Bulldogs News · Approaching Athletics with a Growth Mindset

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Approaching Athletics with a Growth Mindset

Sometimes when we see athletes, coaches, or even teams excel, we think they must possess some type of supernatural power that we ourselves do not possess – we think that, surely, the truly dominant figures in any environment must be different than us normal people.  If not the supernatural, then what else could explain such a high success rate? One proven factor, as it relates to the overall success in a sport (and life), is when regular, normal people approach everyday situations with a growth (vs fixed) mindset. In her book, Mindset, Carol S. Dweck states, “We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us.  We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.” Dweck goes on to say, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” This is where someone’s mindset comes into play.

Choosing to approach life’s challenges with a growth vs a fixed mindset will have a substantial impact on a person’s potential.  If we are aligned, with a growth mindset in our athletic teams, as students, parents and coaches, the possibilities for our programs are seemingly limitless. There is a difference between the two mindsets: first, those with a fixed mindset approach their talents and abilities as static – meaning their intelligence level, athletic ability, and talent will always be the same.  There is no way to change or enhance it. With a fixed mindset, obstacles are avoided; you give up when confronted with a challenge; criticism is taken a personally and then dismissed; the success of others feels like a threat. Secondly, the growth mindset causes us to do just that, grow. Those with a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence, ability, and talents through effort, learning from failures, and embracing challenges.  Those with a growth mindset persevere through adversity; they see effort as necessary ingredient to development. Those with a growth mindset learn from criticism, take feedback constructively, and don’t feel that the success of others is a personal threat. As an organization – our athletic department – it is imperative that we – as a whole community – understand the growth mindset, realize the benefits, and intentionally work towards developing that very mindset each day. Our progress is not – exactly – linear; it is important to think of what we do as an up and down journey.  If we work each day to reflect the concepts of a growth mindset, then all of us are more likely to develop it over time. However, more importantly, our kids will be more likely to reflect that mindset as well.

So, how can each of our groups approach athletics with a growth mindset?  Below are some examples for how our students, coaches and parents can approach athletics with a growth mindset.  Our students are our most vulnerable group when it comes to development. Our students are currently in a formative times of their lives; that will continue for some time.  In fact, research shows that our brains continue to physically develop until age 25. During these formative, learning times, it’s increasingly important for teenagers and young adults to reflect a growth mindset.  For them to legitimately accomplish that, they rely heavily on the influences around them. For parents, coaches and teachers, this is both a daunting and an awesome opportunity! The most influential people in a young person’s lives outside of their parents are often their coaches and teachers.  Our coaches are expected to continuously work towards approaching their teams and their programs with a growth mindset.

We want our coaches to develop our students – both physically and mentally – over the course of the season, or a career, or time spent with a given program.  Though, how does that look? That means they … reflect a positive attitude in the face of adversity / embrace the challenge of playing against tougher competition / know that a job doesn’t depend on winning or losing / embrace competition – because competing is important!  / place an emphasis on full preparation and full effort / are less concerned with natural ability, and pay more attention to how they can increase the talent/skills / are encouraged to work hard on themselves / are not afraid to learn new skills and strategies / are constantly developing professionally and personally. Lastly, our coaches pay attention to what, how, and the way they reward in their programs. Every decision is focused on fostering a growth mindset. As the saying goes “That which gets rewarded, gets repeated.”

One of the more powerful messages in the book Mindset is that our affirmations as parents, coaches and teachers can lead our students to possess either a growth or a fixed mindset.  The simple act of praising a student who excels is something that is broken down into a much more intentional act. Dweck tells us that research shows that praising students “naturals” or “geniuses” pushes a fixed mindset. She says that we should, instead, praise for the considerable time and/or effort it took for them to get to this point; specifically, how that effort and time spent developing is really what has earned them the success.  In doing so, we are reaffirming that effort pays off. And that through effort, the full potential as a student, athlete, and later in life, as a husband/wife, parent, and colleague at work can be realized.

Our parents are vital to the successes of our programs.  Outside of the countless tasks they perform that allows the athletic department and school to function (team meals, transportation, etc.), a parent’s primary role in education based athletics is that of support.  Along with supporting their own child, they support the entire team and the coaches, as well. It is not easy! Parents have a truly unique perspective of how students perceive and react to their coaches, teammates and the program as a whole.  A student’s attitude and candid comments on the car ride home or around the dinner table may be fundamentally different than it is in the locker room after a game. The role of the parent is so important in reinforcing a growth minded approach to athletics. As Carol Dweck states in Mindset, the best gift a parent can give their children is to “teach them to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” As parents, arming our children with that gift will give them a skill they can use for life.  Parents can reinforce a growth mindset in our students that will help prepare them for success through positivity, teaching to work through adversity, working to control what can be controlled, supporting coaches’ tactical decisions, and reinforcing the idea that effort and dedication will unlock true potential.

The final piece of this puzzle is our students – the most important piece of an education based athletic department.  When everyone praises effort over their talent, while pushing athletes to embrace challenges, personal growth happens.  Our kids know when coaches or parents give feedback on something, it is not a reflection of their love for them as a person, but rather a tool to propel them forward to their full potential.  It is imperative that our students’ own a growth minded approach to athletics. If our kids are able to view challenges as rungs on a growth ladder, then they can view effort as the primary factor in their development; that is when our programs will be successful.

Mindset is powerful, but it’s not easy.  It takes effort to continuously think in a way that is rooted in growth – it is not a linear progression; there is no finish line!  It is imperative to the success of a team that coaches, parents and students are all aligned with a growth mindset; that will allow for limitless possibilities in growth and development.  


Thank you for your growth mindset approach to education based athletics! Most importantly, thank you for your time today.