As you watch an athlete perform, it is quite clear, they either have what you want or they do not. Although objective for a coach, the experience of an athlete as being talented is subjective. From an athlete’s perspective, the vital question is, ‘Am I born with talent or can I work to become talented?’ In recent years Carol Dweck (2006) has proposed that an athlete’s answer to such a powerful question is his or her mindset towards learning and success. Specifically, mindset is defined as an athlete’s belief about oneself and ones most basic qualities, such as talent, intelligence, and personality.
From the literature, two types of mindsets have surfaced. On the one hand there is a category of athletes who believe that basic qualities are fixed – as if genetically predetermined. With a fixed mindset the belief is, ‘I was born talented, therefore I will always have talent.’ Such athletes relinquish control of developing with the notion that practice has no relationship to performance success, rather it is an arena where basic qualities and skills are proved to others. Two quick and easy ways of proving oneself is to:
- Compare performances to others
- Seek praise from coaches or professionals
On the contrary there is a category of athletes who believe that most basic traits can be fostered through hard work and dedication. Known as a growth mindset, the belief is, ‘If I practice, I can become more talented.’ These athletes assume control of their skill development and are therefore better able to:
- Problem solve
- Persist through setbacks
Although both types of athletes are capable of performance success, the findings suggest that those with a growth mindset are able to develop at a faster rate. One possible explanation was provided by researchers in the field of neurology who found that mistakes are actually vital to the development of skill circuits (Coyle, 2009). Nonetheless, those who believe in growth are more likely to persist through errors and accept mistakes as part of the developmental process. They find joy in analyzing their skills and working hard to make changes.
On the contrary, if you were faced with an athlete who has a fixed mindset, you would find that it is difficult to teach new skills and techniques. These athletes need to stop often – whether it is due to frustration, sadness, anxiety, or fear – because any errors or mistakes are seen as a reflection of who they are as a person. In other words, performing bad means ‘I am bad,’ or losing a game means ‘I am a loser.’ Additionally, these athletes experience roadblocks more often because daily situational judgments are made in black and white, i.e. I succeeded/failed, I am fast/slow, I am the best/worst, etc. When there is no middle ground – or shade of grey – and the athlete is not performing well, then confidence and motivation decrease.
The way an athlete approaches a sport and the development process is extremely important, maybe more important than judging observable talent. From experience as a mental skills consultant and a soccer trainer for youth, I believe firmly in Dweck’s (2006) research as I feel that I can often determine an athlete’s mindset within one training session. Once established, I know the speed at which this athlete can develop and keep my mind open to the great heights one can achieve. In fact, I had the pleasure of coaching a young athlete with a strong growth mindset helping him to develop from recreational soccer to Division 1 Premier.
Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.