tennis athlete practicing alone

Seeking Mastery

How your definition of success impacts performance

By on April 10, 2019

I hope I’m not being too personal here, but what’s your orientation?

Your achievement orientation, also called goal orientation or motivational style, refers to the way you conceptualize success and failure.

How do you define success? Winning a championship? Setting a personal best?  Learning something new? Your response to this question says a lot about your source of motivation and tolerance for risk.

In this article, I distinguish between performance orientation and mastery orientation and investigate the question of how each of these orientations can impact performance.

Performance versus Mastery

Achievement orientation is most commonly divided into 2 main types: performance orientation and mastery orientation.

Individuals with a performance orientation (also called competitive orientation or ego orientation) view achievement in interpersonal terms and strive to demonstrate superiority over others who are viewed as the opposition. Success is measured in terms of outperforming peers, and failures are seen as signs of incompetence that convey an undesirable loss of social status.

In contrast, those with a mastery orientation (also called learning orientation or task orientation) view achievement in intrapersonal terms and strive to develop task mastery over time as evidenced by improvement relative to one’s own past performance. Success is measured in terms of meeting or exceeding personal goals, and failures are regarded as a normal part of the learning process and important sources of information on how to improve.

The table below offers a side-by-side comparison of the key distinguishing features:

Performance Orientation Mastery Orientation
 Interpersonal view of achievement

 Comparison to others’ performance

 Goal is to demonstrate superiority

 Success is outperforming others

 Failure is a sign of incompetence

 Challenges are threats to be avoided

 Intrapersonal view of achievement

 Comparison to own past performance

 Goal is to learn or improve skills

 Success is meeting personal goals

 Failure provides helpful feedback

 Challenges are actively sought out

The simplest, most concise way of explaining the difference is as follows:

Those with a mastery orientation seek to improve their competence, while those with a performance orientation seek to prove their competence.

Weighing the pros and cons

Research in both sport and educational psychology has repeatedly demonstrated that the performance-mastery dichotomy helps predict important differences with respect to how individuals experience training and competition as well as how they respond to performance challenges and competitive stress.

Individuals with a mastery orientation tend to display greater intrinsic motivation and task interest, positive mood and affective states, increased effort and persistence in the face of difficulty, higher frequency and intensity of flow experiences (being in the zone), and better overall performance.

Those with a performance orientation, on the other hand, tend to be more vulnerable to negative affective states, competitive anxiety, thoughts of escape or withdrawal, and self-handicapping behaviors, particularly when faced with the prospect of loss or failure.

These stark differences have been attributed to the fact that performance-oriented individuals are more interested in appearing competent than actually being competent. Because they perceive losing as a threat to their sense of self-worth, they are highly sensitive to social cues and are more likely to look for ways to avoid situations in which the level of challenge might exceed their ability.

In the case of mastery orientation, motivation and engagement are driven more by intrinsic interest in the task itself rather than ego-centered needs for approval and social status. Thus, mastery-oriented individuals are generally considered to be better equipped to handle pressure and other competitive stressors than their performance-oriented counterparts.

Win some and learn some

The comparison offered thus far makes it seem like a no-brainer, with mastery orientation unequivocally being the better of the two options. But before we jump to the conclusion that focusing exclusively on developing task mastery is best for all individuals at all times, let us not forget the fact that many performers appear to thrive on competition and the pursuit of egocentric goals.

For those with a strong drive to achieve and the confidence to pit their skills against others, competition and outcome-related performance goals can function as great motivators and facilitators of high achievement.  But even in such cases, an ego-involved performance orientation tends to be fragile and can lead to maladaptive processing in response to any sudden drop in performance or increased risk of failure (with emphasis on tends to be, which does not mean always in every case). 

Let us also not forget that achievement orientation is a dynamic psychological construct that is subject to change across time and context. A performer might adopt different orientations in different contexts, for example, being highly task-involved and focused on mastery during training but becoming more performance-oriented or ego-involved when competing. Similarly, an athlete might be focused primarily on mastery and learning throughout the early stages of a competition, but shift to a more competitive, results-oriented focus in the later rounds when the stakes become higher and the outcome matters more.

Ultimately, individuals are capable of entertaining multiple competing goal orientations simultaneously, striving to both improve their own performance and outperform other competitors. Accordingly, some researchers have proposed the idea that, rather than representing opposite poles on a single continuum, these two orientations are actually orthogonal constructs – meaning that individuals can be high in both mastery and performance orientation, or low in both, or high in one and low in the other.

Being high in both performance and mastery orientations might very well be the most optimal scenario of all, because the individual would then stand to benefit from multiple streams of performance feedback.  Moreover, given that they have multiple ways of conceptualizing success, individuals with both types of achievement orientation are less likely to end up unsatisfied and therefore more likely to maintain a high level of effort and engagement.

Summary

So what conclusions, if any, can we draw from the findings presented here?

The picture painted by the research is clear: If our aim is to optimize motivation and performance, we would be wise to promote a mastery orientation – perhaps not exclusively, but certainly as a supplement to help protect against the potentially negative effects of an emphasis on ego-related performance goals.

Rather than suppressing performance goals and replacing them with mastery goals, we should simply concentrate on cultivating an attitude that is summed up by the philosophy “win some or learn some.”

By focusing on getting a little bit better every day rather than constantly comparing yourself to others or some external standard, the threat of failure begins to lose its foothold, and performance anxiety has no way to gain traction.

In the end, it is not about deciding whether you should universally adopt a mastery or performance orientation, but rather understanding the particular circumstances under which each of these two orientations is optimal. Per usual, the trick is figuring out the strategy that is optimal for you.

With you in the pursuit, 

Dr. Dave

Dr. Dave Schroerlucke is a mental performance expert helping individuals and teams develop the attitudes, habits, and mental skills that promote optimal performance, particularly within the context of competitive or high-stakes environments. Dr. Dave shares his expertise via blogging, individual coaching, team workshops, and speaking engagements.