Lecture // Katherine Grainger – is confidence born, bred or bluffed?

oxford brookes universityOn Wednesday night I went back to my old University for the first time in nearly 10 years to attend the inaugural lecture by the current chancellor, Katherine Grainger.

The topic, Confidence, and more specifically whether it is born, bred or bluffed, is something that is of great interest of me. And relates closely to some of the books i’ve read of late.

And who better to give a talk on confidence, than Britain’s most decorated female Olympian.


Starting by looking back at confidence through history with the Greeks, Katherine used  Aristotle’s quote to explain that over confidence is seen as rashness, with the opposite being seen as cowardess.

“The brave man is the mean between the coward and the rash man.”

Using a famous Picasso quote she explained how, if you have the support and encouragement to try, and then try again, you are more likely to have a go. Also the importance of being yourself, not following others, there is only one of you.

“My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”


Positive talking is very important, using Muhammed Ali as a famous example of how talking yourself up until you become what you say you are works wonders.

“I am the greatest”
Muhammed Ali

On the flip side though, it is true that negative thoughts are as powerful as positive thoughts and words. Which makes positive thinking and belief in yourself as important as any talent one may have.

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”
William Shakespeare

Body language is just a big a part of appearing confident, even when you are not, head up, chest out and all that. If you talk like you know what you are talking about, a lot of the time people will take belief purely from the conviction of your words.

confidence lecture


You can have the right mental thoughts and the correct physical body language, but the longer term step to gaining confidence is preparation and repetition.

Something that Katherine, as an athlete, has much experience of, also referring to Malcolm Gladwell and his rule that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.

“confidence that you’ve done it over and over”

Look at Beckham with his free kicks, Johnny Wilkinson and his penalties.

Setting goals

Next Katherine informed us that we should all have BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Something that is so big it seems unachievable, like winning Olympic gold when you’ve only just joined the rowing team.

Don’t be afraid of failure, this is what stops us achieving in life.

“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t lose”

As you get older you become more aware of consequences and responsibility, and gain a fear of failure. You should go through what ifs, so you have coping mechanisms for when things go wrong – because things will go wrong.

The goals that seem too big simply need breaking down into steps, because then you just need the confidence to take first step, not do the whole thing.
This is the most important step, as it gives you confidence and you gain momentum to carry on to the next goal, and the next.

“There will always be more reasons to not do something than do it.”

katherine graingerLuck

Someone asked a great question about how much a part luck plays in your confidence and achievements.

Katherine’s main advice, if you have bad luck stop comparing yourself to other people.
It doesn’t help, you don’t need the comparisons and the negative implications.

Don’t focus on what you don’t have, it will get you nowhere – you will just end up thinking “what’s the point?”.

Instead take ownership of what you have, of your own journey, and what you are doing, nobody else. Then it is all the more sweeter when you achieve that goal despite the setbacks.

Achieving Goals

“How has the achievement of your 5 Olympic medals affected your own confidence?”
“yeah… I’d say it’s raised my confidence!”

Asked how her confidence had changed between medals Katherine explained that as her confidence grew so did her ambitions, and she set her goals higher. She explained you also find yourself being tougher on yourself because of what you achieved before – with greater expectation personally and from others.

She used the 8 years difference in reaction between winning her silver medals in Sydney and Beijing as an example.

Looking at the photos, in 2000 she says she couldn’t have been happier with silver, she was ecstatic to get a medal of any colour. Compared to the disappointment at missing the gold medal spot in Beijing, and the tears streaming down her face.

Same outcome – different expectation.

Katherine is a brilliant speaker, as well as being an inspiring  role model. And she certainly can back up her explanations of how anyone can learn, or be taught, to be confident, with what she has achieved in her career.

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