Mindset in training encompasses a myriad of mental techniques and strategies such as meditation, visualization, counselling, and hypnosis. All of them pursue a single goal: helping the athlete cope and thrive amidst the mental stressors of training and competition. The pursuit of the right mindset is rising above nutrition, periodization, and even recovery in its astronomical rise in popularity amongst the athlete population. It’s fast becoming clear that the mental side of training is just as important as the physical.
Your mindset is critical to your training success. (Photo: Rx’d Photography)
In her groundbreaking book, Dr. Carol Dweck outlines decades of research that proves mindset is a fundamental requirement to expressing our true athletic potential. Dweck identifies two discrete mindsets in which humans approach tasks, goals, and achievement: the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that characteristics and qualities in a person are set in stone and can’t be changed or improved. The growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that qualities are cultivated by effort: they can be changed, so human potential is limitless.
There are five acute stumbling areas for athletes that best show the expression of the two mindsets. Let’s take a look at them together – and see if you can’t recognize yourself amongst them.
Athletes in the fixed mindset tend to avoid challenge, as they feel it risks discrediting their natural ability. Being in a fixed mindset means that failure is absolute. Getting pinned under heavy weight isn’t just a missed lift – it’s evidence that the athlete is not naturally strong, and therefore never will be.
Conversely, a growth-minded athlete sees a challenge as an opportunity to get better. When Michael Jordan got cut from his high school varsity team, his mother challenged him to go back and discipline himself. Jordan responded by rising before 6am every day to practice before he went to school. And I think we can all agree that his response to that challenge turned out pretty well for him.
When confronted with a setback, a fixed-mindset athlete becomes very anxious. They meet their fear of inadequacy in obstacles and tend to blame their failures on them, rather than any shortcomings on their part. Dweck uses the example of a young John McEnroe blaming his biggest losses on the tennis court on everything from crowd noise to not feeling well and being a repeated victim to outside forces.
Dweck then stresses that an athlete with a growth mindset doesn’t let obstacles slow them down, and points out that there are examples dotted throughout sporting history. For example, despite pneumonia, scarlet fever, and a bout of polio partially paralyzing her leg, Wilma Rudolph won three Olympic gold medals and was hailed as the fastest woman on earth in the 1960s.
There is nothing a fixed mindset athlete hates more than effort. Effort means that the task doesn’t come naturally to them, which is an affront to their natural capabilities. Fixed mindset athletes like tasks they can complete right away and with ease.
A growth-minded athlete sees effort for what it really is: a necessity to the path of mastery. They recognize that they may be the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen but they won’t rise to the top without effort.
Endowment will only take you so far until you need to forge effort to realise it to its fullest potential. Look at Chris Spealler. He was 5’5, weighed 143lbs dripping wet, and demolished hundreds of other athletes twice his size to qualify for the CrossFit Games seven times.
Criticism produces one of two reactions in the fixed mindset athlete: internalized feelings of uselessness, or an aggressive denial of the criticism or the person providing it. Spoiler alert: neither are terribly useful in the long run.
A great Russian dance coach named Marina Semyonova used criticism as a way of selecting her school’s students. She devised a trial period for her dance school in which she measured students’ responses to praise and correction. If they reacted positively, they stayed. If there were any tantrums or kickbacks, out they went.
Semyonova and many other coaches like her recognized that the best athletes grow from both positive and negative feedback and adjust their training accordingly. They climb the ranks quicker, as they address their weaknesses and move past them.
5. Success of Others
The success of others should be inspirational, not demotivating. But that’s exactly how an athlete in the fixed mindset feels.
When I started weightlifting, I would trawl Instagram for training videos of weightlifters like Mattie Rogers like it was my job. Seeing Rogers lift heavy weight with ease and grace should have fired me up, but all I could feel was how it reflected on me. What I failed to recognize was how hard she worked to get there. Rogers has only recently stopped living at her gym, and freely admits she does nothing else but train. I didn’t see that. Like so many others, I saw incredible performance and assumed she was just born like it.
After reading Mindset, what I see now is an incredible amount of work on Rogers’ part. And through that, I see my own opportunity for growth. That is the growth mindset encouraging motivation via the success of others.
Your Mindset is Your Choice
It’s up to you. You can either see the athletic population as a series of mammals who won or lost a genetic lottery, or an enormous testament to the value of self-belief and determination. I know which one I prefer.
Do you have a growth mindset, or a fixed mindset? A seemingly small adjustment to your training approach could be all that stands between success and failure in your sport.
More on mindset, goal-setting, and the psychology of training:
1. Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. (Robinson, 2006)