Mental fitness is one of the key pillars of sports performance, and growth mindset is a key aspect of improvements in both mental fitness and overall sports performance.
The term ‘growth mindset’ was coined by Professor Carol Dweck, a psychologist in the USA.
Growth mindset is part of Professor Dweck’s ‘mindset theory’- this postulates that mindset is broadly divided into ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’.
Growth mindset describes the belief that our skill and ability is not set in stone. With hard work and dedication, we can learn from challenging situations and continuously develop. Utilising a growth mindset involves valuing the journey as much as the destination.
At the other end of this spectrum is ‘fixed mindset’. This describes the belief that our potential is fixed and predetermined, that we have minimal if not no control over changing it. Fixed mindset is very outcome focused. If the end result is not a success, it was a waste of effort.
Professor Dweck discusses her mindset theory in great detail in her book ‘Mindset’, including applications to various areas of life.
Growth and fixed mindsets exist at opposite ends of a spectrum. In reality, it is unlikely that any person spends 100% of their time in either camp. If we are to grow and develop as athletes, the emphasis needs to be on spending as much time in the growth mindset as possible.
The main issue with fixed mindset in sports performance is that it is, by its very nature, a limiting belief. Fixed mindset does not value the contribution of hard work, dedication and consistency.
How do you know whether you are in a growth or fixed mindset? The most straightforward way to determine this is to develop awareness of your thoughts. Particularly when you are approaching a challenge, or experiencing failure.
If your thoughts are predominantly negative in nature, e.g., along the lines of ‘why is this happening to me’ or ‘it wasn’t my fault that I failed’ then you are most likely in the fixed mindset.
The aim is to change the approach to something that fosters an environment of continuous growth and development. Instead of the fixed mindset thoughts above, they would be more like ‘it’s ok that I failed, I can learn something for next time’ and ‘it is never too late to learn’.
Five-time Crossfit Games champion, Matt Fraser, was well known for his insatiable appetite for identifying what he could do better next time. He did this on several occasions despite large margins of victory. He has also attributed his great success in part to failures in previous games.
We have established that a fixed mindset is going to limit your athletic development, and your sports performance, so how can we change our mindset? Here are a few things to consider.
Awareness is the starting point, if you don’t know where you are currently you will struggle to know where you are going. Cultivate a habit of awareness of what your thoughts are like. What is your inner voice saying? Is it mainly positive or negative? Spending a short period of time each day meditation may help with this. If meditating is not your thing, try going for a walk. Consider keeping a diary/log of your thoughts to look back on. Only once you are aware of your thoughts can you begin to address them.
Manage your thoughts
Now that you are more aware of your inner dialogue, it puts you in a position to change the way you talk to yourself. Challenge negative thoughts with evidence, do they have any basis? How is it helping you? Visualisation can be used here to ‘file’ away unhelpful thoughts with no basis, rumination on the past or unnecessary worry about the future.
Make self-development a priority
Spending too much time in your comfort zones can lead to stagnation. Consider how you can always be improving by 1% in each aspect of your performance. These small gains accumulate over time.
Values and beliefs
Know yourself. Understand what is important to you in life. This is important if making changes to your approach, to make sure that these proposed alterations don’t lead to internal conflict. There are various ways to do this, the simplest is to spend some time writing down words that resonate with you as being important e.g. friends, family, honesty, business etc.
Make action the default setting
Stagnation and procrastination have a lot in common. If in doubt, action should be your default. You don’t need to have decided what the whole journey looks like. Just get started and adjust course as you go. Do not fall prey to ‘analysis paralysis’.
Be grateful for what you have
Closely linked to self-awareness, it is important to develop a habit of gratitude. Spending some time each day, or at least once each week, will help to develop a habit of positivity. Positivity is more closely associated with a growth mindset.
Perform regular post-mortems
As per the Matt Fraser/Crossfit example above. Be appropriately critical of your own performance, in training or in competitions. What went well? What went less well? Appreciate the things that went well, but also look for areas to work on. How can you progress these 1% at a time?
Manage your environment
Your environment has a huge influence on how you think, and how you think determines how you feel and behave. Being around negative people or negative exposures will have a significant impact on how you perform in day-to-day life. Minimize the time you spend in the company of negative people and negative environments in general. Social media in particular is a hot bed of toxicity, if you allow it to be. Limit exposure to social media platforms, and apply liberal use of the block and mute functions to maintain control of the environment.
When something negative happens, reframe it. Instead of ‘why did this happen to me’ make the default response ‘what can I learn from this?’.
Respond, don’t react
My key lesson and an important takeaway. In daily interactions, try to make this your mantra. The speed of an emotional response far exceeds that of your rational brain. An emotional response to a challenging event is highly likely to appear before you have even registered it. Be ready for this, introduce a pause and allow your rational mind to catch up. Always aim to respond from a place of rationality rather than a knee jerk reaction.
Personal Development Coach at Cheviot Personal Development, with a special interest in Mindset for Performance.
Andy is also a GMC registered specialist doctor in Emergency Medicine with interests in Sports and Exercise Medicine and Medical Education, currently living and working in South East Scotland.
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