It's hard to put a finger on what actually caused the sudden downturn in form. A couple of players out with injuries? Other teams being physically larger this season? A tougher fixture list? Not really. Surely a good team doesn't become a poor team overnight?
I've reflected on what I witnessed and I came to the conclusion that the reason for the slide in performance was a loss of confidence. This then drove a lack of self belief. Over a period of time, you could see it becoming contagious.
Subsequently, I talked over this loss of form with a number of coaches, managers, educators and mentors in a number of fields outside of rugby to get as a wide a view as possible. A theme emerged from my conversations: one of the biggest performance killers is a lack of self belief which manifests itself in low confidence. That lack of confidence stops so many from getting back up and running or even making an attempt in the first place. I decided to investigate confidence.
I have to point out here I'm not advocating the development of hugely inflated egos - there are enough of those around in all walks of life. No, I am talking about the "objective understanding of ability and personal qualities" that enable people in all walks of life to take a step forward - often, as it were, to take a step of faith - in order to achieve something or attempt something different.
I thought long and hard about confidence in a sporting context and specifically about what are the "abilities and qualities" that drive performance. I concluded that essentially there are four key areas: technical ability, creativity, cognition and spatial awareness. They seemed to be common to most sports.
Technically, an athlete has to know how to perform core components competently: pass, tackle, kick, catch - all have to be worked at. This is true in any walk of life be it sport, a job, an area of service and even in relationships - we need to know how to treat people, how to communicate, how to listen. There are things we have to work at.
Creative thinking is that ability that allows you to think outside of the box. In a sporting sense it's the ability to play what is in front of you, responding to what you see in a constructive rather than destructive way. This way of thinking and processing real time game information is linked to cognitive ability - that is the ability to take information in, process it and replay the information in the form of problem solving using what you have worked on in training, your experience and the way the game is panning out.
Spatial awareness is the ability to see objects or people in relation to each other in space and time. It's that sense you have before you make a pass, knowing that the ball will reach the other person because you have the ability to judge space and speed. It's understanding your location on the field of play in relation to player with the ball and the timing of a tackle or when to pass or make a break.
Sports psychologists tell us that the ability to focus and get refocussed are the keys to staying on track and sustaining performance. Doing what we know we can do and doing it to the best of our ability breeds confidence. Confidence enables us to do more of what we know we can do and sustains performance. They identify "distraction" as the trigger that so often hits confidence, suggesting internal and external reference points as a means of getting back on track and refocussing. Often a coach will have worked on a key phrase or word or an image to help a player regain composure. They are mental reminders of what the player knows but has been distracted from. Sadly, we have all seen the alternative when confidence collapses - the inevitable slide into overthinking and under performing - even for world class athletes. Its true when we experience life set backs too.
Now we all know that there are times in sport when we do actually lose a game because we meet opponents who are simply better than us. Those are the experiences from which we learn and go on to develop our own skill levels. The same is true of course in every walk of life. Unless we grab hold of the development opportunity that we are presented with in a difficult challenge or in a defeat, we are destined to produce repeat performances.
How we respond in any situation will have a big influence on what happens next. If we allow ourselves to be defined by circumstances, by what just happened, it will not only impact what happens next, but will begin to influence who we are. We start to become responders, rather than initiators. Who wants to go through life simply reacting to everyone and everything we encounter.
The bible has an interesting observation on confidence, when it states: "don't throw your confidence away". Its context is a passage talking about what impacts our definition as men.
How are we defined? By postcode, by job, by ethnicity, by salary, by competency, by our circumstances? Our true definition is not external. Sure, we stand in and operate from our circumstance, but they don't actually define us.
If in life as in sport, confidence is linked to our four key areas, then:
- technically we have to work on being the very best version of who we can be.
- creatively, we can develop a sense that there is life outside of the box of the usual or routine way of thinking.
- we can begin to appreciate that what is in front of us can be overcome, that, we can find solutions.
- we can take a step back or pause momentarily to assess objectively where we are spatially in relation to others and what is going on around us.
Confidence need not fly away with a poor result or outcome. Technical ability doesn't suddenly drain away overnight after we have lost a match. Our ability to read a game and creatively problem solve when confronted with a difficult situation doesn't disappear. What we have worked on, developed, become competent at hasn't been surgically removed without us noticing.
Sure there is room for improvement - that is called growth. But, we need to become skilled at identifying reference points to help us re-engage with our self belief and maintain or regain confidence.
The great thinker and writer Paul helps us with by looking at confidence from a different angle. He noted... "I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it" - in other words, we can have confidence in foundational things and specifically in the foundational relationship we can have with the man's man Jesus Christ. Our confidence can develop as we recognise he doesn't go back on the ground we've covered together. He doesn't quit on us when it gets tough.
Two things mark out the man who can face most things that are thrown at him:
- the confidence he has in the abilities and qualities he carries from his personal experience and training and they can't be taken from him - that's self belief.
- the confidence he can have in knowing that he has a source of help that transcends the circumstance, the game, the situation- that's faith;