Capable, Comfortable, Confident

Something I thought about while white-knuckling Penelope’s brakes down El Camino Del Mar into the swirling 17-something-mph wind last night:

As I learn new athletic skills, I move through three different levels. The first is being capable: I am physically able to {ride this bike without tipping over / run this distance / breathe on the left side while swimming and not drown}. I may not be able to do it all the time, or perfectly, but the skill is there, being slowly burned into my neural pathways (I guess, or wherever it is that new combinations of physical and mental actions go to sit and think about what they’ve done).

The second is being comfortable. Performing that skill doesn’t feel like a struggle anymore. It seems like I can do it far more times than I actually can. I don’t require a psychological talking-down or a refresher course before every time I try it; it may not be second nature, but if someone asked me, “Can you {clip in / tie a figure-8-follow-through climbing knot / run 10 miles}?” I wouldn’t hesitate before saying yes.

And the third is being confident. Hells yes, I can {ride downhill / run a mile at that speed}. Why are you even asking me that? Of course I can. Confident is the look I gave my trainer when he asked me if I could do “boy push-ups” — the have we MET? look that lets every other party to the conversation know that you are about to own it in a big way. Confident is natural; confident is knowing: I’ve got this. It’s mine.

When I danced as a kid, I went through some version of this every time I learned a new leap or turn. First I’d be capable of doing, say, a triple turn — it was hit or miss, one out of 10, but it was getting there. Then I’d be comfortable — comfortable enough to try to do it in front of others. Finally I’d feel confident — “put it in my routine”-level confident, “I’m ready to be judged on that”-confident. And then I’d move on to the next skill.

The thing about me, I realized last night during my terrifying descents, is that I tend not to feel like I’ve moved through any of the stages until I’ve conquered all of them. It’s not until I feel confident that I can look back and say, oh yes, by the way, I’m also comfortable and capable. I don’t feel capable until I know I have the skill, until I’m ready to show it off.

So, there’s a LOT going on there — type-A-ness, perfectionism, fear of failure — and it’s deep and I’m going to leave that for some other time, because it’s a Friday afternoon and I see a latte and possibly a beer in my future. But what I will say is that, for now, understanding these stages may give me a more realistic view of my actual abilities. Last night on the bike, I was undeniably capable of riding in the wind — even though I was riding down hills at roughly the same miles per hour I was riding up them, I stayed on the road, I didn’t tip over, I made it through. Heck no, I wasn’t comfortable, and I was miles away from confident. But I was capable, I am capable, and I shouldn’t discount that when I look back at what I’ve done.

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One thought on “Capable, Comfortable, Confident

  1. Linda says:


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