Why Jeff Van Gundy Was Wrong About Raymond Felton and Self-Confidence

During Sunday’s NBA game, Jeff Van Gundy described his disappointment with Raymond Felton who apparently had said something about his coach negatively affecting his confidence.  Van Gundy said that he did not like hearing these things, as nobody can give you confidence. He said that the only way to develop confidence is to be successful doing something. 

This is a common definition of confidence: Confidence comes from demonstrated ability. It is not incorrect. However, it is not exhaustive. “Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations,” (Bandura, Self-efficacy in changing societies).

Self-efficacy is not the exact same thing as self-confidence, but the concepts are similar. Self-efficacy affects the choices that we make, the persistence that we show, the effort that we put forth, and how we feel. Self-efficacy comes from four sources:

  1. Mastery experiences
  2. Vicarious experiences
  3. Verbal persuasions
  4. Physiological states

Past performance is the greatest contributor to one’s confidence. Nothing really replaces demonstrated ability as Van Gundy suggested. However, the other sources play a role.

Part of the Jeremy Lin Story is what it means for the millions of Asian players around the country and the world. Prior to Lin, there was no vicarious experience for an Asian-American player. Unless he was seven-feet tall, an Asian player could not identify with an NBA star (this is why I see the Jeremy Lin Story as being entirely separate from Tebow; Lin is playing, in a way, for an entire ethnicity. His success is their success and their inspiration. Whites don’t need Tebow to succeed; if he fails, they can look at Tom Brady, the Mannings, Andrew Luck, etc. There is no sense that whites cannot play quarterback, but there was a perception that Asians could not excel in basketball).

Theoretically, Ray Felton should see others of similar size and ability and know that he can play. He has past experiences from which to draw. He knows that he can play at the NBA level.

Verbal persuasion tends to come from a trusted source, such as a parent, coach, or teacher. When I teach my weightlifting class, and I spot for my students, as they start to struggle, I tell them that they can do it. Rather than grab the bar immediately, I offer the positive encouragement. I try to help them overcome their internal doubts. When a coach tells a player that he believes in him, it helps to build his self-efficacy for the task. However, when a coach does not believe in the player – either through his words or actions –  this can have a negative impact on the player’s self-efficacy.

Physiological responses are things such as sweaty palms or butterflies that may signal to the performer that he is not ready, especially if he has negative self-talk. Someone with more positive self-talk may feel the same physiological responses and view them positively, as they mean that he is aroused and ready to participate in something meaningful. This is why many people say that some nervousness before a game is a positive, and a complete lack of nervousness is a problem.

Even more to the point, Felton’s comments may have been more related to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The self-fulfilling prophecy colors the way that a coach views a player’s performance. If a coach does not believe in the player, “all evidence of skill errors by the athlete will reinforce the coach’s belief that the athlete is incompetent, and all skill success will either be ignored or simply considered to be ‘lucky’ events and not indicative of the athlete’s sport skill” (Horn, Lox, & Labrador). Of course, if the coach believes in the athlete, the opposite will be true: skill successes will reinforce the coach’s beliefs, while mistakes will be ignored or considered not to be indicative of the player’s skill.

If a coach’s judgments are inflexible, as with many coaches, the player will be unable to change the coach’s perceptions. This will affect the player’s self-efficacy because he may view the situation as hopeless. I have been around numerous situations where coaches made initial judgements and were inflexible in their perceptions; again, in some ways, the Jeremy Lin Story occurred because many people had inflexible initial evaluations and Lin could do nothing to change these inflexible judgements.

I coached a player who had a great assist to turnover ratio as a back-up point guard. The starting point guard was a turnover machine. However, the initial judgements were that the starting point guard was an aggressive playmaker, and the back-up was less athletic and more passive. As the season wore on, the back-up’s confidence wavered. Regardless of what he did or how he performed, the coach favored the starter. As soon as the back-up missed a shot or committed a turnover, he came out of the game, as this reinforced the coach’s judgement that he was not as good. When the starter made the same mistake, the coach ignored it, as it was not indicative of his skill level in the coach’s opinion.

I have no idea what Felton said or what has transpired with the Blazers. However, for Van Gundy to suggest that a coach has no affect on a player’s confidence is inaccurate. A coach (parent, teacher, etc.) can have a big effect on a player’s self-efficacy, and the coach’s judgements have an effect on the coach’s verbal persuasions or lack thereof.

If a coach yanks out a player after every mistake, will the player play with confidence? I trained a shooter who was taken out of the game every time that he missed. By the play-offs, he stopped shooting. He was a future D1 player recruited because of his shooting ability, but his coach’s behaviors nearly incapacitated him because he wanted to play, even if it meant not utilizing his best skill. If the same coach offered positive encouragement after a missed shot, would the player have acted differently?

His self-efficacy was affected by his coach, and this affected the choices that he made, and ultimately affected his effort in the off-season and his persistence when faced with a similar coach in college.

I am a fan of Jeff van Gundy, but on this matter, he was wrong. Coaches have a significant affect on a player’s self-efficacy.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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