The Science Of Winning

The effect of confidence on top level sports


In all professional sports, clubs or individuals will constantly be seeking even the slightest of margins to gain any advantage over their competitors. From advances in nutrition and fitness levels to the continued development of analytics in professional sports, competition is often decided by the smallest of factors. In soccer, this could be a slightly higher passing accuracy; in baseball, a slightly higher on base percentage; in athletics, a few hundredths of a second on a 100m sprint.

Sport is a uniquely analyzed industry, too. In no other field is the consumer - i.e. the fan - as dedicated to analysis and scrutiny regarding the industry’s product as the industry itself. The dedicated fan - thanks to the rise of popular data analytics in sport - leaves no stone unturned and will debate metrics, analyses, key decisions and even a sports team’s injury prevention strategy. Essentially, sport is analyzed from all angles, but the demand for data is by no means as great as the supply. The challenge for coaches and analytics teams across sports, over the next few years, will be in determining the appropriate KPIs, and focusing on the metrics that actually give their teams a better chance of winning.

But for all the analysis and work done by sports institutions to find that extra 1%, the age-old adage that winning teams will continue to win continues to hold truth. Why should the New England Patriots consistently dominate the eastern division? Or the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray continue to reach finals of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments? Or, more recently, why should Leicester City manage to avoid a collapse throughout a Premier League season, rolling from game to game with enough momentum to potentially see them lift the title with original odds of 5000/1? A report from June 2014 looked to find the relationship between former and future success, analyzing one of the least quantifiable metrics of in-game performance: confidence. Outside of talent, finances and tactics, confidence was shown to have a significant effect on future performance; as the old saying goes, ‘nothing succeeds like success.’

Swedish researchers Olof Rosenqvist and Oskar Nordstrom Skans looked at professional golf - arguably the most cognitive, individual sport played the world over - to assess the impact of confidence on future achievement. They took data from golfing tournaments where around 140 golfers would compete to make ‘the cut’ - only around 65 would proceed to the next round. To adjudge the effect of making ‘the cut’ on a golfers confidence, the researchers focused on those deemed to be of more or less equal talent, where one barely made ’the cut’ and one just missed out. I.e., the 65th and 66th best performers in the initial stages.

The golfer that scraped through would go on to win at least some prize money, and the golfer who missed out would go home without financial reward. Statistical analysis found that those given the confidence-boost of making ‘the cut’ were about three percentage points more likely to see continued success at future competitions; Rosenqvist and Nordstrom Skans declared this a ‘fairly substantial effect.’ Interestingly, the effect was more evident when the future events offered more prize money and, with that, more pressure. The researchers came to the conclusion that, though in many ways a nebulous attribute, the confidence garnered from victory better places a golfer to deal with pressurized situations and, in turn, find future success.

One would expect the negative effect of losing to be just as high as the positive effect of winning and, indeed, confidence affects every sportsperson differently. Confidence is also, by definition, not something that can be planned for. It is a by-product rather than a strategy, but its effect on performance shouldn’t be underestimated. No sports analytics team will focus energy on the confidence of their athlete(s) - it is difficult to define and even more difficult to manufacture - but next time a team like Leicester City win five straight Premier League games, consider the effect of aplomb on their remarkable over-achievement.

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