“I find my confidence in my preparation.” - Brandon Nimmo, NY Mets
Which comes first, confidence or success? This is an age-old question that athletes and others seeking success have asked. How can I be successful if I’m not confident in my own abilities? How can I have confidence if I have not yet experienced success?
We all know confidence matters. When we believe in ourselves and believe we belong, we feel more comfortable, feel less fear, and play with a freedom and rhythm that makes success feel more possible. And the more we succeed, the more confidence we gain.
So what happens when we haven’t experienced that success yet? How do you believe in yourself?
I remember thinking this to myself when I went from high school to college baseball. I did well in high school - named All-Conference, All-State, and was good enough to be recruited by top schools and earn a scholarship. I was confident in my abilities. However, I had never played Division I college baseball. Doubt crept into my mind. Was I really good enough to play with these guys? Did I really belong? On the surface, I tried hard to act as though I was confident, as though I belonged. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” I remember thinking to myself. But on the inside I was nervous and scared to fail. I was scared to discover that I wasn’t good enough. I was scared that I didn’t belong.
I’ll never forget my first at bat in fall ball. It was an intersquad game and I was facing a soft-throwing lefty upperclassmen. I was on the “B” team, even though no one officially called it that. They didn’t have to. I knew it because the previous years starters were all on the other team. Far from a coincidence. I wanted to prove I belonged, that I was good enough to get a shot in the spring. I felt as if everyone was watching me - the newest recruit, the anticipated freshman. I could hear the things they were saying to themselves.
“Let’s see how good this kid really is.”
“Does he have what it takes to play at this level?”
“He’s never seen pitching like this before.”
“This isn’t high school anymore, rook.”
Of course, now I know how ridiculous this sounds. All eyes were not on me. I’m sure a few guys had these thoughts, but most probably had no clue who I was. And the ones who did were very much rooting for me, wanting me to succeed because they knew that if I played to my potential I could help the team. I had some incredible teammates who have become lifelong friends. But in that moment, I felt alone, on an island of anxiety and doubt.
I remember how heavy the bat felt. At that time, the college bat was far different from the high school model in weight and dimension. It looked more like a softball bat than a baseball bat, with a smaller barrel than I was used to. It was also much more top heavy than my high school bat. I remember my thoughts as I walked to the plate from the on deck circle, pleading with myself, “put it out of your mind, there’s nothing you can do about the bat now.”
As I stepped into the box, I tried to put everything out of my mind, but the voices in my head kept getting louder and louder.
The pitcher went into his wind up. It’s now or never. Nothing else mattered. All my fear, all the sounds, all the voices, all the doubt. All that mattered was that ball.
Then the pitch was released from his hand. I can see it as if it happened yesterday. It was like the world had stopped. It was as though I was seeing everything in super high-def slow-motion. I saw the spin on the ball so well I considered counting the seams. Change-up. Before I even consciously realized it, I was swinging the bat. Contact. Good contact. The ball kept rising…
I remember running hard out of the box, not fully realizing just how well I had hit the ball. I remember rounding first and the coach saying “Ok, slow-down, touch ‘em all. It’s gone.” And I remember the deafening silence as I continued my trip around the bags. No crowd screaming. No sound effects or sirens. Not even a clap. It was so awkwardly quiet, I thought to myself “Was I not supposed to swing?” Not even a “good job” or handshake from the head coach as I rounded third. And as I approached home plate I caught a glimpse of the pitcher, peering at me, using no words but saying with a stare, “Are you ______ kidding me.”
It felt as if I had done something wrong.
Years later I would come to realize what actually happened in that moment. It wasn’t that I did something wrong. It was that it didn’t really matter. At least not to anyone else but me and the pitcher. This was a glorified practice. Yes, I did something unexpected on the first pitch I saw of my collegiate career. And yes, this was a very important moment for me to begin calming some of those nerves and answering some of those questions of belonging and readiness. But in the end, it didn’t count for anything more than showing I could swing the bat a little and helping grow my confidence that I could play at this level. “That’s nice, but let’s see you do it when it counts, rook.” The next day, I was back on the “B” team.
I had a decent fall season. Some ups and downs, normal struggles adjusting to the higher level. I didn’t dominate by any stretch of the imagination. But when I doubted myself, I was able to come back to that first at bat and find some comfort. I was able to look at that moment and convince myself that I did belong. I worked my way into a starting role that spring and found some early success. Again, in times of struggle I was able to come back to moments of triumph and regain enough confidence to persevere.
But what if I didn’t hit a homerun on that first pitch? What if I didn’t even swing? I wonder that often to this day, because for the life of me I still don’t recall the moment when I decided to swing. There’s usually a moment for a hitter, a conscious decision. Not always, but most of the time. But not that swing. It was all reaction. Instinct. I could have very easily decided to take the pitch. I could have eventually struck out or popped up. That defining moment could have passed me by. Would I have had the same confidence in those eventual times of difficulty and failure? I guess I’ll never fully know.
But as I look back, I do know one thing. My entire mindset was warped. I was focused on the wrong things. If I could go back and give my 18-year old self some advice, I would have adjusted the thought process.
If we only give ourselves two options, confidence or success, we are leaving too much to chance. Could the rest of my career really been altered by the outcome of that first pitch? If so, then when does it end? There will always be another “first-pitch.” Another level you have yet to prove yourself worthy. Another step in which you have doubts in your ability and have yet to experience the success to get you through the struggles.
Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. My mindset was wrong. Confidence can’t be based solely on your results. There are too many factors you can’t control.
The advice to my 18-year old self would be this: find confidence in your preparation. Find confidence in knowing you have worked harder, prepared smarter, and done everything in your power to be ready for this moment. You may be good enough, you may not be. But it won’t be because you didn’t prepare to your fullest. It won’t be because you let the fear of the unknown overcome you.
The chicken or the egg? Confidence or success? Which comes first. I agree with Brandon Nimmo and I say neither. Preparation comes first. And if you can find confidence in your preparation, success will ultimately follow. Whether or not you will become a Major Leaguer is still yet to be determined, however you will be on the fast-track toward reaching your potential. And in the end, that’s all you can truly ask for.