Creating Confidence - The Four Sources of Self-Efficacy [ARTICLE]

Creating Confidence - The Four Sources of Self-Efficacy

By: Matthew Buns

Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA



The purpose of this article is to provide coaches with a way to coach mental readiness and show why it can be just as crucial as physical readiness. A coach should not have to be a sport psychologist in order to realize how important is to performance to have a mental edge in track and field. In order to be mentally ready to compete and put forth an optimal performance in track and field, athletes must be confident in themselves’ and have a high level of self-esteem. Above this, an athlete must possess something more specific, a high level of self-efficacy. The goal of this article is to describe what the concept of self-efficacy is and how coaches can find sources of it and apply it to his or her athletes. Self-efficacy, in and of itself, has been shown to be a better predictor of performance than just outcome expectations (goal setting) before a performance, and as good of a predictor as anxiety levels (Gernigon & Dolloye, 2003). It is one of the most important, situation specific, mental aspects that a track and field coach can instill within their athletes.


Before discussing the sources of self-efficacy in track and field athletes, one must first understand what exactly it is, and how it is set apart from other psychological definitions. Albert Bandura, the founder of the concept, defines self-efficacy as the belief a person has in their ability to complete an objective successfully in order to obtain a specific goal (Bandura, 1977). In other words, someone with high self-efficacy has an unquestionable belief in their ability to go out and do something in order to achieve their goal. It is very specific to the task at hand and at that time, therefore, in this case it must be very specific to the athlete in regards to their sport of track and field.

Upon reading this definition, one might think that it is just another word for self-confidence, self-esteem, outcome expectations or another interchangeable word. This, however, is not the case. As stated above, self-efficacy is a term that is specifically related to the task at hand. In order to grasp this, some time must be taken to separate it from its would be synonyms.

The difference between self-efficacy and self-confidence can be discrete and hard to understand to anyone who is not familiar with the terms, but it is a stark, and important difference that must be understood in order to coach it. Confidence, first and foremost, is a general term about a broad subject. One can be confident in many things, including failure. Someone can be confident about a lot of things, a track athlete for example may be confident that they are going to run bad and not achieve their goal. Efficacy, however, does not have that possible negative side. It is also specific to the task at hand, whereas confidence may spill over to many different areas of life, not focusing on a single event. The most important thing to take away from the difference between the two is that confidence allows room for failure, but a person with high self-efficacy believes they will go out and succeed in their task no matter what (Bandura, 1997).

A difference must also be established between self-efficacy and self-esteem. Once again, this focuses around the specificity that is self-efficacy. Self-esteem, essentially, is a value of self-worth. It can apply to a lot of different areas in one’s life, all of which may never cross over and effect the other. For instance, a track and field athlete may have high self-esteem in the classroom and in their social life, but may still not care and perform poorly on the track without affecting that self-esteem. Self-efficacy, once again, deals solely with the task at hand; and cannot cross over to other areas. As evidence for this, Sherer and Madux (1982) found in their study that there was actually a negative correlation between self-esteem and self-efficacy within the athletes that they tested.

One final distinction must be made in terms of defining self-efficacy, and that is the difference between it and outcome-expectancy. This difference can be understood by looking at the one as half of an equation, and the other as the entire equation. Outcome expectancy is the belief that if you perform something a certain way, then the outcome will be a certain way resulting from that performance. Self-efficacy, on the other hand, is the conviction that one can do that performance successfully, and that the successful performance will yield a favorable result. It is essentially outcome-expectancy, plus the part that has to happen before it; and the belief that the outcome will be positive no matter what (Gernigon et al., 2003).


Now that self-efficacy has been defined and set apart from anything else, the major questions and main focus of this article can be addressed. How does a coach find sources of self-efficacy, and how does he or she coach and instill it within their athlete? As it is, there are four main sources of self-efficacy: mastery experience, modeling, social persuasion, and physiological factors (Bandura, 1977).


Mastery experience, or an accomplishment in a past performance, is the first source of self-efficacy in an athlete. It is also the most powerful source of high self-efficacy in an athlete, as it is driven by themselves (Bandura, 1977). Simply put, “success breeds success”. The successful completion of a task will raise future self-efficacy, and likewise, the unsuccessful completion will lower it. This has to do with mental processing that occurs when one has completed a task once. “People process, weigh and integrate diverse sources of information concerning their capabilities. They then regulate their choice behavior and effort expenditure on the basis of the perceived self-efficacy” (Bandura, Adams & Beyer, 1977). In other words, a completed successful task can influence the amount of effort and success in a future task. With this in mind, completion of these successful tasks, however, cannot be an easy, repetitive feat. In a study done on swimmers, there was a negative correlation between high self-efficacy levels and motivation to complete tasks when the goals being set were too low (Miller, 1993). In order to keep motivation at a high level and promote continually increasing levels of self-efficacy, one must keep the goals and tasks at a high level.

The coach’s role in this source of self-efficacy is to provide this opportunity for the athlete. In track and field specifically, this can be done in many ways. The first, and most obvious way is with prior competition. A good way to start this is to set an athlete up in an event at a low key meet, and breed the environment for success. Success in small meets like this will build efficacy for larger meets in the future. Consistently reminding the athlete of these past performances is also a key role of the coach.

Another way to build efficacy through mastery experience is at practice. Specifically with distance runners, this can be done through workouts. In one of the most widely used training systems in the country, interval workouts are done as a primary workout for the week and are done at a pace to build VO2 max, which is essentially 5K race pace. An example workout of this would break down to 8x1000 meters at 5K race pace with short jogs in between (Daniels, 2005). This is an extremely challenging and taxing workout, but it is a pace that should be what an athlete can run for a 5K. They can draw on the mastery experience of completing this workout to build self-efficacy for a future race. Likewise for jumpers and throwers, mastery experience can easily be simulated at practice. Unlike distance athletes, a lot of their practice can be simulating meet day actions. Thus, completion of a certain distance or mark at practice can provide mastery experience for them. Once again, making the athlete aware of this source is just as important as the coach realizing it themselves.


The next source of self-efficacy is modeling, or vicarious experience. This is basically mastery experience, except through watching another person. This is especially important with less experienced athletes, as they will often use the success and judgment of others to validate their own success (Gernigon, et al., 2003). Watching others complete a task successfully will increase an athlete’s own self-efficacy, and watching others fail at a task will likewise lower self-efficacy (Madux, 1995). Self-modeling, or observing one’s self perform successfully repeated times, has also been shown to increase self-efficacy and performance in sports such as hockey (Feltz, Short & Singlton, 2008).

Once again, the role of the coach in this source of self-efficacy is to provide the opportunity to the athlete. Modeling, specifically self-modeling, can be extremely helpful with increasing an athlete’s self-efficacy when it comes to running with proper form. Watching and critiquing video of one’s self and others running properly will lead to the belief that they can continuously do it properly. This source of self-efficacy is, however, probably best used in more technical events, such as jumping and throwing. Watching others perform the complicated movement sequences and the successful performances that result with the successful completion of the movements can enhance the athlete’s self-efficacy about performing the same task. As a coach, one can provide this by bringing a video tape to track meets, having an athlete watch a more skilled teammate perform, or simply by directing them to videos and coverage of professional events. However, it is best to keep modeling within the same level of competition, as past studies have shown that the modeling source is most effective when used with athletes with similarities to the athlete in question (Weiss, McCullagh, Smith & Berlant, 1998).



The third source of self-efficacy, social persuasion, is the verbal encouragement from another. This source most often directly comes from the coach. Although it can come from another athlete or parent, the strength of social persuasion as an effective booster of self-efficacy depends on “the prestige, credibility, expertise and trustworthiness of the persuader” (Gernigon et al., 2003). On most teams, hopefully, that persuader is indeed the coach. One must tread carefully when using this source however, as Bandura (1977) explains that negative effects on self-efficacy from verbal persuasions have more of an impact and a quicker impact on an athlete than positive effects do. Therefore, it is essential to be consistent with positive feedback, as one negative verbal comment could potentially have a larger effect on an athlete’s self-efficacy than a stream of positive persuasion.

Verbal persuasion from a coach must be sincere and believable, as well. “Persuaders must cultivate people’s beliefs in their capabilities while at the same time ensuring that the envisioned success is attainable” (Pajares, 1997). It is just as important to be realistic with athletes as it is to be positively persuasive, as unrealistic goals and persuasions will ultimately lead to failure in the goal, thereby reducing self-efficacy through negative mastery experience, which as discussed earlier, is the most powerful source of self-efficacy.

In the sport of track and field, verbal persuasion is very similar to any other sport. The easiest way to do this is to remind the athlete of the other two previously mentioned sources of self-efficacy. Use the evidence. Remind them of what they have done because as stated before, previous mastery experience is the most powerful source of self-efficacy, and reinforcing this through verbal persuasion will only make them all the more strong mentally. It is once again important to use this realistically, however, and this can be done through setting realistic goal times in races, marks in throws and jumps, etc.


The last source of self-efficacy, but certainly not the least important, is that of physiological factors. Simply stated, this has to do with the athletes’ perceptions of the physiological effects associated with exercise and exertion, such as nervousness, aches and pains, exhaustion, etc., on how they will affect their performance. These factors can have an effect on an athlete’s perceived self-efficacy depending on their current emotional state. A person with high self-efficacy will view these at face value: an effect of exercise; whereas a person with low self-efficacy will think more into and let these physical signs be viewed as a sign that they cannot complete the task (Bandura, 1997).


It is the coach’s job to get the athlete to a point where he or she will view these physiological factors positively, and even be able to apply them to a better performance. There are several studies that demonstrate the possibility of performing well and overcoming physiological perceptions during negative physiological effects.

A main focus for distance runners centers around the central nervous system. Tim Noakes has been at the forefront of this research. His research supports the idea that the central nervous system plays a large role in regulating exercise output. This research has formed his professional stance against the “peripheral fatigue model” presented by A.V. Hill in 1923, saying that the central nervous system is the principle limiting factor in performance (Noakes, T. D., 2011). He established the “central governor model”, which revolves around the idea that when oxygenation of the heart, brain and other organs reaches a dangerous level, the brain will begin to shut down systems (muscles and heart work output, etc.) in order to terminate the effort (Noakes, 2002). However, with mental training and experience, and in certain situations, this limiting factor can be overridden. This helps to explain many situations that cannot be fully understood with the idea that metabolic and peripheral fatigue are the only limiting factors. An example of this would be how at the end of an “all-out” endurance effort, runners have the ability to have a “finishing kick” at the end even though they are metabolically depleted and have been slowing down throughout the effort. A coach who realizes this can teach their athlete that the brain will try to terminate a run long before the body has exhausted the ability to perform, and the athlete who competes with this in mind will have a higher level of self-efficacy when these factors set in, leading to a more successful performance.

A second example of how physiological factors can be used as a source of self-efficacy can be applied specifically to more explosive events. This has to do with the term “post activation potential” (PAP). Physiologically defined, PAP is a phenomenon that involves increased muscle performance output during a short time frame (less than 4min) after a high intensity warm up. It is an interesting phenomenon due to the fact that common sense would make one think that one would be tired and not perform as well after an initial, high intensity activity. However, several studies have shown this not to be the case in many instances. According to DeRenne (2010), there are two main physiological mechanisms that are responsible for this. The first one involves the high intensity warm-up increasing phosphorylation of light chain myosin in the muscle, thereby increasing cross bridge rate within the muscle. The second involves increasing the activity in the spinal cord between afferent and alpha motor neurons. The combination of these two factors results in PAP (DeRenne, 2010).

Gerasimos Terzis et al. (2009) conducted a study to measure the effectiveness of PAP on shot put by using drop jumps as a warm-up. After an intense warm-up of several drop jumps, a significant increase in throwing distance was noted in male throwers. Rixon (2007) conducted another study with jumping using a PAP eliciting warm-up. He found that after a maximal isometric squat warm-up, jump height was significantly higher in athletes compared to not using this type of warm-up. This odd phenomenon is further proof that what an athlete is feeling physically is not the ultimate determinant of performance, as in this case; an exhaustive style of warm-up elicited unseen physiological characteristics that actually improved performance. A coach’s job, once again is to show the athlete that these things are possible, and boost their self-efficacy through knowledge, education and practice of such things.


These four sources are the best and most proven ways to coach self-efficacy in athletes. However, learning how to coach self-efficacy begins by understanding what it really is. It is imperative to understand how self-efficacy is separate from self-confidence, self-esteem and outcome expectancies, as they are not the same thing and often do not go hand in hand. One word that should come to mind when trying to define self-efficacy is specific. It is specific to the situation, and in this case, the performance in a track and field event.

Upon understanding self-efficacy, it is important for a coach to realize where its sources can be found and how they can be used. Every source begins with the coach instilling it within the athlete and helping him or her to realize exactly what they are. Opportunities for mastery experience and vicarious modeling should be provided by the coach in order to promote an environment for success. Verbal persuasion means the most when it is coming from the person on the team with the most prestige and influence: the coach. And the complexities of physiological factors and how to use them to an advantage must be understood and explained in order for the athlete to take full advantage of them in a situation, and for them to approach them from a view of high self-efficacy.

As stated before, self-efficacy levels are an extremely reliable predictor or future performance. It is crucial to coach a mental edge in athletes because as stated earlier with physiological factors, mental factors can overrule physical ones. Coaching athletes, especially track and field athletes, cannot end with physically preparing them; a strong mental state of self-efficacy must accompany them in order to achieve the highest, optimal performance.


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Dr. Matthew Buns is an assistant cross country and track and field coach and Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Science at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN.

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14 Mar 2018

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