Motivation and Cognition in Sports and Exercise

Motivation and Cognition in Sports and Exercise


Achievement goal theory (AGT) is a valuable framework for studying and explaining the motivations of athletes. The theory which was developed by John Nicholls in 1984 brought a new perspective of attaining success. Usually, when sports people fail to attain the set standards so much focus is placed on the outcome which may discourage their level of participation. Furthermore, there is a problem as the level of physical activity and sports amongst young people and the population in general is still low. The achievement goal theory is a useful tool in deal with the challenges that athletes and the general population face because it seeks to address the root cause of the problem that is causing low levels of participation in exercises and sports. Specifically, the underlying challenges of Activate’s clients may be the lack of appropriate motivations. Therefore, AGT is useful because ensuring that people are sufficiently motivated will direct them to work towards the realization of a defined goal. As such, the essay will begin by describing the achievement goal theory of motivation and explain the reasons for choosing it. Thereafter, various literature will be evaluated to provide justifications for using AGT as the basis of the interventions proposed. Finally, the techniques that have been theoretically derived will be described to serve as the basis of the interventions mentioned. In essence, AGT is an ideal motivation theory for use at Activate because it will provide the appropriate motivations and interventions that will bring about improvements in the levels of participation in physical activity and sports within all the organization’s segments.

Selected Theory of Motivation

Motivation refers to the thing that influences the perseverance, direction, magnitude and initiation of an individual to exhibit goal-directed behavior (Maehr & Zusho, 2009, p. 77). Goal relates to that thing which accords meaning, value or purpose to an activity. In this regard, the achievement goal theory can be defined as the reasons, goals or purpose that influence achievement-related behaviors (Maehr & Zusho, 2009, p. 77). The achievement goal theory (AGT) is appropriate for the context of the sports and exercise organization because it caters for the goal orientations required to promote sports and exercises. To begin with, AGT can be linked to task orientation which deals with a person’s mastery of sports activities (Lecture Notes). Furthermore, the achievement goal theory deals with an individual’s efforts to improve themselves and to make efforts towards learning or the accomplishing a particular task. Therefore, the theory is ideal for Activate because AGT shows that the goals of self-improvement and an increased desire to learn can be achieved because the theory focuses on task orientation. This means that AGT will make it possible to achieve the desired outcomes because it influences people to exert more effort and to persist when faced with failure (Lecture Notes). Wang et. al (2002, p. 434) asserts that task orientation is immensely helpful because it will enable an individual develop their personal criteria for evaluating their success. Moreover, individuals will show a great deal of interest in the tasks assigned to them and they will be more willing to take up more challenging activities. Apparently, task goals deal with mastery because individuals are keen with the task at hand and are focused on their competence (Anderman & Patrick, 2012, p. 8). As a result, there is little or no social comparison of athletes’ performance with their social environment.

AGT has an ego orientation which means that athletes will be keen on displaying higher capabilities when compared to another person (Lecture Notes). As such, AGT makes an athlete feel the need to prove that they are better than another individual. Alternatively, AGT influences sports men and women to demonstrate similar competencies with others but using less effort. In this regard, AGT will maximize the motivations of athletes towards exercise and sports to the extent that they exhibit high adaptability to the behavior of achieving set goals. Additionally, AGT will yield outcomes relating to the motivation to be persistent and demonstrating competence which may involve using minimal effort. Therefore, ego goals can be considered as a performance orientation because it focuses on an athlete being able to set standards particularly by exceeding the performance of others (Anderman & Patrick, 2012, p. 8).

Maehr & Zusho (2009, p. 78) argue that AGT focuses more on understanding the reason why an individual is keen on achieving a particular goal. Therefore, AGT makes it a priority to understand the ‘Why’ question and is thus less concerned about the goal itself. For instance, the theory would seek to understand why an athlete would want to be named as the best footballer of the year. The achievement goal theory is appropriate for Activate because understanding the contextual and personal factors that affect sports involvement will make it possible for the organization to adopt interventions that will improve the levels of participation among the diverse segments in the organization.

Literature Review

Indeed, a vast amount of research has been undertaken relating to the achievement goal theory. To begin with, there has been a cross-sectional survey which relied on the cluster analysis to conduct research. The sample of the study incorporated 391 girls and 427 boys aged between 11 and 14 years all derived from two schools in England (Wang et. al, 2002, p. 433). The study sought to establish perceived competence and goal orientation among young adolescents to establish the differences in the clusters relating to the motivational levels and measures of physical activity among the group. The results of the study showed that high levels of motivation to engage in physical activity was characterized by individuals having a high perception of their competence as well as having a high ego and high task orientation. This finding shows that goal achievement theory is ideal for Activate as it will help to boost the levels of exercise among young people as well as other groups that the organization serves. The Conceptions of the Nature of Athletic Ability Questionnaire (CNAAQ-2) was utilized in English to assess entity and incremental beliefs (Wang et. al, 2002, p. 437). Specifically, the study focused on the incremental beliefs of ‘improvement’ and ‘learning.’ The results gave a satisfactory outcome as the coefficient for entity belief obtained was a= .71 while that of incremental beliefs was a= .73 (Wang et. al, 2002, p. 437). The findings of the study in the context of physical activity are useful for Activate because it shows that AGT can promote improvements in the areas of physical activity within the organization. This is because the theory suggests that it is possible for an individual to strengthen their capabilities through learning. Therefore, the organization’s leadership can make improvements on certain environmental and social areas in order to encourage improvement. For instance, they can improve the ease of accessing sports facilities and encourage their clients in a positive way. However, the study had limitations as it did not consider other factors in the lives of adolescents that hinder physical activity.

Motivation and Cognition in Sports and Exercise
Motivation and Cognition in Sports and Exercise

The goal achievement theory has proved to be effective in the sports arena as using a different study design further emphasizes the position that AGT yields better outcomes in exercise and sports. A study conducted involving a meta-analysis relating to 19 studies indicated that the goals of mastery approach (MAP) and that of the performance approach (PAP) resulted in a positive as well as a moderate impact in the performance of sports (Gaudreau & Braaten,  2016). Similarly, a meta-analysis involving 13 studies was conducted and it gave the same results. The study found that MAP goals had a positive correlation with performance outcomes while PAP goals had a moderate effect on performance. The limitation of this research is that it failed to identify the conditions which make it possible for PAP goals to yield positive outcomes. Even so, the study showed that MAP goals are crucial in improving performance because it boosts an individual’s self-esteem and has a positive impact with the passage of time (Gaudreau, & Braaten, 2016). In addition, MAP goals lead to increased satisfaction, self-confidence, vitality and enjoyment while also reducing cognitive anxiety, concentration disruption and worry. However, PAP was only positively linked to vitality and hope and there was an increase in its negative effects with time. As such, the outcome of previous research shows that AGT is an evidence-based approach that will improve the participation levels in physical activity and sports at Activate. This is because the fact that the MAP construct of the theory can boost the self-esteem, enjoyment and vitality of the players at Activate means it will definitely enhance people’s performance. Moreover, if MAP minimizes the lack of concentration, worry and anxiety among athletes and the general population then they are bound to exhibit an improvement in their performance.

Another study conducted which involved the use of statistical analysis further supported the findings in previous literature. The study involved 306 athletes and students out of which there were 150 athletes and 156 students (Haralabos et. al, 2016, p. 313). The study incorporated the use of the Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire (TEOSQ). In addition, the Athletic Identity and Measurement Scale (AIMS) was used in measuring the identity of athletes. The study was undertaken using SPSS 17. The study found that motives certainly had an effect on performance. In fact, the two orientations of task and ego had a significant impact on the behavior of the participants. Evidently, AGT is a theory that is ideal for Activate because it can cause a significant change in the behavior of the organization’s clients which means that low performing individuals can realize a big improvement and even end up becoming high performers. This study adds to other research because it shows that there is no major difference between athletes and students with regards to both the ego and task orientation (Haralabos et. al, 2016, 316). This means that the achievement goal theory will be immensely useful throughout the organization. This is because the use of AGT is not limited to a particular group such as young people. Rather, it can be used among the diverse groups in the organization which include adults, youth and even people of older age. However, the study had a limitation as the sample obtained was from just a single geographical area (Haralabos et. al, 2016, p. 316). Therefore, the results cannot be reliably generalized for all categories of athletes.

The study by Hornstra, Majoor & Peetsma (2017) is valuable because it helps to strengthen the view that AGT can be used across all categories of players as suggested in the study of Haralabos et. al. Considering that the research undertaken by Haralabos et al. was obtained from a one geographical location, this study will confirm the usefulness of AGT. This is because the study was undertaken in an educational context. The study involved 722 students from the fifth grade and incorporated teachers from the sixth and fifth grade (Hornstra, Majoor & Peetsma, 2017, p. 606). The study utilized longitudinal analysis on multiple levels. As such, data was collected in three waves from the teachers and students. The research focused on both performance-avoidance orientation as well as the performance-approach of orientation for both language and math. The values relating to Cronbach’s a fell in the range of .84 until .94 to show that the findings obtained were reliable (Hornstra et. al, 2017, p. p. 611). The study found that a goal profile characterized with high performance-approach and mastery goals with minimal goals relating to performance-avoidance resulted in students displaying educational outcomes that depicted the highest level of adaptability (Hornstra et. al, 2017, p. 624). For this reason, AGT would be the most effective approach for Activate as it will increase the adaptability of individuals. This means that people with low performance will be able to quickly adapt and increase their participation levels in sport to the point that they perform at the same level with high performers. Furthermore, the individuals who engaged in little or no physical activity will be able to change their behavior and engage in regular exercises. If AGT yielded high performance outcomes in an educational context, then it means that it is an approach that can comfortably be used among all the groups in Activate. Moreover, the findings show that it would be appropriate for the organization to support those training such as coaches so that they can be able to implement intervention measures which will stimulate the use of performance-approach oriented profiles as opposed to the one of performance avoidance.

The diverse literature shows that AGT is definitely the best theory to use to improve performance across the different categories within Activate. The studies suggest that a combination of task and ego orientation would be useful in increasing the participation levels of sports as well as physical activities amongst the organization’s clientele. The studies show that focus on learning and improvement of capabilities produces expected outcomes. It is possible that there is a low level of participation in exercise and sports among the population the organization is serving because of the perception that they lack the ability to engage in such activities. Therefore, AGT is relevant for Activate because it will help them develop the skills required among the organization’s target clientele through learning hence the application of the task-oriented construct of AGT. Furthermore, the mastery approach that supports improvement will be able to sustain and even maximize the motivation of Activate’s clients towards engaging in sports and physical exercises. A combination of performance and the mastery performance an yield a higher level of positive outcomes thus appropriate for boosting participation levels in physical activity as well as sports.

Theoretically Derived Techniques


Activate can create a motivational climate of mastery by developing a strategy that focuses on the process as opposed to the outcomes. In this regard, the activities of coaching should be geared towards the process by giving individuals a wide range of challenging activities (Harwood & Biddle, n.d, p. 64). Additionally, improved performance through mastery can be achieved when the players in all categories are accorded some level of authority. This can be achieved by adopting the intervention of allowing athletes to provide some form of contribution with regards to practices, decisions and even leadership roles. Another intervention involves the recognition of a player’s efforts. This means that the organization will have to recognize an athlete’s progress and improvements. In real life scenario, an athlete who was covering a particular distance in 45 minutes should be recognized when they are able to achieve the same goal in 40 minutes and even down to 30 minutes. This shows a task orientation because the focus is not on defeating others but in sharpening one’s skills. If one is able to cover the same distance they used to take 45 minutes and they now take 30 minutes it means that a person has mastered their craft. In this case, the mastery approach is displayed because the criteria used in measuring success is self-referenced thus an indication that learning and mastery is valued (Lecture Notes).

Groupings is another intervention that can be utilized for purposes of improving performance within the organization. The organization should adopt a flexible approach when grouping players. For instance, efforts should be made to avoid grouping individuals with the least skills together while those with high capabilities are placed together. Evaluation on the basis of effort and improvement is an intervention that will encourage more people to participate in sports and exercise. In this regard, individuals can be allowed to undertake self-evaluation without the involvement of the public (Harwood & Biddle, n.d). For instance, a client can be encouraged to engage in physical activity after which they will constantly monitor their progress. For instance, a client who begins attending gym sessions with a weight of 120 pounds can evaluate their weight in regular intervals until they achieve their target weight. This intervention is in tandem with task orientation because it shows that an individual is keen on self-improvement and they are willing to persist in order to achieve their goals (Lecture Notes).

A motivational climate for task orientation can also be created when time is allocated for practice. In this regard, the organization can schedule specific times when athletes can practice. For instance, footballers can be required to practice three or four times a week for thirty minutes. Additionally, clients who want to start exercising can be encouraged to engage in physical activity a minimum of five times in a week for at least 30 minutes. Setting aside time for practice is a task orientation because it enables clients to build their interest in a given physical or sports activity. In this way, they will be more interested in learning and in improving their performance (Lecture Notes). Evidently, the TARGET structure is useful when developing interventions to enhance task orientation.

The organization can also develop practices with regards to mental skills that will involve various stakeholders such as players, parents and coaches (Harwood, 2016). The practice will focus on psychosocial aspects that will increase personal development among different groups in order to encourage increased sports participation. Activate can rely on the 5Cs relating to concentration, communication, confidence, control and commitment to monitor the progress of individuals (Harwood, 2016). In this regard, the organization can work with parents, players, coaches and all those interested in sports and exercise to identify the behaviors that can be linked to the 5C’s. For instance, the creation of a coaching climate that was task involving and which incorporated the 5C’s would encourage more people to participate in sports.


Activate can employ the performance approach that relates to organizing head-to-head competitions with other teams (Harwood & Biddle, n.d, p. 65). In this way, the organization will be able to learn something about the capabilities of their competitors. Individuals with an ego-orientation will be keen to learn about the tactics that their competitors are using. Specifically, the coaches or sports psychologists should be more concerned about the quality and the amount of attention that is being accorded to competitors. When players are able to gain valuable tactics about their competitor’s strategy, it will increase their participation in sport because they will be able to adapt and become high achievers. Therefore, the intervention in support of ego orientation is also important because it offers individuals psychological motivation. Generally, the interventions that Activate will employ should be more task-oriented than ego-oriented in order to give the best outcomes.


The first study that used the cross-sectional approach showed that individuals were likely to engage in physical activity when they held the perception that they had a high degree of competence as well as when their orientation for ego and tasks was high. This evidence is meaningful because it provides the results for studies undertaken in two different places over the same period of time. The second literature which used the meta-analytic research design established that the mastery approach had a positive impact with regards to the performance of sports while the performance approach yielded moderate outcomes. This evidence is valuable because it shows that an evaluation of several studies showed that the performance approach could either have a positive effect or no effect on outcomes. The third study which relied on statistical analysis showed that regardless of the research context the results obtained from AGT would still support previous research. It shows that AGT is appropriate for AGT as an analysis of numerous data has proved that it is useful in various contexts. The fourth study which used longitudinal analysis found that the performance and mastery approaches were effective provided minimal focus was placed on performance avoidance. This study which was undertaken over a period of time showed also showed that it could be used across different categories of people. As such, the social environment undoubtedly has a powerful impact with regards to the kinds of motivations that individuals will possess. The research has shown that both the mastery and performance approaches that constitute AGT can help influence athletes to improve their performance. Nonetheless, the mastery approach seems to be more valuable than the performance strategy. This is because the mastery approach leads to a wide range of benefits and can result in high levels of performance. Therefore, the interventions that Activate will implement should be geared more towards creating a social environment that will support task orientation. For high improvement levels, the organization should adopt interventions that will focus both on task and ego orientation. In a nutshell, creating a social environment that highly supports task orientation and incorporating some level of ego oriented interventions will help Activate increase the levels of participation in physical activity and sports.

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