How we think about ourselves is a powerful predictor for the type of people that we will become. This is known as our self-image: The stories we construct about ourselves and our abilities. While they may just appear as fictional stories, science shows they actually mirror what our future will look like. American psychologist William James was one of the first people to figure this out when he said, “People tend to become what they think about themselves.”
In Dr. Bob Rotella’s How Champions Think, Rotella said, “There is enormous wisdom in (James’) sentence. James was wise enough to see that we are each the biggest influence on our own destiny. More importantly, he understood that we each have the power to construct our own self-image and that the self-image we construct will very likely determine what we become in life.”
In Rotella’s work with some of the best athletes in the world, which includes LeBron James and Rory McIlroy, he has found exceptional athletes think exceptionally about themselves. They construct confident self-images which help feed their success on the playing field. They envision themselves converting in pressure situations and see success before other people do. When everyone else tries to create doubt, they never lose confidence in their abilities. They know they’re good at what they do - and no one can ever take that away from them.
Derek Jeter said that he felt he was the best player on the field every single game throughout his career. When people would tell his father how they loved how humble he was, his father would respond, “(He) has more inner arrogance than anyone I’ve ever met.” When Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young Award in 2016, catcher Miguel Montero said Arrieta knew he was really good. “He believes in his ability, what he’s capable of doing,” said Montero. “That’s what gets him to the next level: ‘I don’t care who’s hitting, I’m right here.’”
This attitude is contagious among high performing individuals in all fields. Super Bowl champion Joe Namath’s mindset is perfectly summed up by the title of his autobiography: I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow . . . ‘Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day. Rotella spoke about performing artist Madonna’s mindset saying, “When I see her perform, I see that the dancers behind her can dance better than she can. Some of her backup singers can sing better than she can. But she thinks she’s the greatest singer and dancer on the planet, which is a big reason why she’s been an enduring star.”
Lady Gaga was no different. “(Gaga) told the Rolling Stone a while back that she operates from a place of delusion,” said Rotella. “She used to walk down the street thinking of herself as a star. She certainly didn’t pay much attention to what people in her childhood neighborhood might have thought was a realistic aspiration for Stefani Germanotta.”
NBA Champion Draymond Green shared similar comments in his post-game presser after Game 4 of the NBA Finals. “As a competitor, if you’re trying to do something meaningful,” said Green. “If you don’t have the mindset that you’re the best ever, you’ve failed already.”
Building a Confident Self-Image
For some people, building a confident self-image is easier as it is a result of early success. It’s easy to build confidence when you’re the best student in the classroom or when you dominate the playing field growing up. For others, building a confident self-image is a little harder because they don’t have early success to rely on. Instead, they have lingering memories of negative moments where we couldn’t get it done.
Due to an in-built survival mechanism, our minds are hardwired to place more emphasis on negative experiences than positive ones. If we don’t train ourselves to reverse this process, we will find that our most recent negative experiences are going to control our thought processes.
“All thoughts are not equally important,” said Rotella. “Recent thoughts are more influential than thoughts that occurred further in the past. Thoughts associated with powerful emotions and more memorable, and thus more influential, than thoughts to which you attached no emotion.”
This is part of the reason why it’s so hard to shake bad performances in games and remember good practices. The emotion attached to performances in games and practices is completely different. Messing up a ground ball in practice is not as nearly as demoralizing as missing a ground ball with the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth.
To combat this, we need to first understand that we are not prisoners of bad experiences. A bad play does not make you a bad player, let alone a bad person. We need to feed our conscious mind positive phrases and images (see “The Power of Visualization”) on a daily basis - which in turn impacts our subconscious mind. Since our subconscious mind is the primary driver for complex motor tasks, we want to make sure it is getting the right information. Negative thoughts chain you to the player you were in the past; positive thoughts free yourself to grow into the player you want to become.
When we can start to control our thoughts, we can then turn to the emotion we attach to certain experiences. This is best described through a speech Jack Nicklaus made to the Georgia Tech golf team, where his son was playing. In the speech, Nicklaus confidently stated he had never three-putted on the seventy-second green of a tournament. After the speech, a young man stood up and pointed out that he had in fact three-putted on the last green of a tournament. Nicklaus cut him off saying, “Sir, you’re mistaken. I have never three-putted the last hole of a tournament or missed inside of three feet.”
For those of you that don’t watch golf, this statement by Nicklaus was not accurate. However, Nicklaus was not lying. He, in fact, could not remember a time in which he had done either. Instead of lingering on to mistakes, Nicklaus chose to forget them and instead remember good shots. He removed the emotion attached to negative shots and instead attached it to positive ones. “He refused to feed his subconscious mind with a lot of thoughts about mistakes,” said Rotella. “He understood that there’s absolutely no reason to relive and remember a missed put.”
James Harden started Game Three of the NBA Playoffs First Round going 0-15 from the field. It was the worst start of a playoff game for any player in the past 20 years - but it did not bother him on the court. When asked after the game about what he thought about starting 0-15, James had no idea. He wasn’t oblivious to what was going on - he just chose not to reminisce on a bad start. Instead, he found a way to score 22 points and lead his team to a 104-101 victory where they took a commanding 3-0 series lead over Utah.
Going forward, think about what you want to become and build an identity that’s going to help you get there. See what it looks like, figure out what it’s going to take to get there, and work relentlessly to make it happen. If you believe that you are a really good baseball player, you’re going to prepare, work, and train like one regardless of any external circumstances. If you don’t have a strong belief in your abilities, you will crumble when adversity tests your strength to press on. Don’t give your past the paintbrush that you’re using to create your future today. Build it, believe it, and don’t let anyone outwork you for it.
I’ll leave you on this final quote from Nicklaus: “You have to be a legend in your own mind before you can be a legend of your own time.”
Keep learning, working, and growing.