Ireland’s Olympic success is an inspiration to us all

Collective confidence shown by our athletes in Tokyo will make a positive impact on the country

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate their gold medal victory in the Men’s Double Sculls at the Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Inpho

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate their gold medal victory in the Men’s Double Sculls at the Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo. Photograph: Steve McArthur/Inpho

 

It’s a word you hear uttered in every Olympic interview, whether after a triumphant win or crushing loss. It’s a word that Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy used after their gold medal victory and one that appears in a hundred Rory McIlroy headlines. No sports commentary is complete without it.

The word is confidence. But what on earth is this strange elixir whose presence or absence is invoked to explain medals or their absence?

This mental quality is a sort of time travel – a prediction about the future. It isn’t optimism which is the expectation that things will turn out the way you want, nor is it self-esteem, which is a sort of Oscar award for yourself.

Yes, success breeds success and that in turn kindles confidence. But self-belief has its own independent capacity to contribute to that success

Self-belief’s secret sauce is its link to action. O’Donovan and McCarthy weren’t over-optimistic, nor big into self-admiration. But they were quietly sure about their ability to pull back the early lead they knew the German crew would take.

They didn’t pluck this out of nowhere – they believed this because they had done it before, but that doesn’t mean that they were simply reading out past performance. Yes, success breeds success and that in turn kindles confidence. But self-belief has its own independent capacity to contribute to that success.

Take Pádraig Harrington’s British Open performance in 2007. He was riding a wave of success, ahead of Sergio Garcia at the 17th hole, the Claret Jug almost at his lips, when something happened at the top of his swing and he hit the ball not once, but twice into the Barry Burn. That momentary doubt – that lapse of confidence – played havoc with his finely tuned brain networks and evaporated the flow of success. No wonder the word is on everyone’s lips – it is the make or break for all sporting success, nowhere more so than in the Olympics.

Talking to RTÉ Sport after his bronze medal win, Belfast boxer Aidan Walsh spoke about his “belief that I can beat anybody”, and that felt he was just following exactly what his coaches told him, following their game plan as if in a computer game.

Walsh is describing a state of mind of laser focus where the brain’s attention systems are reined in so that there is no room for the sorts of self-belief-sapping thoughts that destroyed Harrington’s two British Open shots. Confidence, properly deployed, does this – by focusing you on a future success, the blinkers it creates shield you from anxious thoughts and memories that can demolish the most skilled and well-practised of sporting routines.

Harrington’s caddie Ronan Flood rescued him from such demolition by using a technique that has similarities to the one Walsh described. As they walked up the fairway in the aftermath of two watery disasters, he kept repeating again and again “You’re the best chipper and putter in the world, you’re the best chipper and putter in the world. . .you’re the best chipper and putter in the world. . . ”. This quasi-hypnotic, semi-chant essentially hacked into Harrington’s brain to take control of his attention and focus his mind only on this small set of skills at which he excelled.

Sure enough, Harrington chipped and putted beautifully and went on to win the Open. Flood laser-focused the Irish golfer’s attention on these two specific actions and so shielded him from sabotaging doubts that thoughts of great success can seed just as much as can images of failure.

Confidence works its magic in the brain in many other ways, too. For example, when your brain makes the prediction that you will succeed in the action you believe you can do, it registers this as a boost to the brain’s reward network, a little surge of dopamine-fuelled activity that lifts your mood, lowers anxiety and boosts your motivation.

They say that pessimists suffer twice – first when they predict the disaster and again when it happens. Confidence also has its own double-whammy effect – the boost you get from the prediction of success followed by the further fillip from actual success.

Ireland got through the biggest economic shock of any developed country after the 2008 great recession by gritting its teeth and getting through it

Ireland’s medal winners have all shown this capacity for laser focus combined with a mood-lifting belief that they can meet the challenge. It isn’t a brash and noisy self-belief that we see, however – the Olympic winners all seem to have this workmanlike focus on that next performance target combined with the confidence that they can make it. They and their coaches know only too well that overconfidence can also choke honed mental skills by producing too much dopamine activity. Harrington’s downfall may have been to let intrude into his laser focus, momentary thoughts of Claret Jug glory, leading to an attention-disrupting little surge of reward network activity.

But confidence doesn’t just exist in the individual brain – it can also be collective, a belief that we can achieve that goal. Teams that have this belief score more goals because the collective confidence helps synchronise their brain activity in service of the common goal. Team Ireland seems to have just such a collective self-belief – what The Irish Times writer Johnny Watterson calls an “intense culture” – thanks in part to a leadership that fosters a collective spirit in the whole squad, for example through having ordinary athletes travel business class to the Olympics, and not just the senior officials.

Confidence is contagious both within and beyond sport. Keeping going in spite of adversity is one of its biggest sources and the resilience it creates. Ireland got through the biggest economic shock of any developed country after the 2008 great recession by gritting its teeth and getting through it. That, I believe, is one major reason we have dealt with the pandemic with such maturity and cohesion. It is also why I believe that this country has a very strong future because of the sort of collective confidence that its Olympic athletes have inspired us with.

Ian Robertson’s latest book, How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief and why some people learn it and others don’t, is published by Penguin.

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