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Learning vs Performance Approaches – Task Mastery vs Outcome Oriented

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Or is it?

The aforementioned statement has been echoed many a time at youth sports, but what does it actually mean and is it appropriate, helpful and/or correct?

Note: This isn’t going to be a post rambling on about sports, a lot of what I will talk about can be applied to goal setting and obtaining more universally.

Okay, back to the above quote, it’s kind of an aphorism for life, really; it’s not about the winning and losing, it’s about how you live, how you carry and conduct yourself. Integrity. Morals. Ethics. Do not sacrifice success at the series of games for the victory of one solitary game.

With any task you wish to achieve, ask yourself these questions: What are you aiming at? What are you motivated by? The answer is usually either competence or achievement. How do you define success? The answer is usually either an improvement in skills or winning. Who are you competing against? The answer is usually either you’re trying to beat yourself or others. Now, ideally you would have a combination of the two answers I have illustrated to the questions posed. Some of you may have started to see a pattern to occur; one set of answers were aimed at the learning and task mastery theme and the other at the performance and outcome oriented approach. My post last week on “writing as if no one will read it” is an example of a learning approach, focusing on mastering the task of writing, improving my skills through the use of a technical exercise.

Task mastery has certainly become more prevalent in recent times and used as a primary approach, especially at elite levels, and this was evident watching the new Amazon Prime series “The Test” on the Australian Cricket Team. “Sandpaper-gate” was a great example of the pitfalls of being too outcome oriented. It was a matter of winning or losing, and that is when morality and ethics can go out the door in the pursuit of must-have victory.

When one is too outcome oriented, you tie your motivation and mental states to the results which then make it easier for you to be affected greatly by poor results and thus increase the likelihood of future poor performances. It is easy to shift your focus away from the present task to some future point as well as focusing on avoidance behaviour e.g. not doing wrong rather than doing right. Being too absorbed with the outcome kind of reminds of the philosophical point raised by Soren Kierkegaard, I believe, about the man who wants to be Caesar; what happens when he cannot be Caesar? Much suffering and despair, not because of the man himself, but precisely because he could not be Caesar.

As a competitive person myself, I’m certainly not saying we should abandon outcomes and this would get rid of these problems, because we shouldn’t and it wouldn’t anyway. What I am saying is that focusing on competence, improving your skills and being better than you were (i.e. task mastery learning approach) is more beneficial, has a limitless trajectory, makes you more resilient to adversity and actually leads to achieving better outcomes.

However, one must take into account individual differences, some people are just naturally more orientated towards performance based approaches. For them, doing better than others ranks highly, making x dollars, winning x championships or publishing x books, and there’s a healthy level of this that I think should be acceptable, if not encouraged. Although, if “The Last Dance” is anything to go by, you need a not-so-healthy level of competitiveness to reach the very top of your chosen field. A competitive person hates losing more than they like winning.

I’m not trying to paint a rose-coloured glasses approach like outcomes don’t matter, but we all can gain something from a task mastery approach and perhaps viewing the outcome as taking care of itself in the long run if we continue to do the right thing. Control what is within your control, commit, do your work honourably and aim for competence.

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