How to Create a Mastery-Oriented Environment

Sport psychology research has shown that the motivational climate/environment created by the coach has a direct effect on the players’ experience. As a coach, you set the tone of the youth sports experience for your team members. Coaches are in charge of structuring the practice drills and activities. Coaches control what aspects of the sport are emphasized within their team. Coaches control how they react to discipline issues and how they handle children with differing abilities. At times the decisions that coaches sometimes make regarding these issues may end up creating an environment that places emphasis on performance outcome rather than personal achievement. This type of environment does not promote enjoyment, or positive attitudes toward fair play and moral reasoning.

There are two basic motivational climates: a mastery, task-oriented climate and a competitive, ego-oriented climate. According to Cox (1) “A mastery climate is one in which athletes receive positive reinforcement from the coach when they (a) work hard, (b) demonstrate improvement, (c) help others learn through cooperation, and (d) believe that each player’s contribution is important” (p. 39). In contrast, a competitive climate is defined as “one in which athletes perceive that (a) poor performance and mistakes will be punished, (b) high-ability athletes will receive the most attention and recognition, and (c) competition between team members is encouraged by the coach” (1, p. 39)

Mastery-Oriented Motivational Climate

A mastery climate is one in which personal accomplishment is emphasized through the way practice is structured. Athletes are encouraged to develop a self-referenced perception of success, where their success is measured by their own personal accomplishment rather than by comparing themselves to their peers. Each athlete works at his or her own level, accomplishing tasks and reaching goals that are unique to his or her own situation. The research seems clear about the benefits of this type of environment. In a mastery climate, athletes are more likely to develop good sportsmanship attitudes and higher levels of moral reasoning (2, 3), positive attitudes about other players and coaches (3), team satisfaction, enjoyment, intrinsic motivation to continue participation (2), high perceptions of their own ability, and a belief that success is related to effort (4). This climate provides the opportunity for all individuals to feel success and develop self-competence. Athletes of all levels, including elite athletes, have reported positive outcomes when they perceive the environment as high in a mastery orientation (4).

Ego-Oriented Motivational Climate

An ego-oriented climate focuses on the product, winning, and on norm referenced, social comparisons for determining ability. Success is equal to winning, and the perception of ability as compared with others is important. Research has shown the ego-oriented environment in sports has been conducive to cheating and other unsportsmanlike behaviors and lower levels of moral reasoning. This environment has also been associated with performance worry and boredom (2). Given the competitive nature of sports, this may often be the climate employed by coaches, but it disadvantages athletes who do not possess a high ability and is not the best option for youth sports.


Fostering an environment that is conducive to building competence and experiencing success is especially important for coaches at the youth level. The acronym TARGET can be used as a guide for helping coaches develop such an environment in their practice sessions. TARGET stands for Task, Authority, Recognition, Grouping, Evaluation, and Timing (4) and when taken together these components can help create a mastery-oriented setting.

• Task – use a variety of tasks that are challenging, interesting and meaningful; tasks need not be the same for all athletes

• Authority – allow your athletes to get involved in making some of the decisions; give them a choice in which tasks or drills to work on

• Recognition – use private recognition for individual accomplishments so that you are not inviting social comparison

• Grouping – group athletes heterogeneously for drills

• Evaluation – stress evaluation based on individual success and achievement of individual goals rather than using social comparison

• Timing – not all athletes learn skills at the same pace; allow adequate practice and playing time for even the least skilled

As a coach, you have the ability to shape the experience of the athletes on your team. Creating a mastery-oriented environment has been shown through numerous studies involving a wide range of ages and skill levels to lead to enjoyment, good sportsmanship, positive attitudes towards teammates and coaches, high perceptions of ability, and intrinsic motivation, whereas the same cannot be said for a competitive environment. Which type of environment will you choose to emphasize for your practices?


(1) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

(2) Boixados, M., Cruz, J., Torregrosa, M., & Valiente, L. (2004). Relationships among motivational climate, satisfaction, perceived ability, and fair play attitudes in young soccer players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 301-317. Retrieved January 29, 2006 from SportDiscus database.

(3) Fry, M. D. & Newton, M. (2003). Application of achievement goal theory in an urban youth tennis setting. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 50-66. Retrieved January 29, 2006 from SportDiscus database.

(4) Treasure, D. C. (2001). Enhancing young people’s motivation in youth sport: An achievement goal approach. In G. C. Roberts (Ed.), Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise (pp. 79-100). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Retrieved September 13, 2005 from

Share This