Self-doubt has been defined as uncertainty about one’s abilities, potential for success, or competence in performance situations. As self-doubt concerning personal abilities increases, global self-esteem tends to decrease because self-doubt presents the threat to global evaluations of oneself. Hence, self-doubt can lead to both self-handicapping (i.e., creating or claiming obstacles that reduce the probability of success while at the same time providing an excuse for failure) and overachievement (i.e., striving to perform beyond one’s capabilities) in order to protect the self from the implications of failure. As such, self-doubt is often studied in the context of performance.
Self-doubt includes thoughts and feelings such as wondering whether or not one has the ability to succeed at important activities, having thoughts that focus on the bad things that might occur, feeling unsure of one’s abilities more often than not, and experiencing greater emotional impact as a result of avoiding failure than achieving success. Among university students, self-doubt is negatively related to variables such as achievement motivation, self-esteem, and narcissism and positively related to variables such as self-handicapping, social anxiety, and “impostor” feelings in which success is perceived as undeserved.
It has been proposed that people who experience high levels of self-doubt tend to reduce their level of effort or quickly settle for mediocre solutions when faced with difficulties, challenges, or setbacks in performance situations. Thus, while self-doubt might be a more or less natural reaction to failure, it might be the resilience and ability to regain confidence that is critically important to successful performance when self-doubt occurs. However, subjective overachievement (i.e., the psychological approach to and process of a performance) can occur when self-doubt is combined with a concern over performance. While overachievers tend to perform well on tasks, the challenge to being an overachiever is that the motive to perform well might be driven more by a desire to gain social approval than by intrinsic motives such as the inherent satisfaction in being able to perform a task.
Despite the potential risks of the overachievement relation to self-doubt, a common message appearing in recent sport and exercise psychology (SEP) literature is that some level of self-doubt might actually be beneficial to performance in sport, at least in some circumstances. For instance, there is an important distinction between performance efficacy (i.e., perceived capabilities to be successful during the practice phase of competition) and preparatory efficacy (i.e., perceived capabilities to be successful immediately before the start of competition) and the role that self-doubt might play in each. Self-doubt at game time can act as a barrier to athletes’ effectively using their skills because as performance efficacy decreases, performance level tends to decrease; therefore, efficacy beliefs should be as high as possible when competition begins. Alternatively, when athletes already have at least a minimal level of efficacy, some self-doubt during the preparatory phase of competition can be beneficial because it might help protect against overconfidence and complacency, as well as motivate athletes to expend increased effort in practice as a way to continue to enhance personal growth, skill development, and skill execution capabilities. While theoretical arguments supporting the potential benefits to self-doubt are compelling, there is little research to date directly exploring the complexities of the relationships among self-doubt, preparatory efficacy, and performance efficacy specifically in the sport and exercise context.
The benefits of self-doubt to performance in sport and exercise were observed in a recent experimental study conducted by Tim Woodman and colleagues with participants who were skilled in their ability to skip rope. The experimental group received information that the rope they were going to use in a competition would be more difficult than the rope used in practice trials. This manipulation was a way to decrease self-confidence and induce self-doubt among the participants in the experimental group. Results showed that those in the experimental group, but not the control group, improved performance on the 1-minute skipping competition task. The reason for the improvement was not clear, as there was little support for increased effort being the reason for the increase in performance. Despite study limitations, this research provides evidence that the relationship between self-confidence and performance might be more complex than generally thought and that a little self-doubt might actually be helpful to performance in sport and exercise.
- Feltz, D. L., & Wood, J. M. (2009). Can self-doubt be beneficial to performance? Exploring the concept of preparatory efficacy. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 2, 65–70.
- Hermann, A. D., Leonardelli, G. J., & Arkin, R. M. (2003). Self-doubt and self-esteem: A threat from within. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 395–408.
- Oleson, K. C., Poehlmann, K. M., Yost, J. H., Lynch, M. E., & Arkin, R. M. (2000). Subjective overachievement: Individual differences in self-doubt and concern with performance. Journal of Personality, 68, 491–524.
- Woodman, T., Akehurst, S., Hardy, L., & Beattie, S. (2010). Self-confidence and performance: A little self-doubt helps. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 467–470.