When I was in graduate school learning how to teach seventh graders to care about reading and writing (an uphill battle, to say the least), there were very few things I read in textbooks that weren’t a) pithy, b) obvious, or c) impossible to implement. However, one thing I read in my “educational psychology” textbook really stuck with me, long after I left the teaching program to fulfill my dreams of journalistic pursuits (obviously the smarter choice for me.)
“Self-efficacy” is a person’s belief that he or she can accomplish a task. Albert Bandura, one of the experts in the field since the 1970s, says that, “The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer their commitment to them.”
Here, he’s talking about students. But like Justin Lindine’s belief that Lil Wayne and Lady Gaga are constantly singing about cyclocross, I firmly believe that Bandura is referring to cycling as well. Sure, it doesn’t make for a snappy pre-race routine to listen to Bandura drone on audiobook, but reading and rereading that quote really does make me change the way I think about riding.
In cycling, my Cycle-Smart coach would be the first one to say that the mental prep for a race is just as important as the physical prep is. If you go into a race thinking you won’t do well, the odds are good that you won’t. We’ve all heard that cycling is a mental game, for so many reasons. It’s tactical, for starters, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of strong riders who’ve made dumb mistakes like riding off the front too soon, only to be reeled in by the smarter riders who chase them down by working together. We’ve all had moments of bargaining with similarly matched riders, agreeing to work together to try to improve our placing. We’ve also probably all bargained with someone or something (“please, God, just let me get up this hill one more time…”), and we’ve all thought before at least one race, “What am I doing here?” So we know that racing is just as mental as it is physical.
Where does self-efficacy, or more simply put, believing in ourselves, come into play for our racing? Well, let’s – as we often do in this column – go to the studies!
Bandura started researching and testing his theories on self-efficacy as early as the 1970s, and his points still hold true 40-odd years later. To start with, let’s look at how he sees self-efficacy as working in the classroom: “Students’ beliefs in their efficacy for self-regulated learning affected their perceived self-efficacy for academic achievement, which in turn influenced the academic goals they set for themselves and their final academic achievement.”
The better a student believed he or she could do academically on his or her own, the higher his or her goals for specific grades and test scores was. In turn, this resulted in that student actually achieving those higher scores. Belief in abilities leads to higher goal setting and, it can be postulated, working harder towards those loftier goals can improve performance.
For a racer, this could mean having the belief that, if one works hard enough, a top five performance is possible in a race, as opposed to, say, a top twenty. By setting the bar higher and believing that the desired outcome is a real possibility, we’re more inclined to put in the work to reach it, and to maintaining the proper mental attitude during the race to make it actually happen. (Get rid of that “I don’t belong in this field” feeling!)
There were even tests that looked at the physical abilities that could be improved by a positive mental outlook, the most dramatic being Bandura’s 1990 look at how self-efficacy could play a role in “defeating” the AIDS infection. He states: “Effective programs of self-directed change require four major components. The first is informational, designed to increase awareness and knowledge of health risks. The second component is concerned with development of the social and self-regulatory skills needed to translate informed concerns into preventive action. The third component is aimed at skill enhancement and building resilient self-efficacy through guided practice and corrective feedback in applying the skills in high-risk situations. The final component involves enlisting social supports for desired personal changes.”
Sounds like the mental skills required of cyclists competing at a top level: awareness of skills like nutrition, proper training, and techniques; the ability to use all of that knowledge properly and efficiently; refusing to be defeated when things aren’t necessarily going the way we want them to; and finally, using social support, i.e teammates, to improve oneself. Interesting, no?
Perhaps more important than self-efficacy is the concept of perceived self-efficacy. Bandura writes, “Perceived self-efficacy is concerned with people’s beliefs that they can exert control over their motivation and behavior and over their social environment.” It informs how we respond to taxing situations, in our case, a bike race. He goes on to state that, “When people lack a sense of self-efficacy, they do not manage situations effectively, even though they know what to do and possess the requisite skills.”
In a race, if things aren’t going well, or even if they are going well, if a person does not possess a high level of perceived self-efficacy about his or her racing ability, he or she will be more inclined to make mistakes, or not race to the best of his or her ability. If we believe that we can effect and mold our environment – or our race – we have a better chance of being able to do so.
So, does this mean that if I truly believe I can beat Katie Compton, that I will beat Katie Compton? Probably not. But if I believe that I have the ability to be a competitive cyclist, the goals that I set will be higher – and more attainable – than the goals I would set for myself if I decided that I was, at best, a mid-packer with no real talent. Personally, I’ll take the Katie Compton view of myself.
Self-Motivation for Academic Attainment: The Role of Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Personal Goal Setting Author(s): Barry J. Zimmerman, Albert Bandura, Manuel Martinez-Pons Source: American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 663-676
PERCEIVED SELF-EFFICACY IN THE EXERCISE OF CONTROL OVER AIDS INFECTION Evaluation and Program Planning, Vol. 13, pp. 9-17, 1990, Pergamon Press; ALBERT BANDURA, Stanford University
*All images public domain