The Confidence Gap and Skiing

By Wendy Clinch •  Updated: 06/17/14 •  6 min read

All of us have seen it: the guy who’s a meh skier, yet who feels confident enough about his abilities to ski a triple-black 55° steep with moguls all the way down and a cliff at the bottom. And at the end, yes, he says he killed it.

What’s with that, anyway? Why is it that some guys have  so much damn confidence/bravado/self-delusion —call it what you will  — that they’re willing to do stuff that may be way above their abilities, yet so many women, who may be really good skiers, play themselves down?

Damned if I know. Yet it’s something you see all the time. Men tend to overestimate their abilities, while women underestimate theirs.

I write this after reading an interesting article in the Atlantic about a book called The Confidence Code. No, I haven’t read the book (maybe I should, before I go mouthing off), and the piece has nothing to do with skiing. But the article makes a few interesting points that I think directly relate to our sport:  (Note: the quotes below  do not follow one another in the article, which is why I’ve separated them with dotted lines)

Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, started studying the problem of self-perception decades ago. “As a young professor,” she told us, “I would set up a test where I’d ask men and women how they thought they were going to do on a variety of tasks.” She found that the men consistently overestimated their abilities and subsequent performance, and that the women routinely underestimated both. The actual performances did not differ in quality. “It is one of the most consistent findings you can have,” Major says of the experiment. Today, when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to this one.


Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. They aren’t consciously trying to fool anyone. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence. In a study he published in 2011, men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.


Testosterone……. helps to fuel what often looks like classic male confidence. Men have about 10 times more testosterone pumping through their system than women do, and it affects everything from speed to strength to muscle size to competitive instinct. It is thought of as the hormone that encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power, and for good reason. Recent research has tied high testosterone levels to an appetite for risk taking.


Perfectionism is another confidence killer. Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. We fixate on our performance at home, at school, at work, at yoga class, even on vacation. We obsess as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as friends, as cooks, as athletes. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, the authors of The Plateau Effect, call this tendency the “enemy of the good,” leading as it does to hours of wasted time. The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done.


Studies evaluating the impact of the 1972 Title IX legislation, which made it illegal for public schools to spend more on boys’ athletics than on girls’, have found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. And yet, despite Title IX, fewer girls than boys participate in athletics, and many who do quit early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop off sports teams, with the steepest decline in participation coming during adolescence. This is probably because girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during that time than do boys.

What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.


…..The notion that confidence and action are interrelated suggests a virtuous circle. Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure. 


The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.


Interesting stuff. Granted, there are plenty of women skiers with loads of confidence. But for many of us, lack of confidence is something we’d do well to address. I know that I have a healthy amount of self-doubt, and that it tends to hold me back in situations that I could handle, no problem. Some of it might be perfectionism — if I do it, I want to do it well — and some might be that I lack the “risk gene” that might help me tackle the tougher stuff (research shows that this actually may exist). But with the right amount of confidence, maybe I wouldn’t hold back.

What do you think?

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