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date: 08 December 2023

Motivation in Sport and Performancefree

Motivation in Sport and Performancefree

  • Glyn C. Roberts, Glyn C. RobertsDepartment of Coaching and Psychology, Norwegian School of Sport Science
  • Christina G. L. NerstadChristina G. L. NerstadDepartment of Public Administration and Leadership, Oslo Metropolitan University
  •  and P. Nicolas LemyreP. Nicolas LemyreDepartment of Coaching and Psychology, Norwegian School of Sport Science


Motivation is the largest single topic in psychology, with at least 32 theories that attempt to explain why people are or are not motivated to achieve. Within sport psychology research, there are a plethora of techniques of how to increase and sustain motivation (strategies to enhance agency beliefs, self-regulation, goal setting, and others). However, when explaining the conceptual undergirding of motivation in sport, the why of motivation, two theories predominate: Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) and Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Both theories predict the same outcomes, such as increased achievement striving, sustained behavior change, and perceptions of well-being, but they differ in why those outcomes occur. AGT assumes that individuals cognitively evaluate the competence demands and meaningfulness of the activity, and that those perceptions govern behavior. SDT assumes that individuals are driven by three basic needs, competence, autonomy, and relatedness, and the satisfaction of those needs govern behavior. The following discusses both theories and concludes that each has their strengths and weaknesses.


  • Individual Differences
  • Social Psychology
  • Sports Psychology


We can never have equality of achievement, but we can have equality of motivation: That was the mission of John Nicholls (1979). His goal was “equality of optimal motivation” (p. 1071) so that everyone should achieve the best that is possible for him or her to fulfill their potential. This enshrines the conceptual basis of enhancing motivation for sustained behavior change evident in the extant literature. For optimal motivation, it is argued that strategies need to be developed where individuals adopt and sustain achievement striving. Whether it is business leaders trying to motivate people in the workplace, the health industry trying to halt the rise in childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles, parents and teachers bemoaning the study habits of children and adolescents, or coaches and administrators within the sport and performance communities wondering how to get better “results,” all are concerned with the issue of sustained motivated behavior.

How do we develop motivation for sustained striving? If we take our cues from everyday life, then it may be associated with arousal, such as the “motivational” tirades of coaches in the locker room. Former players of Manchester United Football Club have often remarked about the halftime locker room “hairdryer treatment” talks of the legendary coach of Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson. Some believe it is a measure of confidence, a winning attitude that motivates one to better performance. Some believe it is a simple matter of positive thinking: Believe and you will achieve! Some believe it is a personal entity or is genetically endowed; you either “have it, or not”! However, these beliefs do not begin to capture the complexity and richness of contemporary motivational theory and research.

The term motivation is a very overused and vague term, especially in the “trenches”—the classroom, the gymnasium, the exercise room, the playing fields, the sport arenas, the workplace, etc. (e.g., Ford, 1992; Roberts, 2012; Roberts, Treasure, & Conroy, 2007). We have former successful sports stars, politicians, businesspeople who earn “big bucks” on the lecture circuit giving what are termed “motivational talks”! We have sports commentators and business correspondents who argue that the successful are more motivated to achieve than the unsuccessful. But their definitions and understanding of what motivation is differs. Even among motivation researchers, motivation is defined broadly by some, and narrowly by others, so that the term is useless as an organizing construct. Ford (1992) has argued that there are at least 32 theories of motivation that have their own definitions and explanations of the construct. In contemporary motivation research, because the term is so vague, the solution has been to abandon the term and use descriptions of cognitive processes such as self-regulation or other self-systems that affect motivational processes. However, the important assumption agreed to by most contemporary theorists is that motivation is not an entity but is a process (e.g., Maehr & Braskamp, 1986). Typically, motivation is the process that influences the initiation, direction, magnitude, perseverance, continuation, and quality of goal-directed behavior (Maehr & Zusho, 2009). To understand motivation, we must attempt to understand the process of motivation and the constructs that drive the process and how they apply to sustained behavior change.

The history of motivation theory has been the search for the overarching theory, and, as such, it was assumed that when that theory evolved, a whole range of achievement behaviors would not only be better understood, but intervention opportunities would also present themselves (Roberts, 1992, 2012). Despite the efforts of many, and the arguments of some (e.g., Bandura, 1986), this overarching theory remains elusive and certainly not within our grasp yet. One of the reasons is that there is not universal agreement on how the psyche works to foster motivation. However, the search continues. There is excellent work in both sport and other achievement arenas that are ongoing in search of theoretical concepts and processes to understand and enhance achievement behaviors.

The study of motivation and its effect on achievement behavior is the investigation of the energization, direction, and regulation of behavior. Thus, while some avenues of research that describe the direction and/or the regulation of behavior without specifying why the behavior is energized are not “true” motivational theories, even though they may describe achievement behavior very well. Goal setting is such a case in sport and performance (e.g., Locke & Latham, 1985). Goal setting specifies the direction and regulation of achievement behavior, but to date there is no sufficient psychological explanation to explain why behavior from a goal-setting perspective is initiated (Hall & Kerr, 2001). Motivation theories are predicated upon a set of assumptions about individuals and about the factors that give impetus to achievement behavior (Roberts, 1992). Motivation theories ask why.

Typically, in the research literature pertaining to motivation in sport and performance, motivation theories refer to needs, dispositions, social variables, and/or cognitions that come into play when a person undertakes a task at which he or she is evaluated, enters into competition with others, or attempts to attain some standard of excellence. At such times, the individual is assumed to be responsible for the outcome of the task and that some level of challenge is inherent in the task. Moreover, such circumstances are assumed to facilitate various needs, motivational dispositions, and/or cognitive assessments that affect achievement striving. Specifically, it has been hypothesized that the energizing constructs of achievement behavior are basic needs, approach and/or avoidance dispositions, expectancies, incentive values of success and failure, and/or cognitive assessments of what it takes to achieve success and/or avoid failure.

Understanding the Process of Motivation

Motivation theories are on a continuum ranging from deterministic to mechanistic to organismic to cognitive (for a more extensive treatment of motivation theories, see Ford, 1992). Deterministic and mechanistic theories view humans as being passive, at least partially, and driven by psychological needs and/or drives. Organismic theories include innate needs but also recognize that a dialectic occurs between the organism and the social context. Social cognitive theories view humans as being active and initiating action through subjective interpretation of the achievement context. When motivation matters, theoretical models governing motivation and achievement behavior abound. There is no shortage of theories! However, since the late 1970s, theories that encompass social cognitive dynamics have dominated the research literature.

Weiner (1972) signaled the beginning of the cognitive revolution by arguing that individuals who were high or low in motivation were likely to think differently about why success and failure occurred. The notion that thoughts, rather than needs or drives, were the critical variables transformed the study of motivation. As Harwood, Spray, and Keegan (2008) stated, the development of social cognitive theories has been a watershed for our understanding of sport achievement behavior. Harwood and colleagues continue to state that achievement goal theory, in particular, has “triggered a penetrating wave of research into the interpersonal and environmental influences on athlete behavior in achievement settings” (p. 158). The majority of motivation research in sport performance contexts over the past 40 years has adopted a social cognitive approach, at least partially. The most popular contemporary theories in sport psychology tend to be based on organismic (e.g., Self-Determination theory, Deci & Ryan, 1985; Hierarchical goal model, Elliot, 1999) or social cognitive criteria (e.g., Achievement Goal Theory, Nicholls, 1989) and are based on the more dynamic and sophisticated conceptions that assume the human is an active participant in decision making and in planning achievement.

We have confined our review to include only the most important theories for sport and performance. It may be debated whether we have included all of the important theories. However, even a cursory review of the motivation literature in sport immediately reveals that the most cited theories are Achievement Goal Theory (e.g., Dweck, 2006; Nicholls, 1989) and Self-Determination Theory (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1985). These are the most used theories in the sport and performance arena. Thus, for sport performance, we take a critical eye to Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (e.g., Ntoumanis, 2012; Standage & Ryan, 2012) and Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) (e.g., Duda, 2001; Roberts, 2001, 2012) and their principal advocates.

We will discuss each theory in turn and identify the process of motivation within each, and we will briefly cite the research in sport and performance to support the basic tenets and findings. Then we will discuss the similarities and differences of each theory and conclude with a series of suggestions for future research in sport and performance contexts.

The Theories

First, we will discuss AGT in its various guises.

Achievement Goal Theory and Research

The history and development of AGT in sport has been reviewed in several recent publications (e.g., Duda, 2005; Duda & Hall, 2001; Harwood et al., 2008; Lochbaum, Kazak Cetinkalp, Graham, Wright, & Zazo, 2016; Roberts, 2012; Roberts Treasure, & Conroy, 2007). We will not exhaustively review the literature in the present article, rather we will focus on identifying key constructs, tenets, and constraints to the theory; review the basic conceptual infrastructure and empirical support; and present recent proposals for expanding and/or restructuring the approach, with some rebuttals and counterpoints! AGT is a social cognitive theory that assumes that the individual is an intentional, rational, goal-directed organism and that achievement goals govern achievement beliefs and guide subsequent decision making and behavior in achievement contexts. It is these goals that reflect the purposes of achievement striving. Once adopted, the achievement goal determines the integrated pattern of beliefs that energize approach and avoid strategies, the differing engagement levels, and the differing responses to achievement outcomes. Goals are what give an activity purpose or meaning (Kaplan & Maehr, 2007; Maehr & Nicholls, 1980). By recognizing the importance of the meaning of behavior, it becomes clear that there may be multiple goals of action, not one (Maehr & Braskamp, 1986). Thus, an individual’s investment of personal resources such as effort, talent, and time in an activity is dependent on the achievement goal of the individual.

The overall goal of action in AGT, thereby becoming the conceptual energizing force, is the desire to develop and demonstrate competence and to avoid demonstrating incompetence in an achievement context (Nicholls, 1984). However, competence has more than one meaning. Based on previous research on learned helplessness (Dweck, 1975), cooperation/competition (Ames, 1984), and his own work on children’s understanding of the concepts of effort and ability (1976), Nicholls’s conceptual contribution was to argue that more than one conception of ability exists, and that achievement goals and behavior may differ depending on the conception of ability held by the person. Two conceptions of ability (at least) manifest themselves in achievement contexts, namely an undifferentiated concept of ability, where ability and effort are not differentiated by the individual; and a differentiated concept of ability, where ability and effort are differentiated (Nicholls, 1984, 1989).

Nicholls (1978, 1989) argued that children originally possess an undifferentiated conception of ability and associate ability with learning through effort so that the more effort one puts forth, the more learning (and ability) one achieves. Following a series of experiments, Nicholls (1978; Nicholls & Miller, 1983, 1984) determined that by the age of 12, children are able to differentiate luck, task difficulty, and effort from ability, enabling a differentiated perspective. When utilizing this differentiated perspective, children begin to see ability as capacity and that the demonstration of competence involves outperforming others. In terms of effort, high ability is inferred when outperforming others and expending equal or less effort or performing equal to others while expending less effort.

An individual will approach a task or activity with certain goals of action reflecting their personal perceptions and beliefs about the form of ability they wish to demonstrate (Nicholls, 1984, 1989). They interpret their performance in terms of these perceptions and beliefs and form a personal theory of achievement at the activity (Nicholls, 1989) that reflects the individual’s perception of how things work in achievement situations. The adopted personal theory of achievement (Dweck, 2006, terms this as an implicit person theory) affects one’s beliefs about how to achieve success and avoid failure at the activity. Therefore, based on their personal theory of achievement, people will differ in which of the conceptions of ability and criteria of success and failure they use.

State of Involvement

The two conceptions of ability thereby become the source of the criteria by which individuals assess success and failure. The goals of action are to meet the criteria. Nicholls (1989) identifies achievement behavior utilizing the undifferentiated conception of ability as being task involved and achievement behavior utilizing the differentiated conception of ability as being ego involved.

When task involved, the goal of action is to develop mastery, improvement, or learning; and the demonstration of ability is self-referenced, internal, and autonomous. Success is realized when mastery or improvement is attained. Perceived ability becomes less relevant as the individual is trying to demonstrate or develop mastery at the task rather than demonstrate normative ability. The achievement behaviors are adaptive in that the individual is more likely to persist in the face of failure, to exert effort, select challenging tasks, and be intrinsically interested in the task (e.g., Duda & Hall, 2001; Nicholls, 1989; Roberts, 2012).

When ego involved, the goal of action is to demonstrate ability relative to others, or to outperform others, making ability other referenced and external. Success is realized when the performance of others is exceeded, especially when expending less effort (Nicholls, 1984, 1989). Perceived ability is relevant as the individual is trying to demonstrate normative ability, or avoid demonstrating inability, to determine how his/her ability fares with comparative others. These people seek competitive contests and want to demonstrate superiority. When perceived ability is high, demonstrating high-normative ability is likely; therefore, the individual is motivated to persist and demonstrate that competence to pertinent others. The ego-involved person is inclined to use the least amount of effort to realize the goal of action (Nicholls, 1989). If the perception of ability is low, then the individual recognizes that ability is unlikely to be demonstrated, and he/she manifests maladaptive achievement behaviors because he/she wishes to avoid demonstrating incompetence (Nicholls, 1989). Maladaptive behaviors are avoiding the task; avoiding challenge; reducing persistence in the face of difficulty; exerting little effort; and, in sport, even dropping out if achievement of the desired goal appears difficult. These people avoid competitive contests, as their lack of competence may be exposed. While the participant may view these avoidance behaviors as adaptive, because a lack of ability is disguised, they are considered maladaptive in terms of achievement behavior.

One of the most important tenets of AGT is that the states of involvement are mutually exclusive (e.g., Nicholls, 1989; Treasure et al., 2001). One is either ego or task involved. One’s state of motivational involvement ranges on a continuum from task to ego involvement. The goal state is very dynamic and can change from moment to moment as information is processed (Gernigon, d’Arippe-Longueville, Delignières, & Ninot, 2004). An athlete may begin a task with strong task-involved motivation, but contextual events may make the athlete wish to demonstrate superiority to others, and the athlete becomes ego involved in the task (as an example, when a coach publicly highlights a mistake). Similarly, an athlete may begin a competitive event with a strong ego-involved state of involvement, but as the event unfolds, the athlete may realize he or she will win easily (or lose emphatically) and therefore begin to work on mastery criteria instead and become task involved. Thus, goal states are dynamic and ebb and flow depending on the perception of the athlete.

In this article, when we refer to the motivated state of involvement of the individual, we use the terms ego and task involvement to be consistent with Nicholls’s use of the terms. However, other theorists use different terms such as mastery and performance (e.g., Ames, 1992a; Dweck, 1986). In addition, when we refer to individual dispositions, we use the terms task and ego orientation to be consistent with Nicholls. Again, other motivation theorists (e.g., Dweck, 1986, 2006; Elliot, 1999; Maehr & Braskamp, 1986) have used different terms (e.g., self-schemas, personal theories of achievement, implicit personal theories, personal investment) to describe the same phenomena.

Goal Orientations, an Individual Difference Variable

When individuals are predisposed (e.g., through their personal theory of achievement) to act in an ego- or task-involved manner, these predispositions are called achievement goal orientations. Individual differences in the disposition to be ego or task involved may be the result of socialization through task or ego-involving contexts in the home or other significant achievement contexts (e.g., classrooms, sport). The way Elliott and Dweck (1988) explain it is that each of the achievement goals runs off a different “program with different commands, decision rules, and inference rules, and hence, with different cognitive, affective, and behavioral consequences. Each goal, in a sense, creates and organizes its own world—each evoking different thoughts and emotions and calling forth different behaviors” (p. 11).

Goal orientations are not “traits” or based on needs. They are cognitive schemas that are dynamic and subject to change as information pertaining to one’s performance on the task is processed. The orientations have some stability over time and are relatively enduring in sport (Duda & Whitehead, 1998; Roberts, Treasure, & Balague, 1998). Thus, being task or ego oriented refers to the inclination of the individual to be task or ego involved in sport.

The important attribute of achievement goal orientations is that they are orthogonal and independent. One can be high or low in each or both orientations at the same time. Based on developmental research with children, Nicholls (1989) concluded that by the age of 12, it is possible for an individual to be high or low in both task and ego goal orientation, or high in one and low in the other. In the sport and exercise literature, this orthogonality has been supported (e.g., Duda, 2001; Lemyre, Roberts, & Ommundsen, 2002; Lochbaum et al., 2016; Pensgaard & Roberts, 2000; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1996; Walling & Duda, 1995). For qualitative reviews, see Duda and Whitehead (1998), and Roberts (2012) and colleagues (Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1997; Roberts, Treasure, & Conroy, 2007).

The implications of the orthogonality of goal orientations are important. The research evidence in sport suggests that individuals with high task and high ego or high task and low ego orientations have the most adaptive motivational profiles (e.g., Fox, Goudas, Biddle, Duda, & Armstrong, 1994; Hodge & Petlichkoff, 2000; Pensgaard & Roberts, 2002; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1996; Smith, Balaguer, & Duda, 2006). As one would expect, when an individual has been high in ego and low in task, or high in task and low in ego, then the findings are consistent with the findings reported above for task and ego orientation (task orientation is adaptive; ego orientation, especially when coupled with low perception of competence, is generally maladaptive). However, we find that high ego orientation when coupled with high (or moderate) task orientation is not maladaptive (e.g., Cumming, Hall, Harwood, & Gammage, 2002; Harwood, Cumming, & Fletcher, 2004; Pensgaard & Roberts, 2002; Smith et al., 2006; Wang & Biddle, 2001). Therefore, rather than focusing on whether an individual is task or ego oriented, it is important to consider the simultaneous combination of task and ego orientation (Kaplan & Maehr, 2007; Roberts et al., 2007).

The Research Evidence

Two strategies are used to determine the goal orientation profiles (high in each, high in one and low in the other, and low in each). One strategy has been to create the four profile groups through a mean or median split of the task and ego scores (e.g., Fox et al., 1994; Roberts et al., 1996). A weakness of this approach is that individuals may be misclassified. An alternative is to use cluster analysis to obtain the goal profiles (e.g., Hodge & Petlichkoff, 2000). Researchers in sport have used cluster analysis (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998) to investigate goal orientations and in general have supported the use of cluster analysis to produce the goal orientation profiles (e.g., Cumming et al., 2002; Harwood et al., 2004; Hodge & Petlichkoff, 2000; Smith et al., 2006; Wang & Biddle, 2001). The clusters have varied across these studies, but importantly, participants with high ego/high task and high task/moderate or low in ego goal orientations have consistently reported more desirable responses on the variables under study (e.g., greater imagery use, more physical activity, higher self-determination, better social relationships). Thus, the motivational implications of the orthogonality of goals are a very important attribute of AGT.

Elite athletes are likely to be high task and high ego (e.g., Pensgaard & Roberts, 2000) or high ego and low or moderate in task orientation. In sport, the individuals most at risk are the high ego and low task oriented. These are the people most likely to exhibit maladaptive motivation, drop out, and are the athletes most likely to burn out when they believe they cannot demonstrate competence (Lemyre, Roberts, & Stray-Gundersen, 2007). The low ego and low task people are the least motivated, and they may not even commit to achievement tasks. The important issue in the present discussion is that the orthogonality of the goal orientations has been demonstrated quite conclusively (see Lochbaum et al., 2016), and the orthogonality of the goals is an important factor determining sustained motivated behavior in sport. The avenue of research related to achievement goals in the context of sport and performance has demonstrated that individual differences in goal orientations are associated with different motivational processes and different achievement behaviors (e.g., Lemyre et al., 2007). In comprehensive previous reviews, the hypotheses pertinent to the goal orientations are consistently supported (e.g., Duda, 2001; Duda & Hall, 2001; Lochbaum et al., 2016; Roberts, 2001, 2012). Task orientation is associated with adaptive achievement strategies, positive affect, well-being, less cheating, better performance, and intrinsic forms of motivation. Ego orientation is associated with maladaptive achievement strategies, negative affect, ill-being, and extrinsic forms of motivation.

Goal Orientations and Mindsets

Dweck (2012) differs from Nicholls somewhat in that she argues that one’s personal theory of motivation gives rise to implicit theories about how things work in achievement settings. Dweck (2000) agrees with Nicholls (1989) that there exist specific individual difference variables that stimulate the pursuit of different goals; such variables are implicit person theories (IPTs). These theories reflect beliefs individuals have about themselves and their assumptions about the plasticity of personal characteristics such as personality, abilities (e.g., athletic), and intelligence, which guides human behavior (Dweck, 1986). Because they are not explicitly enunciated in the mind of the individual holding them, these person theories are typically referred to as implicit (Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013). Thus, IPTs portray schematic knowledge structures that include beliefs about the stability of a characteristic, which in turn classifies the way individuals assign meanings to various occasions (Burnette et al., 2013; Ross, 1989). According to Dweck (1986, 2012), there are two such IPTs. An entity IPT, also referred to as a fixed mindset, assumes that personal attributes are entities that reside within individuals and cannot be changed much over time (Dweck, 2000, 2012). Thus, a so-called entity theorist believes that individuals have given abilities that cannot really be changed or developed (Dweck, 2006).

On the other hand, incremental IPT, also referred to as a growth mindset, assumes that personal attributes are relatively changeable (Dweck, 1999). Thus, individuals with a growth mindset, also called incremental theorists, believe that with effort, guidance, and effective strategies, all individuals can develop and increase their abilities over time (Dweck, 1999, 2006).

The two mindsets are operationalized in such a manner that individuals lie somewhere along a continuum between the fixed and growth mindset prototypes; thus, one of the implicit theories is likely to be dominant (Heslin & Vandewalle, 2008; Spray, Wang, Biddle, Chatzisarantis, & Warburton, 2006). Still, it should be noted that it may be possible and beneficial for individuals to hold a combination of both growth and fixed mindsets (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Harwood, Spray, & Keegan, 2008): That is, when present differences in relative ability are recognized, but blended with an emphasis on individual growth in ability (Dweck & Elliot, 1983; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Sport psychological research has provided support for this suggestion given the typically negative, but weak, relationship between higher-ordered growth and fixed mindset dimensions (Biddle, Wang, Chatzisarantis, & Spray, 2003; Spray et al., 2006; Wang, Woon, Biddle, & Spray, 2005).

The IPTs (or mindsets) are relatively stable dispositions, and empirical evidence supports such a conceptualization (Dweck, 1999; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). However, there is also empirical evidence indicating that IPTs may be modified through interventions where changes in IPTs and behavior have been found to sustain for periods of six to nine weeks (e.g., Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Heslin, Latham, & Vandewalle, 2005).

The Research Evidence

IPTs (or mindsets) have been studied comprehensively in the educational achievement domain typically with experimental designs, although scholars have extended the IPT applicability to other domains such as work (Heslin & Vandewalle, 2008) and sport/physical education (Ommundsen, 2003; Spray et al., 2006). Accordingly mindsets have been shown to be important for success in various domains such as physical and emotional health, in social relationships, in academics, and in the workplace (Dweck, 2012). In sport, existing research has mainly been conducted with student participants, and thus IPTs have typically been measured with reference to physical education and sport where the majority of studies have been cross-sectional (Harwood et al., 2008), with a few exceptions (e.g., Spray et al., 2006). In the next paragraph, we will briefly present the main findings from various achievement domains, focusing on sport, physical education, and education.

Research based on diverse populations suggests that individuals can hold different IPTs in different domains such as in sport or schoolwork; growth and fixed mindsets are endorsed approximately equally; further, IPTs are generally uncorrelated with the Big Five trait dimensions, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and education (Burnette et al., 2013). IPTs have previously been linked to self-regulatory processes such as social comparison, selective information attention, goal setting, and overcoming stereotype threat (Aronson et al., 2002; Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006; Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008; Robins & Pals, 2002). In the sport domain, a fixed mindset of ability has been associated with self-reported amotivation, increased levels of anxiety, reduced levels of satisfaction, more acceptance of cheating behavior that was partly mediated by approach, and avoidance-performance goal orientation. On the other hand, a growth mindset predicts positively enjoyment, satisfaction, and reduced acceptance of cheating behavior through perceptions of approach and avoidance-mastery goal orientation (Biddle et al., 2003; Corrion et al., 2010; Ommundsen, 2001c).

Based on an experimental design, Cury, Da Fonséca, Zahn, and Elliot (2008) found that a fixed mindset has a detrimental influence on performance. Specifically, holding a fixed mindset facilitated concerns about the implications of failure. Such worry further led to decreased practice that directly undermined performance. This finding aligns with several other studies suggesting that individuals with a growth mindset perform better on various tasks (e.g., Aronson et al., 2002; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Mangels et al., 2006; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, & Lee, 2011; Paunesku et al., 2015).

IPTs and Goal Orientation

According to Dweck (1986, 1999), individuals have different goals in achievement situations, and these goals have their basis in the individuals’ IPTs. Dweck’s approach to goal orientations may be referred to as a person-oriented approach, where personality plays a major role in goal adoption (Maehr & Zusho, 2009). Specifically, Dweck and Leggett (1988) argue that goal orientations have their basis in the individuals’ IPTs, although they may be responsive to change (e.g., Aronson et al., 2002; Paunesku et al., 2015; Spray et al., 2006).

The goals, which Dweck terms either performance or mastery goals, that individuals adopt help create mastery-oriented or helpless responses (Dweck, 1999). Individuals with a growth mindset view their ability as something they can improve over time and are thus more likely to adopt mastery goals (Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Payne, Youngcourt, & Beaubien, 2007). Conversely, individuals with a fixed mindset are more likely to endorse performance goals (ability judgments), which creates vulnerability to a helpless pattern of behavior, particularly when their perceived ability is low (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Maehr & Zusho, 2009). When helpless, individuals may attribute their failures to personal inadequacy, deficient abilities, or intelligence, and they experience negative affect (Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Given that mastery goals concern mastery of new things, such as a new technical skill in ski jumping, growth mindset individuals respond to difficult problem solving with a clear mastery-oriented pattern (Elliott & Dweck, 1988). This was evident even when facing failure, where individuals managed to continue their focus on the task and how to solve it.

Fixed mindset individuals show a clear helpless pattern in response to difficult problem solving, especially when failing. In sport and physical education research, similar empirical evidence has emerged where a fixed mindset predicts performance goals while a growth mindset predicts mastery goals (e.g., Biddle, Seos, & Chatzisarantis, 1999; Biddle et al., 2003; Cury, Da Fonséca, Rufo, & Sarrazin, 2002; Ommundsen, 2001a, 2001b; Spray et al., 2006). A meta-analysis of the goal orientation nomological net also found support for Dweck’s (1986, 1999) predictions that a fixed mindset is negatively correlated with a mastery orientation and positively correlated with performance orientation (Payne et al., 2007). However the effect sizes were very small, indicating limited evidence for Dweck’s (1986) propositions of IPTs being the primary underlying antecedents of goal orientations.

However, a more recent meta-analysis (Burnette et al., 2013) including 28,217 respondents from various achievement domains (68% academic), representing 10 different nations covered in 113 different studies, investigated the relationship between IPTs and self-regulation. The results revealed that IPTs predicted distinct self-regulatory processes (performance and mastery orientation, helpless and mastery strategies, negative emotions, and expectations), which in turn predicted goal achievement. The results indicated that a growth mindset significantly and negatively predicted performance orientation, positively predicted mastery orientation, negatively predicted helpless strategies, positively predicted mastery-oriented strategies, negatively predicted negative emotions, and positively predicted expectations. The effects on goal orientation and helpless/mastery strategies were even stronger in the absence versus presence of ego threats such as failure feedback (Burnette et al., 2013). These findings lend additional support for Dweck’s initial propositions that IPTs are important predictors of individual goal orientation.

The Re-Introduction of Approach and Avoid Goals

A provocative theory challenging AGT has emerged from work on the hierarchical model of achievement motivation (e.g., Elliot, 1999; Elliot & Conroy, 2005). The hierarchical model claims to revise and extend AGT. The theory is based on the premise that approach and avoidance motivation are also important in considering achievement striving. Briefly, the hierarchical model of achievement motivation asserts that the dynamic states of involvement are influenced by both the definition of competence and the valence of the goals.

The arguments are similar to arguments made within Need Achievement Theory and research relative to approach success and avoid failure dispositions (e.g., Atkinson & Feather, 1966). Contemporary researchers suggest that an approach and an avoid motivation exist (e.g., Elliot, 1997; Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996; Middleton & Midgley, 1997; Skaalvik, 1997) and that individuals strive to be competent (an appetitive or approach valence) or strive to avoid appearing incompetent (an aversive or avoid valence). Thus, it is possible to differentiate goals based on their valence or the degree to which the focal outcome is pleasant or unpleasant.

In reviewing the achievement goal literature, Elliot (1994) observed that performance goals that focus on the pleasant possibility of demonstrating competence (approach goals) lead to different outcomes than performance goals focused on the unpleasant possibility of demonstrating incompetence (avoidance goals). Performance-avoidance goals reduce both free-choice behavior and self-reported interest in a task, whereas performance-approach goals did not have any consistent effect on intrinsic motivation indices (Rawsthorne & Elliot, 1999). This finding led to the introduction of a tripartite model of achievement goals comprising mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance goals (Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996). Following a series of studies by Cury and colleagues (e.g., Cury, Elliot, Sarrazin, Da Fonséca, & Rufo, 2002; Cury et al., 2002; Cury, Da Fonséca, et al., 2003), the model expanded to include a fourth possible achievement goal: mastery-avoidance goal (e.g., Elliot & Conroy, 2005). Thus, the argument was proffered that achievement goals should consider both the definition of competence and the valence of the striving. The model now became 2 by 2 with two definitions of competence (mastery vs. performance) and two valences of striving (approaching competence vs. avoiding incompetence) (see Papaioannou, Ziurbanos, Krommidas & Ampatatzoglou, 2012; Roberts et al., 2007).

The introduction of the hierarchical model has challenged many of the tenets and underlying assumptions of traditional AGT. In particular, it expanded the mastery and performance dichotomy to expand the theory from two goals to four goals. A body of evidence has accumulated to support these assertions, and some argue that the new model is a “better” theory to explain motivated behavior (e.g., Elliot & Conroy, 2005). However, the extension is criticized in that it violates some of the basic tenets of AGT (e.g., it negates the orthogonality of orientations) and adds little conceptual understanding to the motivational equation (e.g., Maehr & Zusho, 2009; Roberts, 2012) and undermines the parsimony and elegance of AGT.

It is not the only source of criticism of the traditional model, or the only expansion of the number of goals. AGT has had strong criticism from Harwood and colleagues (e.g., Harwood, Hardy, & Swain, 2000; Harwood & Hardy, 2001; Harwood et al., 2008) who raise what they term as conceptual and methodological issues. Others have argued for multiple goals, such as process, performance, and outcome goals (e.g., Burton & Weiss, 2008; Gould, 2010; Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996; Kingston & Wilson, 2009). Harwood and colleagues also argue for multiple states of task involvement and multiple goals (e.g., Harwood et al., 2008). Initially, Harwood and colleagues argued that achievement goal theory was not as useful in sport as in education, and they argued that task involvement, as a state, did not exist in sport because of the ego-involving nature of the sport experience: The goal pertinent to sport was termed “self-referenced ego involvement” (Harwood et al., 2000, p. 244). They proposed that there were three states of involvement that were termed task involvement, self-referenced ego involvement, and norm-referenced ego involvement. This argument was strongly rebutted by Treasure and colleagues (Treasure et al., 2001) where the conceptual logic behind the multiple states of involvement was seriously questioned. However, it is for the reader to read the articles and decide for himself or herself.

The above documents the various approaches to arguing for the emergence of goal orientations within AGT. However, the approaches all agree that a personal theory of motivation, an implicit theory, or valence determine the goal orientation (task or ego, mastery or performance) of the individual. The orientation, in turn, determines the state of involvement (task or ego) of the individual.

The Motivational Climate: Mastery and Performance Criteria

One of the most powerful aspects of AGT is that it incorporates not only the individual difference variables of task and ego orientations, growth and entity orientations, but also the situational determinants of task and ego involvement. The situation plays a central role in the motivation process (Ames, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c; Nicholls, 1984, 1989). Consistent with other motivation research that has emphasized the situational determinants of behavior (e.g., Ames, 1984; deCharms, 1976, 1984; Dweck, 2006), research within AGT has examined how the structure of the environment can make it more or less likely that an individual will become task or ego involved. The premise of this line of research is that the individual perceives the degree to which task and ego criteria are salient within the context. Through their perception of the criteria inherent in the context and the behaviors necessary to achieve success and/or avoid failure, this affects the achievement behaviors, cognition, and affective responses of individuals (Ames, 1992b; Roberts, Treasure, & Conroy, 2007; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1997). When we refer to the achievement cues within the context, the schemas emerging from achievement situations, we will be consistent with Ames and refer to the task-involving aspect of the context as mastery criteria and the ego-involving aspect of the context as performance criteria.

The premise of the research from a situational perspective is that the nature of an individual’s experiences and how he/she interprets these experiences influence the degree to which a mastery and/or a performance set of criteria to achieve success is perceived as salient. A performance climate is created when the criteria of success and failure are other referenced and ego involving (Ames, 1992b), and the athlete perceives that the demonstration of normative ability is valued. A mastery climate is created when the criteria of success and failure are self-referenced and task involving (Ames, 1992b), and the athlete perceives that the demonstration of mastery and learning are valued. This is assumed to affect an individual’s interpretation of the criteria of success and failure extant in the context and to affect achievement behavior. The individual will adopt adaptive achievement strategies (namely, to work hard, seek challenging tasks, persist in the face of difficulty) in the climate in which he or she feels comfortable. For most people, and especially children, this is in the climate that emphasizes mastery (e.g., Biddle, 2001; Roberts, Treasure, & Conroy, 2007; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1997; Treasure, 1997, 2001). In mastery-oriented situations, an individual is assumed to adopt adaptive achievement strategies such as working hard, seeking challenging tasks, and persisting in the face of difficulty (Harwood et al., 2015; Roberts, 2012). Certainly, the extant research supports that assumption (e.g., Treasure, 2001). However, we must not forget that some people function well in a performance climate. These are people who are high in perceived competence at the activity and who wish to demonstrate their competence and enjoy demonstrating superiority to others. As long as the perception of high ability lasts, these people seek challenging tasks and revel in demonstrating their ability. But as soon as the perception of ability wavers, because of age, injury, or an individual enters into a more elite context, then these people are likely to adopt maladaptive achievement strategies (namely, to seek easy tasks, reduce effort, or give up in the face of difficulty).

The Research Evidence

The extant literature in sport suggests that the creation of a mastery motivational climate is likely to be important in optimizing positive (i.e., well-being, sportsmanship, persistence, task perseverance, adaptive achievement strategies) and attenuating negative (i.e., overtraining, self-handicapping, stress responses, burning-out, cheating) attributes (e.g., Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010; Iwasaki & Fry, 2016; Kuczka & Treasure, 2005; Miller et al., 2004; Ommundsen & Roberts, 1999; Sarrazin, Roberts, Cury, Biddle, & Famose, 2002; Standage, Duda, & Ntoumanis, 2003; Standage, Treasure, Hooper, & Kuczka, 2007; Treasure & Roberts, 2001; Wilhelmsen, Sorensen, & Seippel, in press). This pattern of findings has been confirmed in a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative review using 104 studies (n=34,156) that found that perceptions of a mastery climate were associated with adaptive motivational outcomes including perceived competence, self-esteem, objective performance improvement, intrinsic motivation, positive affective states, experienced flow, and were less likely to cheat (Harwood et al., 2015). Conversely, perceptions of a performance climate were associated with extrinsic motivation, negative affective states, maladaptive performance strategies, perfectionism, and likelihood to cheat. The extant evidence, therefore, supports the position that perceptions of a mastery motivational climate are associated with more adaptive motivational and affective response patterns than perceptions of a performance climate in the context of sport engagement.

For the purposes of the present discussion, it is well to realize that dispositional goal orientations and perceptions of the climate are two independent dimensions of motivation within AGT that interact to affect behavior (Nicholls, 1989). But the powerful and parsimonious aspect of AGT is that both the individual dispositions and the perception of the motivational climate are encompassed by the theory. It is true that research to date primarily deals with dispositional goal orientations and perceptions of the motivational climate as separate constructs in isolation to each other (e.g., Harwood et al., 2015; Lochbaum et al., 2016). It has been suggested that an interactionist approach that looks to combine both variables promises to provide a more complete understanding of achievement behaviors in the sport and physical education experience (e.g., Duda, Chi, Newton, Walling, & Catley, 1995; Papaioannou, 1994; Roberts, 1992, 2012; Roberts & Treasure, 1992; Roberts et al., 2007; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1997; Treasure, 2001).

In a qualitative review, Roberts (2012) argued that instead of looking at achievement goals and the motivational climate separately, as is the custom, AGT should focus on an integrated perspective because dispositional goal orientations and the perceived motivational climate are part of the same theoretical platform and that the energizing force for motivated behavior is the resultant state of involvement. It supports meaningful relationships between personal goals of achievement and/or the perceived criteria of success and failure in the motivational climate with cognitive and affective beliefs about involvement in physical activity, as well as achievement striving.

However, there are few studies that have investigated the interactive effect of both the goal orientations and the motivational climate within the same study. One exception is a recent study investigating the perceived physical and pedagogical inclusion of disabled students in physical education. Wilhelmsen and colleagues (in press) found that to feel socially and physically included it is important to have a high mastery climate and a low performance climate. In addition, the children felt more social and pedagogical inclusion when high in task and ego orientation, or high in task orientation, but only when in a mastery climate. Another exception is a study conducted by Cury and colleagues (Cury, Biddle, Famose, Goudas, Sarrazin & Durand, 1996). In this study, the researchers utilized structural equation modeling (SEM) to examine the interest of adolescent girls in physical education. The researchers conclude by suggesting that their findings support the positive effects of a mastery-oriented motivational climate in physical education and offer evidence of a possible shaping effect of the climate on an individual’s goal orientation. This has been supported in more recent studies (e.g., Iwasaki & Fry, 2016).

SEM and multilevel SEM may be appropriate techniques to examine potential relationships among achievement goals and perceptions of the motivational climate, including the testing of interactive effects (e.g., Preacher, Zyphur, & Zhang, 2016). Particularly the multilevel SEM approach may provide some interesting insights into how goal orientations and the motivational climate may interplay by simultaneously accounting for the individual and group level of analysis (cf. Lam, Ruzek, Schenke, Conley, & Karabenick, 2015).

Research has found interesting relationships between orientations and the climate (e.g., Swain & Harwood, 1996; Treasure & Roberts, 1998; Wilhelmsen et al., in press), but some research has failed to find the hypothesized effects (e.g., Harwood & Swain, 1998). Although moderated hierarchical analysis does enable researchers to examine the separate, as well as the interactive effects of goal orientations and the motivational climate, this type of analysis is not powerful. However, the fact that significant main effects emerged for both climate and orientations appears to confirm the veracity of investigating the effects of goal orientations and perceptions of the motivational climate that the majority of achievement goal research has taken to date. Even though some have discussed the implications of both goal orientations and the motivational climate within a model (e.g., Roberts, 1992; Treasure, 2001), we have to agree with Harwood and colleagues (2008) that research in sport has not yet fully examined the interaction of dispositions and the situational criteria of the motivational climate on the manifestation of goal involvement.

Conclusions From AGT Research

There are two important conclusions we may draw from the evidence of the research effort on AGT over the past 40 years. The first one is that ego involving and IPT focusing on entity goals are more likely to lead to maladaptive achievement behavior, especially when participants perceive competence to be low, are concerned with failure, or invested in protecting self-worth. In such circumstances, the evidence is quite clear: Motivation ebbs, task investment is low, persistence is low, performance suffers, satisfaction and enjoyment are lower, peer relationships suffer, cheating is more likely, burnout is more likely, and participants feel more negatively about themselves and the achievement context. But as we have been at pains to note, this does not mean that ego-involving goals are always negative; in some situations and for some people they are positive. When one is ego oriented with a high perception of competence, then that goal is facilitative of achievement and functions as a motivating construct (e.g., Pensgaard & Roberts, 2002). This is precisely why being ego involved in sport can be very motivating and lead to sustained achievement behavior. But even then, ego-involving goals are more “fragile” and can lead to maladaptive achievement striving as context information is processed (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) such as when age begins to become a factor in elite sport performance or when injury strikes.

Second, the research is unequivocal that task involving (mastery) and IPT focusing on growth goals are adaptive. When task involved, whether through personal dispositions or participants perceive mastery criteria in the context, or both, then motivation is optimized, participants are invested in the task, persist longer, performance is higher, satisfaction and enjoyment are higher, peer relationships are fostered, burnout and cheating are less likely, and participants feel more positively about themselves and the task. Being task involved has been consistently associated with desirable cognitive-, affective-, and achievement-striving responses. The research is clear that if we wish to optimize motivation in sport and physical activity, we ought to promote task involvement. It does not matter whether we do it through enhancing socialization experiences so that the individual has a task-goal orientation and is naturally task involved (Nicholls, 1989) or we structure the physical activity context to be more task involving (Ames, 1992a; Treasure & Roberts, 1995, 2001). The crucial issue is that the participant has task-involving goals of achievement. The evidence has led many sport psychologists to conclude that being task involved better enables participants to manage motivation in the sport experience (e.g., Brunel, 2000; Duda & Hall, 2001; Iwasaki & Fry, 2016; Hall & Kerr, 1997; Pensgaard & Roberts, 2002; Roberts, 2001, 2012; Roberts, Treasure, & Conroy, 2007; Roberts, Treasure, & Kavussanu, 1997; Theeboom, de Knop, & Weiss, 1995; Treasure & Roberts, 1995).

Now let us discuss Self-Determination Theory and its principal advocates.

Self-Determination Theory and Research

A central element of Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) is the concept of psychological needs. Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT; Deci & Ryan, 2000) is one of five mini-theories that constitute the meta-theory of SDT. Within BPNT, Deci and Ryan proposed that individuals have innate and fundamental psychological needs that individuals seek to satisfy in order to achieve psychological adjustment, internalization, well-being, and personal growth. However, a dialectic occurs between the active organism and the social-contextual conditions that constitute the basis for the theory’s predictions about behavior, experience, and development processes. They propose that individuals will develop and function most effectively when their immediate psychosocial environment provides support for their basic psychological needs.

Three basic psychological needs have been identified, namely, the need for autonomy, the need for competence, and the need for relatedness. The need for autonomy refers to the perception that one is an “origin” of his or her own actions (Milyavskaya et al., 2009). The need for competence is associated with the perception of experiencing mastery and efficiency in a given environment and social context (Deci & Ryan, 1991). The need for relatedness is linked to the perception of experiencing meaningful interactions to significant others in a given context (Milyavskaya et al., 2009). Frustration of these needs is believed to have a negative impact on the individual’s psychological development, integrity, and well-being. Self-protective accommodations may be developed by individuals experiencing basic psychological needs thwarting to cope with the associated psychological deficit (Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, & Deci, 1996). While these adjustments may provide some compensating satisfaction, these strategies ultimately fail to satisfy the thwarted basic needs, potentially leading to serious psychological maladjustments or pathologies (Froreich, Vartanian, Zawadzki, Grisham, & Touyz, 2017; Thogersen-Ntoumani, Ntoumanis, & Nikitaras, 2010).

SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000) stipulates that individuals in achievement settings will adopt a more or less self-determined motivational style because of the perceived level of satisfaction and fulfillment of the three basic psychological needs. When all three needs are satisfied within an activity, individuals will feel a high degree of autonomous and self-determined motivation. In different sport and achievement contexts, numerous studies have linked high autonomous motivation to active information seeking, higher levels of performance, task perseverance, goal attainment, and increased well-being (Amabile, Goldfarb, & Brackfield, 1990; Van den Broeck, Ferris, Chang, & Rosen, 2016; Koestner & Losier, 2002). However, lower levels of perceived autonomy have been linked to ineffective goal striving; impaired performance and persistence; increased feelings of stress, anxiety, self-criticism; vulnerability to persuasion, as well as exhaustion and burnout (Van den Broeck et al., 2016; Gagné & Forest, 2008; Koestner & Losier, 2002; Treasure, Lemyre, Kuczka, & Standage, 2007). Needs thwarting, defined as the intentional obstruction of the needs (Bartholomew, Ntoumanis, Ryan, & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, 2011; Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013), has been reported to be more detrimental than experiencing low levels of need satisfaction. It is linked to higher reported levels of ill-being and exhaustion in a performance context (Bentzen, Lemyre, & Kenttä, 2016a). SDT also describes how different perceptions of a performance environment can either promote or undermine well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000). An autonomy-supportive environment is characterized by an understanding and acknowledgment of one’s perspectives and provides a meaningful rationale for arduous tasks, offering opportunities for personal solutions and minimizing performance pressure (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2002). On the other hand, a controlling environment will typically put normative constraints on how one is expected to behave in a given environment, imposing predetermined goals, setting up a variety of restraints, imposing contingent pressure and rewards, and often expecting performance levels beyond reason (Deci & Ryan, 2000, Gagné & Deci, 2005). An autonomy-supportive environment believed to promote basic psychological needs satisfaction while controlling environment will likely challenge the satisfaction of those needs and thwart the process to achieve a healthy balance (Ryan & Deci, 2002).

From an SDT perspective, individuals can be motivated for different reasons (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000). These different reasons for being involved in an activity are typically placed on a continuum of autonomy ranging from high to low self-determination. The assumption is that it is the perceived incentive for the initiation of a behavior that influences subsequent levels of motivation. The most autonomous motivation regulation is labeled intrinsic motivation. An activity is intrinsically motivated and autonomous when it is freely experienced and self-endorsed. Intrinsic motivation emanates from the target behavior itself with the locus of causality being perceived as internal. However, some actions can be motivated by external sources of regulations that are not necessarily endorsed by the self. In this case people do not feel as autonomous, perceiving an external locus of causality (deCharms, 1968). Behaviors are perceived as being extrinsically motivated when individuals perform an activity because they value its associated outcomes more than the activity itself. SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2008) contends that there is a continuum of extrinsic motivation, with each type of motivation differing as a function of the level of self-determination. The first extrinsic regulation is termed integrated regulation. Executed volitionally, integrated extrinsically motivated behaviors differ from intrinsically motivated actions in that they are aimed at obtaining personally important outcomes. The next extrinsic regulation on the continuum is identified regulation, corresponding to when the individual decides to participate in a task judged important for him/herself though not really interesting, such as exercising only for health benefits. The following regulation is termed introjected whereby behavior is fueled by inner pressures, such as guilt, to perform when the individual is not intrinsically interested but feels he/she ought to participate in the activity. The fourth extrinsic regulation is labeled external and represents extrinsic motivation as it was originally defined in the literature, for example, behavior controlled by specific external factors (Deci & Ryan, 2000). An externally regulated individual typically engages in the behavior to obtain something (e.g., an award) or to avoid a negative consequence (e.g., punishment). Finally, individuals can also behave in some contexts without any motivational reasons for participating in the activity. This construct is termed amotivation and it results from not valuing an activity (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Motivated individuals lack intention to participate in a given activity, and they do not perceive contingencies between their behavior and achievement outcomes. They are entirely lacking any form of self-determination, they have no relationship to any achievement goal, and their somewhat automatized behavior is solely controlled by the environment.

The different motivational regulations can thus be differentiated on a motivational continuum based on their relative autonomy, reflecting the level of self-determination within each regulation (Ryan & Connell, 1989). Intrinsic motivation is purely self-determined as it is defined through being involved in an activity for its own sake, because it is interesting and satisfying (Ryan, 1995). There are two extrinsically motivated forms of regulations that are also autonomous: namely, integrated and identified (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Integrated regulation is seen as is wholly autonomous as it reflects a behavior that is close to one’s own values and identity, while it is not necessarily interesting. Identified regulation is an autonomous form of motivational regulation as it reflects to what degree an athlete values sport participation. On the motivational continuum, these three autonomous regulations are followed by three less self-determined forms of motivation. Two of them are often seen as controlled motivational regulations, namely, introjected and extrinsic regulations. Introjected regulation refers to an athlete acting to avoid guilt and shame or to attain ego enhancements, such as pride (Deci & Ryan, 2000). External regulation is the least self-determined form of motivation on the continuum as it is characterized by behaviors conducted to satisfy external demands or to reward contingency (Chemolli & Gagné, 2014). Amotivation has been interpreted as a separate construct, outside of the continuum.

In an attempt to simplify these concepts and for the sake of parsimony, motivational regulations have often been collapsed into two types, based on whether they refer to more autonomous (intrinsic and identified) or more controlled (introjected and external) forms of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2008; Williams, Gagné, Ryan, & Deci, 2002). While autonomous motivation refers to athletes feeling self-determined and involved because their sport is personally important or interesting (Williams et al., 2002), controlled motivation refers to behaviors of athletes feeling pressured or coerced by internal or external sources (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Research clearly indicates that these two dimensions of motivation lead to very different outcomes in performance settings (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

In an attempt to further simplify the use and the interpretation of the theoretical framework, some researchers have used a single score Self-Determination Index (SDI; e.g., Frenet, Guay, & Senecal, 2004; Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997; Vallerand, & Rousseau, 2001). The SDI has typically been computed using this formula: [(2*(IM knowledge + IM accomplishment + IM stimulation)/3 + 1*Identified Regulation]−[(1*Introjected Regulation + 1*External Regulation)/2 + 2*Amotivation]. The advantage to using such an approach is that it allows for a simplification of the interpretation of an individual’s quality of motivation where the higher the positive index score, the more self-determined the motivation. Some researchers (e.g., Lemyre, Treasure, & Roberts, 2006) have demonstrated that it can be a useful methodology when investigating shifts in motivation over time. Lemyre and colleagues have also reported that this approach has important limitations as it collapses regulations with potentially very different effects on how individuals interpret the reasons for participating in different activities. Additionally, incorporating the amotivation subscale to the SDI may seem counterintuitive as it refers to the absence of regulation and should perhaps be interpreted independently from the continuum. In order to truly grasp the influence of each type of regulations and their potential interaction, Chemolli and Gagné (2014) argued that the quality of motivation should be measured with separate regulation scores rather than a sum score of regulations, as each motivational regulation should be seen as a temperature scale on its own. Recent studies investigating changes in quality of motivation over time have adopted this approach with advanced statistical analyses.

Research Evidence

SDT states that intrinsic motivation and more self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation (identified, integrated regulations) are associated with adaptive emotional, cognitive, and behavioral consequences. The non-self-determined forms of motivation (introjected and extrinsic regulations) and amotivation have been associated with a variety of maladaptive participation outcomes in different performance settings (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Even though some researchers (e.g., Martinent & Decret, 2015) have clearly argued that higher levels of self-determined forms of motivation generally increase chances to succeed and reach the elite level in sports, Vallerand and colleagues (2008) have suggested that a combination of different motivational regulations (self-determined and controlled) may be optimal in achieving high levels of performance depending on the context and the time frame. That is, the quality of motivation of participants in sports and other performance contexts will often reflect a motivational profile based on a combination of self-determined and controlled forms of motivation, also leading to positive outcomes. Hypothetically, the presence of certain self-determined reasons for engaging in activity may neutralize the negative influence of other controlled reasons for participation, while the presence of these regulations may significantly add to the motivation and the determination of an athlete.

In a study by DiBartolo, Frost, Chang, LaSota, and Grills (2004), the authors state that individuals in a performance context pursuing challenging goals and high, personal standards may experience different levels of self-determined motivation because of perceiving these goals and standards of performance as a challenge or a required level of performance necessary to attain or to maintain self-worth. The assumption is that intrinsic motivation translates well in a challenge-seeking state, as the athlete is able to maintain intrinsic interest for the activity. In contrast, if those high, personal standards are in order to maintain or attain a sense of self-worth, it may hinder self-determined behavior. Autonomous and self-determined motivation is expected to lead to more adaptive coping skills accompanied by more flexible and positive stress appraisals (Mouratidis & Michou, 2011). When motivation is not self-determined and the athlete’s behavior is externally regulated, the athlete will perceive less control, which may lead to maladaptive achievement outcomes such as performance impairment, physical, and emotional exhaustion, which are all symptoms of burnout (Lemyre et al., 2007). Research in this area has suggested that athlete burnout is a result of a negative shift toward a less self-determined quality of motivation and a continuous experience of stress. This is due to personal factors such as maladaptive forms of passion and perfectionism or situational factors such as parental pressure or physical overtraining (Gould, 1996; Lemyre et al., 2007; Lemyre, Treasure, & Roberts, 2006). Athletes who suffer from burnout will typically show signs of demotivation because of the reduced sense of accomplishment and devaluation of the sport experience in general (Lemyre et al., 2007). Burnout seems to share many commonalities with amotivation. Amotivation reflects a state where an athlete who was originally showing great motivation for an activity experienced a gradual deterioration of the quality of his or her motivation over time, often in the face of adversity and an inability to achieve important goals. The athlete ends up by feeling that there is no relationship between the investment in the activity and the return for this investment (Lemyre et al., 2006). These findings support the use of Self-Determination Theory to understand better the factors leading to maladaptive achievement outcomes in sports such as burnout. In addition, Quested and Duda (2011) found that promoting autonomous motivation is relevant to reduce the risk of burnout in vocational dancers.

In a series of articles investigating psychological adjustment, well-being, and prevention of exhaustion in elite sport coaches, Bentzen and colleagues (Bentzen, Lemyre, & Kenttä, 2014, 2016a, 2016b) used an SDT framework to better understand the complex challenges associated with performing in a position of leadership in sports. In one of their articles (Bentzen et al., 2016a), the authors used the SDT-process model (Ryan, Patrick, Deci, & Williams, 2008) to highlight how personal and environmental variables interact. While SDT assumes that people have natural developmental tendencies for growth, experiencing mastery, and integrating new experiences into a coherent sense (Ryan & Deci, 2002), the SDT-process model presents a framework explaining how these tendencies are fueled and supported in the interaction with the social environment (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The process from the individual interacting with the environment to outcomes is described as the SDT-process model (Ryan et al., 2008). The proposed sequential development model has four important components where (1) the perceived environment predicts, (2) psychological need satisfaction predicts, (3) the quality of motivation finally predicting, (4) and outcomes (Bentzen et al., 2016a; Fortier, Sweet, O’Sullivan, & Williams, 2007; Halvari, Halvari, Bjørnebekk, & Deci, 2013; Williams, McGregor, Zeldman, Freedman, & Deci, 2004). Following this framework, Bentzen and colleagues (2016a) investigated changes in motivation indices relative to burnout symptoms in high-performance coaches over the course of a sport season. The authors found that lower levels of need satisfaction in coaches as well as the experience of having their needs thwarted led to maladaptive outcomes. They also found that high levels of autonomous motivation had a preventive effect on the development of exhaustion in elite-level coaches. Their research underlined the importance of a performance environment promoting the development and maintenance of autonomous motivation in individuals to ensure performance and well-being, as well as preventing exhaustion.

Similarities and Differences Between AGT and SDT

As is clear to the reader from the preceding, there are some remarkable similarities in the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional outcomes predicted by SDT and AGT. In both theories, participants become invested in the task, persist longer, performance is higher, satisfaction and enjoyment are higher, peer relationships are fostered, well-being is enhanced, and participants feel more positively about themselves and the task when motivation is task involving and/or self-determined. Being task involved and self-determined have been consistently associated with desirable cognitive-, affective-, and achievement-striving responses. The research is now clear that if we wish to optimize motivation in sport and performing contexts, we ought to promote task involvement and/or autonomous forms of motivation. It does not matter whether we do it through enhancing socialization experiences so that we encourage the individual to be task involved or autonomous or the person is naturally task involved through their disposition to be task oriented (AGT) or to satisfy basic needs (SDT).

However, the theories do have some basic differences. First, and most obvious, AGT and SDT differ in the energization of achievement behavior. SDT argues that the person is motivated to satisfy the basic needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. It is striving to satisfy these basic needs that stoke the motivational engine. In terms of “nature versus nature,” SDT assumes that nature is the major underlying energization of motivated behavior, and there are universal basic needs that every person has and seeks to satisfy, even though a dialectic occurs between the context and the individual. Conversely, AGT argues that we are motivated to achieve because we wish to demonstrate competence: to others and ourselves. We learn through our socialization experiences that the demonstration of competence is a valued attribute in society. There is a long history in psychology of how individuals are socialized to recognize that the demonstration of competence is a valued social attribute (e.g., Roberts & Sutton Smith, 1962). AGT assumes that the demonstration of competence is a learned attribute; therefore, it is nurtured by socialization processes. Thus, whether we choose SDT or AGT, it becomes an issue of how one believes the psyche functions: Do we have basic needs that drive the human organism, or is the human organism intentional and rational and makes decisions based on how one thinks things work in achievement settings? One’s choice of theory may simply come down to that basic question.

A second major difference in the two theories is in terms of scope. SDT purports to be a meta “theory of everything,” which is concerned with the global nature of human beings (Deci & Ryan, 2012). SDT is a meta-theory with five mini-theories within it, with Basic Needs Theory being the motivational “engine” that drives the theory. SDT argues that all people need to experience the basic psychological nutrients of competence, relatedness, and autonomy for effective functioning, psychological health, well-being, and the development of personality and cognitive structures. The degree to which the three basic needs are satisfied or thwarted has positive and negative influence on a wide range of outcomes, including motivation. AGT, on the other hand, is a more restricted theory dealing with achievement-motivated behavior in pursuit of a specified goal that is valued and meaningful to the individual. When one is trying to demonstrate ability in a valued context to self and/or others, then AGT is a parsimonious and elegant theory to describe and explain the social cognitive dynamics of pursuing an achievement goal or outcome (Maehr & Zusho, 2009), which is why it lends itself to competitive sport and performance so well.

A third difference is in the arguments pertaining to the relevance of the social context to affect achievement behavior. Both SDT and AGT emphasize the importance of the social environment (AGT: Mastery, Performance; SDT: Autonomy support, Controlling), but there are substantive differences. According to SDT, social factors influence human motivation through the mediating variables of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Vallerand, 1997). On the other hand, AGT focuses on how perceptions of the extant criteria of success and failure that create either a mastery or a performance climate, which in turn interacts with dispositional goals to influence affect, behavior, and cognition in achievement contexts (Ntoumanis, 2001). Still, there is a “general convergence of evidence from achievement goal theories and SDT concerning the optimal design of learning environments” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 260). Specifically, both conceptual frameworks suggest that intrinsic motivation is nurtured in environments that promote self-mastery and choice. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is thwarted, or supplanted by ego involvement, in environments in which normative comparison operates and rewards are provided contingent on performance.

AGT and SDT also have similarities, and not only in outcome predictions. There are similarities in achievement goals. Achievement goals are relevant to SDT, and researchers have looked at the influence of what is termed goal content (intrinsic vs. extrinsic) on the quality of motivation of individuals in different performance contexts (e.g., Solberg & Halvari, 2009). SDT differentiates between intrinsic and extrinsic goal content. Intrinsic goal content is associated to reasons such as learning and personal growth, friendship, and social contribution (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). It is assumed to lead to adaptive outcomes. This is very similar to the goal of task involvement in AGT, which is associated with learning, personal growth, and mastery. Extrinsic goal content is associated to reasons such as financial success, status, and physical appearance. Extrinsic goal content increases the risk for an athlete to experience maladaptive participation outcomes (e.g., Solberg & Halvari, 2009). This is very similar to the goal of ego involvement in AGT that is associated with status relative to others and the demonstration of normative competence. The conceptual rationale behind the achievement goals is, of course, quite different. In SDT, the assumption is that intrinsic goal content is expected to promote the fulfillment of the three basic needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000, 2012) while extrinsic goals are not instrumental to basic need satisfaction as they lead an individual to focus on external outcomes and social comparison (Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Solberg & Halvari, 2009). In AGT, because it has a more limited focus on demonstrating a valued social attribute, then the demonstration of competence as one defines competence is expected to influence one’s motivational stance. These concepts in SDT have yet to be exhaustively investigated in the context of sport and performance; however, research has suggested that intrinsic goal content mediated the relationship between sport participation and psychological well-being (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2009) in a similar way to AGT research findings. In a study of elite athletes, Solberg and Halvari (2009) found that athletes experiencing autonomy support from their coach were more likely to have autonomous and intrinsic reasons for their goals and reported more positive emotional well-being. This is similar to the research findings with the mastery motivational climate in AGT (e.g., Ames, 1992c).

All motivation theories over time have a focus on competence, in one form or another. SDT and AGT are no different. SDT’s focus is on the need for competence as a unitary human need that when satisfied will facilitate autonomous motivation (Ntoumanis, 2001). SDT has been criticized for not providing a well-articulated and internally consistent conceptualization of the role of competence in maintaining autonomous motivation (Butler, 1987). According to Butler, SDT has not sufficiently distinguished between different kinds of competence goals or the relation between the perception of autonomy and different conceptions of ability. It may be argued that SDT has contributed more to the understanding of how social contexts may foster intrinsic motivation by the support of autonomy instead of clarifying how these contexts may contribute to continuing motivation by promoting either one rather than another conception of ability (Butler, 1987). This is supported by Spinath and Steinmayr (2012) who argue also that different aspects of competence are important. For people with competence-demonstration goals, measuring competence relative to others or certain external criteria is important, while for people with competence-development goals, it is important to “measure one’s own competence against intraindividual temporal standards” (p. 1144). The distinction is not captured with measurement of the need for competence. On the other hand, AGT is more concerned with how thoughts and perceptions energize motivated behavior. The focus is on how being task or ego involved influences task difficulty choices and sustained achievement striving. Being “task involved” is important to both theories. Task involvement “bears a considerable relation to intrinsic motivation when applied to the achievement domain” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 260). When individuals are task involved, their motivation to perform a task derives from intrinsic properties and not from the expected outcomes of the task. When intrinsically motivated, people do an activity because the behavior in itself is interesting as well as spontaneously satisfying. When individuals are task involved, the intrinsic motivation system is involved in initiating, sustaining, and rewarding a specific behavior or activity (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Being task involved indicates that the individual strives for mastery, while being intrinsically motivated makes the mastery a reward in itself. Therefore, task involvement facilitates autonomous behavior as well as the need for competence (Ntoumanis, 2001).

Despite the partial convergence of constructs (performance climate/controlling climate; mastery climate/autonomous climate; need for competence, task involvement), and similar outcome predictions, the two theories are based on different theoretical perspectives that may make it inappropriate to combine them (Marsh, Craven, Hinkley, & Debus, 2003). However, an attempt has been made: Duda (2013) proposed a hierarchical reconceptualization of the motivational climate in sport, specifically for children, by combining the two conceptual frameworks. Duda introduced “empowering” and “disempowering” dimensions to coaching behavior to integrate SDT and AGT. When coaches are empowering, they will be autonomy supportive, mastery involving, and support social relatedness. Coaches will promote self-referenced criteria of success when assessing competence and will satisfy basic needs in the participants. When coaches are disempowering, they will be controlling and use performance criteria of success. Coaches will promote other referenced criteria of success when assessing competence and be less concerned with satisfying basic needs. Can the concepts of empowerment and disempowerment integrate SDT and AGT to become a unified theory? A recent study would suggest probably not: Using a Bayesian approach, Solstad and colleagues (in review) failed to confirm the hierarchical nature of the coach-created motivational climate as proposed by Duda. Solstad and colleagues agree with Marsh and colleagues (2003) who argued that the two theories are based on different conceptual arguments, which make it inappropriate to combine them. The empowerment concepts are proposed to integrate the theories, but in fact they make a descriptive and pragmatic case to use both theories to maximize the likelihood of creating a supportive, task-involving, autonomous-coaching climate for the benefit of the children in the sport experience. Future attempts to create a unified theory need to address developing unique energizing constructs because, at the present time, both theories maintain their own unique energizing mechanisms. However, that does not mean that the children do not benefit from the pragmatic inclusion of both theories as argued cogently by Duda; they clearly do (Solstad, 2016).

Conclusions and Future Directions

As we have stated above, in both theories, when motivation is task involving and/or self-determined, participants become invested in the task, persist longer, perform better, satisfaction and enjoyment are higher, peer relationships are fostered, well-being is enhanced, and participants feel more positively about themselves and the task. Being task involved and self-determined have been consistently associated with desirable cognitive-, affective-, and achievement-striving responses. The research is now clear that if we wish to optimize motivation in sport and performing contexts, we should promote task involvement and/or autonomous forms of motivation. Both theories recognize the importance of personal variables and the impact of the perceived context on motivation for sustained achievement behavior.

Which theory should we use? Well, that clearly depends on your understanding of how the psyche works. Do you believe that satisfying basic needs drive the human organism? If so, SDT is for you. Do you believe that the human organism is rational and intentional and is driven by how one perceives the social context or believes in trying to demonstrate either task or ego-involved competence? Then AGT is for you. SDT is a more global theory of personality; AGT is limited to achievement tasks that are valued by the person. It is a choice, but the predictions of both theories are remarkably similar. However, it would seem that trying to integrate the theories is not viable at this time (Marsh et al., 2003; Solstad et al., forthcoming), but that does not mean we should stop trying.

It is interesting to note that a mastery/autonomy-supportive climate has been found to facilitate positive outcomes while a performance/controlling climate is associated with negative outcomes. But these climates may be interdependent and may thus exist simultaneously, certainly within AGT (Ames, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c). An interesting line of inquiry for future research may be to investigate further the interplay between the opposing climates. To the best of our knowledge, there are only two studies that address this, and then only from an AGT approach (Buch, Nerstad, & Safvenbom, 2017; Ommundsen & Roberts, 1999). For example, Buch and colleagues found a positive relationship between perceived mastery climate and increased intrinsic motivation only when combined with low levels of perceived performance climate. An important task for future research would be to attempt to clarify what may represent a beneficial balance between mastery (autonomous) and performance (controlling) climates in sport and performance.

Another interesting direction could be to question whether being task involved is beneficial for everyone. There is evidence that being ego involved is beneficial for some individuals in competitive contexts when the individual has a high perception of competence (Pensgaard & Roberts, 2000). This research showed also that elite athletes seem to benefit from being high in both task and ego orientations. It may be that individuals who are simply high in task orientation may not function well in a highly competitive environment.

Given that mastery (autonomous) and performance (controlling) climates have such profound influence on achievement behavior, future research should address what may be the crucial antecedents of such climates in sport. This would also inform coaching behaviors. As an example, one study has addressed how leadership style (e.g., Baric & Bucik, 2009) may be such a relevant antecedent. Other possible and important antecedents may exist.

Some researchers have questioned whether IPTs can operate at the situational level. Although IPTs have been found to be temporarily changeable (interventions), the fact that IPTs initially are operationalized as relatively stable dispositions may confuse an operationalization at the situational level. Perhaps a better and more theoretically sound approach could be to investigate the predictive value of the perceived motivational climate as operationalized by Nicholls (1984) and Ames (1992c). Dweck’s approach builds on Nicholls’s (1981) initial ideas, and thus it would facilitate theoretical coherence to link the IPTs with the perceived motivational climate. One study did test this showing that a performance climate induced a fixed mindset of ability, while a mastery climate generated a growth mindset in physical education students (Ommundsen, 2001c). This study’s findings are based on cross-sectional data that suggests the need for more rigorous designs and data to support the findings. This could also facilitate an answer to how IPTs are socialized in ongoing interactions in various achievement domains. Specifically, the extant criteria of success and failure signaled through the policies, practices, and procedures in sports, at school or in organizations, may contribute to elicit the different beliefs (Maehr & Braskamp, 1986).

We began with the philosophical approach of Nicholls (1979), and we end with a quote from his 1989 book that pertains to both AGT and SDT equally: “If all students are optimally motivated, we are on the way to the goal of equality in the fulfillment of potential” (Nicholls, 1989, p. 151). Nicholls was interested in the academic domain, but the same is certainly true in the sport domain.


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