For Coaches: Developing a Growth Mindset in Athletes

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by RACHEL BINETTE

For Coaches: Developing a Growth Mindset in Athletes

[T]he most important part of our job is to keep athletes motivated through the most challenging times in their athletic journey.
Every coach will experience working with an athlete who stagnates in progress. The toughest part of our job is not teaching skills or coaching intensity or writing programming: the toughest and the most important part of our job is to keep athletes motivated through the most challenging times in their athletic journey — when they have plateaued or regressed.

Plateaus happen for many reasons, but the resulting mental state for athletes falls into two camps: those who work harder (growth mindset) and those who give up (fixed mindset).

Luckily, there are many ways that we can develop a growth mindset in our athletes, both at the very beginning of their athletic career and in the middle. It’s true that it is more difficult to break a bad habit than create a good one, so if our athlete typically makes excuses, gets frustrated, or gives up, we have our work cut out for us. But we can start using these techniques today to start creating a growth mindset.

Use Praise Effectively

This is the best advice that I can give to any coach. Praise will make or break our coaching. When we praise athletes, they listen carefully, and unknowingly, they are acting on cues we give them.

What is effective praise?

Praise that reflects values like effort, focus, and determination; that is very specific; and that is concise will help us to foster a growth mindset.

What is ineffective praise?

What is ineffective praise?

Praise that is vague (like “good job”) and that reflects values like intelligence and talent will create a fixed mindset in our athletes. If our praise takes us longer than one sentence to get across, our athletes won’t remember what we said.

[H]ow much would we give to have all of our athletes knowingly choose harder tests of fitness and purposefully come to WODs that they know they suck at?
To demonstrate just how powerful praise is, I’ll outline a study run by social psychology researcher Dr. Carol Dweck with 400 New York 5th graders. In an attempt to see how much one signal — one sentence of praise — can affect performance, she discovered the power of masterful praise.

In the first phase of the study, the students were given a test of fairly easy puzzles. After the test, a researcher informed all of the children of their scores, adding one 6-word sentence of praise: either “You must be smart at this” (praising intelligence) or “You must have worked really hard” (praising effort).

The kids were tested a second time, but this time they were offered the choice between a harder test or an easier one. Ninety percent of the kids who were praised for their effort knowingly chose the harder test, while a majority of the kids who were praised for their intelligence chose the easy test. Dr. Dweck wrote, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that’s the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

An honest question to all coaches: how much would we give to have all of our athletes knowingly choose harder tests of fitness and purposefully come to WODs that they know they suck at? This is one of the best indicators of which athletes are fixed mindset and which are growth mindset.

The third level of tests for the students was much more difficult, and none of the children did well. However, the praised-for-effort group tried out different strategies for solving the problems and liked the test. But the praised-for-intelligence group hated the harder test — they viewed it as proof that they weren’t smart.

Finally, the kids were given a test of the same difficulty as the initial test. The praised-for-effort group improved their initial score by 30%. The praised-for-intelligence group’s score declined by 20%. All because of one 6-word sentence. The study results were so surprising that Dr. Dweck re-ran the experiments 5 times, but the results remained the same.

How can we extrapolate the praise given to these test-takers and apply it to our athletes? If we say, “That athlete is strong,” we communicate that the current strength-level of the athlete is perfect the way it is. If instead we say, “That athlete has worked hard on gaining strength,” we communicate that the behavior of the athlete is what we value. Subsequently, the hard-working athlete learns to continue working hard.

In other words, use praise to reward actions, not traits.

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