The difference between self-confidence and self-efficacy

Sometimes the lingo is confusing but in this case it pays to understand the difference.

When coaches speak of self-confidence they're using a term that's often heard in the sports world describing athletes who are motivated, effective, and successful. But self-confidence is not the right term. What they really mean is self-efficacy. While the two terms are related, they are not the same thing. Self-confidence describes a general personality trait referring to strength of belief but is non-specific as to what the certainty is about. Self-efficacy refers to situation- or task-specific expectations the athlete has regarding their abilities. Coaches and teachers can employ several strategies to manipulate the learning or training environment that can help athletes increase self-efficacy.

But the concept of self-efficacy is very similar to self-confidence, so in a non-clinical environment, such as athletic instruction or coaching, there seems little reason to make precise distinctions. Perceived self-efficacy is defined as “…beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations. Efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, motivate themselves and act.”

According to Bandura, strengthening these beliefs can have a significant impact on motivation. Self-efficacy offers sport coaches various ways to manipulate learning or competitive situations to raise expectations and motivation levels. Athletes with high efficacy expectations for a specific task are more likely to try a new skill and be less likely to let initial nonsuccess reduce their motivation.

Self-efficacy is comprised of “…beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations. Efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, motivate themselves and act.”

Efficacy beliefs can be influenced through four main sources:

  • Mastery experiences serve to convince learners that they are capable performers; that if they have been successful in the past performing tasks similar to a new skill or competitive situation then they will likely be successful when attempting the new task.
  • Social modeling occurs when another performer, with physical characteristics and performance capabilities close to those of the learner, demonstrates their own ability to perform the new skill. The closer in ability and other characteristics the model is to the learner, the more effective this influence becomes. For example, a swimming instructor who demonstrates the new skill for a 6-year-old learner will not have as great an effect on the learner's expectations of success as would another young child demonstrating the same skill, even though the instructor’s demonstration is likely to be more accurate. The quality of the demonstration doesn’t matter; it’s the modeling by the other young child who is similar in many ways to the learner that increases the learner's efficacy beliefs.
  • Social persuasion refers to convincing the learner verbally that he is capable of performing the new skill. Convinced in this way that his performance will be successful, the learner is more likely to attempt the skill, use more effort, and persist if initial attempts end in failure.
  • Arousal control is simply managing stress levels. For most learners this means reducing stress levels. People in a pleasant mood are more likely to exhibit higher levels of efficacy than those who feel stressed.

All four influences on self-efficacy serve to increase motivation for attempting a new task and to persist if initial attempts are not successful. Depending on the learning situation, the sources can be manipulated individually or together. As stated earlier, self-efficacy is situation-specific, so expectations of one's ability to perform a task such as a new skill, or a known skill in a different situation, at a higher speed or in an actual competition, for example, may be low. In this case the influences discussed above may be used to mediate the strength of self-efficacy beliefs to some degree.

To illustrate how self-efficacy beliefs might be used in an instructional situation, imagine a small child taking a swimming lesson. The instructor is teaching the child to swim on his back, a skill the child has never tried before. There are several factors that can affect the child’s motivation to attempt the new skill. The child can already perform a similar skill when he swims on his belly (mastery experience). The child likes swimming and is relaxed and happy in the swimming pool (arousal control). The child watches other children in the class perform the skill successfully (social modeling), and the instructor's verbal encouragement signals that he believes the child can do it (social persuasion). So far, all efficacy influences are acting in the child’s favor and we can presume that the level and strength of efficacy beliefs are high. But sometimes expectations may be lowered by several other factors such as when fear of the water raises the child’s arousal level enough to interfere with motor activities, or the skill being taught is not similar to ones the child already has mastery experiences to draw from. In this case, the instructor might design a series of lead-up skills to provide mastery experiences or to lower arousal.

In addition to directly manipulating the learning environment, an instructor can also employ mental techniques. A study with youth soccer players found imagery could help strengthen self-efficacy beliefs. This depends, of course, on the student’s ability to learn and perform imagery skills. To employ this tool the instructor might ask the student to imagine that they are performing a new skill properly. This might be best used in the interval between lessons (e.g. overnight). Using imagery techniques in this way may improve results during subsequent learning sessions.

In practice, many coaches may not be aware that they are already using these techniques to manipulate efficacy expectations; some of the strategies just seem right or obvious. But understanding the concept behind these simple techniques gives the coach a powerful tool to make learning situations less stressful, more fun, and more effective for students.

Self-efficacy affects motivation. In a coaching environment a student’s motivation to perform physical skills is influenced by the student's self-efficacy beliefs. Understanding influences of mastery experience, social modeling, social persuasion, and arousal control can give a coach or teacher another way to augment the learning process and design teaching and practice strategies that can lead to more successful outcomes.