Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 2: Freedom, simplicity and a secure base



Many in sport fixate on the concept of confidence. When at their best, the most highly regarded athletes and performers tend to exude an air of confidence whilst those out of form, have either lost, or are low on confidence. I’m not a fan of this concept (perhaps because I’m not a confident person) because it suggests that you either have it or you don’t, or that it comes and goes. Confidence seems to offer little to no sense of agency or control.


I look at the game (i.e. match, series, season, career, life) as being a set of information in which one analyzes the incoming data, and then executes a response from their toolkit of skill and experience. The better the toolkit (i.e. sound fundamental skills and many hours of experience), the more adaptive, appropriate, and successful the potential response. The game is not judging you, it’s judging your ability to discern and respond.


In light of this perspective, the notion of confidence misses the mark. Instead, for example, when performing in a flow state (i.e. being in the zone), the successful operate with a high degree of freedom (an empty head). This not to say that they are not thinking. More specifically, it is that their attentional resources (i.e. brainpower) are heavily anchored in reading the task relevant information of the present moment. Critical information is still drawn from the past and future but the majority of task relevant information happens in the present.


For example, in my time closely watching young men navigate their first couple of seasons in the AFL, and not being around the sport much growing up, I didn’t realise the pressure of selection. Basketball affords you the uniform, warm-ups and a front row seat, so if you make a basketball team, you’re there for the season – although hitting the court isn’t a given. Not so with footy – making the team each week is uncertain – but game time is more of a given.


In the minds of many of these young footballers, any big mistake in a game (i.e. an errant kick that leads to an opposition goal) therefore carried the potential penalty of not being selected next week. To an outsider, this may seem an unfortunate moment in time, but certainly not declarative of their status as a human being. But interpretation and consequence is in the eye of the beholder.


Our brains are wired to respond to threat, and when a threat is detected primal parts of our brain activate and hijack our perceptive systems. So when those young footballers made a big mistake in a game, a threat state would activate and transform a specific skill/ judgment error into the reason why they may not be selected next week. This may seem hyperbolic but to the inexperienced and threatened brain, the logic runs as follows: “football is important to me…my mistake has imperiled something important to me…I could now not be selected…if I’m not selected I cannot get better…if I don’t improve I lose my contract…losing my contract denies my livelihood”…and so it goes.


This positive feedback loop* of fear, failure, and catastrophe is a competing demand to the athletes’ attentional resources, so their ability to attend to the task relevant information in the game is reduceThe information is still present, but the brain perceiving it has bigger fish to fry, therefore the athlete has a relatively low degree of freedom to play the game.  This is how teams that are over-coached (i.e. too much information and complexity) engender a cognitive overload to its athletes.


If you watch great teams playing well (like Richmond are tonight against Hawthorn), their actions and movements appear decisive and strong.  This is because they’re playing freely and listening to what the game is telling them.


For athletes to play with freedom, they need simplicity and a secure base…



* a positive feedback loop is when like a snowball rolling down a mountain (more begets more), whereas a negative feedback loop is when the system always seeks to return to equilibrium (like a thermostat).

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here

About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. David, these pieces have been really thought provoking.

    Looking forward to the next one.


  2. Really enjoyed this, David.
    A teaching analogy would be in encouraging students to have a go.
    Fear of failure holds many back (holds me back) in many aspects of life.

    Imagine how we would each tackle this day if we were told we COULD NOT FAIL.
    Imagine the life choices people would make.

    At work, at home, at play – I think creating environments that foster enterprise and creativity is the way to go. Your piece encourages me to continue with that idea. (Love the photo of (injured) Lynden Dunn running a lap with the Collingwood squad yesterday wearing a giant wig (

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