The Power of Mindset in Sports

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first ever college soccer experience, a scrimmage against the perennial powerhouse UCLA at our home field at the University of Portland. I was subbed into the game with 15 minutes left, and I remember thinking "Oh crap. I have to go against Carlos Bocanegra" who even at that time was a formidable opponent. He was already a star with the US U-20 National team and a stalwart in the heart of the UCLA defense. Long story short, I went into the game as an inexperienced freshman against one of the best college players in the game, and I did nothing. He completely shut me down.

The next day I was asked into my coach, Clive Charles's, office. I was terrified. I had no idea how he was going to react. What he said to me changed me forever. It was so simple and elegant that looking back on it now, I still marvel at his genius. What he said was this,

"Well, I have good news and I have bad news.  The bad news is that you played like crap.  The good news is that you never stopped running.  That work rate is something that I cannot teach.  However, I can teach you how to work effectively."

From that point on I knew that as long as I worked as hard as I could each and every day, I was going to receive praise from my mentor. It was this kind of praise that I consider a dominant factor in why I was able to have so much success in soccer.  I was not the most talented player on the field, but I knew that I could out work anyone.  I believed that if I worked harder than everyone else, I would be able to make myself a much better player regardless of the natural talent anyone had.  I believed that I could make myself better.

This line of thinking falls directly in line with a very popular debate that is going on right now regarding mindset.  The debate is based on research by Stanford University Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck and focuses on the Fixed Mindset vs. the Growth Mindset.


The Fixed Mindset

Having a fixed mindset means that a person believes that is or her skills and intelligence are set and cannot be changed.  A fixed mindset leads to an emotional player who is constantly comparing himself or herself to others.  This creates a rigid and fearful athlete who is limiting his or her potential.

People with a fixed mindset generally believe:

  • Skills are something that a person is born with
  • Challenges are something to avoid
  • Challenges can reveal a lack of skill in an area
  • Perseverance will not help
  • Effort is unnecessary
  • If a person has to put effort in, it must be because he or she is not good enough
  • Feedback should be taken personally
  • When failure happens, it must be the fault of others


The Growth Mindset

A growth mindset means that a person believes that his or her skills and intelligence are things that can be developed and improved.  Someone with a growth mindset is able to share in the successes of others and win or lose with class.  This way of thinking leads to a hard working, calm, more open minded athlete who is coachable and able to reach his or her fullest potential.

People with a growth mindset believe:

  • Skills come from hard work
  • Skills can always be improved
  • Challenges should be embraced
  • A challenge is a chance to test one's self
  • Effort is the most important trait
  • Effort is the basis for mastery
  • Feedback is something that you can learn from
  • Feedback helps you make a better product and identify areas in which to improve
  • Setbacks are a learning moment
  • Setbacks are viewed as a wake up call


This video describes more about fixed vs. growth mindsets.  Although it is not related to sports, the principles apply.