Goal orientations are cognitive representations of the general type of goal an individual will tend to pursue. Goal orientations are dynamic and subject to change as information pertaining to one’s performance on the task is processed. While an individual can hold a number of goal orientations that govern their reasons for engaging in an activity, research has primarily focused on two types of goals namely, task oriented goals and ego oriented goals.

Task orientated goals

The primary motivation for action in pursuing the task oriented goal is to achieve mastery over the task through the application of relevant skills. By gaining mastery over a given task, the individual experiences self improvement which is also a motivational component for action.

Success in meeting the task oriented goal is measured by:

  1. How well the individual mastered the task,
  2. How much self improvement the individual experienced and
  3. How proficient the skills and abilities were of the individual

Task orientation is portrayed as an intrinsically motivated state that leads to persistence when failing, perseverance when faced with difficulties and a fulfilling sense of achievement if the task was mastered, improvement was experienced and ability was successfully expressed. Task oriented goals can be achieved regardless of whether or not the person has come first place or last place in a race, or won or lost a game (Elliot, 2005).

It is a goal orientation that focuses on mastering the task at hand and doing the best that can be done with the ability one under the circumstances faced. In its purest form, it is not a goal orientation that focuses on winning places and/or points.

Ego oriented goals

The primary motivation for action in perusing ego oriented goals is to be better than others. In other words, the motivation to pursue and realize the ego oriented goal is fuelled by competition.

Success is measured in terms of performance exceeding that of others even if this can be achieved when putting in less effort or executing less skill than others. Motivation is aimed at being the best rather than doing one’s best. The driving force is to demonstrate a superior and higher ability compared to others rather than demonstrating one’s ability irrespective of how it compares to others (Roberts, Treasure & Conroy, 2007; Steinberg, Grieve, & Glass, 2001). The ego oriented goal functions as an extrinsic motivational force to achieve desired outcomes.

A task oriented athlete can find a deep level of satisfaction in performing to the best of their ability regardless of whether or not they have achieved a place or won the game. An ego oriented athlete will tend to lose motivation if they perceive they will not be able to win, thus the ego focused athlete will often pull back and give up on such occasions.

Task oriented athletes are more likely to maintain a high level of motivation to continue performing optimally irrespective of whether they think they will win or lose and therefore are more likely to persevere with their best effort irrespective of the ‘score board’ because that is the primary motivation for them.