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Underestimating your opponent:

Overconfidence: is it a thing? Is it good or bad for an athlete?

This question is a fantastic topic to talk about but rarely discussed and debated.

For me, the only time where overconfidence is detrimental to performance is if you say yes to the following question -

Do You Underestimate Your Opponents?

If the answer is yes. Then read on.

Moreover, have you ever entered a competition or game as an individual or in a team where you were the overwhelming favourite to win and you lost.

Have you ever reflected on why?

In sporting history, there would be 1000’s of examples of this.

You can simply google ‘sporting upsets’ to view a whole library of shocking losses. From top-ranked athletes or feared winning teams from a variety of sports suffer an upset loss at the hands of a weaker opponent. This happens all too often.

Notwithstanding this, many cautionary tales ensued, numerous top-ranked athletes and teams still fall into the “under-estimation” trap when facing a lower-seeded opponent.

Its complex, but it can just biol down to this summary. Over confidence leads to depleted arousal levels, to falling focus levels. But in actual fact the damage was done. Patterns in over confidence and these shock losses reveal possible shortcuts in preparation and planning. If you are off in these departments, you are vulnerable. Plain and simple.

So, let us talk about; Why does this happen so many times in sports?

We know losses from time to time are inevitable, especially in long season. It’s impossible for a player or a team to perform at peak state week in week out. But in this context, it simmers down to a false sense of confidence, we call it over-confidence.

You see, for some top athletes, success comes super easy. Such as their opponent doing most of the damage by losing the match mentally before it even starts. But common scenarios see out that these athletes who perform in a dominant fashion during the season expect it to continue. Especially when they face a weaker opponent or teams. The feeling is, we will continue our or my form.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that at the elite level. Occasionally, these athletes look past their competition. They fall over because they focus on the outcome instead of the process. They think they should win instead of thinking about what they need to execute right in the process to give them the best possible chance. They look forward to an opponent they see as more competitive and don’t give the required energy, focus and preparation either physically, mentally or tactically in order to give them the best possible chance of winning. They think they’re talent or form will suffice. They’re expectation is to win. This is why having expectations in sport is a performance killer.

An athlete has to understand that when you underestimate an opponent, you by default subconsciously are not accounting for how hard your opponent has been working, or how motivated your opponent maybe. Remember, a team or opponents may be psyching themselves up all season or tournament to to pull off an upset. Whilst you as a team or individual are doing less work in the preparation phase, they are doing more. This doesn’t even consider that anyone or any team can have an off day.

At the elite level, one must acknowledge that anyone can win. The margins are too small. The gaps in skill level and fitness are too small. If your off by 1%, you are vulnerable to a poor performance.

In most matches, games etc, it’s a poor 5 or 10 minutes of play that ends of being the difference.

The term “On any given day…” denotes to the fact that victory is never guaranteed. And given the right circumstances, the right preparation, even the best teams and players can lose.

As an athlete or coach, you must fully appreciate that every game, every match, every tournament, every meet is filled with a competitors own levels of desire and preparation from game-planning, fighting spirit, even scratching and clawing to the end in order to do whatever it takes for victory.

This is a fundamental reason on why elite sports can be physically and mentally exhausting. Its ruthless.

If you are not willing to give it all regardless of your opponent and it reflects in your preparation, effort and focus, then by default you are opening up to being exposed and the chances increase for an upset to occur.

A great example of a team unknowingly going through the “under-estimation trap” is the 2019 NBA matchup between Western Conference leaders, the Denver Nuggets and the team with the worst record in the Western Conference for the year, The Phoenix Suns.

Before the game, The Nuggets had nearly three times as many wins as the Suns had that season. The Nuggets went it as huge favourites.

However, the Suns did upset the Nuggets, 102-93. Watching the tape, it was evident that the Suns came to play, constant high levels of defence matched with their high energy play and aggressive, ruthless defence and offence.

Post-match, Nuggets centre, Nikola Jokic, remarked that the Nuggets did in fact take their opponents lightly. The game may have been lost before it even started. The pitfall of over confidence.

Overconfidence = underestimation

Moreover, according to Jokic, the Nuggets generally thought that within the game, they really didn’t need to play at their best to win and that generally it was going to be an easy victory. Thus they underestimated the Suns in their mindset which transferred to how they played.

JOKIC: “I think we thought it was going to be easy. ‘I’m going to make this pass. I’m going to try this, I’m going to try that.’ I think we played their record, not their personnel. Those guys are playing hard right now.”

What lessons can be learnt and how can I avoid this from happening?

Appreciate and understand that no opponent is a pushover. That on any given day, in any conditions, you need to play your best and that even weaker opponents can challenge you in areas that you never thought of.

Realise that regardless of how talented you think you are or how dominant you or your team is playing, off days occur, opponents can play freakishly well and inevitably you will not win every game.

Your job as an athlete first and foremost is to prepare as best as possible.

Even the best athletes and teams have off days.

Nonetheless, an athlete is primarily responsible for their preparation. Thus, you need to prepare and approach every match or competition with the same intent and degree of intensity. The consistency in this will go a long way in how you’re defined as a competitor – please note that is the case no matter what the level of your competition.

Your job as a competitor and or team is to make it as hard for them as possible to win. Not the other way around. By taking your opponent lightly only means your job harder and therefore makes competitions more challenging.

How to Not Be Over-Confident and fall for “Underestimating’

1. Develop routine

2. Develop the habit of preparing the same way for every opponent.

3. Develop consistency in practice by preparing with the same intensity

- Remember, the way you train, is indicative of how you are going to play

4. Use a consistent pregame routine, one that helps you get your intensity and energy levels up to what is required (arousal) and use language and music to help develop focus (game face)

5. Invest in preparing for all scenarios, therefore, invest in having a sound game-plan for each competition or opponent

6. Finally, as we spoke about in a previous post – Your ability to find the game within the game will help you get into a ‘flow’ state. Know that you want to be challenged, that’s where the fun is and know that you can yourself be pushed as you yourself have pushed yourself to your limits.


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