Like a Mental Candy Bag

For ages, we Finns have prided ourselves in having low self-esteem. It’s been one of the rock-sound beliefs that is the foundation of a nation’s identity and backbone. Not easily toyed with, I might add.

However, during the last few decades, we‘ve had to deal with many incidents which have tried to put holes into this strong-held thought. The latest challenge came from Finnish NBA-player Lauri Markkanen who said in an interview about his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls:

”I have a high level of confidence in myself and I think that’s the only way you can survive in this league.”

Discussing this with my former teammate (football), she just shrugged and said: “You know, these youngsters, they really are not like we were back in the days (which left me feeling ancient, thanks a lot). They have confidence in themselves, and they don’t hide it.”

Partly, I had to agree. When saying good night and tucking in our first-born daughter when she was about four years old, she used to say: “Yeah, mom, I love you too, and dad, and our relatives, and my friends, but I also love myself.” Yes, I guess some of the youngsters are “shaped from another kind of wood”, as we say in Finland.

However, working with athletes and leaders (including “youngsters”), the one issue that pops up regularly, is battling low confidence. For most clients, it is a matter of a temporary drop due to a new challenge, a new environment, a new team, new coaches/superiors, a new role, coming back from an injury, or some “mysterious” reason. Some have even battled low confidence issues which has affected their wellbeing for longer periods of time.

When working with self-confidence and self-esteem challenges it is of course important how well we are able to be appreciative of ourselves – how well we manage to put the spotlight on own current and potential strengths and positive qualities. However, sometimes we cannot see all the diamonds that are waiting to be discovered or repolished if we are only looking through our own eyes; other viewpoints can give us additional strengthening insights.

At times, it has been short of amazing to see the reactions of people taking in “positive-only” feedback from their colleagues/teammates, managers/coaches, and other people who are important to them. It’s like seeing a spark ignited in their eyes that slowly spreads to their whole body, lifting their chin up, straightening their back, pushing their shoulders back, making it easier to breath. And letting those corners of the mouth curve upwards, ever so slightly.

You can almost read the thoughts crossing in their heads: “Does he really think that of me…?”, ”And she really thinks I would be up for that?”, “But that is nothing – I didn’t know it could have such a big impact…”, “Could I really…?”

It’s like witnessing something grow in front of you, just on speed-dial. Absolutely miraculous. And the only thing that was done was to ask for a little purely positive feedback from some people.

I know, I know – to grow and flourish we also need to work on our shortcomings (in Finland we call it “getting you back to the ground”). I firmly believe in “and”: Working towards developing your qualities and capabilities AND at the same cherishing and appreciating who you are now and what your abilities are. However, at times it can be beneficial to just focus on the positive, to build up the solid mental foundation, so it really gets a chance to grow and face challenges with an eager-to-develop mindset.

This has got me thinking how we could ignite this positive light a bit more around us, in little bits and pieces, not reserving and piling it up to appointed feedback sessions.


  • Fostering belief in one’s capabilities and igniting growth:

 Sometimes we need a tiny boost from outside to see our capabilities and the potential of them more clearly. For me, one of my personal gurus in this has been my former soccer coach in the US, Mark Krikorian. I played left back for him, but he wanted me to be more active in building the game, serving and scoring goals. His words still ring in my ears: “Don’t you worry, we are going to make a goals-scorer of you.”

He saw something in me I had never seen, and developing that role and the unwavering confidence he had in me just gave me such a boost that when returning from playing college-soccer, one of my Finnish coaches came up to me after a game and said: “What happened to you? You are so calm and confident on the pitch. What did they do to you over there?” (It didn’t last long, and I got back to looking at my talents as a player from a more “realistic” point of view at the time. Yeah, getting back on the solid ground.)

You can signal confidence in someone’s abilities in many different ways: by promoting them, giving them added responsibility, listening to them, seeing them, being there for them etc. Sometimes, however, straight words are the ones that can be the most powerful diamond boosters.


  • Benefitting peak performance:

Having gotten reminders of our strengths can help us buy into them more and have them as a reminder to ourselves that we do not have to do anything out of the ordinary when approaching a performance situation – whether it is a game, a speech, a sales pitch, a team meeting, or a negotiation. That often helps us to enjoy the situation more and lets us activate the best resources available at that time.

Like former football star Sami Hyypiä pointed out in an interview I had the privilege to do with him:

“When I played in Liverpool we had high pressure on succeeding. In my first season nobody knew me, and nobody expected anything from me, and it proved to be a successful season. It was much harder to start the next season, when people had 100% higher expectations, and I felt the pressure.

 However, I concentrated then to do everything exactly as I had done before. I concentrated on simple things. I realized that people didn’t expect anything more than how I had played the previous season.”    


  • Signaling group acceptance:

Experiencing getting positive feedback from important others in a group or team often satisfies a deep psychological need we have of belonging. It has its benefits getting positive encouragement from whomever, but getting signals from an important group we belong to makes us feel safe and wanted. “We see you, we respect you, and we want you in our tribe”-signals can be very significant both to individual and team performance, development and flourishing.

This should not only be the leader’s task. Appreciation roundsin teams can build these bonds, confidence and team commitment, by letting every member of the team be the subject to positive feedback from other team members.


  • Catalyzing thinking:

This is my personal favorite: Did you know that when offering a small bag of candyto doctors before they had to solve a medical case they tended to integrate information faster, were not stuck on initial assumptions and did not arrive at premature conclusions? In other words, feeling good boosted their thinking. (Personally, that makes we want to keep sweets in my pocket whenever seeking up a doctor.)

However, becoming an overt consumer of candy can have its side effects. Thankfully research has other cards in its sleeve, as well. For instance, when we are being subject to real and focused appreciation by others it helps us to think better, as well.

SPECT scans have shown that when we are thinking critical thoughts less blood flows to particular areas of the brain which are important for our thinking overall, in addition to solving problems and making good decisions. The opposite is true when we are thinking appreciative thoughts. In addition, the rhythm and pattern of the heart move to healthy levels.

Using this is might be a bit less sugar intense, yet giving the same benefit. So, why not start using appreciation as a “mental candy bag” you give to yourself and someone close-by?

And instead of reserving the appreciation rounds mentioned earlier for the end of meetings or once-a-year wellbeing retreats, why not make it a short opener for team meetings? (That is, if you want your team to think, of course. 🙂 )


  • Increasing good mood:

And maybe sometimes strengthening each other can also be something small and mundane, giving someone’s mood a surprise energy-kick.

Just by giving a positive nod to the bus driver, noticing the colleague with a smile, asking how your boss is doing (and actually really listening to the response), complementing your team mate on how she always asks great questions or strengthens the team with her humor etc.

Every day there are a million of tiny opportunities to play “appreciation tag”. I would love to see that game at school when you have to say something positive when tagging someone: “Tag, you’re it! You are always nice to everyone!” and off they go, strengthening the lot.


So, dear reader: “Tag, you’re it! You’ve made my day by reading this blog.”

Who are you going to tag, offering them a chance at a mental candy bag?


Best wishes for your day,




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