Author: Mike Margolies

Consultant, Sports Psychology

Part of the goal in working with athletes either as a sport psychology consultant or as a coach is to produce confident athletes. We know both from practical application and research that confident athletes perform at higher levels than athletes lacking in this competency of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). However, it is important to look at confidence on a continuum from low self confidence to overconfidence. We know athletes fail on either end of this continuum.

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Most psychological literature suggests that human beings are overconfident in their abilities. We tend to overestimate our ability to perform in given situations. This is part of human nature and perhaps related to our need to achieve and for survival. Lack of confidence certainly hinders effort; if someone believes they will fail, we know they will make less of an effort. That said, overconfidence can lead to failure, and it’s an issue that’s not covered nearly enough in the available literature.

Researchers believe evolution likely favors overconfidence (OC). People having an overly positive self-image tend to win out over others with more accurate assessments in sports and other activities. By making every kid a winner, sports educators have probably contributed to this notion. We need to remind ourselves even in a discussion about overconfidence that in order to achieve success, we must believe we can. Being OC may drive someone to believe they can achieve almost anything. Keeping in mind the adage “If you think you can or you think you can’t - you are right”. Overconfidence is often the information deficit between perception and performance. Objective feedback is the best independent variable to help athletes maintain balance.

Three issues stand out in talking about overconfidence. First, the drive for preparation is often lacking in those that are overconfident. This can be physical and mental. Athletes that are OC may not put in the effort needed to prepare for a contest. When this is the case, coaches must be aware and communicate the proper challenges for athletes. Often this is done by inventing scenarios about the opposition to create focus for the athletes. I recommend creating practice and contest challenges that require athletes to prepare as if they were getting ready to compete against equals or slightly better competition. Require skilled practices where a high set of goals need to be met.

After you’ve create a solid practice routine, the second issue is effort during a contest. Being OC may mean that athletes are willing to sleepwalk through a game. Again coaches can use goal setting to help athletes stay on task. It is an opportunity to play athletes that don’t often get the same playing time that starters have earned. This motivates everyone and can push OC players not wanting to find themselves on the bench because of lack of focused mental and physical effort.

Third, overconfidence is often linked to arrogance. Arrogance in an athlete can lead to conflicts on teams. A certain amount of cockiness is admired by coaches and teammates but it can also be an issue when it causes a disruption on a team and cohesion takes a beating. Of the two other issues, this requires a strong coach to guide the athlete, while not shaking their confidence. The old adage “A dogs bark is more often than not just a loud noise”. One good way of working with athletes like this is to discuss role models and have them describe the athlete’s temperament and not just their athletic prowess.

The primary ways we help athletes using mental training to teach them the emotional skill set to maintain proper balance. This involves goal setting, monitoring their self talk, helping them identify positive role models, and increasing their self awareness with accurate performance information. A runner gets accurate information, as the stop watch only speaks truths. On a team, an athlete is more likely to get false information, both positive and negative, from a game and practice because the information is more subjective. Coaches and others can help make information usable with good input.

The bottom line revolves around self awareness. Confidence is interrelated with other EQ constructs. Helping athletes develop a balanced understanding of themselves and their abilities enables them to find the proper competitive balance and perform at their highest levels.

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