There is a common misconception in sports, that the greatest athletes in the world only ride their natural ability to succeed, they never have any problems or challenges, they never face any adversity or failure, and they are born with a high level of competitive advantage and mental toughness.
But all we see from a fan’s perspective is the end result. We see them performing to great heights on the National or World stage. We see them performing in high-pressure situations. We see the highlight reels and the high level of success they achieve and put it down to their ‘god-given talent’.
In fact, the phrase “natural talent” was born in the sporting arena. A natural talent is someone who looks, moves, and performs like an athlete without seemingly having to work hard. And since so many people believe this misconception to be true – many scouts, coaches, clubs, and organisations look for these types of athletes only to be let down when they never really achieve their estimated level of success. The truth of the matter is that their shortfalls have less to do with their physical ability and more to do with their mindset.
“Hard work will always overcome natural talent when natural talent does not work hard enough.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Stanford University Professor of Psychology Dr. Carol Dweck talks about two very different ways of thinking in her book ‘Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential’. They are the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their talents, abilities, and even intelligence are skills that have already been determined and therefore cannot be changed.
They are born with only a certain amount of ability that is it, so perseverance and effort aren’t high on their priority list. If individuals have to work hard it is because they don’t have talent and therefore aren’t good enough.
They believe that challenges expose talent (or lack of) and therefore should be avoided. If failure occurs, they look for others to blame. They place high importance on what others think of them, so feedback is taken incredibly personally.
Many athletes in a fixed mindset become so focused on looking and being talented that they miss their full potential. This mindset often creates inconsistent, emotionally charged athletes who are continually comparing themselves to others. This often results resulting in more fearful, hesitant, and limited performances.
On the other hand, individuals with a growth mindset perceive their abilities, talents, and learning as something they can grow and develop. They understand that with practice, instruction and effort, they can realize and strive to meet their full potential. They understand that the skill level is a result of hard work, and that mastery is the outcome of effort.
Athletes with a growth mindset perceive challenges as an opportunity to test themselves. They understand that they can learn from both positive and negative feedback so therefore challenges are something to embrace. Growth-minded athletes find that setbacks can be a wake-up call and can offer opportunities to learn and improve. But most of all, athletes with a growth mindset realize that effort is key and an essential trait to maximizing potential and achieving success along their athletic journey.
While the growth mindset still recognizes talent, it places more of a focus on developing and building upon that talent. This results in more open-minded, hard-working, calm athletes that are more coachable, which gives them a greater opportunity to squeeze every ounce out of what they are truly capable of.
Athletes with a growth mindset grow, achieve and learn far more than individuals with a fixed mindset. So as parents, coaches, or trainers we need to look at praising the effort of our athletes instead of only praising the end result of the athlete’s actions. Developing this way of thinking within the athlete, it helps them succeed not just in sport but in every other aspect of their lives as well.
In order to develop the growth mindset, it is important to understand how they can apply this type of thinking to the 2 major areas of sport:
- How they can apply the growth mindset in Preparation.
- How they can apply the growth mindset in Performance.
Here’s how to apply the Growth Mindset in Preparation to Sports Performance:
Practice and Repeat…
Since effort is an essential trait to the growth mindset and is important to understand how attention to detail, deliberate practice, and applying a blue-collar attitude to your sport is the key to fast-tracking development and success.
Every rep practiced is lodged into muscle memory, the central nervous system, and fast-twitch muscle fibres. As creatures of habit, the more you practice something the stronger it is lodged into your subconscious programming until it eventually becomes a skill you can perform on autopilot – a.k.a. a habit.
Put simply, if you are working harder and smarter at your craft than anyone else, you give yourself a higher potential of skill to meet in performance.
We all have a vision of the pathways that lead to the heights that we want to achieve. But many of us don’t account for the setbacks, adversity, challenges, and failure along the way. Many times when reality doesn’t meet expectations it opens up the gap of ‘stress’. The fact of the matter is that adversity is there to help us. It is the failure, setbacks, mistakes, and errors that give us clearer feedback on how to approach the same challenge the next time with a higher chance of achieving success. It is not that the challenge never gets easier, it is you who becomes stronger. Without adversity, there is no growth.
Nobody ever took a clean highway to the reality of their ultimate goal. It is filled with detours, roadblocks, and journeying off the beaten track. The greatest athletes in the world express an internal drive and commitment to overcome the challenges that navigating the elite pathways of sport assemble. According to research, it is not the challenge in itself that distinguishes the champions from the rest but the attitude towards the challenge that allows them to succeed.
“You don’t lose if you get knocked down. You lose if you stay down” – Muhammad Ali
Take Ownership and Accountability.
There is a level of humility that needs to be embraced to accept the imperfections that come with navigating elite pathways. We all want to perform to the best of our ability all of the time but the truth is, that is just an unrealistic expectation. Mistakes and failures are a big part of the journey. Without them, you cannot grow into the person you need to be to reach your ultimate goal.
Every part of this journey is earnt, not given. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. This means that there needs to be a high level of discipline and commitment to create consistency in preparation and work ethic. Some days you’ll feel great, other days you won’t – but success isn’t going to wait for you.
A fixed mindset athlete uses excuses and blame. A growth-minded athlete is accountable for their results. Nobody is going to do this for you. You get out what you put in. Accept responsibility for your actions, be accountable for your results, and take ownership of your mistakes.
Have Standards NOT Expectations!!
Most athletes have the mini-movie playing in their head pre-competition of achieving the perfect upcoming performance. While there is nothing wrong with visualizing how you are going to perform, it can create perfectionist expectations. Unfortunately, competition means that there are obstacles involved. For most sports, this involves other athletes. Each athlete has a different idea of how performance will play out meaning that the perfect performance rarely ever exists.
As mentioned above, it is the gap between expectation and reality that creates stress and can activate a fear state. A fear state is your mind trying to take control of the situation instead of you being in control of your mind. This often creates rigid, tentative, hesitant actions moving forward that affect your ability to maximize skill potential.
Having standards is a process-based thought process. It is controlling the elements of performance that are within the reality of your control and doing them to the best of your ability. It is not always going to give you the desired result, but it will create a high level of consistency in competition and activate your highest ability more often.
Add the Word “YET” to Your Vocabulary…
You will never know everything there is to know about your sport – Fact. And even if you feel like you’re getting close, someone will have found a way to evolve the game. This means you will always be a student of the game you love and have come to know.
There are elements of the game that you don’t know about.
There are levels that you haven’t reached and aren’t ready for.
There are skills that you’re no good at.
There are opportunities that aren’t meant for you.
There are opponents that you can’t beat.
There are highly regarded people in your sport that don’t believe in you.
You’re not strong enough.
You’re not fast enough.
You’re not skilled enough.
Pretty depressing huh?
Now add the word ‘yet’ to each of these sentences and recognize how each sentence changes the feeling within your body.
There is power in the word “YET”.
Preparation is a vital part of peak performance but it doesn’t always translate. A growth mindset applied to performance helps athletes focus for longer, giving them the highest chance of entering states of flow (or as we like to call it… being “in a zone”).
Here’s how to apply the Growth Mindset to Sports Performance:
Control the Process.
As mentioned above, it’s important to know where you place your energy and focus in performance. In the way you can become physically fatigued, when we place our thoughts into areas that are out of our control, we activate more of the negative emotions that can leave us feeling drained very quickly.
Understanding and being very clear on what you can control in your sport can help you stay in the moment. The ability to release the circumstances out of control allows for a much calmer, focused, more mentally balanced athlete. This allows you to be more locked into the most important play. This play.
Recognize Your Strengths:
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses gives you a better understanding of how you function. Your strengths are something that you can take advantage of to use to boost yourself forward.
When athletes simply focus on what they do well, they release the feel-good neurochemicals into the brain and in turn come to experience more joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. When athletes experience more joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction they become more consciously aware of the present moment giving them a greater chance of performing “in the zone” or inflow (i.e. the ability to see the game in slow motion).
There will be adversity, challenges, momentum swings, and errors in competition. These elements create a split focus. Instead, come back to the moment and use your strengths to impact the very next play.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” – John Wooden
Slow Your Breathing.
Our body can only ever be present. Our mind on the other hand has an ability to venture into the future and past as well, many times at a sub-conscious level. The best way to bring your mind back to the present is by focusing your thoughts on any of your senses. When the body and mind are in the same place at the same time, it creates a synergy between the two that reflects a state of flow.
A great way to re-focus, reset or bring yourself into the present moment is through the awareness of breath. Your breath is something you can see (the movement in your chest/abdomen), hear, and feel. The more you can slow down the internal naturally so does the external.
The greatest athletes of all time can perform in the present moment for longer. Activating the skillset they’ve drummed into the central nervous system, muscle memory, and body rather than from thought.
Our subconscious mind takes in around 11,000,000 bits of data per second. Our conscious mind – between 40-50 bits of data per second – probably even more in the midst of competition. Data is received through each of the five senses. With so much incoming data, there is a lot of information that can detract from our focus.
Your ability to focus on what’s important now increases your chances of performing at your best. Breaking the game down into achievable plays helps your mind stay locked into the present moment and in turn, get the best out of your ability. Your mind wants to achieve the most with the least effort. Unfortunately, that’s not how you win. Control your mind by moving on.
“Doing your best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” – Oprah Winfrey
In sports, we spend so much time on the physical. Pushing the body to be stronger, faster, and more resilient than ever. The fact is you can’t train your body to reach your limit if you don’t know what that limit is. Your physical ability can only take you so far.
Applying a growth mindset to sport helps you commit to excellence. Teach the mind to train the body, so that the body can reward the mind. Performance is about being as comfortable as possible. The fewer surprises, shocks, distractions, and adversity we experience, the more we can perform instinctually.
– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.