Self-Efficacy in Sport

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.

Self-Efficacy Theory

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.


  1. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.New York: Freeman.
  2. Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1–26.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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