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Goals to Gain

It’s been said by the wise that having no plan at all is really planning to fail. That statement is supported by decades of research showing that goal setting improves performance, self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, persistence and learning. It also saves time and effort. Thus the question isn’t really whether you should be setting goals but how you should set them.

Performance Goals vs. Competitive Goals

Competitive, or outcome-oriented, goals, as you might expect, focus your attention on defeating others—for instance, winning a bodybuilding show or outlifting a friend. Conversely, performance, or mastery, goals focus on your individual accomplishments, regardless of how others do—adding five pounds of muscle, losing 10 pounds of fat or increasing your squats by 40 pounds.

Much of the literature has focused on comparing the effectiveness of those goals and how to implement them in sport. We suggest that an optimal goal-setting program should prioritize performance goals. As we’ve stressed before, however, rarely should you completely dismiss a technique. So you should also use competitive goals. A proper combination of the two will give you the direction and motivation to achieve your goals faster than ever before.

Goal Orientations

John Nicholls’ research focused on developing a model to predict motivation.1 He proposed the achievement motivation theory, which suggests that people have two different types of goal orientations. Individuals who are performance oriented define success by mastering skills, effort and improvement over time, while people who are competitively oriented define success as defeating their competition. The latter would also be less concerned with improvement and effort.

Nicholls hypothesized that a mastery orientation would encourage persistence and effort and enhance performance and enjoyment, and that mastery-oriented individuals would seek out more challenges, all of which would enhance motivation. Outcome orientations, particularly when the individual has a low capacity for activity, would discourage persistence, effort, performance and enjoyment and lead people to avoid challenges—all of which would decrease motivation.

It’s important to understand that goal orientations are just one factor of performance. Nicholls suggested that a person’s ability, whether high or low, would be maximized if he or she adopted a mastery orientation.

Nicholls’ theory has been investigated thoroughly and is well supported by research. Scientists used the theory of achievement motivation to examine the goal perspectives and motivational responses of 171 elite junior weightlifters.2 Forty-eight females and 123 males were asked to fill out a survey while competing in the ’95 National Junior Weightlifting Championships and the ’96 Junior Olympics. The survey analyzed several variables, including goal orientations, enjoyment, effort, perceived ability and physical self-worth. It turned out that females had significantly higher performance orientations than males, and they correspondingly tended to have greater enjoyment than males. A performance goal orientation was positively and significantly correlated to the athletes’ perception of enjoyment and effort. Conversely, a high competitive orientation coupled with a low mastery orientation was significantly correlated with low effort and less physical self-worth.

A study of elite young tennis players found that athletes high in competitive orientation believed that the major cause for success in their sport was being gifted or knowing how to impress the coach.3 Athletes high in mastery orientation believed that effort was a vital factor for success in sport and did not believe that external factors, such as equipment, cheating or being able to deceive the coach, contributed to being successful at tennis.

Research shows that believing that effort rather than natural ability or cheating is the cause of your success will result in greater sport success because effort is in the athlete’s control. If athletes perceive that they have a low ability, they may quit. Similar results were found with elite downhill skiers.4 Additional studies likewise indicate that mastery-oriented people engage more in problem solving during stressful events.5

Numerous other studies have shown that a performance goal orientation results in increased effort, intrinsic motivation, enjoyment, performance, persistence and seeking more challenging activities.6, 7, 8 Conversely, studies indicate that outcome orientations lead to numerous adverse behaviors that decrease motivation, such as a decline in concentration. Mentality commonly fosters unsportsmanlike conduct, including purposely harming others and cheating.9, 10, 11

Motivational Climate (Coaches and Personal Trainers)

The other factor in Nicholls’ theory is the motivational climate, which is established by coaches, peers and adults. A performance-oriented climate occurs when coaches reward athletes for effort, improving skills and cooperation. A competitive-oriented climate occurs when coaches reward winning and competition. In that context, researchers showed that athletes who perceived they were in a performance-motivational climate had greater enjoyment and satisfaction, a greater desire to learn during practice and a greater appreciation for developing skills.12 Athletes who perceived they were in a competitive-motivational climate were not as interested in having fun or being satisfied and believed sport should facilitate a better social status.

Multiple Goals and Motivational Climates

Up to now we’ve discussed goal orientations and motivational climates as if they are dichotomous entities. Achievement motivation theory, however, suggests that people can have multiple goal orientations and motivational climates. Therefore, before altogether dismissing a competitive orientation, it’s important to analyze the effectiveness of using both goals.

A study of goal orientations in young basketball players found that athletes who had both mastery and outcome goal orientations had greater levels of enjoyment and competence than athletes who had only a single orientation.13 A separate study found that athletes from various sports who had both goal orientations had greater perceived sport competence and enjoyment than athletes who adopted only mastery or outcome goals.14

Other studies have found that athletes with both mastery and outcome goal orientations persist longer in sports and report the greatest years of participation.15, 16 Studies also suggest that athletes with both kinds of goals have higher intrinsic motivation.14, 13

In perhaps the most comprehensive experiment ever done on achievement motivation theory, 72 college students enrolled in a beginning golf class.17 The motivational climate was a performance/competitive situation. Participants were assigned to four conditions: combined performance and competitive goal, mastery, competitive and no goal—the control group. Participants practiced golf putting for 18 sessions over six weeks. Those in the performance group were given the goal of improving by 5 percent each week on a mini golf task and a target putting task. Those in the competitive condition were given the goal of winning at least 50 percent of solo best ball games and 50 percent of the team best ball games played. Those in the mastery and competitive group were given the goal of achieving one performance goal and one competitive goal.

The subjects in the combined performance and competitive group had the highest persistence during training, trained almost twice as much as the other participants and had greater intrinsic motivation. Their performance tended to increase to a greater extent, probably due to greater motivation and practice.

The author suggests that “a person who stresses both goal perspectives has two sources of success and several reasons to continue participation in the activity” and that multiple goal orientation “provides the participant with mastery standards to fall back on if he or she is not the best at a specific task.”16 Another group of researchers have been so bold as to suggest that someone with both goal orientations cannot fail to be satisfied.17

One analyst suggests that people who enter into a climate that conflicts with their motivational goals may perceive conflict in motivations, leading to decreased motivation. For example, if an athlete has a competitive-oriented goal and the motivational climate is mastery oriented, that may discourage his or her motivation. Multiple goals may allow for motivational coping strategies or enhanced adaptability to various situations. In a real-world setting that has practical significance, as sports often entail using both goal orientations. For instance, an athlete may first begin a sporting career by focusing on performance goals, then focusing on competitive goals, then going back to performance goals. Adaptability is imperative.

An analysis of multiple goal orientations concludes that “the optimal achievement strategy would be one that not only focuses on opportunities for growth and development [performance goals], but also allows for recognition of a normative basis [outcome goals]. Such a strategy should make an individual better equipped to cope with the task at hand and, therefore, provide the best possibility for attaining athletic excellence.”

Practical Applications—Setting SMART Goals

Before making recommendations on performance and competitive goals, we want to give a brief review of some basic concepts for goal setting. The acronym SMART sums it up nicely:

S – specific
M – measurable
A – achievable
R – relevant
T – time-based

Here are examples of bad goals:
• I want to win a contest.
• I want to lose weight.
• I want to be huge.

Here are examples of SMART goals:
• I want to lose 16 pounds (specific, measurable) in four months (achievable, time-based) so my clothing can fit better (relevant).
• I want to increase my deadlift by 40 pounds in six months, in time for a powerlifting competition I would like to enter.

Here are our recommendations on how to implement both performance and competitive goals in your program:

Emphasize performance goals, as research clearly demonstrates that they result in greater performance and motivation when compared to competitive goals. Evidence, however, suggests that having two goals—performance and competitive—results in even greater performance and motivation than having one goal.

We suggest that you focus on performance goals. Coaches and personal trainers should foster a performance-oriented motivational climate. You should not be dogmatic with these practices, however, and ignore competitive goals. You should set and acknowledge completed goals and reinforce them when they are accomplished.

For example, if you win a bodybuilding show, you’d better celebrate. If you lose, you can always fall back on your performance goals: Did you give it your all? Are you better than last year? In reality, that is all you can ask for and all that is in your control. If you added 10 pounds of solid muscle and came in better condition than your previous contest, you still might lose to a freak who just looked better than you. That combination of goal setting should optimize incentive motivation, persistence, reinforcement opportunities, intrinsic motivation and performance.

No plan at all, as we said, is really a plan to fail. Conversely, by following the plans set out in this article, you will give yourself a chance for success.

We strongly advise that you immediately analyze your program and outline your goals. Then check them off one by one as you accomplish them.

Editor’s note: Gabriel Wilson is completing his Ph.D. in nutrition with an emphasis on optimal protein requirements for muscle growth and is a researcher in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana. He is vice president of the Web site Jacob Wilson is a skeletal-muscle physiologist and researcher in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee. He is president of the Web site


1 Nicholls, J.G. (1989). The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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