Outdoors Column: Success is a real confidence builder

Swimmers in a triathlon can often bunch together, making for challenging conditions. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
Swimmers in a triathlon can often bunch together, making for challenging conditions. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)

Confidence is a funny thing. If you ever find yourself in a place you have never been before, out on a broad river or a beach that seems featureless, you know how important confidence can be. If you’ve cast for hours and hours with no response, you also know how easy it is to lose confidence. To paraphrase the great outdoor writer, William Harnden Foster, “to catch is history, to be shut out is mystery, and history is a much better teacher than mystery!” 

Having fished most of my career from skiffs, charters, and party craft, I never felt comfortable on the beach during much of the time we lived on the North Fork, and I often turned down invitations to throw lures into the suds. The day finally came when a longtime acquaintance, a great surf angler, literally dragged me out of the house with a surf rod and pushed me onto the gravel one fall afternoon at Horton’s Point.

Like most first attempts, this one was a failure; the one big bluefish I finally hooked swam around a big rock. I lost my footing — and the fish — and got a full three gallons of water in my chest-highs for my troubles! But I did see my friend catch, made some mental notes, and went back the next week — and the next week after that. It took a couple of more tries before the lessons stuck, but I’ve played the surf with modest success ever since.

We see this all the time when “rookies” fish tautog. Sometimes the worst thing for their confidence is standing next to a “sharpie” who effortlessly bails fish while the pilgrim is either replacing crab baits, dropping fish a few seconds after hookup, or setting up on structure and losing rig after rig. If the “pro” is kind enough to talk with the rookie or if he or she is sharp enough to observe the subtle way the pro is baiting, rigging and setting hooks that day, perhaps the riddle is solvable. If not, for the sake of sanity, the less experienced angler had best move to another position on the rail.

One of North America’s greatest guides, Mike Lazarus of Montreal, who fishes all species successfully from Belize to New Brunswick, once explained that not catching comes about in two ways. Either the fish are just not there (or numbers are so poor that the odds are tilted badly against you) or you’re just not fishing the right way.

In the latter case, a good angler can figure out, hopefully pretty fast, what the “right way” is, but there’s just no way to get around the former except heading somewhere else or coming back some other time. This situation is the one that frustrates so many first-time beach anglers. Hopefully, they will talk it over with someone who knows better, a surf club contact or a knowledgeable tackle store proprietor.

You can think of lots of sports where similar situations occur. First-time participants in triathlons are often put off by swimming starts in which everyone seems to be flailing away at everyone else. They signed up for a swim, for gosh sakes, not a water polo match!

We talked a couple of weeks back with an experienced runner of half-marathons who was so taken aback by the start of an 800-yard swim that she swore off even small sprint triathlons entirely. Unless you’re a terrific swimmer who can quickly pull out of the pack, you’re far better off standing well off to the side of the swim course and letting the pack get away for about a half-minute before taking off from the beach. You can pick off the swimmers in front of you one at a time. If your objective is to simply enjoy the event and finish with a decent personal time, the little bit you lose won’t make a difference over an hour and a half or more. If you’re dedicated, maybe you can make up the time on the cycle or the run.

Skiing, too, is a confidence thing. If you look down some gnarly slope and see nothing but lumps and bumps ahead of you and get a knot in your stomach when you push off from the top, you’re probably in for a bad, bad run, no matter how good your technique is.

If you look at the course in pieces and plan to take one turn at a time, perhaps stopping to reconnoiter a few times on the way down, you will not merely do OK — you’ll probably enjoy the run so much you’ll try it again.

To paraphrase another master philosopher of sports, one Lawrence Peter Berra, better known as Yogi, “The sports we play are 90 percent physical, but the other 50 percent is mental!”

If we get past the mental part, in other words, we’ll succeed. And nothing builds confidence better than success!