By Dr. Ron Cruickshank, Golf Mind Coach & GGA Director, Canada


Watching young Rory McIroy’s last day crumple at the Masters was a great window into the dynamics of self-confidence. One could literally see it seeping out of Rory as he self-destructed over a few holes after a “masterful” performance in the first three days. It showed in his posture, his demeanor, and his actions.  In his post round interview he mentioned the loss of “confidence” in his putting and how it negatively affected him.  Obviously, losing his self-confidence was experienced as a damaging to his performance. So what is this subjective state we call self-confidence and how do we get more of it on demand?


From a behavioral science perspective, self-confidence is the expected probability that a person will achieve a goal in a certain situation. For example, if you tell me your handicap is a 10 and you estimate your probability of shooting that score on any day is 90%, we would say your self-confidence is high.  If you estimated the probability of shooting your handicap on any given day at 15%, we would say your self-confidence was low relative to this particular game or task.

Dr. Albert Bandura, a well-known research psychologist says that high self-confidence increases people’s motivation and persistence. Further research also demonstrates that generally, high self-confidence is a good predictor of how well people will perform on all sorts of tasks. In other words, the internal subjective state of feeling self-confident makes it more likely you will be successful in any endeavor you undertake.

Some important knowledge about self-confidence is that it is primarily situational–not absolute. It is important to remember that self-confidence is always relative to the task and situation. We have different levels of confidence in different situations and even within the same situation, like a game of golf. Look no further than your own golf game and ask yourself which part of your game you are most confident in. Do you fearlessly boom out a drive, hit a confident iron shot on to the green only to find yourself weak in the knees over a 3 foot putt or a bunker shot that is sitting in a fried egg lie? Confidence is relative to the particular situation, task, and the expectations you are experiencing, both self imposed and external.

There is a familiar premise that states the “exception proves the rule”. This is true relative to self-confidence because while self-confidence is primarily situational, it may generalize across many situations. For example, if you are good at sports generally, it is likely you will develop self-confidence for learning other new sports. If you are good at other life skills like relationship building, conflict resolution or academics than we can predict that you will develop a high level of self-confidence in general.

Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. If you have a history of performing poorly in a broad variety of life areas it is likely you will develop a low level of self-confidence in general. However, most of us are somewhere in between. Most of us tend to think we will excel in some areas and situations and do poorly in others.  This would argue we should aggressively pursue our strengths because when engaged in our strengths, motivation increases and self-confidence is enhanced. In practical application the science is simple – if you are a great putter, use the short stick off the green as often as you can. Apply this to every aspect of your game, and when possible play to your strengths. 


For over 25 years my favorite expert on motivation and the resultant self-confidence has been Dr. David McClelland. He was the architect of numerous break-through insights on motivation; in particular, his watershed study popularly known as The Ring Toss Experiment. The formal title was The Relationship of Motivation to the Perceived Probability of Success.

In this landmark study, Dr. McClelland established that motivation is highest when our perceived probability of success is at the .50 levels.  In other words, we will keep playing a game longer or pursuing a goal when we are successful, or perceive our chances of success, as 50%. Significantly more than that and we get bored and significantly less than that we get frustrated. The classic insight that has weighty implications to how we should set up our expectations and practice that will directly influence our self-confidence and motivation.

Think about it. Would you practice a SIX INCH putt for very long and with much enthusiasm? Of course not, you would quickly bore and automatically begin to move back for a longer putt that was more challenging. In fact, the research says you will tend to sub-consciously go to a point where you make it about 50% of the time and thus optimize motivation and self-confidence.

Conversely, how long would you be willing to practice 75-foot putts?  The answer is not very long unless you began to sink a few! As in the six-inch putt, you would automatically begin to move closer until you perceive your chances of success to increase to the 50% level.

Recently, Dr. McClelland summarized years of research on self-confidence. He said that the “most important factor for developing self-confidence is to master the needed skills. Your mother, your wife, your friends, your boss and your teachers may tell you that you are not good at task XXX. However, if you know how to XXX well enough, you can feel confident about XXX no matter what they think. Likewise, if everyone else tells you are great at XXX, but you know that you don’t know how to do XXX well enough, you will lack self-confidence.”

The implications for us all are that just having encouragement and positive feedback from other people is not all that helpful in building self-confidence. The critical component is that we have mastered the needed skills. This puts the onus on each individual to practice diligently and practice with knowledge and purpose. We can improve our skills through watching and learning from others who are experts, reading, taking classes, and from practice. The more we immerse ourselves learning the skill, the faster we will learn and the result will be self-confidence.

Learning the skill will allow us to gradually increase our goals as we increase our skills.  As Dr. McClelland stated: “We can be challenged, interested, and feel successful at every stage of learning–novice, intermediate, advanced, and expert. The same methods of learning apply as well to interpersonal skills as to sports, business, or intellectual skills. If you have been good at learning in one area of your life–such as sports, playing the piano, or in school–apply the same learning methods that were successful there to an area where you feel less confidence.”

About the Author: Dr. Ron Cruickshank recently opened the GGA – Moe Norman Golf School as part of our expansion program into Canada. We are headquartered at the Royal Ashburn Golf Club in Whitby Ontario, a top 50 Canadian Course. If you are serious about owning your golf swing you can reach him at 647-892-4653.