Too often I speak with young high school or college student-athletes who have adopted a fixed mindset for their athletic abilities, study skills, intelligence, and so on. This mindset develops over years and years of reinforcement that they are smart because they receive A’s or that they are a “good” or “successful” athlete because they score goals or points or win on a regular basis. As long as this type of thinking is reinforced, children and adolescents begin to believe that their characteristics or capabilities in school or sport (i.e., being “smart” or “good”) is dependent upon outcomes that are beyond their control (i.e., scoring goals, winning, getting A’s or high test scores). What happens, then, when young student-athletes experience failure for the first time? In their minds, anything less than an A in school means that they are not “smart”.

Likewise, the inability to meet certain performance standards (goals, points, hits, stroke average, etc.) or win a match or game leads to the belief that ‘I am a failure.’ The good news is that we can help foster a growth mindset in young people, but we must take the time to educate them on a few simple principles. Here are tips for parents and coaches in developing growth mindsets in their children and athletes.

  1. Reward and reinforce individual effort and improvement – this will help shape their belief that success is largely determined by the type of effort put forth, not necessarily just physical prowess, talent, or intelligence.
  2. Teach and implement learning strategies and new skills – again, help young minds understand that like effort, the types of strategies and skills that are implemented matter in the process of reaching outcomes. Also, be sure to provide time and encouragement for learning and appropriate feedback.
  3. Provide accountability, feedback, consequences – this is important at the team level, as well as the individual level. If effort and learning are reinforced, it must also be communicated that lack of effort and closemindedness are hindrances to personal improvement.
  4. React to failure as a way to provide feedback and reemphasize focus on effort – ensure that your children and athletes understand that failure is valuable feedback for improvement. Remind them that often in sports and in life, wins and losses will be outside of their control – their focus should be on the controllables (thoughts, effort, attitude, behaviors).
  5. Design practice and individual sessions for novelty, variety, diversity, and interest – this will keep them engaged, and variable practice will force them to use more strategies and to experiment with new skills. Keep it fresh!
  6. Emphasize learning – have regular discussion with your children or athletes following practices and games on what they learned that day. Teach them how to evaluate, not criticize, their performances in school and on the field based on their effort, focus, attitude, etc. Help them see that learning leads to long-term success.