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Developing talent through a growth mindset

By Carol S. Dweck
28 June 2016   |   2:06 am
Coaches are often frustrated and puzzled. They look back over their careers and realize that some of their most talented athletes-athletes who seemed to have everything-never achieved success.
Good mindset leads to increase

Good mindset leads to increase

Coaches are often frustrated and puzzled. They look back over their careers and realize that some of their most talented athletes-athletes who seemed to have everything-never achieved success. Why? The answer is that these athletes didn’t have everything. They didn’t have the right mindset.

In my research, I have identified two mindsets that people can have about their talents and abilities. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are simply fixed. They have a certain amount and that’s that. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, think of talents and abilities as things they can develop—as potentials that come to fruition through effort, practice, and instruction. They don’t believe that everyone has the same potential or that anyone can be Michael Phelps, but they understand that even Michael Phelps wouldn’t be Michael Phelps without years of passionate and dedicated practice.

Almost every truly great athlete— Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tiger Woods, Mia Hamm, Pete Sampras— has had a growth mindset. Not one of these athletes rested on their talent; they constantly stretched themselves, analyzed their performance, and addressed their weaknesses. Research has repeatedly shown that a growth mindset fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal setbacks, and significantly better performance over time.

Questions about Mindsets

Which mindset is correct?
Although abilities are always a product of nature and nurture, a great deal of exciting work is emerging in support of the growth mindset. Other groundbreaking work (for example, by Anders Ericsson) is showing that, in virtually every field—sports, science, or the arts—only one thing seems to distinguish the people we later call geniuses from their other talented peers. This one thing is called practice.

Are people’s mindsets related to their level of ability in the area?
No, at least, not at first. People with all levels of ability can hold either mindset, but over time, those with the growth mindset appear to gain the advantage and begin to outperform their peers with a fixed mindset.

Are mindsets fixed or can they be changed?
Mindsets can be fairly stable, but they are beliefs, and beliefs can be changed.

How Do Mindsets Work?
The Mindset Rules
The two mindsets work by creating entire psychological worlds, and each world operates by different rules.

Rule #1
In a fixed mindset the cardinal rule is: Look talented at all costs. In a growth mindset, the cardinal rule is: Learn, learn, learn! In our work with adolescents and college students, those with a fixed mindset say, “The main thing I want when I do my school work is to show how good I am at it.” Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, say “It’s much more important for me to learn things in my classes than it is to get the best grades.” They care about grades, just as athletes care about winning the game, but they care first and foremost about learning.

Our studies show that it is precisely because of their focus on learning that growth mindset students end up with higher performance. They study more deeply, manage their time better, and keep up their motivation. If they do poorly at first, they find out why and fix it. We have found that mindsets play a key role in how students adjust when they are facing major transitions. In a study of students entering an elite university, we found that students with a fixed mindset preferred to hide their deficiencies, rather than take an opportunity to remedy them—even when the deficiency put their future success at risk.

Rule #2
In a fixed mindset, the second rule is: Don’t work too hard or practice too much. In a growth mindset, the rule is: Work with passion and dedication—effort is the key. Those with a fixed mindset believe that if you have natural talent, you shouldn’t need much effort. The fixed mindset “naturals” never learn to work, so that when they later reach their limits, they cannot cope. From Michael Lewis’ wonderful book, Moneyball, we all know the story of the super-talented Billy Beane, who was a colossal failure in the major leagues because he didn’t think he should have to learn or try.
Those with a growth mindset know they have to work hard, and they enjoy it. They understand that effort is what ignites their ability and causes it to grow over time. I get letters from former child prodigies in many fields.
They were led to expect that because of their talent, success would automatically come their way. It didn’t. Recently, we conducted a small study of college soccer players. We found that the more a player believed athletic ability was a result of effort and practice rather than just natural ability, the better that player performed over the next season. What they believed about their coaches’ values was even more important. The athletes who believe that their coaches prized effort and practice over natural ability were even more likely to have a superior season.

Rule #3
In a fixed mindset, the third rule is: When faced with setbacks, run away or conceal your deficiencies. In a growth mindset, the rule is: Embrace your mistakes and confront your deficiencies. We have found over and over that a fixed mindset does not give people a good way to recover from setbacks. After a failure, fixed-mindset students say things like “I’d spend less time on this subject from now on” or “I would try to cheat on the next test.” Chris Hoy, the Scottish gold medal cyclist saw his specialty eliminated from the Olympics and had to reinvent himself. He did not sit and lament his fate or blame others; he got to work.

How Are Mindsets Communicated?
Mindsets can be taught by the way we praise. In many studies, we got very surprising results. Praising children’s or adolescents’ intelligence or talent puts them into a fixed mindset with all of its defensiveness and vulnerability. They didn’t want to risk their “gifted” label. Then, after a series of difficult problems, they lost their confidence and enjoyment, their performance plummeted, and almost 40% of them later lied about their scores.

What should we praise?
We found that praising students’ effort or strategies (the process they engaged in, the way they did something) put students into a growth mindset, in which they sought and enjoyed challenges and remained highly motivated even after prolonged difficulty. A focus on learning and improvement tells athletes not only what they did to bring about their success, but also what they can do to recover from setbacks. A focus on talent does not. We have also directly taught students the growth mindset. We have been developing a software program, called Brainology, in which students learn all about the brain and how to make it work better. Research has shown repeatedly that teaching students the growth mindset strongly enhances their motivation and their achievement. They can then work on fostering a growth mindset in their players who place an undue emphasis on fixed ability.

What about Coaches’ Mindsets?
Coaches themselves can have a fixed mindset, which may convey to their teams that they value natural talent above all. Research by Peter Heslin and his colleagues shows that business managers with a fixed mindset have qualities like this. A growth mindset coach is more likely to foster teamwork and team spirit. However, if athletes know that their coach values passion, learning, and improvement, these are things that players can work together to produce.

A growth mindset allows each individual to embrace learning, to welcome challenges, mistakes, and feedback, and to understand the role of effort in creating talent It is in this mindset, I believe, that they will nurture a new generation full of Olympic athletes the likes of Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin, athletes who love their sport and bring it to the highest level.
Carol S. Dweck is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New
Psychology of Success.