Intro to Achievement Goal Theory
In my post entitled “Understanding Music Performance Anxiety,” I briefly mentioned that a possible source of anxiety is performing with the desire of being better than others, or to not be worse than others. In psychology, these goal orientations are often referred to as performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals.
Performance-approach and -avoidance goals are a component of a larger framework known as Achievement Goal Theory (AGT; Elliot, 1997), which argues that goals related to cultivating a skill can hold either a mastery orientation (developing competence in the skill itself) or a performance orientation (demonstrating competence relative to others). The performance orientation can further be broken down into performance-approach goals (demonstrating competence over others) and performance-avoidance goals (avoiding showing a lack of competence compared to others).
Simply put, goals that relate to building a skill can be motivated by the desire to improve on the skill itself (mastery), to show competence over others (performance-approach), or to not show a lack of competence over others (performance-avoidance). Interestingly enough, performance goals are sometimes referred to as ego goals, while mastery goals are referred to as task goals.
Some studies have applied AGT to musicians, such as Lacaille’s (2008) dissertation which explored this theory in musicians, dancers and athletes. She found that optimal functioning in athletes was associated with having both mastery and performance-approach goals. But for musicians and dancers, only mastery goals correlated with optimal functioning, and performance goals were markedly more harmful. Another study by Smith (2005) explored both AGT and Dweck’s Implicit Theory of Ability by administering surveys to 344 undergraduate music majors. He found those that developed a motivational profile geared towards mastery goals and incremental beliefs (also known as the “growth mindset”) were more adept at achieving a high level of musical performance.
How can we use this to our advantage?
I think it’s pretty easy to be sucked in by competitive environments (much like those in conservatories and musical institutions), and to foster goals that are focussed primarily on being the best of your peers, or not to be the worst. And this kind of motivation can be very effective, pushing us to work harder by striving to reach bars that others have set. I am reminded of Netflix’s “The Last Dance”, and seeing that each time Michael Jordan’s skills were challenged or belittled, it would light a fire and he would come roaring back to the basketball court stronger than before. But, I would argue that if your motivation comes solely from performance goals, it can become an even stronger contributor to burnout, performance anxiety and/or a fear of failure – all of which are common today in classical music and beyond.
For me, reshaping my goals to emphasize more on pure mastery helped me have a healthier musical practice, while also organizing my approach to practicing and performing. Having mastery goals meant being driven to play better today than I did yesterday, unaffected by how others are doing. As a result, my practicing became more deliberate – I would actively search for, and articulate what needs to be improved, and would come up with concrete steps to do that, approaching each problem like little puzzles to be solved.
This also helped me as a performer, because each time I step on stage, I’m driven not by a need to prove myself (performance-approach), or by a fear of embarrassing myself (performance-avoidance). My aim is to execute what I achieved in the practice room, but on stage. It became fun in a way, because it turned into this whole exploration in problem solving; I’m putting my practicing to the test, and if things don’t work out, it’s an indication to keep tinkering – to go back to the practice room and find different ways to tackle things that didn’t work.
A bad performance is not an attack on my self-worth or confidence, and my only competition is myself.
I think it’s also important to note that different combinations of mastery and performance goals may work for different people. Harking back to the Michael Jordan example, he seems to thrive on competition – whereas I personally function better when I turn down the dial on performance goals, and focus more on skill mastery. So, I challenge you to reflect on what actually motivates you, and to explore and experiment with finding that special concoction of mastery and performance goals that will help you practice and perform at your best.
I hope this was helpful, next week’s post will be on the Growth Mindset!
Lacaille, N. (2008). Achievement goals, intrinsic goals, and musicians’ performance (Publication No. NR50849) [Doctoral dissertation, McGill University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 36-57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735605048013
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and cannot offer qualified medical advice.