Control has been conceptualized in many different ways in psychological literature, but the prototype for control is the belief that an agent acting through some means can affect an outcome. Exercise and sport have been examined both as outcomes of personal control beliefs and as means to achieve health and fitness outcomes. However, the effects of personal control beliefs on exercise and sport can differ with the definition of control that is used.
In a comprehensive review of the control beliefs literature, Ellen Skinner argued that control has three main components: agents–ends beliefs (i.e., personal control beliefs) refer to the belief that an agent causes an outcome (e.g., I can win a sport competition); agents–means beliefs (i.e., self-efficacy beliefs) refer to the belief that an agent has access to a behavior (e.g., I can attend practice regularly over the course of the sport’s season); and means–ends beliefs (i.e., outcome expectations) refer to the belief that an action causes an outcome (e.g., if I attend practice regularly over the course of the sport’s season, I will win the competition). These beliefs can be conceptualized along a continuum from global and pervasive to proximal and situation-specific. Importantly, it is the perception of the ability to exert control, rather than the objective ability to exert control, that has meaningful consequences for outcomes. In other words, people will only attempt to exert control if they believe they have control; they will not enact control strategies if they do not perceive personal control over the situation.
Self-efficacy, defined as confidence in an agent’s ability to perform a specific behavior, is a situation-specific agents–means belief. For example, exercise self-efficacy refers to a belief about an agent’s ability to perform exercise, while sport self-efficacy refers to a belief about an agent’s ability to participate in a sport. A wealth of literature examining multiple domains of functioning and diverse populations demonstrates that self-efficacy beliefs are associated with concurrent behavior and also predict future behavior. For example, research examining behavioral interventions reveals that participants who enhance their exercise self-efficacy beliefs over the course of the treatment protocol are more physically active during the intervention and also maintain their exercise behavior after the intervention has ended.
In order for self-efficacy beliefs to be effective at predicting future behavior, the agent also needs to believe in the efficacy of the means to produce the desired effect or end goal (i.e., outcome expectation and means–ends belief). In other words, the agent should be confident in the efficacy of the means to produce the desired outcome. For example, people might believe that they are capable of exercising but might not believe that exercise will improve their health. These people are less likely to exercise than people with high outcome expectancies (i.e., those who do believe that exercise improves health). Thus, self-efficacy (an agent–means belief) is only effective at producing outcomes when outcome expectancies (a means–ends belief) are also high.
In contrast to self-efficacy and outcome expectancies, personal control is best conceptualized as a global agents–ends belief. In other words, control beliefs refer to more general beliefs that an agent can produce an outcome. Control has been examined in exercise and physical activity (PA) literature and studies reveal that this more general sense of control is correlated with exercise, such that those participants with a greater sense of personal control are also more likely to exercise. However, the effect sizes (ES) in these studies are typically small, indicating that the relationships reported among general control beliefs and exercise behavior are usually weak.
Because general control reflects a personality trait, it may manifest to different behaviors for different people via specific self-efficacy beliefs. For example, some people high in general control will also have high sport self-efficacy, while others might have high music self-efficacy or culinary self-efficacy. In studies simultaneously examining self-efficacy and general control beliefs for their relationships to outcomes, self-efficacy is the stronger predictor of behavior. General control, on the other hand, is not consistently associated with sport and exercise outcomes. Thus, specific control beliefs and self-efficacy is associated with specific behaviors and should be bolstered in individuals who want to enhance sport and exercise practices.
While self-efficacy beliefs impact behavior, behavior also impacts self-efficacy. Experiencing a success in a particular skill domain is considered a mastery experience, which boosts people’s confidence in their abilities in that domain. On the other hand, experiencing a failure in a particular skill domain undermines confidence. In accordance with Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT), research on sport and exercise shows that specific mastery experiences build self-efficacy and that self-efficacy predicts concurrent and future successful behavior. Thus, mastery experiences and self-efficacy share a reciprocal relationship.
On the basis of research and theory describing control beliefs and mastery, the most effective way to bolster sport and exercise behavior is to elicit successful mastery experiences by setting achievable and efficacious goals. Achievable goals are developed by identifying and targeting behaviors that are amenable to change and setting small, realistic goals. Furthermore, behavior should be monitored to ensure that the agent’s actions actually cause the outcomes, thus aligning subjective control with objective control and ensuring that goals are efficacious. These mastery experiences build self-efficacy beliefs, which then make future success more likely. Furthermore, if sport and exercise are areas of functioning that are particularly meaningful to the individual attempting to change his or her behavior, these mastery experiences and self-efficacy beliefs will bolster their global sense of control. Thus, sport and exercise behavior have potential implications for enhancing multiple domains of functioning.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self efficacy: The exercise of control.New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Skinner, E. A. (1996). A guide to constructs of control.Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 71,549–570.