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Bishop: Confidence "an everyday challenge” for women

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The Olympic medallist explained how focusing on everyday beliefs and what’s possible can build confidence

“Confidence is what enables us to be the best self we can be” but it’s also “an everyday challenge”, according to Cath Bishop, former senior diplomat, Olympic rower and leadership speaker.

Speaking at GAP Performance’s Overcoming the gender confidence gap event, Bishop said that there are two stages to tackling the gender confidence gap: “working with women who are in the workplace now to help them manage imposter syndrome”, and “helping the next generation manage this from the start”.

Bishop shared her own experiences going from being “unconfident and uncomfortable” in sport to becoming an Olympic medallist. “My school reports say ‘average at PE’ and ‘has a negative attitude to PE’ and I always felt I wasn’t sporty,” she said. “Then I went to university and had no intention of doing sport… about a month in I had a friend who did rowing and needed someone to fill a seat.”

Bishop explained that she had a "conversation in [her] head, with one voice saying 'no you won’t be good' and one saying 'it looks fun'”and that the two voices ended up “battling it out”.

“Confidence for me is the voices we listen to,” she explained. “We’ll always have a voice saying ‘don’t do it you’ll look stupid’ and one saying ‘just give it a go’. It’s about dialling up that second voice and giving it a go.”

Bishop said that even as a member of the Olympic team “those voices were still there” for her. Confidence comes from mindsets, behaviours and relationships, she added.

Bishop pointed to three critical areas for unlocking performance capabilities: clarity, constant learning and collaboration. These areas help to close a person's confidence gap and in turn the performance gap, she said.

Regarding constant learning there are several high-performing learning habits, including feedback, which can help give perspective, Bishop advised. Reviewing performance was also cited as a habit, with Bishop suggesting the need to always focus on what went well first, rather than what didn’t go so well.

“It’s about acknowledging that even if you didn’t win something you still showed some winning strengths in parts of what you did,” she said. “You can’t build confidence if you don’t recognise the good stuff.”

Bishop recommended techniques her coaches used to prepare her for major sports events, such as building an “evidence wall” with evidence of successes. This means “when you have a wobble or those imposter moments you have a visual picture to show you why you are capable”, she said. Another tip was to “focus on the things you can control” and the small steps.

Winning an Olympic medal wasn’t Bishop's long-term aim, she said. Instead she built up confidence by taking the “small steps to get to the next level and then the next level and the next”, something she encourages other senior female professionals to do.

“What feels like a huge gap between where you are now and the aim at the end is actually lots of small things,” she said. “We need to focus on those everyday beliefs. Don’t ask what’s wrong; ask what’s possible.”

Then when faced with a challenge or lack of confidence, as Bishop was going into an Olympic race after a first-round loss, “focus on those small changes [you] could make to bridge that bigger gap”. In her case this involved focusing on small changes to strokes.

However, this is something organisations don’t tend to do, said Bishop. She encouraged them to stop “just looking at the surface of performance” and instead “the deeper level”.