Self-Efficacy and sport- why is it so important?

Within the realm of sport it has been demonstrated that high levels of self-efficacy can positively impact and enhance sporting performance, with direct links to sporting facets including decision making (Helper, 2016; Helper & Feltz, 2012), coping ability (Feltz, 1988; Heazlewood, 2011; Nicholls et al., 2010) and motor skill performance (Feltz & Lirgg, 1998; Fitzsimmons et al., 1991; Lane, 2002). But what is self-efficacy and how can you improve your levels of self-efficacy to enhance your sporting performance?

What is self-efficacy?

To address the importance of self efficacy, it is important to establish its origins. Self-efficacy was originally proposed by Albert Bandura in 1977 and is defined as “an individuals belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviours necessary to produce specific performance attainments” (Bandura, 1977, 1994, 1997). Essentially, it refers to the belief you have in being able to perform a skill. For example, the belief you have in being able to score a penalty kick. Bandura proposed four main sources of self-efficacy that were the same among all individuals:

  1. Mastery beliefs. These are the most powerful sources of self-efficacy and refer to our previous experience with performing a task. For example, if you have performed a specific gymnastics skill previously, you have greater belief in your ability to be able to perform the same skill again.
  2. Vicarious experiences. This involves watching another individual perform a skill successfully and is most effective when the individual resides at the same performance standard as yourself.
  3. Verbal persuasion. This occurs through talk, whereby you are lead by others to believe that you have the ability to perform a task successfully.
  4. Psychological states. This relates to your underlying emotional state (affective state), which in turn influences your belief in your ability to complete the task. Generally, if you are in a more positive mood you are more likely to have greater levels of self-efficacy towards a task.

It can be suggested that self-efficacy beliefs are composed of complex processes relating closely to an individuals self-appraisal and self-persuasion. Self-efficacy differs from confidence as it refers to a personal judgement of what an individual believes they can do, compared to self-confidence which relates to the ability of a person to definitively possess the total ability equal to the task. 

“Psychologists have found that if a person has lower levels of self-efficacy they are more likely to focus on feelings of failure rather than success. People with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to cope better in adverse situations” (Park and Folkman, 1997).

Within the realm of sport, numerous bodies of research has demonstrated that self-efficacy influences and enhances sport performance. But how does this come to be? 

How high levels of self efficacy can enhance sporting performance

  • Decision making: The dynamic nature of many sports means that athletes must make the correct decision, at the right time and often under very restricted time constraints. High levels of self-efficacy may predict faster decision making times, as well as confidence relating to these decisions (Helper, 2016; Helper & Feltz, 2012a).
  • Psychological processes: Bandura acknowledged that success in sport depends on much more than just skill, suggesting an ‘individuals psychological state, cognitive functioning and self-regulation all play a part in how successful the performer is’ (Bandura, 1977). Research has demonstrated a significant positive correlation between coping self-efficacy and subjective performance (Nicholls et al., 2010), illustrating the ability for psychological self-efficacy measures to accurately predict sporting performance (Chan, 2020; Feltz & Mungo, 1983; Heazlewood, 2011).
  • Overall skill performance: The majority of sports demands individuals to possess a high level of effective, efficient and adaptive motor skill skills to produce successful movements; explaining why it is so important during sporting events. A systematic review into self-efficacy in the sport of volleyball provided evidence that self-efficacy influences the success rate for the majority of motor skill performances (Machado et al., 2018); a finding backed up by various other study’s in a variety of other sports (Feltz & Lirgg, 1998; Fitzsimmons et al., 1991; Lane, 2002). Essentially, the study showed that the greater your level of self-efficacy for a skill, the greater your chance of you being able to perform the skill successfully.

How can you improve your level of self-efficacy ?

As copious research has demonstrated the importance of self-efficacy in sporting performance, the question that remains is how do we enhance self-efficacy to directly impact sporting performance? The answer remains specific to the individual; however, literature has identified some prominent, successful ways.

  • Goal setting: Goal setting addresses whether an individual believes and has the confidence in their ability to perform a task. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves, and the greater the chance  they will achieve them and the firmer their commitment. But, for a goal to be attainable, it must follow the SMARTER  principle.
  • Developing coping strategies: controlling anxiety and stress levels can be a vital component to maintaining high levels of self-efficacy. Breathing techniques can be a good technique to control nervousness and reduce stress. Additionally, positive self talk can be useful in for psychological control and reinforcing past mastery beliefs.
  • Imagery: The relationship between imagery and self-efficacy is an area of sports psychology which has been studied vastly (see Beauchamp et al., 2002; McKenzie & Howe, 1997; Mills et al., 2000 ). For the most part, these studies have shown that athletes who used motivational imagery (e.g. imagining themselves succeeding) have had higher levels of self-efficacy, with imagery being able to mediate the relationship between self-efficacy on performance. A successful model proposed to help athletes with imagery techniques is the PETTLEP model which integrates 7 key elements to help create the most realistic imagery possible to help replicate the demands of the athletic task (for more information see Wakefield & Smith, 2012 )

Overall, copious amounts of research has demonstrated the link between self-efficacy and sporting performance; however, it is important to understand that self-efficacy is a multidimensional concept that can be influenced by various factors. But, establishing a high level of self-efficacy helps improve resilience to failure, having the drive to succeed, embracing challenges, acceptance, motivation and many other facets. High self-self efficacy can help you unlock your athletic potential.


Self-Efficacy in Sport

Confidence versus Self-efficacy

Understanding self-efficacy and goal setting

Imagery in sport: Elite athlete examples and the PETTLEP model

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, (84)2, 191–215.

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (pp. 71-81). Academic Press. 

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control. W. H. Freeman

Beauchamp, M. R., Bray, S. R., & Albinson, J. G. (2002). Pre-competition imagery, self-efficacy and performance in collegiate golfers. Journal of sports sciences20(9), 697–705.

Chan, C. C. (2020). Social support, career beliefs, and career self-efficacy in determination of Taiwanese college athletes’ career development. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, (26).

Feltz,  D.  L. (1988).  Self-confidence  and sports performance.  In  K.  B.  Pandolf (Ed.) Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (pp. 423-457). MacMillan.

Feltz, D. & Lirgg, C. D. (1998). Perceived team & player efficacy in hockey. Journal of Applied Psychology, (83)4, 557-564.

Feltz, D. L., & Mugno, D. A. (1983). A replication of the path analysis of the causal elements in Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy and the influence of autonomic perception, Journal of Sport Psychology, (5)3, 263-277.

Fitzsimmons, P. A., Landers, D. M., Thomas, J. R., & van der Mars, H. (1991). Does self-efficacy predict performance in experienced weightlifters? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, (62)4, 424–431.

Heazlewood, I. (2011). Self-efficacy and its relationship to selected sport psychological constructs in the prediction of performance in ironman triathlon. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, (6)2, 328-350.

Hepler, T. J. (2016). Can self-efficacy pave the way for successful decision-making in sport? Journal of Sport Behavior, (39)2, 147–159.

Hepler, T. J., & Feltz, D. L. (2012a) Path analysis examining self-efficacy and decision-making performance on a simulated baseball task. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, (83)1, 55-64.

Lane, A. M. (2002). Relationships between performance toward accomplishment and self‐efficacy in amateur boxing. Perceptual and Motor Skills, (94)3, 1056.

Machado, T., Balaguer, I., Paes, M., Fernandes, G., Stefanello, J. (2019). Self-efficacy in volleyball: What has been evaluated? A systematic review. Cuadernos de Psicologia del Deporte. (19). 76-94.

McKenzie, A. D., & Howe, B. L. (1997). The effect of imagery of self-efficacy for a motor skill. International journal of sport psychology, (28)2, 196-210.

Mills, K. D., Munroe, K. J., & Hall, C. R. (2000). The Relationship between Imagery and Self-Efficacy in Competitive Athletes. Imagination, Cognition and Personality20(1), 33–39.

Nicholls, A. R., Polman, R., Levy, A. R. (2012). Coping self-efficacy, pre-competitive anxiety, and subjective performance among athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, (10)2, 97-102.

Park, C., & Folkman, S. (1997). Meaning in the Context of Stress and Coping. Review of General Psychology (1), 115-144.

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