Self-Doubt Definition

Self-doubt  has  been  defined  as  uncertainty  about one’s abilities, potential for success, or competence in performance situations. As self-doubt concerning  personal  abilities  increases,  global  self-esteem tends  to  decrease  because  self-doubt  presents  the threat  to  global  evaluations  of  oneself.  Hence, self-doubt  can  lead  to  both  self-handicapping (i.e., creating or claiming obstacles that reduce the probability of success while at the same time providing an excuse for failure) and overachievement (i.e., striving to perform beyond one’s capabilities) in order to protect the self from the implications of failure. As such, self-doubt is often studied in the context of performance.

Self-doubt  includes  thoughts  and  feelings  such as  wondering  whether  or  not  one  has  the  ability to succeed at important activities, having thoughts that focus on the bad things that might occur, feeling  unsure  of  one’s  abilities  more  often  than  not, and  experiencing  greater  emotional  impact  as  a result  of  avoiding  failure  than  achieving  success. Among university students, self-doubt is negatively related  to  variables  such  as  achievement  motivation,  self-esteem,  and  narcissism  and  positively related  to  variables  such  as  self-handicapping, social  anxiety,  and  “impostor”  feelings  in  which success is perceived as undeserved.

It  has  been  proposed  that  people  who  experience high levels of self-doubt tend to reduce their level of effort or quickly settle for mediocre solutions  when  faced  with  difficulties,  challenges,  or setbacks  in  performance  situations.  Thus,  while self-doubt  might  be  a  more  or  less  natural  reaction to failure, it might be the resilience and ability to regain confidence that is critically important to successful  performance  when  self-doubt  occurs. However,  subjective  overachievement  (i.e.,  the psychological  approach  to  and  process  of  a  performance) can occur when self-doubt is combined with  a  concern  over  performance.  While  overachievers tend to perform well on tasks, the challenge  to  being  an  overachiever  is  that  the  motive to perform well might be driven more by a desire to  gain  social  approval  than  by  intrinsic  motives such  as  the  inherent  satisfaction  in  being  able  to perform a task.

Despite  the  potential  risks  of  the  overachievement  relation  to  self-doubt,  a  common  message appearing in recent sport and exercise psychology (SEP)  literature  is  that  some  level  of  self-doubt might  actually  be  beneficial  to  performance  in sport, at least in some circumstances. For instance, there  is  an  important  distinction  between  performance  efficacy  (i.e.,  perceived  capabilities  to  be successful  during  the  practice  phase  of  competition)  and  preparatory  efficacy  (i.e.,  perceived capabilities to be successful immediately before the start  of  competition)  and  the  role  that  self-doubt might  play  in  each.  Self-doubt  at  game  time  can act  as  a  barrier  to  athletes’  effectively  using  their skills  because  as  performance  efficacy  decreases, performance  level  tends  to  decrease;  therefore, efficacy beliefs should be as high as possible when competition  begins.  Alternatively,  when  athletes already  have  at  least  a  minimal  level  of  efficacy, some  self-doubt  during  the  preparatory  phase  of competition can be beneficial because it might help protect  against  overconfidence  and  complacency, as  well  as  motivate  athletes  to  expend  increased effort in practice as a way to continue to enhance personal growth, skill development, and skill execution  capabilities.  While  theoretical  arguments supporting the potential benefits to self-doubt are compelling, there is little research to date directly exploring  the  complexities  of  the  relationships among  self-doubt,  preparatory  efficacy,  and  performance  efficacy  specifically  in  the  sport  and exercise context.

The  benefits  of  self-doubt  to  performance in  sport  and  exercise  were  observed  in  a  recent experimental  study  conducted  by  Tim  Woodman and   colleagues   with   participants   who   were skilled  in  their  ability  to  skip  rope.  The  experimental  group  received  information  that  the  rope they  were  going  to  use  in  a  competition  would be  more  difficult  than  the  rope  used  in  practice trials.  This  manipulation  was  a  way  to  decrease self-confidence  and  induce  self-doubt  among  the participants  in  the  experimental  group.  Results showed that those in the experimental group, but not the control group, improved performance on the 1-minute skipping competition task. The reason  for  the  improvement  was  not  clear,  as  there was  little  support  for  increased  effort  being  the reason  for  the  increase  in  performance.  Despite study  limitations,  this  research  provides  evidence that the relationship between self-confidence and performance  might  be  more  complex  than  generally  thought  and  that  a  little  self-doubt  might actually  be  helpful  to  performance  in  sport  and exercise.


  1. Feltz, D. L., & Wood, J. M. (2009). Can self-doubt be beneficial to performance? Exploring the concept of preparatory efficacy. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 2, 65–70.
  2. Hermann, A. D., Leonardelli, G. J., & Arkin, R. M. (2003). Self-doubt and self-esteem: A threat from within. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 395–408.
  1. Oleson, K. C., Poehlmann, K. M., Yost, J. H., Lynch, M. E., & Arkin, R. M. (2000). Subjective overachievement: Individual differences in self-doubt and concern with performance. Journal of Personality, 68, 491–524.
  2. Woodman, T., Akehurst, S., Hardy, L., & Beattie, S. (2010). Self-confidence and performance: A little self-doubt helps. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 467–470.

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