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Achievement goal theory: ‘An athlete’s motivation should always be to aim to be the best’ Essay

“Success and failure are not concrete events. They are psychological states consequent on the perception of reaching or not reaching goals” (Maehr & Nicholls, 1980. p. 228). The quality of an athlete’s sporting experience is shaped by the way in which success is defined, and by how capabilities are judged (Duda, 1993). Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) (Nicholls, 1984; 1989) outlines that people are motivated by the desire to fell competent. People can define competence and success in different ways, the main ones being ego and task orientations.

Research is consistent in showing the motivational benefits of a task-orientation, either singly or in combination with an ego-orientation. In order to keep athletes involved in sport, success must mean being the best as well as task mastery and personal improvement (Duda, 1993).

Drawing from past research, I will construct an essay to support the statement: ‘An athlete’s motivation should always be to aim to be the best’. I will firstly outline important tenants of AGT, in particular ego and task orientations, approach and avoidance goals, motivational climates, and TARGET guidelines. Secondly, I will use this information to provide a brief analysis of the motivational style that a coach of the Varsity rugby league team;

Brent, performs, and the effects this style has on a particular 18-year-old athlete; Justin. Finally, I will describe specific theoretically based strategies that can be used by Brent, to adapt a more correct motivational atmosphere for Justin and his team. Coaches play an important role in determining the types of motivational orientations athletes perceive (Ames, 1992). Part 1: Theoretical Understanding.

According to AGT (Nicholls, 1984, 1989), in achievement situations the goal of participants is to demonstrate competence or avoid demonstrating incompetence. AGT recognises at least two approaches athletes may adopt to judge their ability within a sporting context. A focus on comparing oneself to others (ego-orientated) or a focus on one’s own effort and improvement (task-orientated) Athletes, who are ego-orientated, perceive ability as limiting the effects of effort on performance (Nicholls, 1989). Here athletes show their high capacity of ability often at the expense of effort.

Nicholls (1989) states that ego-orientated individuals judge their ability relative to others, and try to demonstrate superior ability or outperform others to be satisfied. Those who are highly task-orientated use cues such as levels of effort and task completion to assess their competence, in a self-reflective manner. Here the athlete is satisfied if they perform to a level that reflects how they have mastered a task or made personal improvements (Ames, 1992).

Much research points to the advantage of being task-involved when participating in sport and other achievement-related activities (Ames, 1992; Duda, 1993, 2001). Positive outcomes include health, well-being, and social and performance-related factors. When athletes report being task-oriented, they persist longer at sporting tasks, they are more engaged with their trainings, and they use more effective cognitive processing strategies (tennis). In comparison, ego-oriented goals may lead to negative outcomes, such as the tendency to drop out of sport (Duda & Balaguer, 2007).

Adaptive cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns are characteristics of task-orientated athletes as well as for those who are ego-oriented but who have high perceived competence or ability. Maladaptive patters are predicted for ego-oriented individuals who have low perceived ability (Nicholls, 1989). Athletes become predisposed to task and ego orientations because of social factors in their sport (i.e. the coach), and these orientations will subsequently influence what goal preference an athlete will adopt in a specific situation (Duda & Balaguer, 2007).

Elliot (1999) & Pintrich (2000) state that task and ego goals are each divided into approach and avoidance goals. In terms of task goals, task-approach oriented athletes are interested in achieving mastery of a task; in contrast, task-avoidance oriented athletes are interested in avoiding misunderstanding the task. In terms of ego goals, ego-approach oriented athletes are interested in demonstrating that they are more competent than other athletes (i.e., have more ability than others); in contrast, performance-avoidance oriented students are interested in avoiding appearing incompetent or stupid.

It is important to note that athletes can hold multiple goals simultaneously; thus, it is possible for an athlete to be both task-approach oriented and ego-approach oriented; here, this athlete truly wants to learn and master the material but is also concerned with appearing more competent than others. The nature of the goal state (levels of task and ego-orientation) that is activated in a specific sport situation will be determined by individual preference (goal orientation) as well as situational cues (motivational climate).

According to Roberts (2001) conceptions of competence are determined by both dispositional and situational factors. Research acknowledges that both students’ individual characteristics and contextual influences affect the types of goals that students adopt in various learning environments. Studies indicate that the environments in which athletes learn influence their goal orientations in important ways (Dweck, 1986; Cury, Biddle, Famose, Goudas, & Sarrazin, 1996; Spray, 2000). Whether an athlete is more task- or ego-orientated in sport depends partly on the motivational climate created by coaches.

This can also be of two types: a mastery or task-oriented motivational climate, and a competitive or ego-oriented motivational climate (Ames, 1992). In this regard, athletes who have stronger ego-goal orientations are more likely to perceive an ego-oriented sport climate, whereas those with a dominant task-orientation are more likely to perceive a task-oriented motivational climate.

The instructional practices that are used in trainings have an impact on the types of goal orientations that athletes adopt (Ntoumanis & Biddle, 1999) In a task-oriented motivational climate, the coach emphasises cooperation, rewards players’ effort, and ensures that everyone feels that they have clear and important roles to play on the team. When mistakes are made, the coach responds with information on how to correct the error. Here, coaches are more likely to produce athletes who are confident, coachable, willing to work hard for commonly agreed upon goals, and who enjoy their sport.

In an Ego-orietated motivational climate, the coach emphasises rivalry between players, has a low tolerance for mistakes, and has favourites amongst the players. This environment has been related to athletes having greater performance anxiety and self-doubt and other behaviors which are counterproductive (Duda, & Balaguer, 2007; Ntoumanis & Biddle, 1999).

In a task-orientated climate athletes experience greater enjoyment and self-esteem, and reported less anxiety than in ego-involving climates. Athletes also report greater intrinsic motivation to play their sport when their coaches promote task involvement (Duda, & Balaguer, 2007; Ntoumanis & Biddle, 1999).

Another critical area that defines the predominant motivational climate is the type of feedback given to athletes. The task-orientated climate will have responses that emphasize effort, improvement and skill mastery. The ego-involving climate will focus on the win-loss record and the athlete’s ability. In a given context, if a coach talks about and truly focuses on mastery, improvement, and self-comparisons, then athletes are likely to adopt mastery goals, and to perceive a task goal structure during training.

In contrast, if a coach constantly talks about skill levels, game scores, and who is doing the best (or the worst), then athletes are likely to adopt performance goals, and perceive a performance goal structure at training.

An athlete’s motivation should be to strive to be the best, but it is the perception of what is meant by ‘being the best’ that the athlete must be concerned with. Coaches can play an important role in determining what athletes perceive as being the best It is therefore important to provide the right types of goals, in the right type of motivation climate.

Epstein (1989) identified that the task, authority, recognition, grouping, evaluation, and time (TARGET) structures as influential factors that can determine the motivation climate. Epstein (1989) developed a taxonomy as a way of summarising and providing order to the various dimensions. Later, Ames (1992) adopted the TARGET acronym to summarise the structures that foster a mastery motivational climate in achievement situations, and consequently, display positive patterns of behaviours in athletes.

The Task (T) dimension outlines the design of the learning activities. The Authority (A) dimension refers to the type and frequency of participation in the decision-making process. The dimension of Recognition (R) concerns the use of rewards to recognise progress and achievement. The Grouping (G) dimension regards the way in which athletes are divided into groups.

The Evaluation (E) dimension involves the methods, standards, and criteria used to assess learning. The Time (T) dimension concerns the appropriateness of the time demands, the pace of instruction, and the time designated to complete tasks. This model can be used to identify and design a learning environment to help develop athletes perceived competence, enjoyment and intentions to participate.

Conversely, Ego-orientated climates are created when athletes are not given varied tasks, the coach maintains authority, athletes are recoginised for their ability relative to others, homogeneous ability groups are used, evaluation is based on normative practices, and time for task’s completion is inflexible (Duda & Balaguer, 2007).

The mastery TARGET structures of task, grouping, and time have shown to have the greatest positive effect on peoples activity levels (Bowler, 2009). I will now use the discussed theoretical assumptions to provide a brief analysis of the motivational style that a coach Brent employs, and the effects this style has on an athlete; Justin. Part 2: Case Study; a Brief Analysis.

Justin, an athlete in Brent’s team, is not enjoying league as much as he has in the past. Justin believes it is the coaching style and team environment, which has caused this change in motivation. Brent, a rookie coach, feels that his experience he has had as a player and from having been coached himself by a number of different coaches, will lead him to be a successful coach. It is evident from the case study and from the literature that Brent’s motivational style is negatively affecting Justin’s motivation, to the point that he seems certain to drop out of the sport completely.

It would advantage Brent to be more task-orientated during his coaching; he currently employs an ego-orientated motivational style. His ego-orientated motivational climate can be categorised into the six dimensions of the TARGET taxonomy (Epstein, 1989). As a dimension of (T) Task: Brent does not emphasise individual challenge or active involvement during his fitness training and he dominates conversations by explaining what he thought went wrong.

As a dimension of (A) Authority: Brent does not ask for input from the team regarding training drills and he does not give the players much of a chance to give their opinions. As a dimension of (R) Recognition:
Athletes are recognised for their ability relative to others during fitness sessions rather than on effort as a perceived indicator of achievement. As a dimension of Grouping (G): homogeneous groups are evident when comparing new and existing team members; there is a sense of an ‘us and them’ atmosphere.

As a dimension of Evaluation (E): the coach bases evaluation on fitness levels rather than effort, with no tools to develop the progression towards individual goals. and finally as a dimension of Time (T): the time the team has for task completion is inflexible, he expects quick progression of skills and fitness, as well as this, his sessions are all planned out in advance not allowing appropriate time demands.

These ego-orientated practices that Brent employs, has created a motivational climate that is of a highly ego-orientated nature. This will influence the types of goal orientations that Justin adopts. The nature of the goal state will be determined by individual preference as well as the motivational climate.

Justin’s motivational preference seems also to be highly ego-orientated. There is a high chance that this is a function of Brent’s ego-orientated instructional practices (motivational climate). Justin believes that in order to be successful he has to focus comparing himself with others either during fitness training or in higher recognition situations (i.e. aiming to make national representative squads).

Justin displays performance anxiety and self-doubt. He does not feel like he has been given the opportunity to improve his league skills, and is worried about losing his place on the NZ rep team. Rather than striving for task-orientated goals, he is displaying an ego-goal orientation.

Another effect of having an ego-goal orientation in sport is that Justin may perceive his ability by limiting the effects of effort during trainings. This lack of effort may be the reason for his lack of game time. Justin also displays an ego-avoidance orientation; here Justin is interested in avoiding appearing incompetent. He feels the only reason he is still playing is that he would feel guilty if he did not see the season through to the end.

It is still early on in the season and although things do not seem to be going well for Justin, there is still hope yet. I will know describe specific strategies that i would encourage Brent to use to structure a more adaptive ‘motivational’ sport environment for Justin Part 2: Case Study; Strategies for a more adaptive ‘motivational’ sport environment.

I believe Brent needs to reflect of the current coaching style and make changes to certain aspects, and if possible up-skill (i.e. a coaching course). In order to structure a more adaptive ‘motivational’ sport environment for Justin and his team I would encourage Brent to design strategies to enhance task-involvement. Brent could employ the TARGET (Epstein, 1989) conceptualization, which represents the six structures of the achievement context to influence his athlete’s motivation.

These situational structures are assumed to be interdependent; one dimension can have direct implications on another dimension within the structure.

I will now explain how Brent can structure a more adaptive motivational climate using the principals of the TARGET guidelines. As a dimension of task, Brent could provide the athletes with tools to help set self-referenced process and performance goals. For example, Brent may want to record the athletes initial and post fitness tests scores (i.e. Time it takes to run 3km) to provide athletes with individual times. Here the demand of the task is to emphasise individual challenge. This also recognises that individual ability can be a perceived indicator of achievement.

As a dimension of authority, Brent could encourage input from his team by directing questions to athletes during review sessions (e.g. “how do you think we could improve on our performance from Saturday’s game”) or getting individual athletes to call out the tackle count for a set of six tackles during defensive drills. This would be a great opportunity to nominate athletes like Justin, because it provides active involvement, while also building confidence and leadership skills.

As a dimension of recognition, Brent could approach each player during the training session to talk through individual strategies, progress, and evaluation. This gives individual feedback that can advantage athletes like Justin. As a dimension of grouping, Brent could use differing grouping arrangements.

For example arranging groups by which state of origin team they support, what province they are from, or which position they play (i.e. a forward). By sub-dividing groups under similar characteristics can support cooperative grouping arrangements. As a dimension of evaluation, Brent could encourage athletes to bring a notebook to training as a way of recording their own personal improvements. Brent should also acknowledge mastery of tasks and congratulate good effort rather than comparing athletes’ skill levels against each other.

As a dimension of timing, Brent needs to recognise that athlete’s progress through skills and fitness at different levels, a good coach must cater for all athletes by providing optimal timing constraints. This may involve being open to training drills progressing longer or shorter than what he had planned for.

By employing Epstein (1989) conceptualization of the TARGET guidelines to foster a task-involving motivational climate, athletes will experience greater confidence, enjoyment and self-esteem. Athletes will also be more intrinsically motivation to play league. An athlete’s motivation should always be to aim to be the best. It important that Brent can change his own perception of what he defines as the best from his current ego-involved definition to a more task-orientated definition. Creating this type of climate will hopefully help develop his own athletes’ perceptions of competence and enhance their sporting experience.

In conclusion, this essay has outlined some specific theoretical assumptions of the achievement goal theory, and how these can be used to understand athletes’ behavioral patterns in sport. The coach-created motivational climate can play an important role in influencing athletes’ interpretation of their involvement in sport. Whether this influence is more positive or negative appears to depend on the degree to which the motivational atmosphere the coach establishes is more or less task-involving and ego-involving. I was able to assess Brent’s current motivational style using the TARGET taxonomy and its effects this style has on a athlete; Justin.

Finally, I was also able to point out specific strategies of the TARGET taxonomy to help Brent create a more task-orientated motivational coaching climate. In doing so I have been able to support the statement that ‘an athlete’s motivation should always be to aim to be the best’, by acknowledging that ‘best’ can be defined from task-orientated goals.

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