The power of belief
Two years ago Serena Williams was struggling against an opponent in the Australian Open. She was overweight and was ranked a lowly 81st in the world, following a period during which she fell out of love with tennis. Deeply affected by the death of her half sister Yetunde, killed in a drive-by shooting in 2003, Williams had found solace in her local donut store and neglected her practice regime. But that match proved to be a turning point in Serena’s career. Frustrated by a poor shot, she screamed out loud and somehow found the strength and motivation to win that match. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the final, along with the in-form Maria Sharapova. The Russian was heavily fancied to end the Williams fight-back, but Serena not only defeated her opponent – she totally annihilated her 6-1, 6-2.
Two points here. First, as human beings we barely scratch the surface of what we’re capable of. There’s usually something that holds us back and professional coaches employ the formula performance = potential minus interference. Something spurred Williams to rediscover her ‘real’ game, perhaps the realisation that she was wallowing in self-pity, letting down her lost sister or disappointing her fans around the world. Perhaps we’ll never know, but the change in her performance was dramatic.
Second, our performance tends to conform to what we believe. If we THINK we’re weaker than our opponent, we’ll probably be beaten. A speaker recently asked us to slowly swing our arm behind us, stretching it as far as we could and noting where our arm reached. She then asked us to relax, close our eyes and imagine our arm stretching a whole 360 degrees around us! Opening our eyes, we repeated the exercise for real and found we’d all stretched considerably further the second time.
Now as Simon Cowell will tell you, there’s a world of difference between self-belief and delusion. If you want to sing like Beyonce but have the world’s worst voice, you’ve got to assess whether you’re in the right business. But for most of us, we’ve already got the tools to do what we’re striving for. They may need sharpening, but with a little belief and the right motivation we can surprise both ourselves and our peers.