Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D., R.Psy.

Self-confidence is a relatively global and stable personality characteristic. Self-efficacy is a situation-specific form of self-confidence that involves the appraisal of one's competence to do whatever needs to be done in a specific situation. It is not concerned with the skill of an individual but with the judgments of what an individual can do with existing skills. It is specific to a given time and setting and may fluctuate greatly. For example, a sculler may be very confident when rowing a heat at a regatta. However, because of events surrounding other scullers' performances, feelings of being tired, and several rumors being circulated about the prowess of another finalist, that sculler may feel much less confident for the final than for the heat. Self-efficacy can be considered to be a person's perception of his/her abilities to successfully perform in a particular sporting activity.

Self-efficacy is a form of self-confidence that involves the appraisal of what an athlete can do with existing skills in a specific situation at a given time. It can be altered very quickly and thus, requires close monitoring by the coach.

Feelings of high self-efficacy raise the duration and strength of effort in aversive situations while low feelings lead to lowered efforts even to the point of giving up or not engaging at all in the threatening situation (Bandura, 1977). This means that when athletes face very difficult sporting challenges it is necessary for them to have high self-efficacy to produce a sustained effort. The strength of an athlete's convictions in his/her own potential effectiveness will affect whether coping with a given challenge will even be attempted (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Weinberg et al., 1981). Self-efficacy influences an individual's effort and persistence in the face of difficult challenges, potentially aversive situations, and events with high probabilities of failure.

High self-efficacy raises the duration and strength of effort in difficult and challenging circumstances. It is one of the principal ingredients that contributes to the ascription of "when the going gets tough, the tough [athletes with high self-efficacy] get going."

If an athlete believes that he/she will fail due to an inability to complete a competitive task or because of past performances on the same or a closely related task, he/she will likely avoid the contest or will quit after the first difficult challenge. Self-efficacy is lowered markedly if failures occur at the beginning of the learning process. For continued application to new tasks it is important to have initial successes in the learning progression.

When a new activity is started, or a new form of competition experienced, it is important that the athlete appraise him/herself as being successful. Otherwise, with failure self-efficacy will be lowered and the athlete's performance standard at training and in competitions will be reduced.

During competition preparations if weaknesses or a lack of readiness are perceived by an athlete, one should not expect much of a performance standard from that athlete. Such a situation is not healthy for developing a positive "attitude" towards competing. When losing or inferior levels of performance are likely, it is best to alter the specific goals for a performance to include factors which are under the athlete's control and can be achieved. For example, rather then trying to win, an athlete might be "challenged" to execute a particular aspect of technique for the first time, "practice" a new strategy in the competitive setting, or attempt to follow a particular sequence of strategy elements. That approach alters the nature of the competitive performance and sets the reasons for competing to be ones which can be controlled and attained.

Performance goals should have a reasonable probability of being attained when established. Goals which can be attained through the athlete exerting control over all the relevant factors are usually the best.

The proximity of goals also affects self-efficacy. It has been shown that individuals who strive for goals that are likely to be evaluated within a short time increase their self-efficacy to a greater degree than individuals who have goals set for a more distant time in the future (Bandura & Schunk, 1981).

Extended performances should be broken down into a number of segments, each having its own set of goals. The performance then becomes one of serially completing the segments and, in turn, trying to achieve the appropriate goals during the performance.

Self-efficacy is based on four major sources of information; i) performance accomplishments, ii) vicarious experiences, iii) verbal persuasion, and iv) physiological arousal state.

  1. Performance accomplishments are especially influential because they are based on experiences of personal mastery. Thus, the history of an athlete in performing the tasks which are required for an impending contest will influence self-efficacy. It is necessary that individual athletes experience considerable success and positive reinforcement prior to an important event to increase the positive self-appraisal of performance competency. This has particular implications for the type of training that is performed prior to competitions and the nature of the reaction of the coach and peers to the athlete's performances during that time.

    The coach should make deliberate attempts to engineer positive and successful experiences for the athlete for at least a week before a serious competition.

  2. Vicarious experiences are most influential when they are stimulated by positive self-modeling. For example, a suitable form of development would result from viewing a "highlights" film of one's own accomplishments and successes. The viewing of others in heroic films is often employed to increase self-efficacy. However, that is not as effective as the self-modeled format.

    The best form of visual input that can be used for "psyche-up" purposes is a film or video of an individual's or team's own successes prior to that occasion.

    During competitions the witnessing of teammates' successes can have a positive effect on the viewer. However, failures have an equal, and in some cases more, detrimental effect on self-efficacy. Thus, watching other competitors prior to a competitive performance is risky if positive outcomes are not assured.

    Watching others perform in a competition prior to competing runs the risk of the athlete identifying with errors and failures and, thus, lowering self-efficacy.

  3. Verbal persuasion is often attempted through the provision of inspirational talks by sporting legends and heroes. Rousing speeches by the coach indicating the importance of an event and what consequences could result from a success are also common attempts to raise self-efficacy. These activities aim to develop the belief in the listening athletes that they can cope successfully with what has been difficult for them in the past. Verbal persuasion will have the greatest impact on those persons who have a reasonable basis for high levels of self-efficacy. Perhaps the best form of verbal persuasion would come from the athlete him/herself. Having each athlete justify in detail why he/she can attain particular goals for a performance is a good recipe for exploiting this feature to its fullest.

    Public self-justification of why an athlete should perform well is probably a more effective technique than any pep-talk or inspirational speech for increasing self-efficacy.

  4. The physiological state of arousal is important for energizing the level of effort that is applied to a task. If the aroused state is perceived as being beneficial to the athlete, for example, when it is part of a "psyche-up", it will help the performer. If the level of arousal is such that it does not seem to be controlled (i.e., the athlete complains about the bodily sensations caused by the arousal), performance will not be facilitated. Thus, beneficial self-efficacy must be accompanied by controlled arousal (Rushall & Potgieter, 1987).

    The "psyche-up" state achieved by an athlete must be controlled and interpreted by the athlete as being beneficial.

There are times when self-efficacy is not beneficial. Situations where there is not a high incentive to perform maximally (e.g., when playing a particularly weak opponent), there are social constraints (e.g., "new" rules are applied for a particular contest that do not allow the athlete to fully exploit his/her skill repertoire), and when there are physical constraints (e.g., playing the role of a specialist substitute rather than a game-starter) serve to lower performance levels. Self-efficacy will be unpredictable when a competitive situation is ambiguous, lacking in information, or contains a high degree of uncertainty (e.g., poor organization). This means that in a sporting situation, self-efficacy becomes important as a performance modifier when the competitive circumstance is quite well defined and the level of importance of the competition is quite high (Grace, 1983).

Self-efficacy can be developed, usually adequately, in controlled predictable conditions. When a situation is not stable it is best to focus an athlete's performance on factors over which he/she has control.

Information about efficacy is processed by athletes and will influence the relationship between future efficacy assessments and behavior. For example, the strength of the consequences, whether they be successes or failures, will produce a varied impact. Individuals who place a high negative valence on failure are likely to be more affected after a failure than those who do not. Persons who perceive successes as having a high level of reinforcing strength will increase self-efficacy to a greater level than those who treat success with obvious and sincere "humility." The perceptions of individuals of what are "successful" performances vary markedly. Before one can assume that a success is perceived as a success by a particular athlete it is necessary to verify that perception. It has been shown that coaches and athletes perceive the standards of athletic performance usually in more different than similar ways (Rushall & Fiorini, 1982).

Events affect individuals in different ways. The factors which control self-efficacy vary in their nature and impact between athletes.

Self-efficacy is usually described according to three parameters.

There are a number of tools that have been developed to measure self-efficacy. However, in practical terms, it is highly unlikely that athletes will be able to answer tests just before a contest to be able to determine an inexact indication of self-efficacy. In serious athletes verbal self-reports are as accurate as any other form of measurement. Thus, it becomes important for coaches to listen to what athletes are saying before competitions, in change-rooms, and in the warm-up area to determine self-efficacy. The nature of the verbal content, the balance between positive and negative predictions, and the enthusiasm shown by the athlete while preparing for the upcoming contest reveal valid information for assessing an athlete's state of self-efficacy. When high levels of self-efficacy are obvious there is no need for a coach to react. However, when low levels are interpreted, it is time for the coach or attendant sport psychologist to react with a crisis management technique.

Listening to and analyzing the verbal content of what an athlete says is perhaps one of the best methods for assessing the state of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is a factor which must be considered when attempting to have athletes achieve their best readiness states for a competition. Its variation will produce performance inconsistencies.


  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
  2. Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-evaluating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598.
  3. Grace, M. (1983). The relationship of pre-competition arousal assessments to self-perceived performance competencies in rowers. Unpublished Master's thesis, Lakehead University, Canada.
  4. Rushall, B. S., & Fiorini, A. (1982). Objective and self-perceived performance adequacies in collegiate basketball players. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 7, 123-126.
  5. Rushall, B. S., & Potgieter, J. R. (1987). The psychology of successful competing in endurance events. Pretoria: The South African Association for Sport Science, Physical Education, and Recreation.
  6. Weinberg, R. S., Gould, D., Yukelson, D., & Jackson, A. (1981). The effect of preexisting and manipulated self-efficacy on a competitive muscular endurance task. Journal of Sport Psychology, 4, 345-354.

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