confidence in fishing, kayak fishing, Largemouth Bass, psychology of fishing, sports psychology, tournament fishing, tournament kayak fishing
During the darkest hour of the recent pandemic, I started reading articles about sports psychology. It began with an article on the BBC news website about a phenomenon known as “Quiet Eye” that can be identified in certain elite athletes (I’ll have more to say about that in another post). It continued from there through sports journalism, scientific studies and science writing in various media. In short, I started to wonder how current research and concepts might apply to tournament fishing.
For example, I started asking questions about what’s happening in my body when I am fishing. How is physical exhaustion related to mental fatigue? What are my eyeballs doing in relation to what my hands are doing? Can I identify patterns of movement and thought – decisions I make – from my body language and movements in the countless hours of video I record? What is my brain doing? I began noticing things, and I started writing them up.
This second installment in my “Fish Psych 101” series is actually a sequel to the first article I wrote on the topic, which I posted last season. In that article, I began asking questions about how types of brain activity might correlate with results in tournament fishing.
Here, I dive into the recent tournaments since that streak in late 2022, waters I fished, and my general mindset. I may be starting to elaborate a theory about “confidence” that goes against the grain of what I hear in most conversations about tournament fishing. What I know for certain is that something dramatic has changed in how I approach the water, mentally speaking.
As before, I am elaborating basic concepts and attempting to summon questions more than I am deciphering answers. At times, I feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s poem, and I can’t quite figure out how to control the spell. Nonetheless, I make the cast.
Psychology is the study of how we think and how that thought is expressed as behavior. Behaviors may be determined by years and decades of learned activities, imitation and repetition. Understood in this way, our bodies communicate things that are happening in our minds. When we wonder at the grace, endurance and skill of how athletes move, we are also watching their bodies express what their brains are doing. In one sense, athletic activity is the physical expression of thought. At the highest level – say, among Olympians – it attains an super-human quality, as if we were watching another species on the move.
Science is still scratching the surface of what it understands about our brains. Sports psychology is perhaps at an even more complicated place, because it tries to decipher what happens in the complex relays from mind to muscle.
What do we know? Well, a human brain weighs roughly three pounds. It resides in our skulls and is faster, more creative and more complex than any computer we have made and that it is responsible for the astonishing spread and success of our species on the planet. We know also that our brains are, well, something of a mystery. That is to say, knowing we do not know something is also a way of saying we know something (pace, Mr. Rumsfeld).
Just the fact that humans have the self-awareness to write a sentence like that last one is remarkable.
In my previous article in this series, I explored my suspicions that brain waves are correlated with different states of mind we experience as tournament anglers. I do not have a lot of evidence, but what I do have points in this direction:
When I am tournament fishing, my brain oscillates between alpha (relaxed) and beta (engaged) states. I garnered this from video evidence of my body language as well as anecdotal evidence that shows that when I am fishing “loose”, I have more success. Fishing “loose,” would seem to correlate with the relaxed, alpha wavelength of brain activity.
I will continue exploring that line of reasoning here. Why? Because my 2023 tournament season picked up where my 2022 season left off: with a few good results, and then a pair of back to back wins.
Stats and Stuff
To review, in August-September of 2022, I fished in five tournaments. In chronological order:
- I fished a team event and was the team’s top angler,
- I placed 7th in a club event,
- I performed well in a third tournament with my team,
- I concluded with consecutive 1st place finishes on different lakes (Jordan and Falls).
In my final three events of the season, from mid-September to late October, I finished in the middle of the pack twice, and in the top 10 at the final event.
Note the shape of it: a strong start, a peak in the middle, and then a decline over the course of those eight events. It was shaped like a wave, and the two wins were the curving crest. As I also noted, this period of competitive success came after a long period of rest while I recovered from surgery.
A very similar pattern marks the beginning of my 2023 season. The resemblance is in fact uncanny. To begin, I fished six in-person tournaments. The results were as follows:
- I fished a KBF Trail event In South Carolina, finishing last, and then 15th, over a two day weekend in a field of 100+ anglers in late February,
- I fished a CKA club event and finished in the middle of the pack, with a short limit, in a field of 60+ anglers in early March
- I fished a CCKF club event and won in a field of 60+ anglers in mid-March
- I fished a CKA club event and finished in the middle of the pack, with a short limit, in a field of 60+ anglers in late March
- I fished a CCKF club event and won in a field of 60+ anglers in mid-April
Just like last summer, I had a period of extended rest, and when I resumed fishing I did reasonably well in two events (15th place, etc.) and then I won 2 tournaments out of three. And then, just like last year, my performance dropped: in a sixth event following the second win, I finished in the low end of the field (albeit in a place I had never fished before, a KBF Trail on the Potomac River).
What can we discern in this? Let’s begin with similarities between the two streaks:
- First, we have two very similar streaks during which I won two events, placed well in a couple of others, then tailed off as I tired.
- Second, both streaks were preceded by extended periods of rest, during which I did not fish for at least a month, or, in the latter example, during which I only fished once or twice.
- Third, I won the events on local lakes that were familiar to me and required less travel (and as a result permitted me more rest the previous night).
- Fourth, moving water. In the four wins, I landed the majority of my fish from water that had current.
- Finally, the streaks had a similar duration. The streak in the summer of 2022 ran from early August to mid-September. The one in early 2023 ran from late February to mid-April. Each streak spanned 6-8 weeks, and each was punctuated by occasional breaks between events
What were the differences?
- Seasons. One streak took place in late summer, when weather is hot, adding physical stressors that were not evident in the other, springtime streak,
- Lakes. In the streak in 2022, I fished lakes I had fished before (Jordan, Mackintosh, Falls). The streak in 2023 included several fisheries I was not familiar with (Murray, Norman and the Potomac),
- Distance. I traveled far more in 2023, adding up to well over 1,000 combined total miles. Travel-related fatigue played a role, especially in the final event on the Potomac. In the 2022 streak, I might have traveled 300 miles, total.
Having identified similarities and differences, let’s ask: what are the constants in the pattern?
I can say, for one, that rest appears to be a critical factor. In both streaks, I had extended periods of rest and also short breaks in between tournament weekends. When I began to feel tired, I skipped events that I might have otherwise fished. Why? Because we are only at the start of the season, and we have not yet entered the hottest months. I have to conserve energy and health.
My age is a factor in that decision. I am in my early fifties, and therefore not in my physical prime. I am, however, in my intellectual prime. My brain is engaged, I study in preparation for events, I visualize tournaments in advance, and I am making clear decisions on the water. Most importantly, perhaps, I am not tiring much over the course of long tournaments. For example, at the second win (CCKF Mackintosh, April 2023), I only had one 13” bass at mid-day.
That fish came shortly after an experience that might have crushed an earlier version of me and sent me home. As I reached a spot I wanted to fish, a truck drove through my creek. And it drove right through the area I wanted to fish. I was briefly tempted to go home, but when I noticed darker water in another creek, I followed it. With a friend I encountered along the way, I kept fishing without much urgency, and then find a motherlode of big bass. I was relaxed and decided to simply keep fishing. Besides, the weather was beautiful.
In addition to rest, I would say that fishing familiar water is also an advantage. Experience and memory are the key factors in that mix. During the two streaks, my success has been on three lakes – Jordan (one win), Mackintosh, one win, a top 10 finish and strong team events) and Falls (two wins). My weakest results were on unfamiliar waters (Norman and Potomac, and one day out of two at Lake Murray). My behavior – my fishing related decisions – have been relative to the fisheries, a kind of “institutional memory” acquired over decades of fishing those waters.
The Last Cast
I began this post by saying that I was exploring a counter-intuitive “theory” of confidence. One of the more influential early modern studies of confidence was published by W.M. Clark Trow in 1923. In that work, entitled The Psychology of Confidence: An Experimental Inquiry, Trow posited a 4 point scale along which to measure confidence. As Kenneth Little noted in the 1960’s, subsequent studies elaborated that research and also extended the scale to include a seemingly endless number of factors and variables. Is confidence an independent trait that persists, like bedrock, as a foundation for personality? Is it relative to conditions/environment? Experience? Can it be learned? Can it be undone? How does it manifest in different age groups? Genders? Cultures? Are there different types of confidence? Can we be confident in one area (such as a hobby or at work) and lack confidence in another (such as social gatherings)?
Psychology is a big pie, there is a long line at the bakery and everyone wants a slice. I can’t answer all of the questions above. Even one might take more space and research than I have time to do (for example, I have to prepare for a tournament tomorrow). And as I said when I began writing on the topic of how sports psychology might provide insight into tournament fishing, I am more interested in asking the right questions than in proposing answers.
Social sciences like psychology deal in probabilities, not absolutes, so there is no point in that chase. And when I look at charts like those in Trow’s influential study, I become suspicious. I accept that knowledge can be quantified. But numbers lack the refinement of words. They are abstractions; words are physical, and far more insightful.
What they do traffic in is patterns, tendencies and habits. From the evidence of those, we can infer meaning and identify characteristics. I suppose one could quantify those patterns, but I won’t try.
How to wrap it up? Well, where to begin? I have been fishing well. But since when? As I noted in the previous article in this series, only a long hot streak that ran from May through August of 2019 came close to matching my previous streak in 2022. But what if my current streak in 2023 were merely an extension of the previous one? Can it be considered one streak, split in two by an extended period of rest? In that regard, the streak began when I rested last July, fished hard from August through early November, rested again for most of three months, and then took off for two months in February-April of 2023. I guess that is one way to slice the pie.
But it doesn’t explain the matter of confidence. I can’t say that I wake up with the conviction “I’m going to win.” I know I can’t control certain outcomes and variables. For me, tournament fishing is about fishing against that lake, at that day and time and season, in those conditions. What other anglers do is beyond me. It is pointless to wake up and say “I’m going to win.” In fact, it seems counter-productive, because you are stockpiling energy that can easily be converted into disappointment and frustration. Why pour salt into the mix, when sugar will suffice? Again, this is the “Alpha” cliché’ at work, an impoverished caricature of masculinity mixed with bad science.
Confidence, as I am beginning to understand it, is the result of rest and experience. Anglers warn against “fishing memory”, or the practice of repeating what worked in the past (what psychologists call the “hot hand” theory). That isn’t what I mean by experience. Fishing from experience is not repetition – it is versatility that allows me to make good decisions in the face of a changing set of variables. Memory is static – experience is dynamic (pace, the Rashomon effect).
Now, confidence is not synonymous with those two factors. What I am saying is that they contribute heavily to my recent run, and that rest, experience and repeated victory have created confidence. But it isn’t a confidence in “winning.” It is the confidence that whatever happens, I will learn from it and emerge the better as a result. I suppose then that confidence is an open mind and a capacity for learning, thinking and calculations.
Those thoughts are expressed in some way through every cast and every dip of the paddle, though I am not quite sure how. And maybe I will never be; the point is that I keep moving.
First Published May 5, 2023.
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