Social Cognitive Theory in Sport

Social cognitive theory (SCT), promulgated by psychologist Albert Bandura, has been used widely to explain  health  behaviors  across  different  populations.  Lifestyle  physical  activity  (PA),  resistance training (RT), and sport performance are examples of these types of behavior. Interventions to improve sport  performance  or  increase  PA  participation have been developed using the SCT framework and shown to be successful at changing these behaviors. This entry describes the constructs that are central to the theory; discusses how they work to predict, explain,  and  change  PA  and  sport  behavior;  and reviews key literature surrounding this theory.

SCT  emerged  in  the  1980s  during  a  period when  social  learning  theories  had  been  gaining  wide  recognition.  Bandura  differentiated  this theory  by  emphasizing  the  importance  of  human agency—the  notion  that  a  person  can  influence his or her actions, with one’s thoughts and cognitions  playing  a  central  role  in  determining  one’s behavior.  Human  beings  are  seen  as  capable  of self-reflection,  forethought,  and  self-regulation. Accordingly,  human  function  is  the  result  of  an interaction  between  behavior,  personal  factors (including cognitions), and the environment. This interaction  is  also  known  as triadic  reciprocation and  was  important  in  distinguishing  SCT  from other  social  learning  theories  of  the  same  period. Each component in this triadic determination can influence the other two. Thus, a change in behavior may  result  in  a  change  in  cognition  in  the  same way as a change in cognition can impact behavior.

Main Constructs of Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura  laid  out  specific  theoretical  constructs that would determine, predict, and explain behavior.  He  also  gave  details  on  how  these  constructs work  together  and  how  they  can  be  influenced, changed,  or  enhanced  to  change  behavior.  The main  personal  construct  of  SCT  is  self-efficacy and  is  defined  as  the  belief  in  one’s  ability  to complete  a  specific  task.  Barriers  to  self-efficacy refers to the confidence a person has to overcome obstacles associated with a certain behavior. This type of efficacy is often used in PA promotion and explanation.  Typical  barriers  include  the  environmental  (e.g.,  weather,  venue,  travel),  personal (e.g.,  schedule,  feeling  self-conscious),  and  social (e.g., no exercise partner, not receiving encouragement).  Self-efficacy  is  hypothesized  to  influence how individuals act, what activities they choose to participate in, the amount of energy they put into behavioral  attempts,  how  they  combat  obstacles, and the level of achievement they attain. Because of these functions, self-efficacy has been put forth as  the  most  central  and  influential  construct  in Bandura’s  SCT  theory.  In  fact,  Bandura’s  SCT  is sometimes referred to as self-efficacy theory. Self-efficacy  also  is  theorized  to  influence  every  other construct,  making  it  a  key  construct  in  behavior explanation and prediction.

Primary sources of efficacy information include mastery  experience,  vicarious  observation,  social persuasion,  and  interpretation  of  affective  and physiological stimuli. Successful past performance of  the  behavior  would  be  classified  as  mastery experience. People with prior success with the task would have higher levels of self-efficacy than those with  prior  failure  or  lack  of  experience.  Another way  to  change  self-efficacy  is  through  vicarious experience. Watching another individual, thought to be similar to oneself, successfully complete the behavior  would  increase  the  observer’s  own  self-efficacy. Social input, or persuasion, can also alter self-efficacy.  If  people  receive  positive  feedback from an important other, their self-efficacy should increase.  The  final  source  of  self-efficacy  is  the evaluation  of  affective  and  physiological  states. If  the  state  is  perceived  as  a  normal  or  positive response to the behavior then it will translate into stable  or  increased  self-efficacy.  If  that  symptom is  perceived  as  negative  or  abnormal,  however, self-efficacy  may  decrease.  The  effectiveness  of these  strategies  in  exercise  interventions  has  been investigated  and  vicarious  experience,  feedback on  past  or  other’s  performance,  action  planning, instruction,  and  reinforcement  of  effort  all  bring about  positive  effects  on  self-efficacy.  However, relapse prevention strategies, graded mastery, and persuasion have all been found to be ineffective for enhancing self-efficacy in exercise interventions.

Self-efficacy  is  often  compared  with  perceived behavioral  control,  an  element  of  the  theory of  planned  behavior  (TPB).  Although  similar in  nature,  they  are  two  distinct  constructs.  Self-efficacy  is  focused  on  individuals’  confidence  in their ability, whereas perceived behavioral control is  concerned  with  the  amount  of  control  people feel that they have regarding their participation in a  certain  behavior.  Many  times,  perceived  behavioral  control  is  measured  using  some  efficacy items, but these constructs are, in fact, different.

Another  SCT  construct  posited  to  influence behavior  directly  and  indirectly  is  the  outcome expectation—beliefs about the consequences of an action  or  behavioral  outcome.  Positive  outcome expectations  are  seen  as  motives  for  behavioral engagement,  whereas  negative  outcome  expectations are usually detrimental to performance of the behavior in question. For example, someone who believes  that  PA  will  result  in  pain  (or  exacerbation of current pain) may be less likely to engage in regular exercise than an individual who believes PA will decrease painful symptoms. Age may moderate  the  effect  of  positive  outcome  expectations on PA behavior, with the effect being stronger for older adults than for young adults. Outcome value or proximity also may play a role in this interaction. Typically, positive outcome expectations are measured  with  outcomes  such  as  chronic  illness prevention,  which  may  not  have  great  perceived value for younger adults. These types of outcomes are  seen  as  less  relevant  (or  distal)  to  their  life stage. Thus, the predictive ability of positive outcome expectations, as typically measured, may be less for young as opposed to older adults.

Outcome   expectations   can   be   positive   or negative but also fall into three categories: physical,  social,  and  self-evaluative.  Physical  outcome expectations are the positive and negative feelings that  are  associated  with  the  behavior.  This  category  also  includes  any  tangible  gains  or  losses. Social  outcome  expectations  refer  to  the  impact on  the  person’s  acceptance  by  important  others.  Self-evaluative  outcome  expectations  are  the positive and negative assessments made relative to one’s participation in the behavior. If participation is  viewed  as  improving  one’s  rating  of  oneself  or that it will heighten their self-perceptions, they are more likely to engage in that behavior.

Another  integral  construct  in  the  social  cognitive  framework  is  self-regulation,  which  involves the  use  of  self-directing  strategies  to  help  change or  maintain  behaviors.  Various  components  of self-regulation,  including  goal  setting  and  self monitoring, have been found to be related to health behaviors.

There  are  three  main  components  of  self regulatory   systems.   Self-observation   involves monitoring one’s behavior and performance. This component includes a self-diagnostic function and a  self-motivating  function.  People  can  diagnose themselves in terms of the behavioral patterns that they observe over time. They can determine what conditions  within  their  environment  are  present when they behave in a certain way. This information can be meaningful when attempting to learn a  skill  or  change  a  behavior.  The  self-motivating function comes into play when a person sets goals based  on  his  or  her  previous  performance  or behavior. The judgment process is the second component of self-regulation and involves developing personal standards or goals for performance and behavior.  Performance  can  be  compared  against a  person’s  previous  behavior,  a  certain  group  of important others, or in a collective. The collective comparison  is  an  evaluation  of  a  group’s  performance,  rather  than  an  individual’s,  and  is  particularly important in the sport domain. The third component  of  self-regulation  is  self-response. Based on the observed performance and its evaluation,  a  person  will  react  favorably  or  unfavorably. The type of reaction will depend on several factors, including the perceived importance of the task  and  the  locus  of  control.  If  individuals  feel that  the  task  was  personally  important  but  they did  not  have  personal  control  over  their  performance (e.g., the venue was inhospitable), then the reaction will be very different from if they had felt they had control over their performance. A person trying  to  elicit  behavior  change  may  develop incentives for positive performance of this behavior. For example, if a person met their PA goal for the month, they might treat themselves to a new workout outfit.

Also  important  in  Bandura’s  SCT  are  impediments and facilitators of behavior. Individuals may evaluate their own ability to overcome barriers to health behaviors, and if the barriers are perceived as too great, the individual may fail to engage in the  behaviors.  Alternatively,  if  one  is  surrounded by an environment that encourages health behaviors,  this  individual  may  see  this  activity  as  one that  is  easily  adopted.  Typical  facilitators  and impediments include the social and physical environment. Social support is an important facilitator. If an individual learning a new skill or changing a behavior has strong support from valuable others, the  person  will  tend  to  be  more  successful.  The physical  environment,  either  actual  or  perceived, can also facilitate or impede behavior change. This includes the built environment (e.g., neighborhood structures,  walking  trails,  essential  sports  equipment), as well as policies and rules that may be in place to help people be active or engage in sport, or  keep  them  from  participation.  Changing  the environment, either physical or social, can be difficult as these components are out of the individual’s control.  However,  change  in  the  perceptions  of these  environmental  components  can  help  people change their behavior.

All  of  the  aforementioned  constructs  work  in concert with each other to explain current behavior  as  well  as  behavior  change.  Self-efficacy  is fundamental  to  the  process  of  behavior  change in  that  confidence  in  one’s  abilities  can  provide the  motivation  necessary  to  initiate  a  change  in behavior.  Additionally,  self-efficacy  is  important because it influences several other SCT variables. Individuals  who  are  more  efficacious  are  more likely to believe that the behavior will bring about positive consequences. That is, they have positive outcome  expectations  regarding  the  behavior  of interest.  If  individuals  have  higher  self-efficacy, they  believe  that  with  personal  effort  they  can overcome the barriers to certain behaviors. Those who have high self-efficacy also set their personal goals higher than those who have lower levels of self-efficacy  and  are  more  motivated  to  achieve these  goals.  Not  only  does  self-efficacy  directly influence  behavior,  but  also  it  has  an  indirect influence  on  a  behavior  by  way  of  other  social cognitive  variables.  Both  outcome  expectations and  impediments  and  facilitators  also  indirectly predict  behavior  through  self-regulation.  People with  more  positive  outcome  expectations  who view  their  physical  and  social  environment  as supportive of their behavior will have better self-regulatory capacity, which should lead to positive behaviors.  In  summary,  self-efficacy,  outcome expectations,   and   self-regulation   have   direct effects  on  behavior.  Impediments  and  facilitators are theorized to indirectly affect behavior through self-regulation.

Evidence of Behavior Prediction and Behavior Change

PA participation has been explained using SCT in several different populations. Evidence has linked self-efficacy  with  PA  behavior  in  adolescents, emerging  adults,  older  adults,  and  people  with chronic  conditions  or  disabilities.  High  levels  of self-efficacy have also been shown to be related to better adherence to a PA intervention.

The  effect  of  outcome  expectation  is  often muted  by  the  effect  of  self-efficacy  on  behavior, thus downplaying the importance of this construct. However,  there  has  been  evidence  to  show  that self-efficacy, outcome expectations, social support, and self-regulatory behaviors all have independent predictive effects on PA behavior and play a role in behavior change.

Self-efficacy has been found to be the best predictor  of  change  in  behavior  and  maintenance  of that  change.  People  who  participate  in  interventions  and  increase  their  self-efficacy  for  PA  tend to also increase their levels of PA. Furthermore, if self-efficacy levels remain higher than at baseline, PA  participation  also  remains  higher  than  initial levels.

Evidence  has  shown  that  interventions  that include  action  planning,  or  detailed  planning processes  regarding  how,  when,  and  where  to perform activity, are more successful at increasing self-efficacy  for  PA  as  well  as  actual  PA  behavior  than  interventions  that  do  not  include  action planning.  The  mechanism  for  this  success  is  possibly  through  the  successful  use  of  goal  setting and  implementations.  Further,  successful  completion  of  goals  could  increase  a  person’s  sense  of mastery—thereby  increasing  their  self-efficacy. Another successful intervention strategy is instruction on the resources available to help participants to engage in PA. Receiving specific instruction on what is available can help people to plan their goal implementation  in  such  a  way  that  enables  successful completion of goals. This success may then increase self-efficacy and PA behavior.

Self-efficacy has been shown to be the mediating  construct  between  intervention  programs  and increased PA in a number of different populations. Post-intervention  work  has  shown  that  people who  have  higher  levels  of  self-efficacy  after  an intervention  tend  to  report  engaging  in  greater amounts of PA than those who have lower levels of self-efficacy.

Social Cognitive Theory in Sport

SCT  is  not  only  useful  for  understanding  PA behavior,  but  it  is  also  important  when  examining sport behavior. There are many similarities in the sources of self-efficacy between PA and sport. Mastery  experience,  achievement  of  goals,  social support  (verbal  persuasion),  physical  and  mental preparation  (interpretation  of  physical  and  emotional  states),  and  vicarious  experiences  are  the same in both domains. Some sport-specific sources of  self-efficacy  include  coaches’  leadership,  environmental  comfort,  physical  self-presentation, and  situational  favorableness.  Another  source  of self-efficacy  that  has  been  primarily  studied  in sport is imagery. Athletes can use this technique to envision  themselves  performing  successfully.  The use  of  imagery  has  been  shown  to  improve  self-efficacy  as  people  can  see  themselves  successfully completing the task, beating an opponent, or simply  feeling  confident  in  their  abilities.  Moreover, imagery has been related to improved performance (an effect that may be mediated by changes in self-efficacy beliefs).

Efficacy   beliefs   help   to   determine   people’s behavior in sporting contexts. Certainly, their efficacy level will influence which activity they choose to participate in and what kind of goals they will set. People with healthy levels of self-efficacy will set  challenging,  but  realistic  goals.  However,  it has  been  suggested  that  efficacy  in  the  sporting domain may have an inverted-U effect. Those with low  self-efficacy  will  not  do  well  in  the  activities they participate in because they will not put forth the effort and time needed to be successful. Those with  overly  high  levels  of  efficacy  may  set  their goals  too  high  and  lack  the  skills  to  meet  them. This  ultimately  sets  the  individual  up  for  failure and  discouragement  that  may  keep  them  from developing  their  skills.  Those  with  optimal  levels of self-efficacy tend to strive to improve their skills and continue to work hard even when faced with adversity.

Performance  in  the  sport  setting  (i.e.,  competition,  practice)  is  related  to  self-efficacy.  People with healthy levels of self-efficacy tend to perform at higher levels than those with either very low or very  high  levels  of  efficacy.  Sport  performances provide  very  tangible  evidence  of  goal  achievement.  Successes  and  failures  are  very  visible  and can  be  compared  with  goals,  thus  creating  a context  of  goal-directed  behavior  in  which  SCT constructs  become  very  relevant  to  performance. For  example,  those  with  high  efficacy  beliefs, when  faced  with  internal  thoughts  and  emotions, are typically able to focus on the challenge of  the  event  and  their  goals.  Those  with  low efficacy  beliefs  will  typically  focus  on  their  worries  (e.g.,  about  losing,  getting  hurt,  stress  and pressure).  This  loss  of  focus  can  be  detrimental to  performance  in  sport.  In  addition  to  impaired concentration,   sport   performance   can   suffer from  low  self-efficacy  due  to  increased  anxiety or reduced level of self-confidence or self-esteem. Individuals  faced  with  a  challenging  task  but doubting they possess the skills to meet the challenge will have low self-efficacy and likely experience  anxiety  or  concentration  problems,  leading to poor performance.

Beyond the Individual: Collective Efficacy

There  are  several  different  types  of  efficacy  in sporting  contexts.  One  such  belief  that  is  very different  from  the  PA  domain  is  the  construct  of collective  efficacy  (CE).  This  is  the  group’s  confidence  in  its  ability  to  achieve  a  certain  goal  or perform  a  certain  task.  CE  affects  how  much effort  team  members  exert  in  team  activities.  It also plays a role in determining how long a member is willing to continue belonging to a group or team.  CE  has  been  related  to  team  performance, even after controlling for past performance. Thus, building CE in a team may be a way to improve performance. CE can be enhanced using the same methods that are used to enhance individual efficacy, as long as they pertain to the team’s performance and goals.


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