Building Your Most Important Asset: The Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, has done decades of research diving into the core of human motivation. Through her work, she has discovered that there are two different types of mindsets in people: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Both have a significant impact on how people view challenges, grow, and ultimately perform.  


Dweck said, “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” 


A growth mindset, on the other hand, looks at challenges in a completely different viewpoint. “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence,” said Dweck. “They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.


Like we talked about in “Building a Confident Self Image,” it is well known that our thoughts and beliefs are powerful predictors for our performance. When looking at a fixed vs. growth mindset, the ultimate question comes down to this: Are you born with a fixed amount of intelligence, or can it be developed? 


Dweck had a breakthrough in her research when she looked at a group of 10-year-olds to see how they coped with difficulties and challenges in school. She noticed how some craved challenges and sought to learn something from them, while others loathed the idea of being challenged. The first group of kids is what she grouped into the growth mindset, while the others were labeled with a fixed mindset. 


When studies dove into these two mindsets to see how they affected future performance, research found those in the fixed mindset were more likely to run away from future challenges, cheat, or find someone they did better than to feel good about themselves. Because they were gripped in the “tyranny of now,” they found coping strategies to protect their intelligence – which is constantly up for judgment. They needed validation for their abilities and ran from any kind of criticism that could suggest they were flawed. 


On the flip side, research found those with the growth mindset thrived when faced with challenges. Their brain lights up like a Christmas tree as they engage, tackle, and find solutions to problems. Instead of looking smart, their goal is to recognize errors, work to correct them, and learn from them so they are not repeated in the future. Challenges don’t present threats to their intelligence – rather opportunities for growth. While the kids in the fixed mindset regressed, the kids in the growth mindset excelled – and the only thing that separated the two groups was their perception of challenges.  


These core beliefs about yourself and your intelligence have a great correlation to the risks you take, the challenges you encounter, your creativity, resilience to adversity, and how you perform. A growth mindset helps facilitate deliberate practice – the deep, concentrated state where we train just beyond our abilities in order to build and develop more efficient neural circuits in our brain. It is through this process that we are able to build and refine our skills as the circuits become stronger with more practice – but it cannot happen if we don’t have the mindset that we can grow


Building a Growth Mindset


Using the word yet is a powerful way to get people out of the fixed mindset and into the growth mindset. The word yet facilitates hope by creating a vision and connection to the future. It gives us the idea that while we aren’t where we want to be, we still have the ability to get there with time and practice. Instead of believing we’re stuck with what we have, we use the power of yet to understand we’re far from a finished product. Saying you’re not a good math person is one thing, but saying you’re not a good person yet completely changes the game. 


As a player, it is important to identify language and actions that identify with a fixed mindset. Some of these include:


  • Excuse making, lack of ownership
  • Doubt
  • Fear
  • Jealousy
  • Focus on things we can’t control
  • No plan for the future
  • Need for validation
  • Constant comparison with others


If you sense any of these thoughts or feelings, immediately address them and reshape them. Ask yourself why you’re feeling these emotions and where they came from. What are you protecting using your fixed mindset? Are we afraid of screwing up because we’ve been praised as the smartest or most athletic? Are we letting other people determine the ceiling for our abilities? Do we really believe that we have the ability to grow and do we use it to fuel the work we put in? 


Cutting off these thoughts at the root helps protect you against developing a fixed mindset. If we let them slide and lose responsibility for our actions, our short-term fixed mindset will compound into one that is hard to break in the long run. Feelings of fear and doubt are normal responses to the challenges we face, but we can always control our reactions to them. How we ultimately act goes back to our mindset. Failure never defines those with the growth mindset – it only fuels them to recognize their errors, work hard to correct them, and use the experience to help them grow. 


As a coach, be careful how you praise your athletes. Instead of praising intelligence, praise effort, strategy, progress, and engagement. Praising intelligence builds insecurities by making kids run from challenges that could threaten whether people think they’re the best, brightest, or most intelligent. Praising effort creates enthusiasm for the process of becoming great.  


Get fired up when kids really grapple with a problem, attempt different solutions, and learn from their mistakes. It doesn’t matter if they find the result they were looking for. If you commend them for their effort and how hard they worked, they will take similar strategies when faced with problems in the future – and they will get results. If you mock them for not finding a solution, the fixed mindset will kick in and steer them away from tackling problems head on. We want to develop independent problem solvers who love to take on challenges – not kids with sore egos.


Below are some other ideas for coaches to help build athletes with a growth mindset:


  • Teach them what the two mindsets are, how they’re different, and why you want a growth mindset over a fixed one. 
  • Relate it to things athletes do off the field (school, clubs, etc.). 
  • Teach the power of yet – make it part of your shared vocabulary. 
  • Share real life examples of the growth and fixed mindset.
  • Address language and behavior of fixed mindsets immediately. Rewrite the script using a growth mindset. 
  • Figure out why some people have a fixed mindset. If you want to change behavior, you have to get to the roots.
  • Eliminate the need for constant validation and comparison. 
  • Create incentive for players who show exceptional qualities of a growth mindset (ex: growth mindset of the day). 
  • Encourage players to ask questions.
  • Model the growth mindset yourself. 


Feel free to reach out with any questions or thoughts. Keep learning crushing the growth mindset.

This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks. 

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