Playing in the Absence of Fear / by James Leath

In 2014, I volunteered as a girls youth basketball coach. Most of my team had never played basketball before, so there was a lot to learn. Some of them were soccer players and also considered leaders on those teams so I knew I wasn't starting completely from scratch.

When they first arrived I could see right away there were confident in their athletic abilities as soccer players, however, with every hopeful sling of the ball towards the hoop I could see that confidence dwindling. Their plan was to throw the ball towards the rim and hope that it would go in. Rarely did that hope come to fruition. This was very discouraging for my girls.

james leath img

james leath img

To reverse the trend of decreasing confidence I changed the goal. Instead of shooting to make a basket, they were to find a spot on the wall and hit that 20 times. Then, they were to move on to the backboard to do the same thing. Once they achieved those goals I told them to aim for the top right part of the red square. When the ball went into the basket their eyes lit up (moments I live for as a coach) and suddenly they were not just hoping for the ball to go through the net, they expected the ball to go through the net. (Here is exactly the progression I went through every practice.)

To build on their confidence during a game I would celebrate every shot taken during the game. They needed to know their coach wanted them to shoot. (It helps to teach them to rebound, by the way.) I taught them they were all 50% shooters, meaning if they missed the first then the next one would go in. If they missed the first two shots then they would make the next two. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that we out-shot the other team every game we played. Early in the season I noticed during the game if any shot did not go in the girl who shot it would look at me. I took this as a way to increase her self-efficacy, applauding the courage to shoot and reminding her of her talent as I yelled, “Fifty percent!”

Faith and fear have one thing in common: they both believe in a future that has not yet happened. With faith, we have confidence in our ability and/or our preparation. Having faith in our future gives us energy and creates excitement for what is coming. With fear, there is an absence of confidence, which is the result of a lack of preparation, or a belief that our preparation was not enough. I have heard my friend Jon Gordon say that many times when he talks to teams.

NFL coach Pete Carroll (2010) believes the greatest detractor from high performance is fear; fear that you are not prepared, fear that you are in over your head, fear that you are not worthy, and ultimately, you are a failure. In my experience coaching I have come to believe you can eliminate that fear, not through arrogance, or just wishing difficulties away, but through hard work and preparation. Your confidence will increase and that makes you a very powerful competitor.

I often share the poem “Thinking” with athletes and coaches I work with as an example of the power of our thoughts. Though Walter Wintle penned it in 1905, I believe it still holds true today:

“If you think you are beaten, you are, If you think you dare not, you don’t. If you like to win, but you think you can’t, It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost. For out in the world we find- Success begins with a fellow’s will. It’s all in the state of MIND.

If you think you’re outclassed, you are, You’ve got to think high to rise, You’ve got to be sure of yourself before You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles, don’t always go To the stronger or faster man But sooner or later the man who wins Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”

As a youth coach I believe it is my job to model confident behavior for my athletes and coaches. It starts with intelligent preparation and ends not in winning (though that often is a by-product of great preparation) but in performing at the highest ability in which I am capable. My belief about my ability and preparation produces the outcome I think I deserve (Dweck, 2006). Taking responsibility of the things I can control (my attitude, my preparation, my effort, and my behavior) I can develop the confidence I need to perform at my highest ability. The unshakable confidence of our athletic heroes did not come overnight, but was developed through years of learning from trial and error. Reminding an athlete of their hard work and getting them to believe they belong where they are can increase confidence, thereby increasing performance.

Carroll, P., & Roth, Y. (2010). Win forever: Live, work, and play like a champion. New York: Portfolio. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. Wintle, W. D., (1905). Thinking.