Eyes on Which Prize? How Goal Orientation Can Influence Our Exercise Habits

Eyes on Which Prize? How Goal Orientation Can Influence Our Exercise Habits

For many, the practice of a fitness routine involves goal setting, with two main orientations:  outcome goal orientation (also known as a competitive goal orientation) and task goal orientation (aka. mastery goal orientation).


An outcome orientation is based on social comparison and outperforming others, whereas task orientation emphasizes improvement relative to one’s former self. People can be simultaneously outcome and task-oriented, but a task orientation emphasis will more likely be the one that leads to better “outcomes”.


Those who are more outcome-oriented may have some challenges in maintaining a sense of competence because they judge success based on how they compare with others. What others say and do is mostly outside of our control and can create a self of helplessness if we feel an inability to meet those standards. Those who are more outcome-oriented may be more likely to reduce their efforts when challenged, less likely to maintain consistency with an exercise routine, and more likely to make excuses when things don’t go their way. To protect their sense of self-worth, they are more likely to select tasks in which there is little challenge and thus little opportunity for growth, or tasks that are so challenging that failure is pretty much inevitable.


Conversely, a task orientation provides greater control and can make individuals persist longer in the face of challenges. By directing their focus on how they perform an activity without regard for how well others perform at it, task-oriented people are more likely to feel comfortable challenging themselves with appropriately difficult tasks and are less likely to fear failure.


To demonstrate a comparison between task and outcome orientation, let’s look how they determine how one might approach learning a new exercise. Learning how to properly perform a barbell back squat can be a lengthy process. In the beginning, the movement feels strange and awkward, and the awkwardness may bring on concerns of looking silly by doing something incorrectly, especially in a crowded gym where everyone else seems to know what they are doing.


The outcome-oriented individual may feel discouraged if they cannot immediately perform the exercise as well as others can. Afraid of looking foolish, they might abandon the exercise, claiming “It’s just too hard. I’m not a natural.” Or perhaps they do stick with it, despite feeling uncertain of their technique, but proceed to put more weight on the bar because “other people are lifting more than me, and I don’t want to look like a wimp.” The next day, they wake up with a sore back and say “Squats are dangerous, I need to stop doing them,” or “No pain, no gain. I need to go even heavier next time.”


By having such high emphasis on looking good or lifting a lot while doing squats, our outcome-oriented friend isn’t giving themselves the freedom to learn from the challenges that the exercise is presenting.


But what if they took a task-oriented approach instead? When confronted by that awkward first attempt at performing the barbell back squat, they might instead think, “This doesn’t feel right and it’s tougher than I thought it would be. It’s my first time doing this so I shouldn’t get discouraged, but perhaps I should figure out what it takes to do this properly.”


Our task-oriented friend then goes online to read some articles and watch some instructional videos on how to best approach learning the back squat. Perhaps they decide to meet with a personal trainer or work out with a more experienced friend who can give them some supportive pointers. They use regressed versions of the exercise to gain comfort with the squatting movement. They work on improving the mobility of their hips so that they can more comfortably get into the bottom of the squat. They remind themselves that everyone who makes the exercise look easy once had to learn the basics like they are doing now.


Eventually things start to get easier. Performing the back squat feels more natural and they feel comfortable adding weight to the bar without sacrificing proper technique. They realize that they’ve come a long way from where they were when they started. By comparing their progress to that of their past self, this growth is easily visible and they feel motivated to keep going.


Now, it’s important to consider that there isn’t a hard line drawn between these two orientations. Your approach may change depending on the activity, and you can be both task-oriented and outcome-oriented towards a goal. Those who tend to be outcome-oriented can also learn to change their mindset to approach things more often from a task-oriented standpoint.


When we think of larger conversations around fitness and physical activity in Western society, it’s evident that there are socio-cultural pressures that promote an outcome orientation. Think of the still common standard for fitness and beauty being thinness for women and a lean muscular body for men. This standard is a factor in why so many people set outcome-oriented goals, hoping to gain or lose a certain amount of weight.


We tend to pit ourselves against others in lots of situations. Health shouldn’t be one of them. By turning our own goals inward to master skills and care for ourselves without projecting comparison and competition onto ourselves and others, we can foster a fitness community that lifts us all up collectively by opening space for everyone to pursue their unique goals, interests, and passions.

Guest blog by

Corbin Cammidge, B.Kin, CSEP-CPT, AFLCA
Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor
Hanson Fitness and Lifestyle Centre & Saville Fitness Centre


Weinberg, R. S, & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. 5th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.