What do you think scouts and coaches look for as a primary attribute in evaluating athletes?  Most often the answer is “talent.”  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.

Can You Play College Sports?

Take the 4 minute quiz to see if you have what it takes for NCAA sports.

On the one hand there are athletes who believe that their basic qualities are fixed – as if genetically predetermined.  With a fixed mindset athletes think, “I was born talented, therefore I will always have talent.”  In this case, practice has no relationship to performance success.  Since talent or intelligence is fixed from birth, the predominant concern of these athletes is to prove their basic qualities.  Two quick and easy ways of proving oneself is to compare performances to others or seek praise from coaches or professionals.

Other athletes, however, believe that their 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 whereas those with a fixed mindset feel that an external force is in control.  At the most basic level, when an athlete feels in control of their performance, they are better able to problem solve and persist through setbacks.​

Although all athletes are capable of performance success, why do some achieve more than others?  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).    In congruence with these findings, athletes with a growth mindset acknowledge and accept mistakes as part of the developmental process.  They find joy in analyzing their errors and working to fix them.​

On the contrary, athletes with a fixed mindset make performance judgments in black and white: I did good/bad, I won/lost, I succeeded/failed.  If successful, a fixed mindset towards talent is nourished.  If unsuccessful, an athlete’s beliefs are contradicted and feelings of failure and disappointment thrive.  As a result, when mistakes are encountered for an athlete with a fixed mindset, performance setbacks or walls will be experienced more often.

So why is mindset so important to success in athletics?  It's useful to determine an athlete’s motivation to perform.  Are they doing this to be a better athlete, or to be praised for being good at something?  The theory of mindset offers cues in helping to understand an athlete’s motivation to perform.  With a fixed set of beliefs, an athlete is motivated to prove oneself and receive praise. Whereas with a growth mindset, the motivation is to work hard, develop, and persist.  These basic motivating factors have a fundamental impact on an athlete’s sport enjoyment and success as well as his or her career longevity.

Author: Amanda Ferranti

Graduate/Former Player: Princeton University 

References

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.