Wins and losses. Game-winning three-pointers and clanks off the rim. Picturesque pick-sixes and blown coverages that part the Red Sea.
Regardless of age, level, or skill, sport is a journey often determined by outcomes. The good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.
Some of those outcomes result in perceived greatness; Stefon Diggs’ miraculous catch to send the Vikings to the NFC Championship in 2018, Maya Moore’s incredible 2013 campaign that led to Finals MVP accolades and a WNBA title for the Lynx, and Kirby Puckett’s legendary walk-off homer in game six of the 1991 World Series just to name a few.
Those are great..but many, if not most outcomes don’t lead to rings, trophies, and front page headlines.
No athlete will ever be perfect, and that’s okay; imperfection is what makes sport unique, fascinating, and beautiful. Yet how we learn and grow from those imperfect moments creates a well for untapped potential for athletes of all skill levels.
That untapped potential starts with a growth mindset.
Growth Mindset? Sounds Simple
It sure might, yet living out a strong growth mindset is often easier said than done.
While we cannot control past outcomes in sport, we can control how we react and grow moving forward. A growth mindset is the ongoing perception that every experience, good or bad, presents an opportunity to learn and grow.
Think of it like a roadmap; you’ve probably completed a road trip from point A to point B without any construction, detours, or missed turns. At the same time, you’ve most likely engaged in one that featured head-scratching traffic, missed turns aplenty, and a light show of check engine lights. Positive or negative, good or bad, both trips allow space for reflection, learning, and most importantly, growth for future endeavors.
Growth mindset measures an athlete’s ability to let go of mistakes and practice self-compassion when training and competing. True colors of one’s growth mindset are shown when outcomes arise, both good and bad.
“Growth mindset is having the mentality that there is always something to learn,” Premier’s Dr. Adam Gallenberg says. “Outcomes (successes and failures) will always be there, so framing those outcomes as opportunities to learn is being growth-minded.”
Again, sounds simple. Yet dealing with those no-so-great outcomes can be really difficult…especially in big moments and pressure-packed situations. That being said, an athlete’s response to experiences perceived as failures on the court/field/rink can serve as a gauge to measure growth mindset.
Let’s use an example; Bobby rushes a potential game-winning free throw late in the fourth quarter of his high school basketball game. He misses and sends the game into overtime. Instead of collecting his thoughts and moving on from the situation, Bobby goes into a flurry of negative self-talk and dwells on ‘how he let his team down’ in a crucial moment as the team prepares for OT.
Instead of entering overtime with a fresh slate and approach, Bobby continues to dwell on his missed shot, reciting to himself ‘we wouldn’t be here if I would have made my free throw.’ And while that may be true, dwelling on the past does no good for Bobby, his team, or Bobby’s chances of playing well in overtime.
Individuals with a strong growth mindset find ways to take lessons from their mistakes and let them go. They focus on what is within their control, and turn the page after unfortunate outcomes. Dwelling on previous mistakes keep an athlete from the present moment and the task at hand, two things that are essential to success.
Bobby’s frustration is completely understandable; no one enjoys falling short in the clutch. Yet failure always provides an opening for growth– in Bobby’s case, taking an extra moment at the free throw line to collect his thoughts would have increased the likelihood of his success; he’ll do that next time. By framing his mistake as an opportunity to get better, Bobby will not only have an easier time moving on from the situation, there’s a good chance he’ll feel calmer, collected, and confident next time he’s faced with a pressure situation.
Having the ability to reflect on mistakes to improve and grow on the field is important, yet so is acknowledging that those mistakes don’t define us as athletes or our worth as human beings. We all make mistakes, and it’s okay to acknowledge natural feelings that may arise as a result. Yet the true anchor of a strong growth mindset is the ability to move on from disappointing outcomes. We’re lifelong learners and even the most painful losses, silly errors, and botched plays provide an opportunity for us to grow and flip the page.
Tips for Improving your Growth Mindset
Awareness is everything when it comes to a strong growth mindset. Being cognizant of one’s thoughts in various situations allows athletes to compete in the present moment and act accordingly when difficult outcomes arise.
“Developing a growth mindset starts with being aware of our thoughts in any given moment and being intentional with practicing this type of awareness,” Gallenberg says.
Gallenberg even recommends setting random alarms on your phone throughout the day that pop up on your phone and asking yourself, “What’s on my mind in this moment?”
Little things can go a long way in untapping your best growth mindset. Here are a few tips that could help based on our research on athletic performance and overall wellness.
- Acknowledge ‘imperfect moments’ and try to reframe these imperfections as learning opportunities to search for ways of growth.
- Ex: Instead of unleashing negative self-talk on yourself after a missed play, think of times that you’ve successfully completed that play and recognize that you have the confidence and capability to execute it successfully once again.
- Swap out negative phrases such as “I can’t do this” and “I’m not good enough” for growth-oriented phrases such as “I’m going to overcome this” and “I’m improving a ton at this skill.” A strong growth mindset requires the ability to let go of negative thoughts and treat oneself with compassion, even when expectations aren’t met.
- Focus on things within your control and let go of things that are not. While you can’t control past results, how your opponent plays, or where you play in the lineup, you can control your attitude, effort, and approach to dealing with negative outcomes.
- Find mechanisms that work for you when it comes to moving on from mistakes. Some athletes will even use physical motions/mechanisms, such as ‘flushing the toilet’ with their thumb to remind them that it’s important to move on in the moment and reflect on how they can grow from their mistakes.
- Even in the most stressful situations and moments of the season, be sure to take care of yourself off the playing field. Prioritizing mental health during intense training is critical to a strong growth mindset.
- Chasing excellence is great, but expecting perfection can cause frustration. Athletes with a strong growth mindset do not expect perfection and are not afraid of failure.
- Rome wasn’t built in one day. A strong growth mindset emphasizes that growth is a process; Working towards achieving measurable short-term goals will set an athlete up for success in the long run.
- Remember that mistakes will happen, some may even be out of your control. More importantly, always remember that mistakes do not define you as an athlete or human being.
To measure your own growth mindset and performance profile, try Premier’s Athletic Wellness and Performance Assessment.