Mind over matter: The science of goal setting



GOAL setting has become somewhat of a social media trend in the age of, “unlocking your dreams 101.” From saving up for that dream car to achieving that promotion at work we are bombarded with blogs, podcasts, and posts with tips, tricks, and advice on “how to achieve it all,” and set S.M.A.R.T goals.

Not diminishing the value of specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound goals it must be said that the science and psychology of goal setting has been immensely watered down and simplified because of this. In the world of sport and elite athleticism, it’s quite the contrast from this easy-going picture and consists of a series of complex processes and behaviours that if overlooked can be detrimental to athletic performance.

Having touched on motivational theory a few weeks ago we learned that motivation is the direction and intensity of effort. We can now begin to understand that goal setting is a key motivational process and goals are the end toward which that effort and intensity is directed. The two can oftentimes be intertwined as they share a bi-directional relationship; goals might fuel our motivation and motivation might fuel our goals. The major role player in goal setting, however, is what theorists call goal-orientations.

Goal orientations simply refer to the mindset and behaviours an athlete applies to achievement-related activities. Individuals tend to adopt goal-orientations depending on the situation or environment they are in. According to the goal-orientation theory, there are two main types of goal-orientations: mastery and performance (Dweck and Leggett, 1988). A mastery orientation is one that is focused on learning and mastering skill, while a performance orientation is a desire to demonstrate high ability and make a good impression in comparison to others.

Psychologists tend to agree that a mastery orientation is highly adaptive and carries the most positive qualities including perseverance, seeking out challenges and a desire to learn. Performance orientations can also yield positive results but tend to come at more detrimental costs to the athlete including anxiety, worry and diminished confidence. Researchers have further found that individuals who are exposed to mastery-oriented environments (environments that foster learning and development) have an enduring effect of adaptive motivational patterns even when the individual is no longer exposed to the environment.

This simply means that an athlete whose coaching environment was one that encouraged skill acquisition, development, and continuous learning is more likely to carry over that motivation into other environments compared to an athlete whose coaching environment was solely about winning.

Not to wade too much further in and risk losing you, there are just two more dimensions that should be mentioned: approach goals and avoidance goals. A simple yet effective way to understand this is the thinking behind “playing to win,” versus “playing not to lose.” Approach goals are those with positive effects working toward a desired outcome while avoidance goals are those with negative effects actively avoiding a consequence. If we combine the four concepts mentioned we now have mastery-approach, mastery-avoidance, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance orientations.

An example of each might look like this:

–Mastery-approach: I want to learn as much as I can from this training session.

–Mastery-avoidance: I hope I don’t learn less than I did in the last training session.

–Performance-approach: I want to beat everyone’s time in this training session.

–Performance-avoidance: I don’t want to be the slowest in this training session.

–It is only when these underlying concepts are understood we can then begin to understand the value of goal setting to an athlete’s success or demise.

Feel free to submit any questions you might have to alexandriaolton@outlook.com


"Mind over matter: The science of goal setting"

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