For Superstar Young Athletes, Only Their Mindset Can Stop Them

By Dan Peterson

Amazing young athletes have been going viral lately.  Did you see the video of the 11-year-old star of the Downey Christian high school varsity basketball team, who recently performed at halftime of an Orlando Magic game?  How about the 9-year-old girl running around and over the boys in her youth football league, who was invited to sit next to Roger Goodell at last month’s Super Bowl?  Then there’s the 10th grader who is currently starting for the Erie Otters, a major junior hockey team with an average age of 19, whose agent is Hall of Famer Bobby Orr and who NHL star Sidney Crosby compares to himself.

Julian NewmanSam GordonConnor McDavid
These young YouTube sensations, Julian Newman, Sam Gordon and Connor McDavid, have all been dealing with the crush of recent media attention thanks to their incredible athletic skills.  Certainly, there are more like them across the country waiting to be discovered, but the stories of these three give us a chance to look behind the highlights for similarities and clues of early athletic achievement.  According to two new studies, it is all about their mind-set.

To most kids, making their high school varsity basketball team when they’re only in 6th grade and 4’ 5” tall would sound impossible.  Many young girls (and their parents) wouldn’t think of playing in a boys football league assuming they could never compete.  And a 16 year old hockey player is often told that the odds of him ever playing in college or the pros is a long shot unless you were born with just the right set of skills.

Carol Dweck, Stanford University psychology professor, calls this a fixed mind-set, believing that the skills you were born with define the upper limits of your success in life.  Conversely, those students with a growth mind-set are driven by their desire to learn new things and look at failure as just part of the process.  A fixed mind-set dwells on performance goals; only trying new tasks that they believe fall within their innate gifts. A growth mind-set thrives on learning goals and can’t wait to take on the next challenge even it means a struggle.

Growth Mindset - Dweck

Click to enlarge graphic

In most cases, researchers believe we can thank our parents for giving us our current mind-set.  Two new studies have confirmed that how parents praise their children can have a lasting effect on how their kids face new challenges.

Dweck and a team from Stanford, Temple and the University of Chicago videotaped mothers with their toddlers at ages 1, 2 and 3 as they accomplished everyday play activities.  Some moms used what the researchers call “person praise”, saying things like “you’re so smart” and “you’re good at hockey.”  Other moms used “process praise” with phrases like, “you figured it out” or “you learned how to make that shot.”

Five years later, the team revisited the kids and asked them if they would like to tackle some tough learning problems like math or complicated skill movements.  As expected, those kids who had been praised with fixed “you’re smart” phrases were afraid to try new challenges in fear they would fail, ruining their reputation for being “smart.”  On the other hand, process-praised children took on the new tasks knowing their only failure would be to not try.

“What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with,” Dweck said. “’You’re great, you’re amazing’ – that is not helpful. Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing.”

Their research was just published in the journal, Child Development.

Praising the wrong way seems intuitive to most parents.  In a similar experiment, Dutch researchers asked 357 adults to write down the encouragement that they would give to six different children, three with high self-esteem and three with low self esteem, for completing an activity.  Sample descriptions of the hypothetical kids were either, “Lisa usually likes the kind of person she is” or “Sarah is often unhappy with herself.”

The adults used person praise twice as often as process praise for the low-esteem children.  “Adults may feel that praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem, but it might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed,” lead author Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University said. “When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.”

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Eduardo Briceño, Co-Founder and CEO of Mindset Works, a company that helps schools and teachers adopt the growth mind-set, explains Dweck’s research in this recent TED talk:

Connor McDavid clearly has a growth mind-set.  Sherry Bassin, general manager of the Otters, described McDavid’s attitude in a recent USA Today article, “First guy on the ice for practice, last guy off. He just loves it. He’s like those doctors who can’t leave the hospital for 18 hours. He is honing his skills like a top surgeon.”

As for Julian and Sam, if they see walls in front of them, they have learned to either dribble or sprint around them.

Be sure to check out Axon’s Athletic Brain Trainer apps for iPad.

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