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The mindset challenges that athletes face from increases in ability and expectation.

The blog is aimed at athletes, parents and coaches and will hopefully provide some food for thought for all concerned.


It centres around mindset.  One of the more prevalent areas of my work.  


Most of the mental performance issues that athletes face can be traced back to mindset, and a growth mindset is a buzz word in sport and education nowadays.  


But, do we really understand WHY a growth mindset is so hard to achieve and HOW everyone involved in sport (athletes, coaches, parents) can all play a part in shaping it?


To really understand mindset, the best way is to think back to the first time you started your chosen sport.  You might have been really young, you were probably keen to learn and you were definitely pretty happy to make mistakes.  After all, you were a total novice, and mistakes are part and parcel of learning.


So you step into your sport for the first time and you fail.  A lot.  If you’re a cricketer you probably missed the ball more times than you hit it.  If you’re a goalie, you probably let in far more than you saved.  If you’re a basketball player you probably double dribbled more times than you remembered to just bounce the ball with one hand.


Now let’s look at how each of our important parties reacted during and after that first time playing a new sport.


Athlete - Happy to fail, has lots of fun, keen to try new things (after all, it’s the first time they’ve done them!), learns at a really advanced rate.


Parent - Doesn’t expect the child to achieve much, so is just happy that they are enjoying their self.  Congratulates the child at the end of the session for trying their best and sticking with it.


Coach - Praises effort.  Makes the session fun (wants them to come back!) talks about all the ‘near’ successes and how you’ll get it next time.  


See, here’s the equation that we have (and it works parent, athlete and coach!)


Ability + Expectation = Mindset


Low Ability + Low Expectation = Growth Mindset


Athlete is happy to fail, parent doesn’t expect anything, coach doesn’t expect anything.  Athlete has a comfortable environment to fail, fail and fail again - after all, all of the praise they receive during this time is around effort.  “You tried so hard today”, “You’re getting so much better”.  Think about the question parents ask after these initial sessions? Did you have fun? 


The athlete has a fun environment with no expectation from their self or from their coaches or parents.  They are happy to fail and fail and fail again because they know that’s how they learn and improve.  It helps us create a natural growth mindset.


But what happens as our ability improves? Well firstly, so does expectation.


As ability improves, so does expectation.  Expectation on ourselves, expectation from our parents, expectation from our coaches.


Think what happens when the athlete starts to develop.  People start telling them they’re good, they start making teams - suddenly failure is avoided at all costs.  If I make a mistake people will think I’m not very good.  Coaches stop praising effort - instead the praise becomes mainly outcome based - “good save”, “great catch”, “good shot”.  No one really comments on how hard I try now, it’s all about what I do.


And what about parents, they see their athlete improving, competing with other kids - we want to see them do well.  We want to see them play at their best - failures don’t help my kid show their coach that they should be the staring player.


So suddenly with increased ability comes increased expectation - and that leads is straight to a fixed mindset.


High Ability + High Expectation = Fixed Mindset



Suddenly i’m in an environment where I don’t want to fail.  I don’t want to fall over, I don’t want to try something new - Why on earth would I do that? If I show what I can’t yet do i’m showing i’m not as good as people think I am.  No, I’,m better just practicing the stuff I’m good at and continuing to make people believe I’m great.  If there’s me and a guy competing for one position, why on earth would I want to show I can’t do something? Fixed mindset.


This is where our Fixed Mindset comes from.  High ability and high expectation (on myself, from my coach, from my parents).  


Failure doesn’t mean you’ve reached your limit.  It means you’re expanding your current limit.  Where I currently am isn’t my end destination.  The only way I am going to move up the ladder is to improve my ability, like really improve my ability and the only way I am going to do that is by failing - because failing means I am going outside of my current capability level.  I’ve got to stop thinking about expectation and think about process.  Push and get better at the process.  Yes I’ll fail, I might fail twice.  I might even fail thirty times.  But I will get it.  And when I do, I’ll be a better player than the one who refused to try and fail.


For the formula to work we simply need:


High Ability + Low Expectation = Growth Mindset.


Expectation hampers development.  We need to push ourselves, our athletes and our children to always develop their ability.  Yes they will fail, that’s where the low expectations come in - chase the little wins, not the big ones.  


What are expectations anyway? I want to play for England? I want my son to be the best player on the team? I want my team to win the league.  Guess what? You’re not in control of any of that, so why even think about it?  Focus on your own ability - where you are now has no bearing on where you will end up. The only way you increase your ability is to push your current limits and the only way to push your current limits is to get totally comfortable with failure.


So, parents - stop talking about outcomes - start getting back to praising effort and commitment - That’s the behaviour you’ll then drive.


Athletes - forget about your expectations - push yourself to get better every day.  High ability and low expectation will help you get the growth mindset you need.


Coaches - remember you are a stop on the road for all these athletes - Your job is to pass them on to their next coach in a better position than they come to you.  Keep praising effort and commitment, not outcomes.  


Failure is success in progress - Albert Einstein.


Give yourself and those around you the confidence to fail.  Trust me, you’ll see the mindset start to develop that you want to see.