Preventing Burnout - Page 3
Task Goals Versus Ego Goals
To prevent burnout and maximize the opportunity for goal attainment, an athlete needs to create proper goals and develop an optimal motivational climate. Scientific research has identified two types of goals that are present to greater or lesser degrees in athletic-achievement contexts: task goals and ego goals. When a task goal is adopted by an athlete, achievement is assessed in self-referent terms, rather than in relation to how others have fared in comparison, and success and failure are determined according to whether one has mastered an activity, improved a performance time, or reached a self-imposed marker. For example, when a runner says, “I want to run a 2:59 at Boston,” he or she is setting a task goal. Similarly, when a runner proclaims, “I want to train in a way that will keep me injury free this year,” he or she is also setting a task goal.
In contrast, the adoption of an ego goal means that achievement will be evaluated in comparative rather than self-referent terms, and a runner will strive to demonstrate performance prowess—or to avoid displaying a lack of performance capability—in comparison with other runners. For example, a runner adopting an ego goal might decide that “The key thing is to beat Paul in the upcoming race” or “I have to finish in the top three in this competition” or “I have to show everyone that I am the best runner in my age group.” The adoption of an ego goal might also mean attempting to win the approval or change the mind of a significant other—perhaps a coach or another athlete. A runner who has received a negative comment from an another person in the running community might decide that he or she must win a race to prove the person wrong, for example.
Scientific research has supported the idea that runners fare better when they adopt task rather than ego goals. For example, some studies have shown that athletes using task goals tend to seek out challenges, put forth high levels of effort, display persistence, sustain interest in training, and maintain mammoth motivational levels, trends that are inconsistent with burnout and consistent with the development of a high degree of fitness.
In contrast, using ego goals seems to leave athletes more vulnerable to burnout, perhaps in part because it is impossible to control the performances and opinions of others, which makes the attainment of ego goals more uncertain. A runner might achieve an excellent performance time, perhaps even a personal record, but could still view overall performance as a failure if certain competitors finished with even-faster times. Furthermore, achieving a very creditable time might nonetheless produce a disparaging comment from a hypercritical coach or fellow athlete (e.g., “You went out too fast,” “You finished too slowly,” “You seemed to struggle on the hills”), producing frustration and disappointment in an athlete oriented toward the achievement of an ego goal, in this case, the winning over of another person.
Research suggests that when athletes become dominated by ego goals, they tend to feel that they must repeatedly display their superior competitive ability with respect to others, and their sense of self-worth may become tightly connected with their capacity to do so. Rather than inching their way forward with gradually better times and feeling satisfied with doing so, ego-goal runners constantly need to out-do others, an impossible task for all but the Paul Tergats and Catherine Nderebas of the world. The failures that inevitably occur, which are typically viewed as inadequacies, are then remedied with the application of more training effort; however, physical and emotional stresses tend to increase as competitive situations are increasingly viewed as being personally threatening and potentially damaging to self esteem. In theory, burnout can then occur much more easily compared with a situation in which a runner is merely trying to gain greater mastery of an event without his or her worth being tied to the time on the clock, relative finishing position in a race, or the opinion of another person.