ATHENS – When it comes to this week’s Top 10 matchup with Florida, losing to LSU might have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Georgia.
That’s according to Paul Schempp, a UGA research professor who studies elite coaches and sports performance. In addition to teaching in Georgia’s Department of Kinesiology, Schempff has worked as a consultant for several professional and Olympic sports teams as a performance coach.
And, yes, his answer was not what I expected.
I called Dr. Schempp to get his opinion on the role of confidence in sports. I was thinking that Florida might have a psychological advantage on the Bulldogs on Saturday. The No. 9 Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) are coming off a 27-19 win over No. 5 LSU two weeks ago, followed by a 37-27 win over Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, No. 7 Georgia (6-1, 4-1) just lost to that same LSU team 36-16 in Baton Rouge in its last game.
Surely, I thought, that would give Florida a decided advantage from a confidence standpoint in Saturday’s matchup. But then I began to wonder, exactly how important is confidence to sports performance?
That led me to Dr. Schempp, who has probably done as much research as anybody in the world on this subject. He is often referred to as “The Coaches’ Coach” and teaches a course on coaching at UGA in which Vince Dooley is a regular lecturer.
So who better to weigh in on the value of confidence in sports?
“It’s overrated, absolutely overrated,” Schempp said, to my surprise. “And here’s the reason: The number one reason successful players or expert people fail is overconfidence. That’s the number one reason they fail. I can give you research on it, and I can also give you some personal experience with that.”
Schempp works with several PGA tour pros and once served as performance coach for the Swedish and Mexican sports federation and in player development with the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets. He has always been fascinated with the role of confidence in performance.
To be clear, one has to be confident in his abilities to perform well, for sure. But Schempp contends that overconfidence is absolutely an elite athlete’s worst enemy.
“When you’re confident, it tends to take away your desire to be prepared,” he said. “It also sets you up for initial failure in a game you’re not ready for. Automatically, the tide turns against you as soon as something negative happens.”
Schempp does not count himself as an avid college football fan, but obviously he follows the Bulldogs as a UGA professor. He said overconfidence may have contributed to Georgia’s loss to LSU.
Conversely, coming into this next game off such a loss might not be such a bad thing.
“I’m not saying you have to be lacking in confidence. That’s not what I mean,” he said. “It’s just that confidence isn’t as important as people think. In fact, you’re better off being a little tentative.”
Schempp pointed back to the 2002 British Open. At the time, he was working with Jesper Parnevik and having lunch between rounds with Parnevik and Nick Price.
“Ernie Els walks in and he was actually leading the tournament by one stroke at the time,” Schempp recalled. “Nicky asked him, ‘how are you feeling, Ernie?’ And Ernie kind of scrunched his face and said, ‘you know, I don’t feel all that confident.’ And Parnevik turns to me and goes, ‘he’s gonna win.’ And he did!”
Schempp said a lack of confidence forces teams or individuals to be more prepared.
“You’re always asking yourself, ‘did I cover everything, did I prepare right?’” Schempp said. “When you feel 100 percent confident about something, you kind of skip that step, and that’s an important step to take. So I’d rather go in with a team that feels a little less confident.”
At Monday’s weekly news conference, I asked each one of the Georgia players I interviewed whether they had lost some confidence in Baton Rouge. To a man, they all said they hadn’t.
“Nah, not at all,” senior linebacker Juwan Taylor said. “We just went into the bye week and worked on ourselves for two days with real physical practices, and then we started working on Florida. Just a couple of adjustments we needed to handle. That’s all it was.”
Schempp said he’d never expect a player to admit he lacks confidence.
“Of course they’re going to say they’re confident, because they don’t want opponents to know, ‘gee, we’re not feeling all that confident,’” Schempp said. “They want to look like a worthy opponent; they want their opponents to fear them.’ So they’re going to say, ‘of course, we’re confident.’”
The key, Schempp said, is the coaches and players recognizing they have to improve and might need to change some things, whether it be personnel or scheme. That only happens when there’s a little bit of doubt about what you’ve been doing.
He relayed a conversation he had with Dooley after Georgia’s loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game last January.
“I said, ‘Vince, you’ve got to help me here. How could (Nick) Saban put in an untested freshman in the second half of the national championship game? Who would do that?’” Schempp said. “He smiled and said, ‘the reason he did it was he lost to Auburn two games before.’ … He said, ‘When you fail, you change because you don’t want to fail again. But when you’re successful, you don’t make any changes.’ I thought that was the most profound statement.”
Playing devil’s advocate, Schempp asked Dooley, “what if the freshman hadn’t worked out?”
“He said, ‘You think Saban only had Plan A?’”
Schempp said he was familiar with the quarterback debate that is surrounding the Georgia football team right now. Sophomore starter Jake Fromm did not play particularly well in the loss to LSU, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart was questioned for not going to his freshman backup in Justin Fields.
Schempp doesn’t profess to know what Smart and the Georgia coaches might do if they face a similar situation this Saturday or in the future. But he wouldn’t be surprised if Smart might be more inclined to make a change next time.
“I think that’s very applicable to Georgia right now,” Schempp said. “Kirby will be prepared for it now.”
So, if I’m hearing Schempp right, Florida might enter Saturday’s game as the more confident team, but that’s not necessarily an advantage?
“Deep down, when you peel back the onion, it’s better to have a little doubt,” he said.
Advantage Georgia then, I guess.