“Self-efficacy” and sticking with the program

Matt Fitzgerald, a senior editor at Triathlete and the author of a number of books on training for endurance sports, is currently hard at work on Racing Weight. Of a chapter called “Guidelines for Beginners,” Matt notes:

[It] encourages beginning endurance athletes to focus on learning to enjoy their chosen sport (instead of on common beginner goals such as losing weight), because enjoyment is the number-one predictor of long-term exercise adherence. But do you know what the number-one predictor of exercise enjoyment is? It’s self-efficacy, or the feeling of activity-specific competence.

Matt goes on to note that “self-efficacy” (and I had never heard the term, but it has a Wikipedia entry and hence must be both real and important) is chiefly a function of objective aptitude or skill:

[T]here is a strong correlation between exercise self-efficacy and cardiorespiratory fitness. In other words, those who most enjoy endurance sports from the beginning are those who feel most competent in performing them, and those who feel most competent in performing endurance sports from the beginning are those who are naturally gifted with a high aerobic capacity. It’s just another case of folks gravitating toward what they do well.

“Doing well” in running and other finish-order sports, in which the sole objective judges of performance when all is said and done are time and place, can be cold indeed. In a sport like baseball, you can go 0 for 4 and still outplay everyone on the field with a game-saving diving catch or bullet to home plate for right-center that cuts down the tying run. In basketball, you can do 5-for-17 from the floor, but if three of those five field goals are three-pointers in the clutch and your team wins, you can stake a claim for having outplayed an opposing forward who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds but folded down the stretch. But if you finish 187th in a race in a time of 22:46 and your rival winds up 75th in 19:18, guess what? No matter how well you executed by your own standards, the other guy kicked your ass, and furthermore, you both got waxed by a parade of others, most of whom were non-factors in the real race themselves. To many, facing this is a tough proposition, and the number of people who fear coming in last while standing on the starting line of a race for the first time is startlingly high.
Matt continues:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: But I’m really slow and yet I still love running (or cycling or whatever)! Thankfully, self-efficacy is not the only factor that contributes to exercise enjoyment, nor is exercise self-efficacy completely dependent on cardiorespiratory fitness. That said, I do believe that there is a certain element in the overall experience of exercise enjoyment the intensity of which is solely a function of performance level. It’s that element of exercise enjoyment that consists in being able to effortlessly sustain speed. The faster you can go, the longer you can go fast, and the more effortlessly you can sustain speed, the more you enjoy running (or whatever). Feeling great is feeling greatness. We catch a glimpse of this truth from the fact that each of us, regardless of our performance level, enjoys our finest performances in a way we do not enjoy our lesser performances.

There are two ideas captured in this paragraph. One is that the rewards of being good at something by external standards undeniably adds to its enjoyment. During my main competitive years, my goal was to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, a race that about 100 men reach every quadrennial. I came up short by a couple minutes, but spent most of those years as a relatively big fish in a small pond (New Hampshire), won quite a few races along the way, and was ranked in the top 50 Americans in the marathon one year. Although I was firmly aware at every step that I would never be world-class or even national-class, and was never very concerned with other local yokels or the coverage of road racing by a generally clueless regional media, I admit that getting occasional air time and mention in the papers added to the fun. At the end of our lives, that which we don’t carry in our heads lives on in photo albums and in scrapbooks (and these days, in HTML files on various servers).
However, hints at something that is critical in terms of motivation: You can love what you’re doing and feel like a world-beater as long as you don’t overwhelm yourself with a sream of silent judgments or (put more cynically) let reality get in the way. There is no reason to believe that someone whose all-out five-kilometer race pace is no faster than ten minutes a mile cannot have the same sort of euphoric, once-a-year sort of perambulatory experience as Kenenisa Bekele, who has covered that same 3.107-mile distance in an improbable 12 minutes, 37 seconds (under 4 minutes, 4 seconds per mile). The scenery certainly passes much more slowly for the recreational slogger, but in such moments the person in question feels like anything but a slogger.
In other words, it’s not so much being good at something by the standards of external criteria that is key, but feeling competent by one’s own standards, whatever they are. And this has important consequences in the area of motivation, and clearly these are not limited to athletics. Any difficult and long-term endeavor bearing the possibility of rewards becomes a struggle for supremacy between doubt and hope. For my part I would like to finish a novel this spring. I’ve had the idea for years, as have countless others, but I’ve taken it a step further than that. I have an exquisitely detailed time line, a 6,000-word plot summary, biographies of all of the main characters, and even a plausible enough (if not yet satisfying, but this will come) ending. I’ve written about 45 pages of a first draft.
I love writing, be it in e-mails, here, or for my own amusement. At times I feel like I’m channeling real creativity. I can go on for pages and describe something real or imagined in ways that infuse the scene or event with just the sort of color and flavor I want. Yet I constantly hamstring myself with thoughts of knowing that even if I get a full draft of my story on paper (or on my hard drive, to be literal), the novel is going to be a great big pile of suck. I won’t get it published, and if that happened I would be, or believe or even hope at this point that I would be, too bitter to even share the finished product with friends and family. I see myself as having wasted a lot of time, but that’s not the important thing; I see myself looking back on a period of energetically dedicating myself to incompetence.
Now, this is plainly a terrible way to think. If I didn’t think this way so often the novel would be finished by now, and despite the protestations in the preceding paragraph I know damned well I would be pleased to have simply completed it, because I rarely finish anything I start–even the things that seem important at the outset–and when I do I’m rarely satisfied with the results. And I’m sure I would let people read it, grudgingly, perhaps, but without excessive restraint. But getting on my self-efficacy mojo is real work, and I certainly don’t have the answers. Given that everyone I know has goals they see as just out of reach for whatever reason–and why not have challenging goals, anyway–I’m not only not alone in this but typical, with only the specifics of my bugaboo setting me apart.
And it is this that allows me to empathize with people who speak very loudly about wanting to run a marathon, or start a business, or learn an instrument, but can’t seem to get out the door or seat themselves in front of a computer or a piano more than a few days a week, if at all: They want the results, but the process is too much for their minds to handle, because they do not have, or have lost sight of, enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake. In fact, Mat might consider an alternative title to his book chapter: “Consciousness Can Be a Bitch.”

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  1. #1 by Comrade PhysioProf on January 2, 2009 - 11:51 am

    When I realized that I was destined to be nothing more than an aggressive–but relatively mediocre–local Cat 3 bike racer, I completely changed my cycling goals from speed and endurance to style. I decided it was much more important to look good on the bike than to actually be good. And believe me, when I go out for a nice “training” ride, I am motherfucking stylin’ elite!

  2. #2 by Comrade PhysioProf on January 2, 2009 - 11:51 am

    When I realized that I was destined to be nothing more than an aggressive–but relatively mediocre–local Cat 3 bike racer, I completely changed my cycling goals from speed and endurance to style. I decided it was much more important to look good on the bike than to actually be good. And believe me, when I go out for a nice “training” ride, I am motherfucking stylin’ elite!

  3. #3 by Kevin Beck on January 2, 2009 - 11:59 am

    I’ve noticed that a lot of cyclists do this. Running doesn’t lend itself to the same phenomenon because gear and equipment is less of an issue and even the posers recognize that adorning themselves in garish garb makes them look not stylish, but like tools.
    Cyclists can get away with looking like elites even if they aren’t because people watching them from cars cannot distinguish a recreational training pace from a legitimately elite one (although they should know that elites are not seem training on suburban surface streets). Fat “stylin'” cyclists are an exception; they just look like idiots. There’s nothing quite like a guy with a big-ass gut pounding along an a $3,000 Pinarello, a sight I used to regularly see in Florida.

  4. #4 by Comrade PhysioProf on January 2, 2009 - 12:08 pm

    adorning themselves in garish garb makes them look not stylish, but like tools

    Ahh, my friend, elite cycling style is not about garish garb. It is about how one carries oneself on the bike: it is a very special form of nonchalant aplomb that is impossible to explain to those who lack it. And I am not stylish for the benefit of lazy shits in cars; I am stylish for the benefit of all the lady cyclists who clamor for my company on “training” rides.

  5. #5 by Jim Thomerson on January 2, 2009 - 3:01 pm

    I found Stuart H. Walker’s “Winning, The Psychology of Competion” to be an interesting and useful read.

  6. #6 by Jim Thomerson on January 2, 2009 - 3:01 pm

    I found Stuart H. Walker’s “Winning, The Psychology of Competion” to be an interesting and useful read.

  7. #7 by JimFiore on January 2, 2009 - 3:30 pm

    Re: Stylin’. Some of the best runners I have known are very “old school”: old cotton t-shirts, random $5 shorts. I know some good runners with a love of gadgets, too, but when someone is too focused on gear, it’s a giveaway.
    They want the results, but the process is too much for their minds to handle, because they do not have, or have lost sight of, enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake.
    I like to say that people like the idea of doing/being X rather than the reality of it. At the risk of sounding immodest, I know a number of people my age (and many younger) who would like to run my race times. The question is (ignoring the genetics), do they want to put in the time that I do? It’s not trivial. I can say the same thing about playing a musical instrument. It involves tons of time and effort (a completely different kind of effort from running, but effort none the less). But in both cases, I have found the enjoyment derived later more than justifies the work today. That is, I do not “enjoy” cranking out a bunch of 1200 meter repeats at 5k pace or practicing a piece that makes me feel like a spastic incompetent, but man, there’s nothing so sweet as when that tree bears fruit.

  8. #8 by Comrade PhysioProf on January 2, 2009 - 5:16 pm

    The question is (ignoring the genetics), do they want to put in the time that I do? It’s not trivial.

    This is why I shifted my goal to being stylish instead of fast. HAHAHAHAH!

  9. #9 by Al Gammate on February 25, 2009 - 1:29 am

    Hello Kevin:
    Interesting article!
    I agree that people tend to gravitate toward activities that they already perform well at, further increasing their performance at those activities through practice.
    Contrarily, people tend to avoid activities that they already perform poorly at, further decreasing their performance at those activities through avoidance.
    So how do you develop the self-efficacy to persist in activities that you already perform poorly at?
    I say the starting point needs to be 100% mental. You need to mentally envision or affirm success over and over again to enable you to persist toward mastery!

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