Self-confidence more useful than self esteem

We are now deep into March Madness, the annual college basketball exhibition of athletic talent, teamwork, all-out competition, and, most of all, heart, called the NCAA Tournament.

The tournament is harsh and unforgiving. This year there are 68 teams competing and 67 of them will come away disappointed. At the end, only one team is left standing.

Coaches preparing their teams for games know who their real enemy is — and it isn’t the opposing team. It’s the lack of self-confidence. In every game self-confidence plays a bigger role than almost any other factor.

One of the recurrent worries for coaches of top-ranked teams is that if they start slow, their opponents will gain the self-confidence they need to win. A team that ignores the odds and believes it can win often does. It happens often enough in the NCAA tournament that the winning underdog teams have a name: bracket-busters.

The same thing is true in many other aspects of life — self-confidence is frequently the key to success.

Automotive pioneer Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” That is what self-confidence is all about, the belief that you can do what needs to be done, that you can succeed.

Where does that belief come from? We know how important it is to success, in education, in business, and in life. How can you teach self-confidence?

You can watch the good basketball coaches in the NCAA Tournament teach self-confidence on the fly — while the game is under way. If a team’s self-confidence has been rocked by turnovers or an opponent’s scoring run, the coach will often call a time-out, talk with his players to calm them down and call a set play, a collection of moves, passes, and positioning that the team has practiced so many times the members can execute it in their sleep. Often it will restore their confidence. Skill mastery and the routines of success are the heart of self-confidence training.

If you don’t care to watch the NCAA Tournament you can see the same thing going on in “Hoosiers”, one of the all-time great sports movies about underdog success.

Nobody understands how to teach self-confidence better than the U.S. military, which, along with the physicality involved in both, explains some of the long-standing affinity between athletics and military service.

One thing that both athletic coaches and military trainers understand is that self-confidence is not the same thing as self-esteem.

Self-confidence is built on achievement; self-esteem is built on opinion.

A recent study by Prof. Eric Bettinger and researcher Rachel Baker at the Stanford University School of Education examined data from a program called Inside Track and found that college students’ grades and graduation rates improved when they received coaching and mentoring based on mastering student skills, both academic and behavior-related.

A related study, also from Stanford University, was based on evaluating the results of a one-hour self-confidence-building exercise designed by psychologists. And while the idea doesn’t sound very promising, the program turned out to have immediate and lasting positive effects.

Military training is not for everyone, surely, but the armed services are very good at building confidence in their sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines. The combined effect of skills mastery and teamwork builds self-confidence very effectively in most recruits. And there is a very practical reason for this as a training goal. We don’t want to send someone into combat who is plagued by self-doubt. It wouldn’t be good for them, in terms of their own survival, or for the mission.

A growing number of people who are critical to the mission of the U.S. economy have the same need for self-confidence, yet it seems to be in short supply. This can, and does, lead to a sense of isolation, loneliness, self-absorption, and the disappearance of shared values and goals.

The result for the economy is a net loss of productivity, and it affects a noticeable and growing portion of our population.

For years our public schools have grappled with the problem of teaching kids with low or non-existent self esteem. They have devoted expensive resources to the issue, and classroom teachers have poured their hearts out in their efforts to build their kids’ self-esteem so they could learn. The results, though, have been disappointing.

By tackling the self-esteem problem, rather than self-confidence, the schools gave themselves a difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to substitute for missing or distracted parental and family love, respect, and guidance.

It is time to change the direction of this effort and concentrate on building self-confidence through the mastery of skills — simple ones at first to form a solid foundation. Marine Corps boot camp still begins with learning such things as listening and standing up straight — and builds on that. There is a reason for this. It works.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Snohomish County Business Journal.

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