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When Overconfidence Meets Reality

September 20, 2004 09:32 AM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

The best doubles team doesn’t always win. Judging opponents on the basis of their strokes, age, or appearance is a big mistake that often leads to overconfidence. And once the overconfidence train starts rolling, it’s hard to stop it.

"Sooner or later, overconfidence meets reality and a correction occurs," says John Heil, D.A., Roanoke, Virginia, sounding more like a stock market analyst than a sports psychologist when discussing the problem of overconfidence in athletes.

Sport psychologists describe self-confidence as a person’s (or team’s) belief that it can perform difficult tasks in certain conditions. Overconfidence develops when the team misjudges those conditions. The partners tend to pay less attention to detail, ignore critical information, and lack focus both in preparation and during competition. All of these factors lead to flaws in judgment that set the stage for losing to an underdog.

Looking Ahead
Overconfidence surfaces in at least three ways, none of them very pretty. The first is to look past a supposedly lesser opponent. An unfocused or a less-than-serious approach to practice is a recipe for disaster, regardless of who is next on the schedule. Preparing for opponents who should allow for an easy win can be more difficult than getting ready for top-flight competition. It is a perfectly natural response to take for granted a win over players who are smaller, slower, weaker, less skilled, or who have a bad record. It is also possible to lose to that team. It's a cliché, but that's why they play the games.

Falling Behind
Heil describes a second way the overconfidence problem plays out. "The athlete or team that underestimates an opponent and gets behind in a contest may have a very difficult time coming back. A lesser competitor or team can be completely outplayed, but it keeps the match close, gets lucky near the end of the game, and wins.

Losing Momentum
The third risk of overconfidence is allowing the lesser opponent to hang around long enough during a game or race to gain confidence. Confucius may have said, "Overconfidence breeds carelessness." The sport psychology version of that quote is, "Overconfidence can quickly lead to a reversal in attitudes, in which the favorite quickly loses momentum and the opponent gains confidence at a fast pace."

There is a point in sports events where it does not matter who is best on paper. During the last two minutes of a close basketball game, during the last set of a close tennis match, or in a sudden death playoff in other sports, it really doesn't matter who is supposed to be better. It's who makes a play, gets a break, is in the best condition, or wants to win the most. Talent does not guarantee victory.

Denying Accountability
"Overconfidence is often the result of athletes being unaccountable for their shortcomings," says Heil. "Then they think they can bypass the reality check. Those who have exaggerated opinions of themselves — it can happen often among tennis players — look for alternate explanations when things don't work out. They blame coaches, referees, linespersons, teammates, playing conditions, or whatever shifts the excuse for underperforming to someone else. That is one of the reasons some players bounce from coach to coach or partner or to partner when things go wrong."

"The solution," says Heil, "is to prepare, play in the moment, and accept responsibility for your actions. Deal with the situation in front of you, not one you remember or have read about in the paper or take for granted."

As they say on Wall Street, “Past performance does not guarantee results.” This is one time when you better be a day-trader instead of standing pat.

The above article is an excerpt from Tennis: Steps to Success, 3rd Edition, Human Kinetics Publishers.

Read these other books by Jim Brown:
A Different Game: Golf After 50 (Burford Books)
100 Stretches (Burford Books)
Tennis: Steps to Success, 3rd Edition (Human Kinetics)
Sports Talent: How to Identify and Develop Outstanding Athletes (Human Kinetics)

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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