Essay: Is there a gender confidence gap in sports?

Getty Images

Confidence can become the tipping point, making or breaking a career for some women, writes Rachel Piazza.

As a woman in the male-dominated sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I often see the other women I train with at the Unity Jiu-Jitsu School in New York City, doubt their abilities. 

Although these women display technical prowess and ferocity alongside some of the top male jiu-jitsu competitors in the world -- they often underestimate themselves.

I was surprised to find that, like me, the women I hold in such high regard struggle with self-confidence. These women, like myself -- responded to compliments with denials. When my instructor tells me I did a good job, I assume he's just trying to boost my morale.

The "confidence gap," a term popularized by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of "The Confidence Code" -- might explain what's going on. The theory notes that despite equal competence in the workplace, women's lower confidence holds them back.

Just as self-assurance is critical at work, it is an essential component for success in sports. Women athletes struggle to be as confident as they are competent.

When asked about confidence, Chloe McNally, 25, a blue belt from Unity Jiu-Jitsu who competes and wins on the international stage, admitted that her insecurities manifest in several ways.

"I think about how good everyone else is at our school, and I feel so inferior," she confessed. 

This inherent feeling of inferiority is common among women athletes. While self-doubt is not an experience exclusive to women, men do seem more adept at channeling confidence.

Men tend to get over their confidence issues faster than women, observes Lindsey Wilson, a former WNBA player and co-founder of Positive Performance.

Public displays of confidence appear to be some men's secret to success. "Men somehow know that appearing confident is beneficial, even if it's just a façade, and the 'fake it till you make it' principle works in regards to confidence," she noted on her company's website.

Jackie Tran, a former collegiate swimmer who broke multiple school records during her time at Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, California, echoed Wilson's sentiment.

Tran said that the men she trained with were more likely to exude self-confidence, even though some of them had privately expressed self-doubt.

Wilson also finds that in one-on-one settings, confidence issues between men and women are often very similar. She believes that women are more open about their lack of confidence, while men tend to mask their issues.

"In the case of sports (this tendency) works in their favor," Wilson said. "There is an advantage to convincing yourself that you're confident."

Observing the competitive edge that feigning confidence gave her male teammates, Tran is now adopting a similar approach. A marathon runner, the sport she picked up after her competitive swimming career ended, Tran uses specific body language like the Wonder Woman power pose, to embody the confidence that may not come naturally.

Wilson and Tran affirm what sports psychologists have been advocating for decades. Whether on the field or in the boardroom, confidence paired with competence produces success. And in sports, performing well can ultimately lead to scholarships, sponsorships and opportunities to play professionally.

Confidence can become the tipping point, making or breaking a career for some women. Thus, the gender confidence gap has real consequences for female athletes.

In high school, Wilson's struggle with confidence almost derailed her basketball career. "I got close to quitting on myself and my goals," she said. While she was putting in the physical work, her confidence levels didn't match her ability.

Luckily, she had a coach who intervened just in time. "A light bulb went off, and I realized I'm in control of how I feel about myself," she said. The fact that Wilson's career nearly ended before it started shows just how fragile some women's ascent in sports truly is.

Even in today's girl-power-fueled climate, women and girls need every advantage they can get. The truth is that we live in a culture that often devalues women and instills a quiet voice of inferiority that regularly informs us we are not good enough.

It is up to each of us -- to lift each other up, and quiet that voice once and for all.

Rachel Piazza is a TEDx speaker, an acclaimed feminist self-defense instructor, and adjunct professor teaching sociology at Wilmington University. You can learn more about her workshops at feministselfdefense.com.

Related Content