Belief in one’s skills is a necessity for any combatant. Lack of belief in one’s capabilities can lead to hesitation, fear and panic during a stressful situation, and having no confidence in a particular course of action can lead to one’s brain treating that course of action as if it doesn’t exist; One can enter the state of hyper-vigilance, which has been likened to the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, in which one’s mind frantically searches through its databanks for a suitable action to take in the face of new and stressful stimuli, while one is frozen immobile and vulnerable.
This is why effective fighters come in two flavours: Those who are naturally confident, and those who have built up their confidence over time.
For myself, I would rather not be a “naturally confident” individual. A naturally confident individual is often an overconfident individual, one who tends to overestimate his or her skill levels, and tends to feel as though he or she is capable of dealing with any situation, even when this situation is unfamiliar and new. On the other hand, a person who has been forced to build up his or her confidence slowly over time through experience and exposure to stressful situations has the advantage of recognising that there are still some unbeatable foes, and some situations that it’s better not to get into at all.
This is directly parallel to natural aggression vs. learned aggression. I was never a naturally aggressive child, so when I started learning martial arts, this was an extremely difficult thing to develop. I began by mimicking aggressive behaviour, and later, learned to switch my own aggression on and off as needed.
Though it was difficult to learn a new behaviour/mental state, it left me with a sizeable social and ethical advantage: I can turn my aggression on and off. Naturally aggressive people can’t control their aggression, it’s always present. Naturally aggressive people never have to learn how to fight aggressively, but on the other hand they are more likely to do something stupid, to start fights that they don’t have to start and to wind up in jail.
So how does one build up one’s confidence most effectively? I would suggest that the most effective way of building realistic, healthy confidence is through simple experience. If you have fought bigger men on many occasions and prevailed, you will be confident that you can overcome size differences. If you have defeated highly technically skilled opponents, you will feel confident in your own technique, and if you regularly achieve athletically difficult goals, you will feel confident that you won’t gas out during a fight.
Of course, it’s not feasible to have real fights often enough to gain confidence from them. The odds are that one would be crippled or dead in short order if one had a real fight every night of the week. But what one can do is to have “conditional” fights: High intensity sparring sessions, isolating different areas of a potential fight. On Mondays, one can have a wrestling match. On Tuesdays, a submission-grappling session. On Wednesdays, one can work on strength training specific to combat. On Thursdays, one can work on one’s striking in a kickboxing session, and on Fridays one can work the clinch with either Greco-Roman or Thai training methods, and on and on. And if one trains sensibly (though still hard), one will not sustain any serious injuries.
Only through hard sparring and conditional/play fighting can one gain the experience that should determine one’s confidence levels.
My advice is: Don’t listen to martial-arts self-help gurus that try to convince you that confidence is a psychological trick one plays on oneself. If you try to make yourself more confident without basing that confidence on hard evidence and experience, you’re lying to yourself and making yourself the last thing you want to be: