A Growth Mindset can help you be the best

Metrifit Athlete Monitoring System

For anyone involved in sport, as an athlete, coach, commentator or fan, the concept of talent is almost always the defining character that we look for. Of course that is a hugely important trait, but it doesn’t tell us what makes the difference between winning and losing when two athletes of similar talent compete, or why somebody with less talent might come out on top.

canstockphoto11259727The answer often lies in the mental approach of athletes. Success is not just about physical attributes but the desire of an athlete to win, and also to open their mind to improving their skills, dealing with mistakes and not fearing failure. Too often the belief was that an athlete simply needed to be a natural talent and this would be enough to fulfil their potential. However, it has become abundantly clear that mindset in sport plays a significant role. This notion that he mindset of an athlete can prove to be a major factor in success was developed from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, in ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ which looks at the power of our mental attitude and that even making the most basic alterations can have a profound effect on our lives.
Maria Popova sums up the findings in ‘Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives’ as follows:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

Value of mindset in sport

Many analysts have applied these concepts to the sporting field, including Sue Shapcott  who argues a vital starting point for success in life and sport is having a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. She states “Mindset is your view of how you perceive ability.  This perception affects how you handle mistakes and criticism as well as how you might perceive challenges”. Kelly Gray is another who supports the belief in the importance of growth over fixed mindset and draws on his own experiences as an athlete when he discovered that values of a positive mental approach.

I believed that if I worked harder than everyone else, I would be able to make myself a much better player regardless of the natural talent anyone had.  I believed that I could make myself better, stated Gray.

In essence, an athlete with a fixed mindset believes that their skills cannot be changed and drawbacks can be summed up as follows:

  • Avoids challenges due to fear of failure
  • They believe skill is something you are born with
  • Gives up easily
  • Effort is seen as unnecessary
  • Gets frustrated or ignores feedback or criticism
  • Feels threatened by the success of others
  • Perseverance will not be any benefit

On the other hand it is accepted that a growth mindset opens up an athlete to the possibility of improving as they are not rigid or fearful of making mistakes, with the advantages as follows:

  • They believe skills come from hard work
  • Embrace challenge
  • Willing to improve
  • Take inspiration from other athletes
  • Seek feedback/criticism to improve
  • They believe that setbacks help you learn

In comparing the two concepts, Sue Shapcott points out

A person who exhibits a growth mindset tends to be hard working and is consistently looking to learn. This leads to a calmer, more open-minded athlete who is more easily coached. In contrast, a person who has a fixed mindset tends to be more emotional and is constantly trying to regulate his or herself.

Growth Mindset in action

There are many examples of athletes who have improved and achieved success by adopting a growth mindset. For example, Lisa Trei reveals that in ‘Fixed versus growth intelligence mindsets: It’s all in your head, Dweck says’, Ross Bentley, the famous car racing coach in Seattle, observed the benefits of the right mental approach when he said that great drivers attempt to reach

a state of flow—a moment when you lose yourself in the act of driving, when it becomes effortless and time slows down. When you get into the flow, or the zone, you’re at your peak.

In ‘The Mindset of Athletes’ Carol Dweck reminds us of the plight of Billy Beane who was unable to realise his talent as he failed to break from the fixed mindset.
He illustrated the point that his exceptional talent alone was not enough and he struggled with the increased challenges as he attempted to break into big time baseball. According to Dweck, his experience shows how an athlete can be suffocated by the pitfalls of a fixed mindset.

Natural talent should not need effort. Effort is for the others, the less endowed. Natural talent does not ask for help. It is an admission of weakness. In short, the natural does not analyze his deficiencies and coach or practice them away. The very idea of deficiencies is terrifying

Dweck also refers to the moment Billy Jean King realised that hard work was needed to complement her talent if she wanted to reach the top. Despite playing at a very high standard against the formidable Margaret Smith on one occasion, King was somewhat perplexed at losing the match, but the defeat taught her the value of hard work.

All at once, she understood what a champion was. Someone who could raise their level of play when they needed to. When the match is on the line, they suddenly ‘get around three times tougher”, explained Dweck, who also pointed out that as a teenager, Jackie Joyner-Kersee reached as similar realisation when she stated: “That win showed me that I could not only compete with the best athletes in the country, I could will myself to win.

Perhaps one of the best examples is that of soccer player, Mia Hamm, who was asked what she thought was the most important attribute for a player to have.
Her answer was simply “mental toughness”, which prompted Dweck to conclude:
And she doesn’t mean some innate trait. When eleven players want to knock you down, when you’re tired or injured, when the referees are against you, you can’t let any of it affect your focus. How do you do that? You have to learn how.

It is,” says Hamm, “one of the most difficult aspects of soccer and the one I struggle with every game and every practice.” By the way, did Hamm think she was the greatest player in the world? No. “And because of that,” she said, “someday I just might be.

Lessons for coaches

According to Kelly Gray the value of a growth mindset should be embraced by coaches, particularly in relation to younger athletes in order to allow them to be open to improvement, work hard and to learn from failure, as he states:

The best players in the game make the most mistakes.  The difference is that they are not afraid to make errors.  With each mistake they learn something that will help them reach the next level.  This is a result of both their internal mindset and also the angle of praise from their coach. We have all seen coaches and clubs that believe that winning is what really matters.  These coaches and clubs are setting up their players to think in fixed ways.  This causes players to play with the intent to not make mistakes instead of expressing themselves and their personalities by trying things that are outside of their comfort zone.  By taking chances and failing a player learns what does and doesn’t work and will be able progress and develop at a much faster rate than a player who is trying to not make mistakes.



Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives by Maria Popova
The power of mindset in sports by Kelly Gray
Having a growth mindset
Fixed versus growth intelligence mindsets: It’s all in your head, Dweck says by Lisa Trei
The mindset of Athletes
Athletes and Mindset