Growth Mindset for Kids: Help Them To Reach Their Full Potential In School and Sports

If you’ve had a chance to read my prior posts, you’ll know that I read the book “Mindset” in an effort to help my kids with their mental game in baseball.  As a result, you’ll find that a lot of the examples I write about relate to baseball.  If you have a child that plays baseball, you’ll really appreciate this!  If not, the examples can all be easily translated to school or other sports.

If your kid plays baseball, do you wonder what’s goes through his mind while at the plate? While pitching?  If he strikes out does he hang his head?  Then, on his next at-bat, does he start swinging at high pitches and then takes the pitches right down the middle?  If he walks a player, does he mentally crumble and then every pitch after that is wild or in the dirt?

The mental game, in my opinion, is the most elusive component of the game.  You can watch loads of YouTube videos and send your kid to private hitting lessons.  But if he's got a destructive mindset at the plate, on the mound or in the field, private lessons and physical training isn’t going to help him.

What’s your child’s mindset like?  Does he only want to participate in the activities he’s good at?  Does he lose interest if something is challenging or unfamiliar?  Does he resist trying something new because he might fail at it?  Does he get easily defeated when he doesn’t show immediate aptitude for something?  If you’re nodding your head, your kid may be living with the fixed mindset.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

In case you didn’t have a chance to read my earlier posts, here’s a short recap:   the fixed mindset is believing that you’re born with a fixed level of smarts and abilities and that this really can’t be changed.  The growth mindset is the belief that your abilities can be shaped by hard work, effort, and attitude.

You’re a Natural

My son dislikes defensive practice.  He only wants to practice hitting.  Why?  He’s a better hitter than a defensive player and as a result, he’s always been praised for his hitting.  But he lacked the same enthusiasm for fielding.  Could it be because he thought he’d be seen as a failure if he had to actually work hard at practicing to be a better fielder?  Was this the fixed mindset at work?  

I recognized the fixed mindset in my son, and myself.  Without realizing it, I’ve delivered these fixed mindset messages to my kids:

“You’re lucky you’re good in math and don’t have to study.”

“You’re a naturally good test taker.”

“That kid is a genius.”

“Mike has a naturally good swing.”

“Some kids are natural athletes.”

Notice the above messages focus on natural ability and reinforce the belief that you are born athletic and/or smart. None of the above statements consider effort or hard work.

It’s all about the Results

Let's evaluate some other statements I've made, and the hidden messages behind them:

Me:  “You had only one hit out of three at bats today.”

What my son heard:  Why did you strike out twice?  You’re not a hitter.

 

Me:  “Why didn’t you get an “A” in History?

What he heard:  Smart students get “A”s. You're not one of them.

 

Me:  “You missed that easy ground ball today.”

What he heard:  How could you mess up that routine play?  You suck at defense.

 

In the three statements above, the focus is solely on the outcome/results and how it measures them.  Folks with the fixed mindset believe they're always being judged by their successes or failures. To them, failure doesn't mean they failed at something.  Sadly, it's internalized as “I am a failure”.

In short, the fixed mindset is limiting.  It's judgmental.  Your child can't realize their full potential if they aren’t willing to reach for the stars (a goal outside their comfort zone), are unwilling to work hard to get there, and are fearful of failing. 

 

Success is based on Personal Improvement

Here’s another example.  Amanda Beaman is a State Champion distance runner that attends ‘Iolani School here in Hawaii. She trained with the varsity squad as an eighth-grader. As a freshman, she placed 6th in the State, and has won the ILH Championships in her sophomore and junior years.  Earlier this year, she won the 3,000-meter race at the State Championships.

But Beaman wasn't always the fastest.  In fact, in the 7th grade, she joined the cross-country team.  There were four groups, with Group A having the fastest runners, and D with the slowest.  She started at the back of Group D.  

Here’s what she told Stanley Lee of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “I definitely think that I just try to improve every race.”  She continued on, “I go into each race thinking that this is setting the basis for improvement for next week.  I probably have more bad races, bad workouts than I do good ones.  When I do have the good ones, it’s very rewarding.  I run for that feeling of accomplishment.”4

She also said, "I think you just have to not focus too much on your competition.  I used to get caught up in: She's beating me, she's ahead of me and I'm usually ahead of her. I think ultimately you're racing the clock and racing yourself, and your competitors are there to push you to run faster times."4

This is the growth mindset at work here.  She has had more bad races and workouts than good, but that doesn't stop her.  She continues to train and work hard.  She showed an unfailing work ethic to get herself to where she is.  She measures success by improving week after week.  And she's learned to use her competition to challenge herself to better her own performance.  

Growth Mindset for Students

I read an article about a 17-year old young man named Moshe Kai Cavalin.  Moshe studied trigonometry at age seven, graduated from community college at age 11, and earned a B.A. in math from UCLA by 15.  He’s published two books and is currently working with NASA to develop surveillance technology for airplanes and drones.

Most people would say “He’s a genius”, which is the fixed mindset message about being born with a certain level of intelligence.  Daniel Judge, Professor of Mathematics at East Los Angeles College, who taught Moshe for two years, said: "I think most people just think he's a genius, they believe it just comes naturally.  He actually worked harder than, I think, any other student I've ever had."5

So, yes, Moshe is off the charts smart.  But he also worked harder than anyone else.

He wasn’t handicapped by the fixed mindset that would have discouraged him from working hard.  He didn’t just rely on his natural born intelligence.

Let’s listen to what Moshe had to say about his upbringing: “My case isn't that special. It's just a combination of parenting and motivation and inspiration.”  He continued on, “I tend to not compare myself that often to other people.  I just try to do the best I can.”5

Lesson #1: The messages we send to our kids can help to motivate them to achieve great things.

Lesson #2: Growth mindset = striving to be the best version of yourself.

So how can we improve the way we communicate with our kids to encourage the growth mindset?  


How to Teach The Growth Mindset

Have a Discussion With Your Child

First, have a discussion with your child.  Explain the growth mindset.  Tell him that you want him to be the best version of himself and that the growth mindset will help him to grow and improve.  Explain to him that in the past you’ve emphasized results such as grades, and in sports, the # of hits, # of errors, etc..  Explain that this will change.  

Explain that the focus is now on effort, hard work, and improvement to his own game.  Explain that although your emphasis will change, you’ll still express disappointment if he doesn’t show effort.  

Mistakes will happen but explain to them that they shouldn’t be afraid of negative consequences if they’re working hard.  For example, tell them that you won’t get upset if they miss a fly ball in the outfield, as long as they were 1) mentally in the game and 2) moving at the crack of the bat/first step back/getting a good jump on the ball.  But you’ll still be on him if he was daydreaming and took his first step in.

Reassure them that failure is not to be feared.  When discussing this with our kids, we’ve explained that failure is simply feedback on the way to getting it right; that it’s a necessary part of their journey toward success.  Help them to reframe their thinking about failure.  Talk to your child about your own struggles and failures, and what you did to overcome them.  Teach by example.

“Failure is only a temporary change in direction to set you straight for your next success.”

-Denis Waitley

 

Give Honest and Constructive Feedback

Now let’s look at how we can change our words to reflect our new approach to measuring success.  This will require you to be intentional about the way you communicate with your child.

Fostering the growth mindset doesn’t involve false praise or praising a child’s natural talents.  In the book “Mindset”, Dr. Carol Dweck reported that in their study of hundreds of children they discovered that “praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.”2  She explained, “the minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom.”  She stated that praising children’s brains or talent doesn’t give them permanent confidence.  In fact, it does the opposite.  “It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong.” 

 
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Instead, we need to work on giving honest and constructive feedback.  We’ve all heard the term “constructive feedback”, but what exactly does it mean?  Here’s a great definition:

“Constructive feedback is a tool that is used to build things up, not break things down.  It lets the other person know that you are on their side”.1 

As a parent, your role is to help develop and shape your child to be the best version of themselves.  The operative word is “build”, which means that you are working together, not against each other.  On the opposite end is using fear or intimidation to get results.  This method “breaks things down” and undermines your child’s self-confidence, self-image, and worthiness.  With a healthy dose of fixed mindset messages delivered in a negative way, our kids learn to doubt their ability to improve.

So ask yourself:  Am I giving feedback in a way that fosters learning?  Or is this feedback destructive and deflating to a child?  Am I on his side and building him up, or breaking him down?

Here are some helpful guidelines about constructive feedback:

  1. If you can’t think of a constructive purpose for giving feedback, don’t give it at all.
  2. Focus on description rather than judgment.  Describe the behavior by reporting what has happened, instead of judging the behavior.
  3. Focus on behavior rather than the person.  Refer to what the player does as opposed to what he is.  To help you do this, focus on using adverbs, which describe action, rather than adjectives, which describe qualities.  For example, “You weren’t getting your glove down today”, as opposed to “You looked crappy at 2nd base today”.
  4. Be aware of feedback overload.  Pick a few things to work on and move on.  Tomorrow is a new day.

After giving constructive feedback, remember to express support for your child.  Don’t forget this part!

 

Growth Mindset Advice for Parents

Let’s go back to some of the things we’ve said to our kids in the past.  And let’s see how we might re-word our feedback to be constructive.

What we’ve said:  “You were only one for three today.”

What he heard:  “I’m not a good hitter.”

Why it’s bad:  Focuses on the outcome and measurable results only.  Today’s game and today’s batting average defines him as a player.

What’s better:     “You didn’t swing at pitches in the dirt today.  That’s a great start”.  

Why is this better?:  Shows appreciation for improvement from his last at-bat.  Is specific, action-oriented, and doesn’t focus on the person.

Whats better:  “I saw you relaxing your hands at the plate today.” 

Why is this better?:  Shows he’s listening and trying new techniques learned at practice.

What’s better:  “I like how you ran it out to first when you popped up”. 

Why is this better?:  Shows “never give up” attitude.  Didn’t give up and jog when popping up.

What’s better:  “You didn’t get upset at the umpire today for the ball in the dirt that he called a strike.”

Why is this better:  He’s learning to take responsibility for his own decisions at the plate, and isn’t placing blame on others.

Then, you can start a discussion about how becoming a better hitter is a process.  He isn’t being judged on his performance in one game, and he isn’t being judged as a person.  His actions are the subject of the constructive feedback.

 

What we’ve said:  “I can’t believe you missed that routine ground ball today.”

What he heard:  “I suck at defense.”

Why it’s bad:  Judgmental.  Focuses on that one play as if that one play defines him as a player.

What’s better:  “I saw you getting better jumps today.”

Why is this better:  Focuses on improvement.  Action oriented and not an attack on him as a person.

What’s better:  “I saw you hustling to get in front of the ball today.”

Why is this better:  Shows improvement and executing on what is being taught at practice.

What’s better:  “I saw you getting ready on each play today.”
Why this is better:  Shows appreciation for improvement on mental focus from the past game, where he might have been kicking the dirt, standing straight up, glove under the arm, daydreaming, etc.

What’s better:  “You called out the play today.”

Why this is better:  Shows he is focusing on the game, knows the count and is demonstrating leadership 

Then, you can begin a discussion about his defense, and how he’s improving as a defensive player, but he’ll need to work on seeing the ball into his glove and work on his focus and knowledge of the game.

Praise what they did well and where they showed improvement and effort, while still being honest about the areas that they need to work on.  And if there were mistakes made, remember to focus on the action as opposed to reflecting on them as a person.  And don’t worry!  You’re still allowed to celebrate your kids’ successes; just be sure to tie their success to effort and hard work as opposed to innate ability. +

When we stress the virtues of hard work, perseverance, effort, and attitude, we are emphasizing the point that our intelligence and abilities are NOT fixed and can always be changed.  So, in short, emphasizing those values demonstrate to our kids that we can always work hard at becoming better at whatever it is we are doing.

Let’s recap the things we can do to begin living with the growth mindset:

  1. Change your own thinking to the growth mindset 
  2. Explain the growth mindset to your child
  3. Be intentional when communicating with your child; give honest and constructive feedback

I hope this has given you some food for thought, as well as some actionable strategies that you can use today!  If you found this post helpful, please share it with friends on Facebook or pin it to your Pinterest boards.  

Until next time....

 

Sources:

1.  Dweck, Carol.  Mindset The New Psychology of Success. New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.  Print.  p. 4.

2. Dweck, Carol.  Mindset The New Psychology of Success. New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.  Print.  p. 4.

3.  Dweck, Carol.  Mindset The New Psychology of Success. New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.  Print.  p. 99.

4.  Lee, Stanley.  (2015, September 15).  Leader of the Pack.  Retrieved November 11, 2015 from: http://www.pressreader.com/usa/honolulu-star-advertiser/20150915/282613146567705/TextView

5.  Binkley, Collin.  (2015, November 2).  2 Degrees, flies planes, author, works at NASA.  His Age? 17.  Retrieved November 11, 2015, from: http://www.staradvertiser.com/news/breaking/20151102_2_degrees_flies_planes_author_works_at_NASA_His_age_17.html?id=339335021

6.  Constructive feedback definition found at:  https://www.cabrillo.edu/services/jobs/pdfs/giving-feedback.pdf (web)

7.  5. Barker, Eric. time.com.  "How to Make Sure Your Kids Have 'Grit', Backed by Research".  Web.  22 March 2016.