25 January 2021

In Part One of this series on goal setting and motivation, I touched on the motivating factors that might affect sports performance, the different types of motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic), and beginning to understand the behaviours behind motivation. From here, we shall dive deeper into the Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) and how different mindsets or goal-directed behaviours can affect your performance and mastery of a skill, in relation to motivation and context.

Achievable goal theory (AGT) is a social-cognitive theory that assumes humans can use intent and rational thought patterns to drive behaviours that directly achieve goals. In other words, when goals are in place, this theory understands that our beliefs and actions will help to guide decision-making, in a context that will support progress towards this goal and make the goal achievable. When a goal has been decided on, the purpose of the activity can energize the approach through an individual's investment of time, talent, and effort, and to avoid showing incompetence or inability to complete a skill or task. This theory identifies two mindsets to demonstrate competence of a skill or task: task-orientation or ego-orientation. These mindsets can influence the behaviours and steps that you take in order to succeed.

If you have a task-orientated mindset, you believe that ability and effort are intertwined, and therefore the harder you work and the more effort you put in, the more likely you are to show success and develop competence. This goal setting method aims to develop mastery of a valued skill, show improvements in learning, or demonstrate an internal, autonomous, or self-referenced ability. An example of a task-orientated goal in sport might include personal improvements in a skill, such as perfecting a basketball 3-pointer or learning how to ride a bike, with the goal of becoming competent and showing mastery to get better over time. There is often success in the process and pleasure in the action of developing skills and showing competence. This type of mindset is often related to being internally motivated (i.e., having intrinsic motivation as mentioned in the previous article), but this might not always be the case.

Ego-orientated mindsets are where ability and effort are differentiated/separated by the individual, and the aim is to demonstrate competence/success with little effort, to make your achievements seem effortless and allow you to outperform others. An example of this type of mindset is cruising to finish a race because you are miles ahead of the competition; you end up winning while showing little perceived effort. The main goal for someone who has an ego-orientated mindset is to complete an action, event, or task better or faster than others, using them as an external reference for success. If an individual with an ego-orientated mindset sees their ability or competence as low, this can result in the development of avoidance or maladaptive behaviours by reducing their ability to persist when faced with a difficult task. An example of this mindset could include moving up in a sport class from club level to senior level, and no longer being the most skilled or quickest in the team. In this situation, not wanting to show incompetence or failing in front of others could result in avoidance or dropping out, as the individual is no longer able to excel to the same level they previously could in an easier competition setting.

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 Figure 1. Diagram explaining task- and ego-orientated mindset and flow. Retrieved from Hackfort & Schinke, 2020.

Both of these mindsets can have positive and negative outcomes, depending on an individual's motivations for an action as well their ability to perform it. Both of these mindsets can be influenced by intrinsic (mastery) or extrinsic (performance) motivation sources, which can alter an individual's behaviours in various environments.  If you are able to demonstrate a high level of performance (which is important to ego-orientation) or show mastery of a skill (which is important to task-orientation), behaviours and outcomes can be positive and sustained. However, if the ego-orientated mindset is paired with low skill or low competence compared to others in a performance setting, this can result in negative outcomes. This can result in maladaptive and avoidant behaviours, cheating, or ill-being. If an individual has a task-orientated mindset, is extrinsically motivated, but has a low ability level, this can also result in maladaptive behaviours. These mindsets can be fluid and can change depending on the context and past experiences of an individual, and you can show behaviours and thinking typical of both.


Mindsets which are either task- or ego-orientated can work in sync with one another and can result in great motivational profiles for athletes. It has been suggested that having high task and high ego orientations AND high task and low ego orientations have been shown to be the most sustainable mindsets and motivational profiles. However, athletes who display high ego and low task orientation are seen as most at risk of maladaptive behaviours. They may be prone to dropping or burning out when they believe they cannot demonstrate competence, especially against tough competition.

These states of either task- or ego-orientation can change from moment to moment based on the situation and depending on the athlete's perception. This can be affected by the current context, the athlete's existing thought patterns based on previous experiences, internal versus external motivation sources, and current goal-orientations. The environment's structure can make it more or less likely that a person will become task or ego-orientated through behaviours around achieving success or avoiding failure.  A performance climate is created when success or failure are referenced from others and can be ego involved; for example, a race where the first and last place are determined, and superior ability is valued. A mastery climate is when success or failure is self-referenced, for instance, beating a personal record or successfully performing a skill (like juggling), where the individual perceives that their demonstration of mastery and learning is valued.

Individuals will adopt different strategies in order to achieve in these climates.


 As a personal trainer, it is important to understand these different mindsets and how an outcome might positively or negatively affect an individual's well-being and future motivations within a training or competition environment. It is important to understand the mechanics behind what motivates an individual; by understanding this, you will be able to push them to perform at their best in training or competition, to develop resilience, and ultimately to display both success and mastery during their training.

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Hackfort, D., & Schinke, R. J. (1st Eds.). (2020). The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Sport and Exercise Psychology: Volume 1: Theoretical and Methodological Concepts. Routledge. (