One of the most common theorized causal elements in player and team performance variation is “confidence”. If a player is on scoring streak, he’s said to be “playing confidently”. When asked how he feels about his game, the guy will report he “feels confident”. The flip-side is also true: poor continued performance means a player has lost his confidence and is struggling to regain it. The interaction between behavior, thoughts and affect is more complex, however.

The assertion that our personal perceptions about our own abilities has an effect on our performance is an easily relatable one. Most people can conjure memories of day-to-day life where their lack of confidence about a given task made them hesitant or nervous and their resulting performance was lackluster.

Of course in such situations, the issues may not be confidence itself: perhaps the perceptions were accurate and the poor performance was a result of real incompetence or inability. This is probably true in circumstances in which people are unfamiliar or unpracticed. This highlights the fact that confidence is often an effect of behavioral mastery rather than a predictor: ie; those who feel confident in their abilities are often highly practiced and competent.

Not always given the fact that perceptions are not always accurate. When the reverse is true, however, the feeling of confidence doesn’t necessarily imbue a person with superior performance. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a recently discovered cognitive bias in which unskilled people overestimate their abilities to perform certain tasks. The mechanism is said to be that unskilled people lack the cognitive framework to recognize their own deficiencies, meaning they don’t have the ability to honestly assess their own performance. As such, confidence can actual be an inhibitor in improving performance if it isn’t matched by actual ability.

As such, a feeling of mastery is therefore much less important than actual mastery when it comes to future performance. A guy can feel like superman, but better be able to actually fly when he leaps off a tall building. This issue is discussed at length by Daniel Smith and Michael Bar-Eli in the book Essential Readings in Sport and Exercise Psychology:

Self-efficacy was neither just an effect nor the only significant predictor of performance in the first of four diving attempts…After trial 1, however, performance on previous trials was the major predictor of performance on the next trial. In other words, regardless of what subjects thought they were capable of performing after the first diving attempt..their next attempt was determined more by what they did on the previous trial.

As subjects progressed over trials, their performance became a stronger influence on self-efficacy than self-efficacy became on performance

*emphasis mine

As mentioned, ability and mastery precedes feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, not the other way around.

So what causes the hills and valleys in each player and teams performance game after game, week after week? Outside of young players and rookies who are still mastering the game at the NHL level, it’s mostly everything else fans and analysts pour over: strength of line mates, strength of opposition, difficulty of schedule, injuries, fatigue and finally good, old fashioned dumb-luck (variance). As we’ve discussed previously, sometimes the hockey gods will conspire with or against specific players or teams over short periods, irrespective of their abilities or level of performance. A player scoring on every third shot may indeed feel confident – and will say so in interviews – but his emotional reaction is likely a response to his hot streak (rather than the cause). Similarly, the same player may feel less confident in his abilities when he goes on a 0-for-30 run. The truth is, his level of ability and performance probably hasn’t varied all that much: just the short-term results.

Confidence is a good feeling to have since it’s preferable to doubt and anxiety. However, it’s relationship with performance is at best ancillary (if not merely coincidental) in people like professional hockey players who have spent untold hours mastering their skills. Previous performance is the best predictor and indicator of future performance for hockey players, not perceptions that vary with the bounces.