Contemporary research in the social psychology of sport has used Nicholls' (1984, 1989) social cognitive theory of goal orientations and motivation in order to gain a better understanding of cognitive, affective and behavioural aspects of sport participation. Success can be defined in at least two different ways that lead to two major goal orientations (task/mastery and social comparison), but little is known about why or how such goals may develop, although preliminary research in education links goals to conceptions about the nature of academic ability (i.e. intelligence). Using a similar notion, we studied conceptions of athletic ability by assessing children's representations of sport ability. Two studies were conducted with children and youth in England and France. Initial findings suggested that the methods adopted by Dweck & Leggett (1988) in education, while showing some links between goals and beliefs, are not wholly applicable to sport. In using a more comprehensive measure of sport ability conceptions, we observed clear relationships between a social comparison goal and a conception of athletic ability as a ‘gift’ and being ‘general’, and between a task mastery goal and the conception of athletic ability as being incremental and determined by learning. We develop and discuss the meaning of the causal links that unite goals and ability conceptions, as well as the likely impact of such conceptions on motivation.