YouthCreator’s Voice: My Motivation: My Buff Teacher and Goal Orientation Theory

I had a really buff Science teacher, Mr J (name altered for anonymity’s sake), when I was in secondary school. During one of our lessons, a classmate asked him how many pull-ups he could do. To our surprise, Mr J responded that he could barely do 10 or 11.

Mr J explained how he used to train for the pull-ups component during his National Service, which is still a requirement in a combat-fit soldier’s Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). With a focus on perfecting his form, Mr J wanted to ensure that every pull-up he could do (even if he could only do 10 or 11, which was just enough for a “Gold”) was a good one.

In contrast, his friends were extremely fit and often bragged about how they could do 20 pull-ups. During physical training sessions, they proved their claims and were even commended for being able to do so many pull-ups.

Ultimately, Mr J’s efforts paid off. During an IPPT, he secured a “Gold” award with 11 pull-ups. Surprisingly, his friends performed worse because their examiner decided that many of their pull-up repetitions were not up to standard and were thus not taken into account.

Now, one should take a closer look at the different priorities Mr J and his friends had for their pull-up training. Mr J’s goal was to improve his form, while his friends cared more about how many repetitions they could do. In other words, they had different goal orientations. 

Goal orientation theory is a psychological theory that helps to explain different kinds of motivation we may have in our daily activities, such as for school work or sport training. According to goal orientation theorists such as Carol Dweck, there are two major types of goals - mastery and performance.

On the one hand, someone who has a mastery goal orientation would focus on improving his or her competence, such as Mr J’s efforts to keep working on the form of his pull-ups. On the other, someone with a performance goal orientation would focus on meeting targets, often with the aim of appearing talented before his or her peers, such as Mr J’s friends. 

Thinking about the type of goal orientations we have is extremely important. Psychologists such as Deborah Stipek have even highlighted how different goal orientations lead to different outcomes:


People with mastery goals tend to...

People with performance goals tend to...

  • Ask the question: “How can I best acquire this skill/master a task?”
  • Focus on long-term, personal progress
  • Treat failure as natural and useful
  • Ask the question: “How can I score more than others?”
  • Focus on outperforming others
  • Treat failure as something that is depressing

Generally, most motivational theorists would agree that having a mastery goal orientation is better than having a performance goal orientation. After all, what’s the point of doing 20 pull-ups if all of them are badly done? 

Perhaps, the question you have in mind now is what can be done to change our goal orientation? 

A good starting point may simply be developing an awareness of the kind of goals you make; are your goals often about scoring well or meeting targets, or are they about improving particular skills? Next, actively set and pursue mastery goals rather than performance goals. 

For instance, instead of counting how many lay-ups you managed to accomplish at basketball training, get a friend to observe your movements and provide feedback on how you can improve the lay-up. And if you catch yourself being demoralised from losing a game or failing to meet a target, take a few seconds to reassure yourself that mistakes are normal and simply indicators of what needs to be improved!

In short, actively invest some mental energy towards setting good mastery goals. Over time, these efforts are sure to pay off. As Ronald Graham, an accomplished trampolinist, juggler and mathematician put it, “a lot of the high level sports are really in your mind.”


The article is based on the research of our YouthCreators.

Content by: Matthew Seah


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