Self-Efficacy: The Key to Performance
What self-efficacy is, how it's different from confidence and self-esteem, and why it’s critical to your performance [Part 1 of 3 in our self-efficacy series]
Waves of belief
In 2014, after a near-fatal wipeout, Brazilian big wave surfer Rodrigo Koxa almost packed away his surfboard for good. “I almost died,” he explained. “I had bad dreams and I stopped having the courage. For more than one year after that, I was afraid. I stopped going in the big swells.” He lost not just his nerve, but his sponsors too.
But with dogged determination and the help of his wife, crew, and coach, he clawed his way back, reconstructing his belief in his capabilities. Three years after nearly drowning, he was pursuing big waves once again, and received what he calls “a present from God.”
In November 2017, off the coast of Praia do Norte, a Portuguese fishing port, Koxa was pulled by a jet ski into a treacherous swell. He surfed straight down the wave, accelerating so quickly he nearly fell, and disappeared behind the massive crest. But miraculously, Koxa held on, and he successfully surfed the titanic 80-foot wave, setting a Guinness world record for the largest wave ever surfed.
So what was it that helped Rodrigo Koxa overcome his trauma, and not just bounce back, but set a world record in the process?
It wasn’t confidence alone — it was something more concrete, more potent. With the help of friends and loved ones, Koxa had rebuilt his sense of self-efficacy.
What is self-efficacy?
The concept of self-efficacy was proposed and popularized by Albert Bandura, a world-renowned Psychologist and Stanford professor.
Bandura described self-efficacy as the “judgments of how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations.” Perceived self-efficacy is not just a measure of what skills and capabilities you have, “but a belief about what one can do under different sets of conditions with whatever skills one possesses.”
The Oxford Handbook of Sport and Performance Psychology explores the concept of self-efficacy at length. Across various contexts — be it in athletics, work, education, or other domains — “the beliefs that people have in their own capabilities have consistently been found to predict improved personal performance and accomplishment.” Bandura says this is due, in part, to greater investment in activities and challenges:
"Perceived efficacy creates interests through engrossment in activities and the self-satisfactions derived from fulfilling personal challenges that lead to progressive mastery."
When people have a higher sense of self-efficacy, they tend to exert greater effort, initiative, and persistence, select more challenging goals, and demonstrate a greater commitment to those goals. Individuals with higher self-efficacy are more optimistic and “report reductions in undesirable emotions (e.g. debilitative anxiety, fear).” They’re also more likely to perceive certain environmental cues and performance conditions not as threats, but as challenges to be overcome.
Finally, once self-efficacy has been developed in an individual, it can moderate how they react to psychologically-loaded outcomes. It can act as a buffer “following disappointing or substandard performances,” thereby “limiting the damaging effects that may arise due to suboptimal performance experiences.” Typically these individuals will also tend to “ascribe their failures to a lack of effort, which represents a factor that they can rectify, rather than a shortcoming in their ability.”
So self-efficacy is a powerful concept, and something worth focusing on. But let's address the semantic elephant in the room: isn’t this the same thing as confidence or self-esteem?
Self-efficacy vs. confidence, self-esteem
Most people will use the the word confidence when they really mean self-efficacy. Bandura points out that, in the realm of Psychology, they are far from interchangeable:
“Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one's agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment.”
Confidence tends to be more attitudinal and subjective. It's having a general feeling of certainty, or feeling a sense of faith and trust in yourself, with or without evidence. Self-efficacy pertains to an individuals' belief in their competence, capabilities, and propensity for manifesting desired outcomes (hence Bandura's point that it is agentive, i.e. tied to your sense of personal agency). And as we'll explore later in the series, efficacy beliefs are typically based on concrete, enactive experiences, as well as social learning and relationships. Thus, they tend to be more stable and resilient, whereas feelings of self-confidence can be much more fickle.
Self-efficacy is not synonymous with self-esteem, either. “Self-efficacy is concerned with judgements of personal capability, whereas self-esteem is concerned with judgements of self-worth.” Nor are they correlated — you can have a strong belief in your capabilities irrespective of how highly you regard yourself.
Evidence of a relation only appears when an individual invests their self-worth in an activity.
For a lifelong surfer like Rodrigo Koxa, a devastating accident on the waves caused his self-efficacy — his belief in his ability to effectively and safely surf big waves — to plummet. For someone whose identity is so intertwined with their performance area, the dip in performance and self-efficacy can drag their self-esteem and self-confidence down as well. Likewise, success in a performer's chosen pursuit tends to bolster their self-efficacy, with a subsequent rise confidence and self-regard. But importantly, it does not work the other way around, with a boost in confidence or self-esteem artificially inflating efficacy beliefs.
On the other hand, high or low self-efficacy can have little to no impact in pursuits with little to no personal investment. The correlation disappears.
Someone who repossesses vehicles from struggling families might be highly effective, but if they take no pride in what they do, there will be no consistent impact on self-confidence or self-esteem. Likewise, being terribly ineffective in a pursuit you care little about will not destroy your self-esteem. To reference Bandura's example: "The fact that I acknowledge complete inefficacy in ballroom dancing does not drive me to recurrent bouts of self-devaluation."
How to build self-efficacy
Self-efficacy is agentive and concrete. It's a reliable indicator of not only performance, but resilience, pluck, engrossment, and mastery. And we've mentioned that it's based on lived experience and social learning.
In the next article in this series, we begin exploring the sources of self-efficacy in-depth, and examine how to reliably build and solidify efficacy beliefs.
Read Part 2 here: How to Build Self-Efficacy (COMING SOON!)
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