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Self-Efficacy: The Key to Success in Sports
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"...refers to situation-specific self-confidence as “self-efficacy” which is the strength of an individual’s belief that he or she can successfully perform a given activity."
Without confidence in one’s ability, an individual cannot perform to his or her potential. It is even possible that someone with lesser ability, but with confidence, can outperform this person because belief in oneself can be a powerful influence. What is this sense of confidence? Albert Bandura refers to situation-specific self-confidence as “self-efficacy” which is the strength of an individual’s belief that he or she can successfully perform a given activity. The concept of self-efficacy has often been used interchangeably with the concept of self-esteem which is the process of evaluating the self; however, self-efficacy is more accurately described as a precursor to self-esteem and is mediated by the individual’s self-attributions.

Generally, a model for understanding self-efficacy is to consider an athlete faced with a specific situation. For instance, a baseball player is in a clinch situation: it is the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the bases are loaded, and a grand slam will win the game. Under these conditions, the batter will have thoughts about his ability to hit a home run. These thoughts, or attributions, are based on his appraisal of causality in similar situations. In particular, if the batter has hit previous home runs in tense situations, the batter will consider whether those outcomes were due to his effort or due to lucky circumstances, whether the cause is stable, and whether he has control of the outcome. If he believes success is due to his effort, is stable, and is controllable, his self-efficacy in the situation will be high. Self-efficacy has been shown to influence performance; therefore, the higher the batter’s self-efficacy regarding this specific situation, the more likely he is to hit the grand slam. In turn, the outcome of hitting the grand slam affects future attributions and increases self-efficacy, thus creating an ongoing positive cycle. Of course, this process can also occur in a negative cycle.

What creates self-efficacy?

The individual’s self-efficacy about a given situation tends to be derived from several sources of potential attributions. Previous performance experiences are the most significant source of attributions that affects the development of self-efficacy. For example, a golfer makes his putt on the last three holes, his belief that he can make the next putt is increased. However, if he did not make the last three putts, this his belief in his ability to putt is decreased.

Another source of information that affects self-efficacy is observing others performing a specific task, referred to as “vicarious experiences.” If an athlete observes someone successfully perform a specific behavior that appears to be within the athlete’s skill range, the athlete’s self-efficacy regarding that behavior may increase. This is a weaker relationship than previous performance experiences possibly because as observed behaviors become more complex and out of the athlete’s skill level, it does not enhance self-efficacy.

Other sources of information include verbal persuasion and the athlete’s physiological state of arousal; however, these sources have not been empirically shown to have much impact on self-efficacy. The lack of impact from verbal persuasion may be due to recent previous performance experience tending to override the verbal persuasion. In other words, if an athlete just had a bad performance experience, she may be less likely to listen to a coach’s persuasion that she is capable of performing a specific task. However, from cognitive theory, we know that if persuasion is logically based, then it can be more effective. For instance, if the coach uses examples of specific past performances or related skills, then the athlete’s self-efficacy may be influenced. However, the research evidence is not strong in this area.

Finally, the athlete’s physiological state of arousal has not been particularly significant in predicting changes in self-efficacy possibly because level of arousal can be interpreted negatively or positively by different individuals.

How is self-efficacy increased?

1) Building Upon Successful Experiences. Given that we know the components of self-efficacy and the sources of information that change self-efficacy, we are capable of developing strategies to increase self-efficacy. For instance, previous performance is the strongest factor affecting self-efficacy; therefore, a coach may want to set up situations that provide for successful experiences for the athlete. An effective method can be to break down more complex skills into smaller, more specific components that challenge the athlete but are within his or her current ability level. The martial arts are an example of a systematic approach to this concept. For each belt rank in the martial arts, certain skills are taught starting with basic skills and building upon those skills until the more complex skills are learned at the higher belt level. For instance, a student is first taught simple kicks, then the kicks may be combined with extension techniques to obtain distance, then basic jump kicks are taught, and finally, the more complex jump kicks are taught. The skills at each level are challenging but not overwhelming to the athlete. This allows the athlete to have successful experiences which increases self-efficacy.

2) Observations of Peers' Success. Another method of increasing self-efficacy is having an athlete observe others successfully performing a skill. However, it is not enough to observe the skill but also believe that she has the ability to copy what she observed. If she is watching an elite figure skater do a triple loop she is not going to believe that she can copy it, but if she observes a friend with similar abilities do a spin she may have greater belief in her ability to copy the technique.

3) Specific Positive Feedback. Verbal persuasion can also be used to increase self-efficacy either in combination with the above methods or alone. Generally, with verbal persuasion it is important to be give very specific feedback which is best related to previous performance so as to convince the athlete of his or her ability to accomplish a task. Therefore, saying “You can do it!” is not as effective as saying “You successfully jumped 24 inches, you can do 26 inches.”

4) Psychological Skills Training. Finally, helping the athlete to learn to find and maintain his optimal level of physiological intensity to successfully perform can increase his belief in his ability. This can be done by teaching relaxation techniques to decrease intensity and self-talk to increase or decrease intensity level as needed.

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