I started training handstands in 2014. My dream was to be able to hold a five-second freestanding handstand without a wall. I got lucky and somehow stumbled upon the world of circus, and before long began training a few times a week surrounded by circus performers, all of whom possessed levels of skill, strength, and grace lightyears ahead of me.
When I run into some of the performers I used to train around today, most of them are surprised that I’ve stuck with it. Though I was full of enthusiasm, I had little promise starting out. Tall and long-limbed, I have nothing near the ideal gymnast’s body. I grew up playing team sports like basketball and soccer and had little understanding of body awareness or coordination. My form was terrible, and I could barely hold myself against the wall — let alone get anywhere near to holding a freestanding handstand without support.
I am where I am today in my handstand journey for one main reason: despite having little to no natural ability, I began training believing that with time and hard work, I could get from where I was to where I wanted to be.
In other words, I believed in my own ability to succeed.
Psychologists call this belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations self-efficacy. Having self-efficacy matters for one critical reason: if we don’t believe in our ability to make progress toward our goals, we’re unlikely to put in the effort needed to succeed in the first place. Our initial self-doubts become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unsurprisingly, our levels of self-efficacy can vary across different domains. For example, you might have a high level of self-efficacy when it comes to learning new computer or technology-related skills, yet a low self of self-efficacy when it comes to learning how to cook. Self-confidence relates to self-efficacy, but they’re not one in the same. Get specific enough, and even a person with low self-confidence has at least a few areas where they believe in themselves.
Although our sense of self-efficacy can vary across different domains, developing a greater sense of self-efficacy and confidence in one domain can have carryover effects in other areas of our lives. Each small or big win in one domain can lead to a general increase of overall confidence and self-efficacy.
Learning to do handstands did this for me. When I first started out, my goal seemed ages away, nearly impossible. But I stuck with it, believing in myself throughout the entire process. Over time, I reached and then surpassed my initial goal. Along the way, I developed a greater sense of confidence that I could take on challenges in other areas of my life, as well.
This is one of the zillions of reasons I love to help people learn to use fitness ground as a training ground for life. When you teach yourself that you can do difficult things in the gym, on the court, or in the dojo, you also develop confidence in other areas of your life.
No matter how confident you are in your abilities today, there are several ways to build a greater sense of self-efficacy:
1. Mastery Experiences
According to research by the late psychologist Albert Bandura, the most effective way to build self-efficacy is through mastery experiences.
When you set a goal, persist through challenges, and achieve your goal, you become more confident in your abilities. Likewise, if you encounter obstacles on the way to your goal and overcome them, you’ll have a stronger belief in your ability to work through challenges and failure.
Looking back on my handstand journey so far, mastery experiences have indeed been critical to my success. I can remember that first successful five-second freestanding handstand like it was yesterday. Small successes like that one kept me motivated and working hard even when it seemed like I was on an endless plateau.
2. Social Modeling
Another way to build self-efficacy is by witnessing demonstrations of competence by people who you perceive as similar to you.
For example, if you see someone with a similar set of abilities, circumstances, background, etc., put forth effort and succeed in their goal, you’re more likely to believe that you, too, can succeed if you try.
If I had first started training handstands in a traditional gymnastics gym surrounded by typical gymnasts who had been training since they were little kids, I probably would have given up before I had the chance to make any progress. One of the main reasons I stuck with my handstand training despite having no natural talent was that not only do circus performers come in all shapes and sizes, many of them also begin later in life. This gave me hope when I was first starting that I, too, could get better if I was willing to put in the work and trust the process.
3. Social Persuasion
When others tell you that you have what it takes to succeed, you are more likely to achieve success. One kind word of encouragement from someone you respect can go a long way in helping you maintain the motivation to keep working toward your goals. Similarly, one negative or discouraging comment can be the reason you give up altogether.
I had immense respect for my first handstand coach. So when he assured me that he believed in my ability to succeed, this alone was sometimes all it took to give me the motivation to keep going when I struggled to believe in myself.
This power of social persuasion is why it’s so important to surround ourselves with people who believe in us and why working with coaches, teachers, and mentors can be such pivotal points in our lives.
4. Emotional and Physical Experiences
Your emotions, moods, and physical states also influence how you judge your sense of self-efficacy.
It’s harder to feel confident in your abilities when you feel tired, depressed, or in a low mood. People with a low mood are likely to give up on goals sooner and even be more reluctant to take up goals in the first place.
I notice this with my handstand training even today. When I’m rested, recovered, and in a relatively good mood, I’m more motivated to train and work on challenging new skills. As a result, my training naturally goes better. If I’m tired or feeling down, I’m generally less motivated to train and also more likely to focus on all that I’m doing wrong that day, instead of what I’m doing well.
Practicing self-compassion and not getting stuck in your head with negative self-talk and rumination can also make a difference in your motivation levels and willingness to take on challenges.
All Progress Begins with Self-Belief
If I’ve learned anything from my handstand journey so far, it’s that in order to make progress, you have to first believe in your own ability to succeed.
Without that initial self-belief, you become less likely to take on challenges in the first place. Success in any pursuit, fitness-related or otherwise, requires risk and constant edging out of your comfort zone. With this mindset, even if you fail, you’ll be learning valuable lessons along the way.
“Self-belief does not necessarily ensure success, but self-disbelief assuredly spawns failure.” — Albert Bandura