A Positive Roadmap to Performance Goals
Growing up, goal achievement was fairly straightforward for me. I came from a working class family that lived overseas and the message was clear. If we wanted to achieve anything in life, we had to work hard, get better, and not quit.
Academic performance meant, "get your head down and study." Athletic performance meant, "get in the pool and train." Ethics came first. Winning and scoring high grades weren't expected but hard work and not complaining were.
My mother was a stickler for making us see challenges through long enough to learn a lesson. When I had a near fatal horse riding accident at ten, I was back on the horse not long after my recovery. I hated it. When loneliness hit as a teenage student in France, it was a month before I was allowed to return home.
When I succeeded in studies and sport, my mother was there to quietly congratulate me. The wins and grades were acknowledged, and various certificates and medals decorated my bedroom. But she didn't shower me with non-stop praise. It was always clear that achievement came second to me becoming a good human being.
For my mother, it wasn't important what we became as children but rather, who we became. The way was more important than the destination, and forging mental toughness was part of this process. Why? Perhaps because little was expected as a given in her life, except endurance and hard work.
My mother knew any achievement was down to her and by extension, it was now down to each of us. She couldn't do the achieving for us. A tough and competitive upbringing had taught her these lessons well. Yet my mother also knew how to live well. After work and training, she made sure to switch off and do her best to live the "good life".
I look back and wonder how it all became so complicated. Working hard, getting better, not giving up, and living a "good life" don't necessarily get the thoughtful attention they deserve in goal achievement conversations these days. Or do they? That is a question I've been reflecting on lately as I consider setting off to achieve another goal.
There is an abundance of scientific research and popular narratives on the motivation to set and achieve goals to improve performance. Take the following, for example:
Need Achievement Theory (Atkinson, 1974, cited in Weinberg & Gould, 2015) takes into account to personality and situational factors, whether a person approaches or avoids success (resultant tendency), if they focus on pride in succeeding or the shame of failure (emotional reactions), and if they seek out challenges to enhance performance or avoid risks and therefore perform poorly.
Hope Theory (Snyder, 1994) is the perceived ability to harness agency and self-motivation to achieve desired goals. As hope is perception-oriented, a person could in theory be high in hope but not achieve their goals. This is where Snyder's pathways come in. People need to have both the willpower (self-motivation) and the waypower (pathways) in order to turn a hope into reality (Feldman et al., 2009).
Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000) is quite possibly the most popular motivation theory to date for goal-related performance. People need various degrees of autonomy, competence, and relatedness along with different doses of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that meet various psychological health and wellbeing needs.
Coker's Polar Model (2016) boils the process down to hope and fear. This model could be translated as, "If we hope to achieve something, we will naturally fear we won't achieve it. If we fear not achieving something, we will naturally hope we will." This theory speaks to the approach-avoid scenario in Need Achievement Theory.
We either want something, or we don't. Whether we have an inner conflict about that and create hell for ourselves as a result is a story for another time!
Hope can drive us forwards while fear can hold us back. Excess hope can fall into delusion while excess fear can keep us stuck. Yet hope and fear theory alone don't explain the process of performance-based goals. They exist within a wider context of motivation, influence, and virtues, as the Hope-Fear Triangle (Coker, 2016) below shows.
External or situational factors may influence our orientation to hope and fear. So too may our degrees of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Do we strive to achieve for the love of it and reward ourself in the process, or are we looking for a socially constructed (and externally validated) reward?
Perhaps like most things in life, it isn't either-or but rather, a combination of both - or something else entirely!
Of most interest to me here is the role of virtues in this process.
The relationship between character virtues and continuous improvement as part of goal achievement is very present in the martial arts (my second love in life after the pool) and other virtue-based systems such as sport. Good character is rewarded in the dojo, alongside skills development, and respect, discipline, and humility are often at the core.
As understanding of the value of this social norm grows (at least in the bubble of the dojo), the student is typically more motivated to become a better human being as they rise through the ranks. Provided the process isn't led astray by less virtuous pursuits (such as playing dirty in competition in order to win), the outcome is a student who understands the value of hard work and good character in achievement.
Sounds like my mother all over!
But then again, that's not surprising given she was a teenage athlete who rose before 5am to make it to the pool...
Virtues are also extolled in Positive Psychology.
This is also an area of interest of mine, professionally and personally. I never quite got along with people at work who sought to achieve without character virtues being a part of the process. In fact, I had very little respect and time for them.
Correction. I had none.
When you have spent years studying, training, and working hard in order to achieve something, it smacks of injustice when someone attempts a short cut to achieving a goal - and then they try to drag you into it!
Take a past example from my career history. I worked with various branches of the United Nations as both an employee and consultant. The work was pretty demanding (for the record, not as demanding as setting up and running a business!) and getting such roles isn't easy to come by, so there is often a reluctance for most people who succeed in "job attainment" to later leave (I clearly wasn't one of them).
Over the years, I lost count of the number of times people asked me how they could bypass the six months it could take between application and recruitment for the lucky candidate. How could they ask that of someone who had waited (unpaid) repeatedly for a position for up to half a year? Had I known a viable shortcut, maybe I would have taken in - or not. My virtuous character wouldn't have allowed it!
As a martial artist, I have also seen people try to bypass the ranks.
In fact, I've been at the receiving end of such a bypass myself, which is rather awkward to admit given how virtuous I strive to be. An overly-competitive coach egged me on, awarding me a belt before I had put in all of the hard work. As the belt was presented in front of the class, my cheeks flushed red. I was caught between an ego-driven "want" (I want this belt!) and a virtue-driven "want not" (I haven't earned this yet!).
At the time, I had a black belt in another system that had taken a good ten years to earn. I had also spent another five years re-earning and surpassing this rank later on in life after a period of sporadic training due to work travel. So to be awarded a belt in another martial so suddenly didn't sit well with me. Yes, I was training hard but no, I hadn't earned this rank yet. My performance on the mat said that loud and clear.
Never mind, I told myself, too shocked to hand the belt back. I'll just train harder to earn it and regain my self-respect. When he tried to entice me the following year with another belt (the promise of a brown belt in less than two years if I followed him to a new dojo), I swiftly exited and trained with another instructor who reminded me in no unclear terms that I was most definitely still at the bottom of the ranks.
Both of us knew a brown belt was a possibility if I wanted it, and trained hard for it. But even then, it was still a number of years away and there was no point even entertaining the idea just yet. Now was a time to "chop wood and carry water", so to speak.
Did this other instructor hold me back? Not in the slightest. He simply kept me in the place I had earned until I could do better, and for that I am grateful. Delusion in the martial arts isn't a happy place to be - it causes far too much social shame and internal dissent, not to mention the potential for injury in an untrained bid to be the best!
It takes courage to say no and walk away when an inner conflict pulls us to stay. Knowing what we stand for (our virtues and values) can ease this experience. It also takes courage to go after goals we aren't sure we will achieve.
Interestingly, Coker (2016) continued his research on hope and fear to explore the virtue of courage. Courage may be the gap we need to cross before confidence arrives, he once shared in conversation, and therefore (in my view) quite pertinent for "big" goal achievement.
If confidence is present, one could argue why we would need to set and manage a performance goal. Wouldn't we just set the compass in the right direction, show up, work hard, and trust the outcome?
Such an approach is based on practice and relevant as part of goal achievement, but perhaps not as much in the early stages when we may be seeking motivation and acquiring new goal-related skills that will help to improve our performance and in turn, increase the likelihood of "scoring" our goal.
Confidence arrives with knowledge and skill acquisition when inner and outer resources are in place, and we learn to manage the inevitability of performance-related stress (Confidence Triangle, Coker & Higgins, 2020). Experiencing different degrees of stress is common for athletes and "corporate athletes" alike. It isn't fun to under-perform or fail, yet this is part of learning and behavioural change. How we manage such disappointments is integral to how we later perform.
If we blow failure or under-performance out of proportion (a fear-based response), we may be less motivated in the future to achieve. Even if we do happen to achieve in spite of fear (or perhaps because of it if that is a learned behaviour), we may feel less than satisfied with the outcome.
Fear can drive us to achieve some pretty fantastic things, such as fending off a violent attack (if we're lucky and skillful), but fear as a default motive to achieve isn't really that rewarding in the long run. We never really know when enough is actually enough.
There are other reasons why just showing up and putting in effort may not be enough. The system in which we are operating may be unfair and skewed against us. If we aren't socially or politically aware, we may be caught by surprise at the injustice (particularly overly virtuous ones veering towards self-righteousness). This can in turn reduce our confidence.
The unexpected may happen too. An injury, mental or physical, can also throw our confidence off track. Or a better competitor comes along and highlights a part of us that are driven by vanity (i.e. unhealthy proportions of ego) to achieve. This can plunge us into low self-esteem and even arrogance, if we aren't aware.
Taking a healthy sense of pride in what we achieve, no matter how small, can be positive fuel for our self-esteem (Self-Esteem Model, Coker, 2019). Not a fake boost through social comparison (sorry, purely competitive folks!) but rather, a quieter acknowledgment of how we have somehow bettered ourself. From this grounded place of self-esteem, we can more easily navigate, move through, and hopefully transcend the struggles that are part of achieving anything "big".
Bottom line: Any kind of growth will invite discomfort proportionate to the gap between where we are right now, where we would like to be, the knowledge, skills, and support we have to get there, and how we handle the process. A virtuous character is highly recommended here!
Building confidence can feel like a rocky road to low self-esteem if we don't learn to sit with this discomfort. As our inability to handle discomfort rises, we often give into fear and lose our perspective. Our ability to process and benefit from our learning (not to mention our wellbeing) will be compromised if we don't seek to get perspective back. In such situations, it is hope that will ultimately drive us forwards.
Effectively processing negative emotions and seeking positive emotions during goal achievement is essential. This is often where a debate arises.
Should we be seeking mental toughness (i.e. the ability to withstand discomfort and push through a challenge using our mental resources), or should we be seeking a more compassionate and emotion-sensitive form of resilience, as the 5 Pillars of Resilience (Coker & Higgins, 2020) below shows?
Personally, I believe a healthy dose of both can go a long way. I haven't always got the balance right. There have been times when mental toughness has helped me hang in against all odds, and resilience was there to pick up the pieces at the end.
Knowing when and how much of mental toughness and resilience to harness in any given situations is certainly a learning curve in and of itself!
While many can see the value of resilience in goal achievement (particularly beyond sport), not everyone agrees with me on mental toughness. There is an association between soldiering on and burning out, for example. Here, it is important to note the time span of each.
If resilience can be referred to as a way of life, then mental toughness could be a device we switch on and off when we really need it. It can offer the added "push" to power through if and when we really must. I certainly don't recommend it as a way of life!
As you can see, how to achieve performance improvement goals isn't always clear-cut. There are many ways to Rome, so to speak, and my interpretation is but one and partial at best. People have written much more eloquently on such a complex topic.
Having said that, understanding why we want something (or not) helps to clarify whether or not we will likely have the will to achieve. Understanding our environment and need for / access to resources (agency) will help us find a way through.
If hope is driving us, perspective born of confidence can keep that hope in check. In the absence of confidence, it is courage that can ultimately pull us through.
For courage to be harnessed, I would argue that various forms and doses of meaning and purpose need to be present. For why would we want to harness courage to achieve something that doesn't really matter in the end?
As for keeping us on track, well, my virtuous self would suggest that contentment with what we don't have, and gratitude for what we do have are good character strengths to cultivate. Without these, we could end up chasing performance goals forever, and who really wants to spend a lifetime doing that?
Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner (L7) with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild. She is also a Fellow Member at the Positive Psychology Guild and insured to practice Positive Psychology with students and clients.
Feldman, D.B., Rand, K.L., Kahle-Wroblesky (2009). 'Hope and goal attainment: Testing a basic prediction of hope theory.' Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology, 28:4, pp. 479-497.
Weinberg, R.S., Gould, D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6th edition, USA: Human Kinetics.