The supremely confident championship athlete has become an archetype in popular culture. When we see a triumphant winner in sports, we project our insecurities onto their moment of glory. We silently compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves that we could never be confident enough to perform in front of cameras or paying audiences.
The public speaking club, Toastmasters International, has many current and former pro athletes among its members. A pitcher for the San Diego Padres joined a local chapter. Here he was performing his occupation on live television before a ticket paying audience, earning more in a day than most fans earn in a year. We see him as this uber-confident superhuman achiever. It was astounding to learn of his mortal terror at public speaking and his admission that he was beginning at ground zero in self-confidence.
Former NFL quarterback, Don Majkowski, struggled to adapt to civilian life in retirement. He said he was looking for the buzz he used to get from having 65,000 people cheer for him every day at work. There was nothing else like that to validate him and he’d been subconsciously looking for it in vain ever since.
When we watch sports, we only see the ability to perform. An ability that for us looks physically daunting and psychologically otherworldly in the confidence we think is required to perform so publicly. We haven’t seen the years and months of training, forgetting that for athletes, performing is their job. A job that for them is demystified and simply a part of their daily lives. In their single-track-minded pursuit of their athletic zenith, there are multiple aspects of their personal growth that were sacrificed along the way.
Osaka left the press conference at the Western and Southern Open in tears after being questioned about her relations with members of the media. She withdrew from the French Open in May over press conference anxiety. She is ranked number two worldwide in women’s tennis.
When we see Naomi Osaka struggle with press conferences, it conflicts with our stereotype of the uber-confident athlete. We cannot reconcile her public speaking fragility with the champion athlete on the tennis court. Fans cannot fathom that her emotional capital may be completely spent in winning an open. We project her athletic confidence onto everything in our inability to see her humanity off the court.
There has never been a more successful two-sport athlete than Deion Sanders. He was simply the best at his positions in football and baseball and underwent the rigors of playing both sports over many seasons. He is the only athlete to play in World Series and a Superbowl in the same year. He is a two-time Superbowl champion and eight-time Pro Bowl selection.
Sanders excelled at cornerback, one of the most difficult assignments in professional sports. He also played wide receiver in special offensive plays drawn just to capitalize on his talents. The clean-living Sanders was the least likely to appear emotionally troubled under a public persona of brash confidence. Yet, at the peak of his success, he attempted suicide by driving his Mercedes over an embankment.
We forget that professional athletes are the ultimate specialists. Their work exists solely in their unique cocoon. For all the training, conditioning, and skill-building, athletes have not learned to navigate the workaday world like you and me. When they leave their sport they will be starting at square one in building life skills. Imagine entering a world where everyone has a fifteen to twenty-year head start on you.
If sports were your sole source of confidence and identity, knowing you’d lose it to age before your middle years must be terrifying. Yet, we as bystanders simply can’t reconcile this vulnerability with the athletic performances we see and cheer for.
Confidence is situational and job-specific. When we equate athletic confidence with life skill confidence, we deny athletes their humanity, only pushing them further into isolation, loneliness, and despair. As their stories emerge, I hope that we learn to look at athletes with the same empathy we do for performing artists and writers.