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Is "Achievement Goal Theory" reality or just a myth

Lisa Wright (MSc Sport Psychology) provides a resume of her MSc thesis, which investigates if achievement goal theory is based on fact or fiction.

Individuals have a 'personal theory' about what achievement means to them for that specific situation or task. The characteristics of the situation and task interact to impact the state of the goal the individual adopts. Achievement behaviour is "the behaviour in which the goal is to develop or demonstrate to self and others high ability or avoid demonstrating low ability". Ability is constructed in two ways. Firstly, the ability can be judged high or low concerning the individual's past performance or knowledge. In this context, gains in mastery indicate competence. Secondly, to demonstrate high capacity, one must achieve more with equal effort or use less effort than others do for equal performance.

Achievement goals

The two types of achievement goals could be activated, depending on which conceptions of ability were held salient then. When gains in mastery indicate competence, individuals are said to be task involved. On the other hand, when the achievement of more with less effort than that of others indicates competence, they are said to be ego involved. There is a plethora of literature on the goal perspective theory (GPT). Duda (1987)[1] provides a strong case for applying the GPT to the sport achievement domain. Research has been carried out in this area to support this (Horn & Hasbrook 1986[2]: Roberts & Duda, 1984[3]: Spink & Roberts, 1980: Duda, 1986[4]).

There is also a vast amount of literature, which offers a critical view of the Achievement Goal Theory. Many authors take the view that the notion is a myth. Other literature stated that the Achievement Goal Theory did not correlate with the goal-setting literature. It stated that goals motivate and direct behaviour as an ego orientation and cannot be detrimental to performance because high-class athletes would naturally set outcome goals. Current literature also shared the consensus that successful performers have multiple perceptions of their competence and would integrate the use of performance, outcome and process goals to good effect. This, therefore, indicates that individuals can have both a high ego and a task orientation at the same time. To support this argument, Harwood et al. (2000)[5] provided a critique of the traditional goal perspective theory. As a result, the theorists highlighted conceptual and measurement (psychometric) inconsistencies of the goal perspective theory.


  • Confusion over orthogonality
  • Association between a goal & the differentiation of effort & ability
  • Meaning of task involvement in sport


  • Validity of TEOSQ
  • The inability of TEOSQ to discriminate among people who are high, moderate or low in each orientation

The Task and Ego Orientation Questionnaire (TEOSQ)

The Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire (TEOSQ) is a psychometric measurement, which attempts to assess the preferred goal perspective of an individual. The original TEOSQ is a 13-item questionnaire whereby the subjects indicate their degrees of agreement with each of the items on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree). The original TEOSQ, developed by Duda and Nicholls (1989)[6] was modified by adding six additional questions to reflect the new 3rd self-referenced construct of the goal perspective theory, suggested by Harwood et al. (2000)[5]. The modified version of the TEOSQ was used as part of an initial baseline assessment to select those participants required to partake further in the study.

Research Findings

The findings of research carried out on individuals' motivational climate concluded that an ego-involving context is an environment in which athletes perceive that poor performance and mistakes will be punished. It also concluded that high ability team members would receive the most attention and recognition. It finally concluded in an ego-involving context that competition between team members is encouraged by the coach. In terms of a task involving context is an environment in which athletes are reinforced by the coach when they experience improvement, work hard and help each other learn. Nicholls concluded from the research carried out that athletes should be encouraged to set performance rather than outcome goals. Nicholls also suggested that high levels of ego orientation were associated with cheating. Finally, Nicholls concluded that people who want to compete, i.e. have a strong ego orientation are "bad guys" and people who want to "play nicely" and not participate in the competition are "good guys".

Harwood et al. (2000)[5] proposed an alternative conceptual approach, which incorporated three-goal perspectives. These are outlined as follows;

  • Pure task involvement = concern is with learning and putting in an effort with no direct or observable competence outcome
  • Self-referenced ego involvement = concern is with the adequacy of personal ability associated with the level of current skills, i.e. the achievement goal is centred on demonstrating the adequacy of existing personal skills, irrespective of the skills of others
  • Norm-referenced ego involvement = concern is with the current definition of ego involvement, wherein achievement is conceived of as demonstrated ability that compares favourably with the ability of others.

The tripartite aspect of the critique demonstrates the potential link between the three-goal dimensions and elements of the goal-setting literature.

Conceptual   Technique
Task orientation - Process -----------> Process goals
Task orientation - Product -----------> Performance goals
Ego orientation -----------> Outcome goals

This article recognises the significance of the emerging debate and acknowledges the sound support for this emergent theory outlined in Harwood et al. (2000)[5] second paper and therefore, attempts to overcome the criticism put forward regarding several aspects of the achievement goal theory, to provide empirical evidence to counter it and to move this theory forward within the sport.

The proposals put forward in this article are; firstly, achievement goals and goal involvement states can be manipulated by the manipulation of goal setting. Secondly, goal-setting techniques can be implemented so that they influence individuals to take on certain thought processes. Finally, goal setting can be used by coaches and individuals alike, to set up a kind of 'personal development plan', which is designed to allow the individual to move in and out of states as the situation requires. As a result of the new developments in the goal perspective literature, the additional third domain (self-referenced ego) has been integrated into this study in the form of a new, modified TEOSQ, which incorporates the new construct.

Research methodology

The methodology of the work for this article was as follows: the interpreter approach was used, with the use of individual case narratives, to obtain in-depth information from each athlete as individuals. The post-positivist paradigm was also incorporated in which;

  • 14 subjects from local swimming clubs were requested to complete the modified TEOSQ
  • Results were analysed and screened, and three subjects selected for further study
  • These three subjects were then interviewed throughout the study (over five months)

The interviews lasted between 20 and 45 minutes and were recorded throughout their entirety. They were all conducted by the same researcher, thus providing a constant across the interviews. The interviews are outlined as follows

  • Interview 1 = baseline assessment of the subjects, i.e. allowed the researcher to get a complete picture of each subject and therefore build a rapport with them
  • Interviews 2 & 3 = competition interviews, i.e. the subjects were interviewed about specific interviews they had recently participated in
  • Interview 4 = confirmatory interview, i.e. the subjects were asked to reflect on their experiences and to confirm or reject the information received over the previous interviews

The work focused on two aspects of the conceptual critique. These arguments are; firstly, the tripartite approach to the achievement goal theory; and secondly, the integration between goal involvement states and goal setting cognitions.

Research results

The results provided the following significant support for the tripartite approach to the achievement goal theory;

  • The response of the subjects to the completion of the questionnaire
  • The results from Sarah's interview, as she defined success in terms of effort, yet appeared not to have achieved success, as no improvement was experienced
  • Clear distinctions were made between the three involvement states
  • In training contexts, self-referent ego involvement and pure task involvement are more likely to predominate
  • Competitive sport promotes ego involvement, and, although pure task involvement may be present, what researchers previously labelled as task involvement in a competitive setting is what Harwood et al. (2000)[5] refer to as self-referenced ego involvement
  • It is the individual's cognitions about achievement and his/her reasoning behind what is required to maximise a sense of accomplishment that occupy his/her thought processes

The results provided significant support for the integration between goal involvement and goal setting cognitions;

  • The language of the athletes in the interviews made a connection between the goal involvement literature and the goal-setting literature
  • The states of involvement adopted are subconscious and are not discreet goals set by the subjects but instead are psychological states that reflect their beliefs about achievement for that task at that time
  • Particular goal-setting strategies can be applied to influence the tone of an individual's achievement context and so encourage an athlete to adopt specific goal achievement states


The article has provided significant support for the conceptual and measurement critique of the achievement goal theory. Therefore, I believe it demonstrates that the analysis of the achievement goal theory holds some truth and is not based on mere speculation.

  • A tripartite approach can be taken to the achievement goal theory, which consists of task-product, task-process and ego involvement states of achievement
  • These three involvement states can be integrated with the three goal-setting techniques (performance, process and outcome goals)
  • It can be suggested that goal-setting strategies can be employed to manipulate the goal involvement states engaged in by athletes, and this must be considered in an applied sport setting, to produce the most effective motivational climate for the individual in a particular situation, to maximise performance

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • WRIGHT, L. (2005) Is Achievement Goal Theory reality or just a myth. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 22 / May), p. 6-8


  1. DUDA, J.L (1987) Toward a Developmental Theory of Children's Motivation in Sport. Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, p. 130-145.
  2. HORN, T. and HASBROOK, C. (1986) Informational Components Influencing Children's Perceptions of their Physical Competence. In: M. Weiss and D. Gould (Eds.) Sport for Children and Youth. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. p.81-88
  3. ROBERTS, G. and DUDA, J.L. (1984) Motivation in Sport: The Mediating Role of perceived Ability. Journal of Sport Psychology, 6, p. 312-324.
  4. DUDA, J.L. (1986) Perceptions of Sport Success and Failure among White, Black, and Hispanic Adolescents. In: J. Watkins, T. Reilly, and L. Burwitz (Eds.) Sport Science. London: E. and F. Spon. p.214-222
  5. HARWOOD, C. et al. (2000) Achievement Goals in Sport: A Critique of Conceptual and Measurement Issues. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 22, p. 235-255.
  6. DUDA, J.L. et al. (1989) Relationship Between Task and Ego Orientation and the Perceived Purpose of Sport Among High School Athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11, p. 318-335.

Page Reference

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  • WRIGHT, L. (2005) Is Achievement Goal Theory reality or just a myth [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lisa Wright has a BSc in Sports Science and an MSc in Sport Psychology, both achieved at Liverpool John Moores University UK. She currently works in North Yorkshire as a Senior Sport Development Officer. Lisa, a 3rd Dan in Shotokan, is in her second year of BASES Supervised Experience in Sport Psychology and has applied sport psychology work experience with a women's basketball team in Manchester UK.