Mastery And Control Beliefs

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.


  1. Bandura, A. (1997). Self efficacy: The exercise of control.New York: W. H. Freeman.
  2. Skinner, E. A. (1996). A guide to constructs of control.Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 71,549–570.


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