Growth mindset: Gimmik or growing impact with age grade athletes?

After some recent strong pushback surrounding an area of research and theoretical ideas I favour, which are being tested in education, sport and other industries, I decided to remind myself about growth mindset and where these opposed ideas were possibly coming from.

Reminding ourselves to start from a quotation from Carol Deck, what is a growth mindset?:

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

When addressing for education (or sport for my sake and concerned interest), it is believed and discussed that whether a student or athlete holds a fixed mindset or growth mindset significantly impacts their learning experience. It’s perceived that age grade athletes or young students that hold a fixed mindset give up when they can’t solve a problem and admit defeat. This can be detrimental to future efforts and believed to lead to limited growth. As described by Dweck (2015), “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”. With a growth mindset, students continually work to improve their skills, leading to greater growth and ultimately, success. The key is to get students or athletes to tune into that growth mindset!


Back to the recent pushback mentioned, the article reviewing the effectiveness of growth mindset within education sector described how a study of more than 5,000 Year 6 pupils found growth mindset lessons made no difference to maths or reading results ( . The research found that pupils who were taught after their teachers had been on the Changing Mindsets project, delivered by the University of Portsmouth, made no additional progress to those in a control group. The Changing Mindsets project involved teachers attending a one-day training course on mindset theory and evidence – they were also given materials and training to run weekly lessons and activities on mindset theory with their pupils for around two hours a week over eight weeks. These eight sessions covered themes such as the meaning of intelligence, dealing with mistakes and emotions and inspirational people. In addition, teachers aimed to embed the growth mindset approach in their everyday class activities. Earlier research had found some "promising results" but the new evaluation, which was carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, found that pupils who had been part of the project did no better in the Sats tests in reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) and maths at the end of Year 6 than those who were not part of the project.

However, on the positive side, when the ideas of growth mindset were embedded in practical workshops with pupils, children gained an extra two months’ progress compared with similar children not involved. Today’s report said that the lack of a measurable impact of the Changing Mindsets programme on pupils may be due to the widespread use of growth mindset theory – with most teachers in the comparison schools (that did not receive the intervention) familiar with it and more than a third having had training days on growth mindset, creating a “murkiness in the water” for strength of research data (something we all know painfully about). The report also addressed age and maturity may be a factor for a lack of impact in this study - saying that older pupils may be more able to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, know when to seek help and how to process feedback, than 11-year-olds.

My questions around this research are as follows:

  • Have the techniques created an interest, desire or aptitude for learning and extending the student’s ideas and beliefs to English, Maths or other subjects as a result of the practices?

  • What do these ideas look like to older and/or younger students whom are presented with similar concepts and techniques?

  • Did the 11 year old students fully understand that they were looking for development over perfection; improvement over grades?

  • Were the students asked did they learn from others success or different methodologies or solely focused on outcomes and subject related grades?

Like suggested, growth mindset is exactly that; a mindset, not a quick fix solution or broad paint brush to offer passion and resilience to development for all athletes or students. I believe on adopting a growth mindset, athletes are accepting or acknowledging "failures" as part of development which help the person and program grow if we learn and grow from mistakes made. Like suggested, it’s helping students or players find their own path and preferred methodologies for overcoming “bumps in the road” or difficult periods of development. While we may not directly see a boost in grades or subject specific success, we are going to develop resilient and passionate people whom embrace challenges, display effort to pursue mastery and learn from personal setbacks, other’s success and feedback offered; can we agree that these are traits we want instilled in our children, students or athletes or are we focused on intelligence determined by SPAG and maths results?

Looking at positive growth mindset in HP sport atmospheres, Wimbledon winner Simona Halep talked about how she vowed before the match to forget entirely about Williams and focus only on the ball and on fighting for every point, embracing the challenge put before her and displaying persistence against her previous 1-9 record against Williams:

I have learned that it’s a normal match, not thinking that much about the trophy, just going there and try to be the best as you can.
I still work hard for every day, every match, every tournament. That’s why I was able to win this tournament now in this moment.
I always been intimidated a little bit when I faced Serena….She’s an inspiration for everyone and the model for everyone

And Halep was able to just that — fight for every point rather than fight against Serena — by running down sharply angled shots and sending them back in kind. The longer the rallies went, the better Halep’s chances as Williams tried over and over to finish points with overcooked winners that sailed out of the court. Her mindset, learning from previous encounters and displaying high effort and dedication in her victory.


Reviewing different areas and ideas around this research, I wanted to consider how we interact and encourage students or athletes affects their attitudes toward development. I believe a positive, growth mindset is the difference between a age grade player giving up because they’re “playing out of position” or similar reasons against a progressive, productive struggle that yields growth and intrinsic drive. But a growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Dweck (2015) writes, “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.” Being sport specific, players aligned with task involvement goals, whom judge their competency through self-referenced targets or goals, are recognised as evoking high effort to obtain mastery and continually improve personal performance. Their ability and effort is not differentiated by others and the perceived ability is self-determined and success only realised when mastery is achieved. Ego involvement or orientation shows athletes more concerned with their evaluation against normative standards and recognise success as measurement against others, which is now infinity more conman in the world of social media, when performing as equal as others with less effort; therefore, not displaying striving for mastery or being focused on task. I believe meaningful connections is a key area overlooked here, having teachers whom are fresh to a teaching style and methodology they have only partially explored plus having large classrooms where they may not have the level of contact desired. I believe teachers and coaches should engage on a sincere level and teach our young athletes or leaders to do likewise. We can assist as coaches or supportive educators by encouraging a growth mindset through personal practised humility, both teaching and encouraging optimistic self talk with the athletes and supporting emotion free mistake making to encourage exploration and development as opposed to seeing mistakes as harmful or problematic.

What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act or inspire? How should our coaches act and help influence or support these young athletes at a critical stage of development and can we offer them what they want or need? Encouraging young athletes and leaders to adopt a mastery approach to competency would encourage them to positively perform the task to the best of their ability and to self-regulated standards while attempting to continually learn and improve on an interpersonal level. Encourage a passion for learning and application, meaningful communications and relationships, support to choose and make autonomous decisions, following instinct while offering honest feedback on performance and support for a growth mindset; all things we must educate, support and train to others. Sport specific, I perceive breaking the drill based, linear forms of coaching methodologies while allowing for and embracing collaborative exploration of talents and interests within sports or practice designs shall help develop growth mindsets and positive attitudes to learning and development. The development and growth of compassionate and democratic environments through autonomy supportive behaviours, athlete centred practices and more organic view towards development and methods of skill acquisition shall allow athletes to maintain engagement and collectively develop diverse talents, according to their interests and current skill levels, all attributes which align with growth mindset ideals.

Coaches or teachers within player’s environments need to identify what enhances a player’s interest, looking at areas such as why participate in sport, what constitutes success in students or athlete’s eyes and in terms of learning context alongside what motivational impact is recognised when athlete is offered enhanced knowledge and strategic skills support. Coaches could acknowledge inspirations, responses and preferences of elite or specialising athletes, understanding player’s motivations or behavioural tendencies and offer them the competency, autonomy and relatedness within their practice design they desire. As I have mentioned before, I believe coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Therefore, coaches could adopt ideas from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where this theory has the coach standing as a recognised more capable other to the athlete with their requirement being to engage in contextual collaborative and learning relationship with athletes to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance.

Again, I stress that I believe growth mindset is exactly that; a mindset, not a quick fix solution or broad paint brush to offer passion and resilience to development for all athletes or students. I understand these ideas and applied techniques for developing a growth mindset is a life long process yet I believe there is great benefits for my children or athletes to prioritise learning over seeking approval, cultivate a sense of purpose and acknowledge and embrace weaknesses for long term personal development….hopefully this has offered ideas in contrast to recent completed study and published articles.