing. Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom doors, our career trajectories still look very different from men’s.

“Some observers say children change our priorities, and there is some truth in this claim. Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.”

Serendipitously, after my first round of sparring on Saturday – after which I was predictably frustrated – a team-mate (who has had extensive experience training and teaching karate) mentioned that he believed my problem was less technical than psychological. He told me that I needed to restore my confidence, to trust my instincts and have fun with my sparring first, taking what was useful from coaching second. (He didn’t advocate this as the right approach for every occasion, but seemed to think that it would get me past the mental barrier which I felt had been holding me back.)

During my subsequent rounds, I followed his advice, allowing myself to enjoy my sparring and to feel what I was doing, rather than thinking about whether I was performing “right” or not. The difference was immediate. If nothing else, I was having fun again. Everything became easier. It was easier to identify opportunities, easier to implement my coach’s suggestions, and easier to react to the actions of my sparring partner. But I still wasn’t sure that I was happy with the technical aspects of my performance.

I had recently begun having some of my sparring filmed, and the video was running that day. When I looked back over the footage, I realised that the reality of my performance, and the perception that I had had of the experience, were vastly different. In my mind, I had been having a beat-down laid on me, but the footage told a different story. A lot of the techniques, instincts and strategies that we had been working on had come together. I had been succeeding at making the specific improvements that I had been visualising, practising in drills, on pads, in shadow-work and on the bags.

The lesson that I take out of that is that emotion is not an accurate reflection of reality.

When it comes to sparring, video footage is definitely a valuable tool, and one that I am going to exploit more. It allows me to make the most out of sparring as an opportunity to evaluate progress and identify specific opportunities for improvement, and it means that I can see these things myself, which makes it easier to adapt quickly to a coach’s feedback.

In light of Kay and Shipman’s article, I do wonder how much of this discrepancy between my ability and my own perception of my abilities (competence vs confidence) is the result of my own individual neuroses, and how much of it can – or should – be viewed as a gendered phenomenon. I’ve seen male training partners experience similar discrepancies between their levels of competence and their confidence. (In one of these cases, it was video footage that remedied that problem, too.) I have known men and women too who have had differences between their confidence and competence in reverse – having a higher belief in themselves than their abilities would seem to warrant. We would probably do well to bear in mind the usefulness of objective measures of progress and competence for both men and women.

There is one more aspect to all of this that shouldn’t be overlooked, because it can be applied similarly in so many other areas, and that is the element of pleasure. Video footage showed me that I had made progress, and in exactly what areas, but it was only by letting go of expectations of success – even if only momentarily – and giving myself permission to trust myself and take pleasure in what I was doing that I was able to access this progress and express my competence in real time. It’s not all about the love. Sometimes, even when you’re “living the dream”, it’s just hard work, but it pays to be reminded now and then of the reason why you started training in the first place. Once upon a time, you were a kid who couldn’t wait to put on a pair of gloves and hit the pads after school because it was fun.

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3 thoughts on “Confidence & Competence: Perception vs Reality

    1. Thank you, glad you liked it. I’ve really been enjoying your blog too, by the way. It’s so interesting to read a little about what a doctor’s experience is like. It’s too easy as a patient or member of the public to forget that there are real human feelings which must often be hidden behind a high level of professionalism in the medical profession.

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