Self confidence 101

Dr Ivan Joseph
November 16, 2020

My career has been dedicated to helping people become the very best versions of themselves. Whether it be through my work as a Professor, a Coach, an Academic leader or Public Speaker, it is my mission to help people become more confident so they can effectively chase their dreams.

I wasn’t born self-confident.

That is pretty rare.

Self-confidence, however, is a skill you can develop.

But first, to get there, you need to know how to effectively build a mental skill.

Try these skill builders to start improving your confidence. 

Skill Builder #1: Repeat to Acquire

In order to acquire a new skill, you have to repeat it over and over again. Coaches call this “blocked practice.” Doing the same activity again and again forges neural connections between your muscles and your mind that grow into habits. That’s why athletes all the way up to the elite level spend time practicing basic skills, like shooting and passing.


My most powerful memory of blocked practice involves Carlos Ortiz, a six-foot-four goalkeeper from Colombia who played for me at Graceland. When Carlos first joined the team, his hands were made of stone and he had real difficulty throwing the ball accurately. So we set him up in front of a brick wall and drew a chalk line around one of the bricks.

His job was to hit the same spot over and over again. He went at the task like a man possessed, throwing the ball thousands of times until his hands were calloused and hard. And it worked. He trained himself to throw the ball exactly where he wanted to without even thinking about it. And he built skills so strong that he went on to play professional soccer with a variety of international teams. Then he came back to the game as a coach, first at Graceland and now at Seton Hall University.


Your mental and emotional equivalent of what Carlos achieved physically requires putting yourself in situations that use the same mental skill over and over again. Need to work on how you handle setbacks? Go fail at something. Need to get better at paying attention? Find something to concentrate on. It’s that simple. By repeating the particular skill, you will acquire it.


You don’t have to be all that good when you start out. You’ll get better at it as you practice and repeat.

Skill Builder #2: Vary to Retain

Repetition is the key to acquiring a skill in the first place, but it’s not the key to retaining it for the long term. To do this, you need to use a version of what coaches call “random practice” (also known as variable practice), which means performing the skill in bursts intermixed with sessions of other skills.


For example, say I had two groups of soccer players. One group does nothing but work on throw-ins while the other group works on throw-ins, free kicks and headers. By the end of the session, the throw-in specialists will have advanced that particular skill much further than the generalists.

But if I bring them back in a week, the athletes who spread their focus between three different activities will have retained the new skills more than the specialist group will have.


This is the result of what’s called “spaced repetition.” Your brain is far more likely to transfer learning from short-term memory to long-term memory if you practice something in small chunks spread out over time.


Practicing the piano for an hour a day over the course of a week will advance your skills more than practicing for seven hours once per week will. It’s the difference between the learning you didn’t really do while cramming for an exam in high school and the learning you actually do at work through daily repetition.


So, along with practicing your mental skill, it’s best to mix it up so that you work on a skill for a bit, leave it alone while you do other things, and then come back to it. Actually, this part is easy because your normal routines of living and working will probably provide you with all the variety you need to ensure your skill retention.


Just remember the key concept: to improve and retain a skill, one hour a day for a week is better than seven hours a day once a week.

Skill Builder #3: Take Small Steps

One of the biggest challenges for a coach is knowing exactly what the players need every single day. If you don’t challenge them enough, they get bored, stop performing well and begin to dislike practices. If you challenge them too much, they get overwhelmed, feel like they are no good and want to quit.


Every time I arrived at practice, I had to figure out exactly how much my players could handle on that particular day—as a team and individually. I also had to make sure that I followed the most important rule of skill development: only add one new stimulus at a time.

It was important that the players had mastered the last skill before I added a new one. If I did it right, their sense at every stage was that learning the new skill was easy—even if it was significantly advanced from where they were a few weeks before.


For example, if I were trying to teach a new defensive system, I would start out with a one-on-one drill so that the players could learn the new skill while only defending against one attacker. Then, once they all had the skill, I would add a second defender and make it a one-on-two. Then, over the course of a few weeks, I would keep adding bodies to the drills—one-on-three, two-on-three, three-on-four, five-on- seven, and so on—until I got to an 11-on-11 situation where we could simulate game conditions.


By approaching it this way, I could teach a complex system in a simple way. And the players never got overwhelmed, angry or tense. They just came to practice and enjoyed the wonderful sensation of improving.


In a work setting, the same approach could apply, for example, to a person developing their presentation skills over an extended period of time. Initially, they might speak in a department meeting or give their direct supervisor a briefing on a project. Then they could deliver a project update to a group of department heads. After that, they might present to the management team on their way to facing an entire division.


The same kind of graduated presentation process can be used when learning how to present to customers. You could start with speaking to an individual client and slowly add complexity and pressure until you’re ready to make the big pitch to the decision-makers at a large corporation. Small steps lead to big growth.


This last element of the three-step model is the most important if you want to succeed. If you try to learn too many new skills at once, you will feel overwhelmed and be hugely disappointed when you aren’t up to the task. Or if you limit your focus to only one skill but try to reach way too far, you’ll flop and take a while to recover.


Look for experiences that push you just the right amount until you master the skill. Then you can move on to the next challenge. That way, you will maintain your motivation over the long term and achieve substantial success.


Real progress requires slow and steady development because you can’t change your brain overnight. And if you aren’t engaged and happy along the way, you’ll quit and fall back into your old habits. Start simple, take small steps one at a time and work your way toward mastering complex skills until you achieve the emotional equivalent of an Olympic gold medal in confidence.

RECAP: How to Acquire a Skill


Skill Builder #1: Repeat to Acquire

Perform a mental skill over and over again until you can do it without thinking.


Skill Builder #2: Vary to Retain

Intersperse working on a particular skill with working on other skills to ensure long-term retention.


Skill Builder #3: Take Small Steps

Ensure that you have fully mastered your current level of a given skill before adding a more difficult challenge—and when you do so, only increase the challenge by a reasonable amount so that success is possible.

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