There was only enough time for one more possession when the Portland Trail Blazers’ star, Damian Lillard, got the ball for the final time in their 115-115 nailbiter against the Oklahoma City Thunder this past week. It was game five of a fierce 3-1 series and the Trail Blazers were on the precipice of moving on to the next round. Lillard knew exactly what he wanted to do. As Lillard made it to midcourt with the ball, he lazily dribbled, making it seem as though he was going to ludicrously burn the clock and take the game to overtime. But suddenly, he made a small jab move and threw up a ridiculous 37-foot shot over the outstretched arms of the defending Paul George.
He nailed it. The entire crowd at the Trail Blazers’s Moda Center erupted as his teammates immediately rushed to mob him on the court.
But as the dust settled after the game, many critics pointed out Lillard’s brazen shot selection in spite of his success. There was plenty of time to run a play, but Lillard chose to keep the ball himself. These naysayers said that Lillard’s brash naivety risked his team’s hard work throughout the game, the series, and potentially even the season. Paul George himself even said “That’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story won’t be told that it was a bad shot. We live with that.”
This wild finish rekindled some questions in my personal relationship with sports. What gave Lillard this inflated sense of self-confidence to take on such high risk for his team? Is a sense of stubborn self-confidence an absolutely essential trait in order to succeed in sports at a high level? Why do we so often vilify self-confidence as arrogance in sports?
I have struggled with this query throughout my athletic career, especially on the baseball field. I have not always found that same sense of self-confidence in sport that says “I am the best man for the job. Give me the ball. I will make the play.” I know that I am a good player, I know that I have the accolades and achievements along the way to prove it, but I am also acutely aware that there are some better players around me. Sometimes this awareness is motivating, but sometimes it is paralyzing as well. I am coming to terms with these emotions that are new now that I have better competition and stand out less at a higher level of play. It is my own form of imposter syndrome.
It seems as though so many successful professional players rely on a heightened self-confidence. The most obtrusive showboaters, like Chad Ochocinco and Conor McGregor, immediately come to mind, but other great players like Randy Moss, Anthony Davis, and Trevor Bauer all share a certain do-no-wrong mentality. Lebron James and Jerry Rice have even dubbed themselves the greatest players of all time. While we glorify humility in our role models, in reality, a certain stubborn confidence helps these stars overcome the inevitable failures and gives them a more complete sense of confidence in the moment.
Such self-confidence can still manifest itself in many healthy and productive ways. While Lillard waved goodbye to the heartbroken Thunder players after his shot, another NBA star, Stephen Curry, is widely regarded as one of the most humble players in the game, despite his grandiose celebrations after three pointers. These exhibitions of self-confidence are perceived differently with Lillard portrayed as a scrappy player from a no-name college with a chip on his shoulder, while Curry has become the poster child of good behavior on and off the basketball court. Both have seen failure, yet they still have that same stubborn confidence that makes their game more enjoyable.
Even many of my teammates have found it, and I do believe that this sets them up in positions to succeed. Perhaps this is just my incorrect interpretation of their actions or my excuse for my personal disappointment in my career thus far at Swarthmore, but I truly believe that they have a more positive mentality around sports than I do. Obviously, I love my teammates and want success for all of us collectively, but I do not think that I have the track record to back enough self-confidence yet. Their self-confidence should be celebrated and is in no way a bad thing, but it has been hard for me to come by in baseball. Quite frankly, I find myself immensely jealous of their success sometimes; not their success on the field, but their success in finding a sense of satisfaction with their performance.
My mood on a given day has far more of an effect on the baseball field than in the classroom, but my success on the baseball field also has more of an effect on my mood than my performance in the classroom. Perhaps it is less important or just more natural to me, but my level of self-confidence in other aspects of my life just does not seem to have as much of an impact on my success. In this way, my baseball career has determined my happiness and experience at Swarthmore more than I expected. I needed help to address this issue.
As sports are just a game, we so often write off the mental health needs of student-athletes on this campus as trivial. Just recently, however, Sarah Girard ’19 posted a powerful piece in Voices about her own struggles with eating disorders as a student-athlete. Countless Swarthmore students, past and present have shared similar stories. Recently, the athletics department has shown an increased interest in the mental health of its student-athletes with the start of Mental Health Monday talks. The athletics department also hired Dr. Amber Buller to assist with the particular psychological issues that athletes face, on top of C.A.P.S.’ employment of ex-athletes that can sympathize with their student-athlete patients. I am inspired and encouraged, hoping to see more out of these programs and expecting more tangible coordination between C.A.P.S. and the athletics department.
In my own struggles, a sense of solidarity with student-athletes with similar issues has helped immensely in coping methods on the field and coming to terms with my broader career. Furthermore, therapy in C.A.P.S. and a better sense of perspective have certainly helped the most thus far. Ironically, a Damian Lillard quotation has helped me to strive to keep Swarthmore athletics in perspective: “This is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, not knowing where his next meal will come from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent,” Lillard said.
Although the lack of pressure is foreign to me, the notion that keeping the nerves, the failures, and the journey of collegiate athletics in perspective certainly helps. I hope that it helps others in their own struggles with imposter syndrome and failure here at Swarthmore as well, whether in athletics or otherwise. For if we want the humility that we so often glorify, we must develop a deserved sense of self-confidence. To find love, we must first love ourselves, or so the saying goes, and this certainly applies to our athletic endeavors as well.