The nature vs. nurture debate is one that has divided sports fans for years. How are world-class athletes created? Are innate characteristics passed down the generations, through DNA encoded within genes — a fixed mindset? Or is practice, opportunity and an attitude to persevere, the recipe for success — a growth mindset?
Individuals who hold a growth mindset believe that intelligence, knowledge and mastery of a task develop through effort. Mistakes made en route to success are seen as small barriers, but more importantly, opportunities to improve. A growth mindset is often encouraged through effort-orientated praise from higher authorities to emphasise the power of practice:
“Let’s challenge you in a way you can learn and develop now.”
“Don’t worry about making mistakes, it’s about how you respond to them.”
On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset believes that task ability is set in stone due to the inheritance of genetic information. No matter how much effort and application is set on a task, when mistakes are made, that’s it. Nothing can be done. They deem themselves to lack talent due to their perceived levels of ability remaining stable.
Author of ‘Mindset’, Carol Dweck (1978), recruited 330 youngsters aged eleven and twelve to separate into two groups: fixed and growth mindset. Each pupil was given twelve problems to solve in order to earn a reward, individually chosen. The first eight tasks were simple, however the final four problems were much tougher in order to challenge their mindsets.
The majority of the fixed mindset group showed a decline in strategic performance levels during the last 4 problems. Their immovable beliefs meant that ability was to blame. They thought that innate qualities resulted in their failure to complete the task.
Such individuals believe that when people make comments such as, “he was born to play run,” and, “she has tennis encoded into her DNA,” they are 100% true. They think that nothing can be done to improve skill levels in a complex task. Yet, are they right?
80% of the growth mindset group improved their methods during the final 4 tasks and didn’t even realise they were failing. The enthusiasm and optimism that this mindset brings not only improves confidence and motivation levels but importantly, performance.
These studies and explanations have lead me to believe that there are correlations between growth mindset and task orientated individuals, while ego orientated individuals associate in nature with fixed mindsets. These reflections can be seen by comparing the following explanations with their associated mindset type.
Pensgaard and Roberts (2003) defined task orientated individuals as people aiming to show control and mastery of a complex task. They perceive their ability to be constantly fluctuating due to the variety of challenges and tasks life throws at us. Improving, working hard, learning and developing are words often used in the vocabulary of these intrinsically motivated people.
Whereas, ego orientated individuals (Pensgaard and Roberts, 2003) have been described as having an inflexible concept of ability. The major focus of these people is to gain a social advantage by exceeding performance levels of others.
This flow diagram (Nicholls, 1984, 1989) demonstrates precisely the associations I am alluding to:
This achievement behaviour chart outlines the cognitive stages which an individual progresses through.
It shows that when task orientated individuals confront a complex task, they perceive their ability to be irrelevant. In other words, they possess a growth mindset and find that they are able to adapt to a variety of tasks. Hours of practice are applied and failure is represented by another opportunity to improve.
Contrastingly, ego orientated individuals only find they are in a positive mindset when they possess high perceived ability levels. This is very rare due to their attitude. More often than not, low perceived ability levels in a situation dictate maladaptive behavioural changes. This results in mediocre performances and the proneness to drop out — prominent among those with a fixed mindset.
A study by Moser et. al. (2011) supported that a growth mindset develops intelligence and talent levels through effort. When this group made mistakes, they interpreted the errors as opportunities to learn. Following further attempts, an increase in accuracy was noticed. This marked their adaptability and remarkable similarity to task-orientated individuals.
Author of Bounce, Matthew Syed, sums this up accordingly in his book saying, “elite athletes don’t interpret failure as failure, but as a way of improving.” The interpretation of a mistake highlights the adaptive behavioural patterns of task orientated and growth mindset individuals.
Furthermore, Moser. et. al. (2011) sustained the comparative nature of ego orientated individuals and the fixed mindset. It was promoted that these groups regard intelligence and talent as stable factors. Vandewalle (2012) found that a fixed mindset prevents the reflection required to learn from an error during a task. This outlines the maladaptive nature of such individuals.
Associations are obvious between these groups, but how can a coach put an athlete on the road to success?
Well, effort-orientated praise is required through encouragement and guidance in order to develop task-orientated athletes with a growth mindset. As I have discussed throughout the article, this mindset is a key part of an athlete’s psychological and physical performance to complete mastery of a complex task.