Confidence vs Competence

The below was written by PDR Coach Jake Steinmann.


During an advanced instructor training course several years ago, Coach Blauer asked the group of Personal Defense Readiness Instructors if we would rather be confident or competent. Like many advanced concepts, it was one that not only required explanation, but a great deal of careful thought before I fully appreciated and understood the importance of his question (and the answer).

There is something about our society that causes us to value confidence over competence. Our neuro-associations to the word “confidence” are positive ones. We want to be confident. We like it when people tell us that we are (or seem) confident. One of the few universal constants in the martial arts and self-defense community is that any school, regardless of what they teach, will promise to develop the confidence of their students.

“Competence”, by contrast, has become something that we often view in a negative light. A “competent” rating on a performance review is perceived as being middling at best. When we are asking to evaluate a teacher or a presentation, “competent” is usually around a three on a five point scale. It’s okay, but not great. We begin to believe that being competent is somehow undesirable; that it is a flaw, or at least, not a place we want to be.

And that’s a huge problem.

Confidence is easy to instill. So easy that it is worthless. The reason so many martial arts schools advertise their ability to create confidence is because they know they CAN create confidence. Unfortunately, many of them are creating false confidence. Without substance behind it, confidence is not simply worthless, it is dangerous.

I don’t wish to pick on a man who has been picked on far more than he deserves, but go look up Fred Ettish’s fight against Johnny Rhodes from the second UFC. Ettish went it with “absolute faith” in his training. He was confident. Unfortunately, he wasn’t competent.

Competence is difficult to develop. It requires time, energy, and perseverance. Developing competence often requires experiencing failure. One of our most important rules in the Personal Defense Readiness program is to “Be A Good Bad Guy”: to never make our partners look bad, but not to make them look GOOD either.

If we’re working a defense against a tackle, for example, it’s expected that our partner will try to tackle us. Does that mean that our students sometimes end up not stopping the tackle? That occasionally they get bumped, bruised, or taken down? Yes, yes it does. It also means that when our students DO stop the tackle, they know that they have really stopped it. Not that their partner let them do it, or held back so that they could feel good about themselves, but that they authentically defended themselves against the attack. This doesn’t mean we go full-bore, 100% intensity from the first drill…that’s just bad coaching. The intensity is built up over time, as the student becomes more COMPETENT. The more skilled they are, the more the intensity picks up.

Here is the interesting thing; while confidence cannot create competence, competence DOES create confidence. When the student realizes that she can authentically stop that tackle, there is authentic confidence born of that knowledge. When a student hits his attacker during a Ballistic

Micro-Fight and experiences for himself the effectiveness of his blow, he develops confidence in that skill. If you seek out competence, the confidence will come.

The quest for confidence is an easy one. In the PDR, we seek out COMPETENCE.