Self-efficacy is an important concept in sport.
The term is often used interchangeably with “confidence”, but there are key differences. “Confidence” is more of a loose term that indicates a belief in oneself without specificity. “Self-efficacy” is a more precise term that concerns one’s belief that they can be effective at a certain task. According to Albert Bandura, these are more than minor semantic differences, as self-efficacy is a descriptive term that fits within a theoretical framework. (Bandura, 1997). In this case, the framework is Social Cognitive Theory (SCT).
So, let’s stick with Self-Efficacy for precision’s sake.
Albert Bandura is the father of this stuff. Incidentally, Bandura is also the mind behind Social Learning Theory, and the “Bobo Doll” experiments (this is worth a Google search), and is the 4th most cited Psychologist of all time…but I digress.
Within the framework of SCT, Bandura (1977) outlined four ways in which self-efficacy can be developed. In order of effectiveness:
- Mastery Experiences
- Vicarious Experiences
- Verbal Persuasion
- Somatic and Physiological State
NOTE: How this fits into the context of Social Cognitive Theory will become a bit more transparent when we discuss vicarious experiences in the next article.
Mastery Experiences are the most critical and and also the most sketchy with regards to maximum strength efforts, so we are going to start there.
Mastery experiences are the single most powerful way to boost self-efficacy. Simply put, if you have succeeded in an endeavor before, you will have a strong tendency to expect to succeed in future instances of the task.
Hit a home run in the major league? You will have more self-efficacy with regards to home run ability.
Hit an NBA 3-pointer? More 3-point self-efficacy… Hit the game winning shot? Major boost!
Unfortunately, things aren’t so cut and dry in max effort sports such as powerlifting. In the case of a Personal Record (PR), how can one have a mastery experience if the weight is uncharted territory for them? Does this make the concept of mastery experiences useless for powerlifters or other max effort strength athletes?
These are things I ponder.
Ordinarily, one would assume to simply move down the line to vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and arousal states. However, there are some ways to leverage mastery experiences in the case of a PR, and I want to outline some further detail and practical application.
Performance Aspects of Mastery Experiences
There are three of them:
- Consistency – Not just in training, but also with regards to the pattern of sustained experiences of success. It is important to note that we are not talking a couple of victories in a sea of losses, we are talking about a pattern of wins, even small ones, that can generate momentum.
- Recency – Succeeding yesterday holds more weight than succeeding ten years ago. I could write an entire article about what I used to squat before I screwed my hip/groin up, but I won’t bore you with my woes. Suffice it to say that what I used to squat four years ago has no bearing on my feelings of self-efficacy for squatting the same weight under my current program.
- Quality – Is the success happening on easy task, or challenging ones? The higher the quality of success, in terms of difficulty, the better the self-efficacy. Worth noting: this also works inversely. Succeeding in easy tasks provides less of a boost and failing at any tasks, regardless of difficulty, damages self-efficacy.(Burton & Raedeke, 2008)
Practical Application for Strength Athletes
Now, here are some practical, actionable tips for getting the most out of mastery experiences:
I could argue that this is a “chicken or the egg” type of conundrum. That is: do effective goal-setting techniques lead to enhanced self-efficacy, or does self-efficacy lead to a more effective approach to goals? I wrote an entire guide for this that goes into depth about effective goal setting (sign-up for my email list and I’ll send it to you), but here are the highlights.
- Be realistic with what you want to attain, yet don’t shy away from an appropriate challenge. Generally, a good rule of thumb is 10% higher than your current capabilities, but take this with a grain of salt. If you are already an elite squatter, for example, lifting 10% more than that might be a bit outrageous for a short/mid term goal (or even a long term goal, depending on where you are).
- Set up midterm goals that have clear performance milestones.
- Don’t forget about process goals for the short term goals. We are looking to develop goals that stress consistency, effort, and technical mastery. These goals will give us a pattern of success that will provide momentum to our performance goals and eventual PR.
Remember, by nature, a PR is uncharted territory, so we need to psychologically experience as much success in skills and habits that have transferability!
Training and Programming
Here are a few thoughts:
- When looking to set percentages for programming, be honest with yourself and calculate them using a recent 1RM (or another applicable RM). This sounds like common sense, but many people, myself included, will pick an “all-time-best-ever-lift” to calculate their training ranges. What you lifted 15 years ago, as a college sophomore, isn’t applicable. Sorry.
- Training to failure should be avoided. There are caveats to this, but from the standpoint of strength sports, there should be an effort made to succeed as much as possible. Strength sports will concern performance and outcome goals, so the chance of failure is unavoidable, but contingencies should be in place to reduce this.
Remember, setting up a pattern of success is critical!
Wrapping it up
Even in the context of performance markers that are out of the realm of what we have ever achieved, we can still leverage the power of mastery experiences to boost our self-efficacy. I calculated effort to pack a training/meet preparation cycle with as many success experiences as possible will go a long way to raising our confidence when it is time to compete. Combining these master experiences with vicarious experiences, persuasion, and arousal control will provide a potent boost in mental performance.
Stay tuned for more on self-efficacy techniques.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.