(MoneyWatch) What made watching the Wimbledon men's final this year so gripping wasn't just the excellence of the tennis or the fact that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were so well matched. The question uppermost in the minds of British spectators was: Does Murray believe he can win? When he lost last year's final to Roger Federer, pretty much everyone felt that what had defeated Murray was Murray -- so had his capacity to believe in himself changed?
Self-belief is a fascinating and complex mechanism. It's easily confused with confidence and with self-esteem. Many pop psychologists and motivational speakers imagine that believing in yourself is all that is required for success. A whole industry and libraries of books reiterate that message. But they're wrong.
While believing that you can succeed is a necessary condition for attempting anything difficult, it is far from sufficient. High self-esteem may be the outcome of hard work, discipline and success; it's rarely the cause. Psychologist Don Forsyth and his team at Richmond University took two groups of college kids and, to one group, sent a weekly email containing a practice question. To the second group, they sent a weekly practice question but with it came messages reminding them of the importance of confidence and encouraging them to keep theirs up: "Bottom line: Hold your head -- and your self-esteem -- high."
The students who had been encouraged to boost their self-esteem "showed a substantial drop in grades" and reported "feelings of unrealistic optimism. Researchers concluded that such cheerleading "can lead to complacency rather than active coping. Indeed, weak students may maintain self-esteem best by withdrawing effort and minimize the degree to which their self-esteem is contingent on good grades."
Although the self-esteem movement has long argued the connection between high self-esteem and achievement, when social scientist Roy Baumeister reviewed the scientific literature that wasn't what he found. Lab studies did not show that efforts to boost self-esteem led to improved performance. Looking specifically at school performance, it was clear that, while those who did well felt better about themselves, the reverse was not true: Merely encouraging students to feel confident didn't make them do any better in tests.
So while pundits may like to imagine that what made Murray win Wimbledon this year was a magical rise in his self-confidence, the reality is grittier than that. Winning the 2012 U.S. Open showed Murray that he had the skill to win. But that confidence didn't come from self-esteem or even the audience cheers. It came from achievement.
Knowing you have done one thing imparts the rational belief that you can do another. That's why it's important to acknowledge and internalize your accomplishments. They are the true building blocks of confidence.