Words with Power


Another installment of a short series on confidence, written for my friend G, the stellar youth soccer player who asked me from whence confidence comes. Join us.

Sometimes, we use words we think have the power to build up, when they actually have the power to confuse or tear down.

“Be confident,” he hollers in her general direction just before she takes the pitch.

He means, “Hey, you’re tough, you’re smart, you’re good. Play that way. I’m rooting for you.”

What she hears: “What the heck good is that going to do me? Be confident? Am I supposed to just right here and now decide to be confident?”

I’m talking with my daughter, who plays with G. She has a good point: “Sometimes,” she says, displaying a wisdom she clearly got from her mother, “it can have the opposite affect.”


As a doula, when I meet with clients who are committed to unmedicated birth, I suggest they ask hospital staff to refrain from offering pain meds, making it clear that they will ask for it if they want some.

My reason reflects my daughter’s wisdom. If a woman is laboring quietly, intently and with purpose, she is in the zone. She needs to stay in the zone. Staying in the zone keeps her contractions in a manageable range.

If a nurse breezes in to check progress and helpfully offers medicine, it breaks the woman’s concentration. What the nurse says: “Let us know if you’re ready for your epidural.”

Usually, she’s thinks she’s being kind. She understands that most American women happily choose to give birth with the aid of an epidural. Her intention is not to mess with an unmedicated birth but to provide what she assumes the woman wants.

What the woman hears, though, is entirely other. She hears: “Do I look like I need pain meds? I must look like I’m in pain. Oh, you know, that kind of hurts. Oh. My. Gosh. That hurts. I need pain meds right now.”


When Coach, or a well-meaning parent, urges a kid to play with confidence, the kid is often confused. “Be confident!” is akin to yelling, “Kick the ball” to a soccer player. Duh. Of course G wants to play with confidence. And kind of the point of soccer is to kick the ball. “Be confident” is little more than noise. Alternatively, it can be a chink in the armor, a sort of back-handed compliment that a kid (or anybody) can interpret as notice that she’s not playing with confidence.

So. What to do? G has a couple options. She can decide that he means to say she is a good, smart, tough, fast player and he is merely encouraging her. This is my first suggestion, because Coach knows G and wants her have fun. He knows how and when to communicate and will be clear when he needs to be. This decision by G works because it assumes that he would tell her explicitly if he wanted her to focus on one thing in particular. Second, it means that he assumes he trusts her to play with confidence. If there is not other information being offered, it seems reasonable to take his words at their base value.

But, if it really bothers G, she can ask him what exactly he means when he says that. She can ask him if there is something he noticed that doesn’t look very confident, and if he has a plan to address it. Maybe she’s flinching (she’s not) or her tackles need to be tougher (I have no idea). If he’s trying to be encouraging, but this particular tack doesn’t work for G, as his player, it is within reason for her to ask for something different. It’s like any relationship: if something isn’t working, the easiest thing to do is to find what works. She could ask him to say anything else, and he can choose whether to do so.

In part, confidence comes from trusting coaches and advisors. Believinng that a coach has her best interests in mind can be one of the bricks of confidence we talked about last week. Next week, we will talk about how to begin mental training so that the work is automatic when confidence begins to flag.