I'm trying to find way to deliver perhaps one of the most important life lessons that youth sports can teach. I want to help people transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
In this episode, I'll explain the differences between the two, how they each manifest on the pitch and in real life, and share some ideas I have so far. I want your input here, so if something I say strikes a chord with you, please use one of the many avenues I've given you to connect with me at https://thesoccersidelines.com/connect/.
Let's talk about fixed vs growth mindset and how each of these can have profound consequences on our own and our children's ability to succeed in youth sports and in life.
Why Two Mindsets?
Very simply, I'm referring to a body of work done by a Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, Ph.D in a book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. If you have not read her book and you find what we're talking about today interesting, I welcome you to use the link I put in my show notes to pick up a copy and read it. That link is my Amazon Affiliate link, so you'll contribute like five cents to the show, but every penny counts.
Dr. Dweck's work really resonated with me because after being exposed to the concept, I was immediately able to see the two mindsets in my own two kids at home, and in the kids I was coaching on the field. I tagged myself as a growth mindset kinda guy, and found her work provided me a very useful mental framework that I could use to categorize just about everyone in a few short minutes of getting to know them.
Understanding fixed vs growth mindset is really about understanding how people view themselves. Do they see the world as a fixed immovable object that they need to navigate, or do they view themselves as in control over creating the world they live in? Once you know how people view themselves and the world around them, you have a vital piece of information in hand regarding how they are going to respond to challenges.
As a parent or as a coach (or as a manager), it's important to know where people are so we can get a better sense of what we need to work on in order to help them realize their full potential. From there, we can tailor our own behavior, tone, what we talk about, how we talk about it, etc in such a way that appeals to the people we're trying to connect with. It also helps with patience if we understand where certain behaviors are coming from.
What is a Fixed Mindset?
The first mindset she calls a "fixed" mindset. She will go into much more detail in her book, but at a high level, those with a fixed mindset are likely to believe that they are who they are. They came into this world with a set of skills, personality, character, and intelligence, and they need to discover it. The key here is a focus on discovering what is already there.
If people with a fixed mindset discover that they are good at something, they run with it. It's great! If, on the other hand, they discover that they are not good at something, they "know" to avoid it. They wonder with every new experience: "Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?..."
If you've coached kids with this mindset, you'll know that it takes a lot of effort to convince them to get on the ball at home if they need improvement. They assume they're not good, so there isn't a lot of point in working at it. Many with a fixed mindset would rather move on and try something new - to see if they're good at the new thing. If they are, they pursue that. If they're not, they take a personal hit to ego and keep searching for the thing they are good at.
Fixed mindset players and adults are, in my opinion, more challenging to work with. Coaches want players who are "coachable." This means that they take criticism, suggestions, and feedback, then use it to make changes to their focus or level of effort, and try again. Coaches understand that skill acquisition is a cyclical process. Work on one end produces results on the other.
What is a Growth Mindset?
This brings us to the Growth Mindset. People who have a growth mindset believe that skills, personality, character, and intelligence can be cultivated. These are the kids (and parents) you can give some general guidance to who will go off, do what's needed to improve themselves, and come back stronger each time you see them.
These players are a coach's dream. Setbacks are treated as learning opportunities, not indictments of individual worth. Motivation is built on a foundation of trust in the process vs a belief that we don't have power over our own growth.
A growth mindset "...allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives." writes Dr. Dweck. It creates a passion for learning rather than a need for approval.
How Does This Look in Life?
As soon as you see the differences for yourself, you'll see how it can be an advantage to have growth mindset kids on the pitch if you're a coach. With growth mindset kids, you're likely to make progress. With fixed mindset kids, it becomes a little harder.
When I know I have fixed mindset kids with me, I understand the game is to help them believe that they are good at the game, then build on how they are good and how we're uncovering the depth of their talent. I realize that if they falter or come up short, they will start questioning their ability. I have to be there to interrupt any downward spiral or they may leave the field questioning themselves and whether or not they want to continue to play.
A growth mindset kid in the same boat will falter or come up short and seek advice on what they should do to correct the situation. They're more likely to go home and try some wall ball exercises and return to the field a better player in the next practice sessions.
Adults are not immune from this. I find that volunteers who say "How can I do X?" are more likely to succeed than volunteers who say "I can't do X." The may both be right when they make their statements. They can't do X... yet. But one allows for the possibility that they can. Then seeks the best way to go about doing it. The other writes the whole experience off as beyond their capabilities and finds something else to do.
When I find fixed mindsets in kids and adults, I immediately start thinking of ways I can introduce and nurture a seed thought that will hopefully bloom over time into a growth mindset.
Finding out how players work and what individually motivates them is the key."
Gary Chupik - Certified Mental Training Expert
Getting To Growth from a Fixed Mindset
I recently connected with Gary Chupik, a man who introduced himself to me as a mental training expert certified through the Association of Applied Science in Sports Psychology. During our conversation, he suggested that there are things that coaches and teams can do: "Simplifying team values and goals or a great place to start. Focusing on the fundamentals are very important. Coaches need to be clear in their own minds about what they are offering those players."
I like Gary's suggestion because it reenforces many of the things that we're learning about what constitutes effective coaching these days. Coaching is much more effective when we can connect with and customize our plans and communication style around players. Simplifying team values and goals - maybe more importantly, being clear about values and goals - is a great way to level the playing field and get players to reenforce team values when coach isn't looking.
I use a couple of techniques myself. The first one, I borrowed from my days managing adult employees. It comes from the book The One Minute Manager, and it's all about catching people doing something right. By choosing where to place my attention as a manager or as a coach, I can communicate what I value and what I hope for the team to value in the long run. When I specifically tune my gaze to finding players demonstrating a strong level of effort, for example, when I praise a player for effort, all players in earshot understand that the coach is looking for and rewarding level of effort.
I take this one step further and pass our captain arm bands with my players - based on whomever I believe has worked the hardest or made the most improvement in the week preceding whatever game we're playing. When I hand out the captain's arm band, I make mention of who it was I'm giving it to and why. Kids notice things like this and they get the message.
Another technique I use is more individual. It has to do with my choice of words and timing. There are a few moments in practice that are important, right? When someone has clearly demonstrated whatever we're teaching and has achieved some result. When someone ignores what we're teaching and achieves a negative result "What could we do when we see that situation again? or "What tools do you have in your toolbox that will help you solve that problem?"
There are also more quiet ties before and after practices and/or games where one-on-one comments might be used to reenforce gains that were made, improvements, clear progress, etc. "Heather, I saw what you were trying to do today with that shot across the goal to far post. That was a good idea. You've got a good instinct."
Being aware of the differences in mindsets that players bring to the pitch helps us to prepare and choose our approach to each player more carefully. I'd love to know the secret to flipping fixed mindset into growth mindset overnight, but as my friend Gary pointed out, the process takes time. That means we need good habits and patience to hopefully have the growth mindset settle in over time.
How About Parents?
I want to dedicate a few words to parents. You may have noticed fixed or growth mindset at home. I don't want to say that there is anything wrong or pathological about having a fixed mindset. It's just that growth mindset is easier to coach and mold. Fixed mindsets are often self limiting.
I personally believe everyone can benefit from a growth mindset no matter that the context. At least a little growth mindedness will help all of us deal with stress better, believe in ourselves and our influence in the world, and empower us to turn lemons that life throws at us into lemons.
If you're a parent and you're interested in introducing your kids to growth mindset, I recommend Carol Dwerk's book as a starting point. After that, I'd suggest patience, a careful choice of language, and an opportunists eye for chances you can show your child the power of improvement. When they do something really well after having done it for a while, for example. Imagine your son or daughter proudly showing off a piece of artwork they did recently. You might do what we all enjoy doing and praise him or her for their end product, and let slip how much they have improved their skill since the last time you saw something like that from them. "You clearly much have been practicing because I see real improvement from that piece you did last year. Look at how well you're handling shadow now or how detailed the X or Y is..."
I don't believe in overnight success with things like mindset. I'm sure it happens, but I am more likely to believe it happens gradually with gentle and intentional reenforcement over time.
- “Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset: What REALLY Matters for Success.” Develop Good Habits, 19 Sept. 2019, https://www.developgoodhabits.com/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset/.
- Popova, Maria. “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives.” Brain Pickings, 23 Sept. 2018, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/.