By: Jim Larimore, Chief Officer for the Center for Equity in Learning, is a guest contributor for the Reach Higher initiative

When LeBron James steps onto a basketball court he’s confident—and deserves to be. He’s skilled, swift, and smart. He has reason to be secure in his abilities.

If I were to take on LeBron, I could feign some swagger, but unlike Mr. James, when it comes to hoops, I am neither skilled nor swift, and I’m smart enough to know when I’m overmatched.

So what role does “confidence” have in our success—on or off the court?

Muster some bluster?

According to a recent study from ACT exploring “psychosocial factors” and their relationship to “first-to-second year college retention,” confidence plays a statistically significant role in contributing to success. Surprisingly, the contribution is negative.

The study found several factors positively associated with first-year college students successfully making it to their sophomore years, including:

•Academic discipline,
•Commitment to college, and
•Social connection.

No surprises there, but the study also found “academic self-confidence” was negatively associated with college retention, even though intuition suggests you shouldn’t walk into a classroom (or onto a court) without feeling as if you can win.

What gives?

It turns out some students do have reason to be self-confident. They have high GPAs and test scores, both of which signal high levels of academic preparation—which means their confidence is deserved.

Other students may be confident, but lack the grades or scores—which can reflect comprehension and mastery—to back up their bravado. Their confidence is likely built on a shaky foundation.

So, when you control for grades and test scores, per the study “the positive relationship between academic self-confidence and retention is lost—in fact, we observed a reverse relationship.”

So much for “fake it until you make it.”

Personalized Insights and Learning

One takeaway from the study is that solid data such as GPAs—or (ahem) nationally normed test scores—is important information to have when calibrating one’s confidence. The better insights you have, the more accurately you can assess whether you’re Mr. James or, like me, just another guy named Jim.

Another potential takeaway strikes deeper into the traditions of K-12 classrooms. If the length of a lesson is governed by the calendar, and not by comprehension, students learn that after a few days or weeks they’ll take a test, pass or fail, and move on.

If they’ve failed to demonstrate mastery, that’s too bad—because the classroom can’t wait for them to catch up.

However, if learning were personalized and students didn’t proceed until they understood the material, they wouldn’t advance to division until they mastered multiplication. At first they might move more slowly (not completely true, but that’s another column), but they would do so with mastery, meaning their confidence would be anchored in competence—just like LeBron.

When it comes to first-to-second year college retention, the focus of this study, failing to proceed to sophomore year likely means tuition paid with no degree to show for it, student debt, losing a year’s salary, a year not spent in a vocational program that could result in living wages—and an unwelcome and unnecessary blow to one’s overall self-esteem..

Coupling Confidence with Competence

Each May, self-esteem—a reasonable corollary to confidence—is marked during National Teen Self-Esteem Month®. The month is designed to focus attention on the importance of teenagers having a “healthy outlook of themselves.”

Self-esteem is always good, and the ideal way to experience the high self-worth that everyone deserves is to pair confidence with competence—and we should do everything we can muster to ensure the two proceed in lockstep, with one reinforcing the other.

When confidence gets too far ahead of competence, it may feel good in the moment—but just wait until LeBron steps onto the court wearing an opposing team’s jersey. Suddenly the illusions of confidence fade away, and the realities of preparedness and comparative competence loom large.

Earned confidence, however, endures. It helps students moving from their first to second years of college and likely lasts many years beyond that.

Confidence and competence is a winning combination. Don’t take my word for it.

Ask LeBron James.

*This blog was originally published on Forbes.com on May 31, 2018.