Self-efficacy is a construct introduced by Albert Bandura, arguably among the most eminent cognitive psychologists of the 20th century. Based on his clinical work (mostly dealing with helping people overcome their anxiety and phobias to such things as snakes), Bandura proposed a social cognitive theory (SCT) to explain and predict psychological changes achieved by different modes of treatment. Within this SCT, Bandura believed that people are capable of intentionally making things happen by their actions (human agency) and that making things happen is more likely when people believe in their abilities to do so (self-efficacy). Specifically, self-efficacy is the part of the theory that refers to people’s beliefs that they can do something successfully. Self-efficacy beliefs are judgments about what people think they can do with the skills they have (e.g., I think I can . . .). Bandura considered self-efficacy to be the foundation of human agency and the most important part of behavior change. In sport and exercise psychology (SEP), self-efficacy is considered to be the most important psychological state that affects performance. Researchers in SEP have been studying self-efficacy since the 1980s, and there are several hundred articles and at least one book dedicated to self-efficacy in sport. Its popularity stems from its research-tested theoretical assertions and ease of practical application for intervention purposes.
Within the larger framework of SCT, Bandura proposed the self-efficacy theory as a way of identifying modifiable antecedents of self-efficacy and related cognitive, behavioral, and affective outcomes. The theory has self-efficacy acting as the common cognitive mediator between sources and outcomes.
Sources of Self-Efficacy Beliefs
Bandura proposed that four principal sources of information are used to build, maintain, and regain self-efficacy beliefs. They are past performance accomplishments (also called mastery or performance experiences or enactive mastery experience and attainment and refer to clear successes and failures), vicarious experiences (also called social comparisons, observational learning, or modeling), verbal persuasion (defined as encouragement and persuasive techniques, provided by a range of social influences including coaches, team-mates, parents, teachers, and even oneself) and physiological (e.g., heartbeat, breathing rate) and emotional (e.g., mood, emotions, affect) states. Although Bandura operationalized physiological and emotional states as a combined influence on self-efficacy, some researchers have separated physiological states from emotional states to examine these antecedents of self-efficacy separately. Also, imaginal experiences (e.g., imagining oneself or others behaving effectively or ineffectively) have been operationalized as a form of vicarious experience or as a separate unique antecedent of imagery. The key to improving self-efficacy beliefs using imagery is that the athlete or exerciser must see himself or herself demonstrating mastery (rather than failure).
Self-efficacy beliefs, whether accurate or faulty, are a product of a complex process of self-appraisal and self-persuasion that relies on the cognitive processing of information from these sources. For example, past performance accomplishments are considered to be the most influential and dependable source of efficacy information because they are based on a person’s own experiences. Success raises efficacy beliefs and failures lower them. The influence of past performance on self-efficacy beliefs depends on other factors such as the perceived difficulty of the task, the amount of guidance received, the pattern of success and failure, the effort expended, and the person’s appraisal of locus of control (i.e., ability as skill rather than inherent aptitude). Successful accomplishments on difficult tasks, without external assistance and with only occasional failures, have the greatest positive efficacy value. Based on this type of information, instructional strategies (such as skill progressions, performance aids, physical guidance, simulations, and equipment modifications) have been used to build self-efficacy beliefs. For example, coaches can help arrange efficacy-enhancing situations by not putting their athletes into situations that are likely to bring repeated failure. Efficacy information can also be gained by observing and comparing oneself to others (i.e., modeling and social comparison, which is part of the vicarious experiences source), by verbal persuasion (i.e., self-talk, feedback framing, coaches’ pregame speeches, attribution training), by appraisal and interpretation of physiological and emotional states (e.g., interpreting “butterflies” as being ready for competition instead of being nervous), and by using imagery (i.e., visualizing oneself being successful). Because efficacy beliefs can be changed (e.g., I can’t do this to I can do it), several intervention strategies have been developed based on these sources. It is these strong ties among theory, research, and application through intervention that make self-efficacy theory one of the most influential in SEP.
Outcomes of Self-Efficacy Beliefs
Understanding the outcomes of self-efficacy beliefs highlights why so much attention has been paid to self-efficacy beliefs and their sources. Sport psychologists have investigated psychological differences between successful and less successful athletes for years. For example, comparisons between athletes who made an Olympic team compared to those who were cut from the team showed that the more successful athletes had higher confidence. Confidence has often been used as a synonym for self-efficacy because it is more familiar to people like athletes, coaches, parents, and the media. Bandura stated that confidence and self-efficacy differ in the sense that confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not specify what the certainty is about. For example, someone can be extremely confident that he or she will fail a test. Self-efficacy is theoretically positive in nature, involving affirmation and accomplishment. Many sport psychologists use the word confidence in professional practice, but in research writing, especially when referring to the theory, self-efficacy is typically used.
Bandura proposed that efficacy beliefs are the primary determinant of people’s level of motivation to accomplish a specific goal. More specifically, self-efficacy beliefs affect behavior (i.e., what people choose to do, how much effort they put into it, and their persistence in the face of difficulties), goals and self-regulation, thought patterns (i.e., attributions, decision making [DM], style of thinking), and emotional reactions (e.g., anxiety, worry, fear). Much of the focus of sport research has been on the relationship between self-efficacy and performance. A consistent finding is that self-efficacy has a positive relationship with performance. With the requisite skills and motivation, people who are more efficacious outperform those who have lower self-efficacy.
Measurement of Self-Efficacy Beliefs
Self-efficacy beliefs are measured along three dimensions: level, strength, and generality. Level refers to people’s expected performance accomplishments at increasing levels of difficulty. For example, a golfer may rate his or her self-efficacy using a 0 (no confidence) to 10 (high confidence) scale that he or she could putt into a hole at varying distances. Strength refers to the certainty of people’s beliefs that they can attain these different levels of performances. For example, two golfers may believe they can make a putt from 30 feet away (level), but one may be more certain than the other (strength). Generality refers to the number of areas that people judge themselves to be efficacious in and the transferability of efficacy judgments across these areas. For example, a golfer may generalize his or her exceptional skills and high efficacy beliefs for putting relate to driving as well. Self-efficacy measures are usually situation-specific, created for the skills or tasks being investigated.
Different Types of Self-Efficacy
There are many different types of efficacy beliefs, with the most commonly studied in SEP being task efficacy, coping efficacy, self-regulatory efficacy, barrier efficacy, scheduling efficacy, and collective efficacy (CE). Task efficacy is used to describe beliefs in capabilities to perform a certain task (e.g., athletes’ beliefs regarding their ability to score a goal). Coping efficacy (also called ameliorative efficacy) refers to beliefs regarding one’s ability to cope with diverse threats such as stress, unwanted and negative thoughts, and pain. An example of coping efficacy would be athletes’ beliefs regarding their abilities to control negative thoughts about their performances. Self-regulatory efficacy describes beliefs about one’s ability to complete a task while overcoming difficulties to successful behavioral performance. This type of efficacy considers a person’s motivation, thought processes, emotional states, and patterns of behavior. For exercisers, a common conceptualization of self-regulatory efficacy is called barrier efficacy. An example would be being able to stick with an exercise program when faced with competing time demands, bad weather, or low social support, among others. Scheduling efficacy is a similar type of efficacy belief with particular relevance to exercise settings. When assessing scheduling efficacy, researchers and practitioners are interested in measuring whether one can regularly schedule exercise sessions into daily living activities.
CE is also known as team efficacy. It is considered to be an extension of self-efficacy to the team level although there are important differences because of the group dynamic. Theoretically, the efficacy of the team is based on many of the same sources of self-efficacy but there are unique sources such as group size, the length of time the team has been together, and outside sources like spectator and media influences. The outcome of CE most often studied has been performance, although there is some interest in group dynamic variables like cohesion. There are measures developed to assess CE in sport, and the same results have generally been found: the more confident teams are the most successful. The type of sport or degree of interdependence has implications for these relationships. In more interdependent or interactive sports (e.g., hockey, basketball), CE is a better predictor of performance than self-efficacy. In less interdependent or coactive sports (e.g., golf, bowling), self-efficacy is the better predictor of performance. These results tell us that interventions should focus on CE for interdependent sports and self-efficacy for coactive sports. Another interesting program of research has been to track self-efficacy and team efficacy across a season. Researchers have shown that after a win, both self-efficacy and team efficacy ratings increase. But after a loss, team efficacy decreases but self-efficacy either goes up or remains the same. These findings are interesting because they show that athletes may have a tendency attribute losses externally, which allows them to keep a strong and resilient self-efficacy.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.New York: Freeman.
- Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1–26.
- Feltz, D. L., Short, S. E., & Sullivan, P. J. (2008). Selfefficacy in sport: Research and strategies for working with athletes, teams and coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Moritz, S. E., Feltz, D. L., Fahrbach, K. R., & Mack,D. E. (2000). The relation of self-efficacy measures to sport performance: A meta-analytic review. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 71, 280–294.
- Short, S. E., & Ross-Stewart, L. (2009). A review of selfefficacy based interventions. In S. Mellalieu & S. Hanton (Eds.), Advances in applied sport psychology: A review (pp. 221–280). Oxford, UK: Routledge.