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Bob Mathias On How To Master The Art Of Self-Confidence

Bob Mathias On How To Master The Art Of Self-Confidence

By the time his senior year in high school rolled around, Bob Mathias had become a talented track athlete. He could run fast, jump high, and throw far. Given his wide-ranging talents, his high school coach suggested that Mathias try decathlon—a grueling combination of 10 track and field events.

Mathias succeeded immediately, winning his first competition. Just a few months later, he qualified to compete at the 1948 Olympics in London.

Completely off the radar heading into the competition, Mathias stormed the Olympics. He placed first in four of the ten events and ran away with the gold medal. Just 17 years old and fresh out of high school, Mathias became the youngest gold medalist to ever win a track and field event. When news of his victory reached his hometown of Tulare, California, the local factory blew the whistles for 45 minutes straight. He had entered the Olympics as an unknown kid and returned to America as a national hero.

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How did a teenage underdog develop the self-confidence required to win a gold medal on the world’s biggest stage? What type of mindset did Mathias bring to his competitions? What can we learn from it?

The Art of Self-Confidence

Years later, after his own athletic career was finished, Mathias was coaching a young pole vaulter who was struggling to reach a new height on the crossbar. As the story goes, the young athlete failed to clear the bar over and over again. Aware of his deteriorating performance, the athlete looked up at the bar and was filled with fear and frustration. He began to doubt himself and froze up completely.

After pondering the situation for a moment, Mathias looked at the young man and simply said, “Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.”*

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bob-mathias
    Bob Mathias attempting a 4-meter pole vault (13.1 feet) at 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He would win gold for a second time. (Image Source: Mark Kauffman – The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

    The Empty Space

    There is a moment in each pole vault where the athlete must let go of the pole (their only anchor to the ground and the only thing they control) and commit to floating through empty space without fully knowing if they will clear the crossbar.

    In my experience, life is pretty similar. If you want, you can hold on to what you know and stay anchored to where you are. However, if you want to rise to a higher level and find out where your ceiling is, then you need to throw your heart over the bar and step into the empty space.

    Here’s the thing: we often think that the empty space is just a stage to pass through. We think it’s a transition state, a moment of uncertainty on the way to something else. But it can be much more than that. The empty space is where we grow. The empty space is where we develop self-confidence. The empty space is where we reveal who we really are. In many ways, the empty space is where we come alive.

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    Going through the moment of uncertainty. Facing the period of doubt. That’s when we discover ourselves.

    In many ways, self-confidence is just persevering through the empty space. Self-confidence is grit. Self-confidence is Sisu. Self-confidence is mental toughness. Mostly, self-confidence is just a willingness to let go of what is comfortable, slide into uncertain air, and trust that you’ll be ok.

    “Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.”

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    FOOTNOTE

    * It took me a long time to track down the original source of the quote. As best I can tell, Mathias used the phrase first, but Norman Vincent Peale popularized the quote by using it for a similar story about a “famous trapeze artist” who gives his students the same advice.

    Featured photo credit: Martin Bingisser via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2021

    7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

    7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

    The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

    Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

    Posture

    First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

    • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
    • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
    • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
    • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

    All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

    Facial Expressions

    Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

    • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
    • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
    • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

    If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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    1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

    A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

    The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

    This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

    2. Relax Your Face

    New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

    The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

    To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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    3. Improve Your Eye Contact

    Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

    The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

    To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

    3. Smile More

    There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

    Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

    4. Hand Gestures

    Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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    It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

    5. Enhance Your Handshake

    In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

    “Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

    It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

    6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

    As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

    Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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    Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

    Final Takeaways

    Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

    If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

    More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

    Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

    Reference

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