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.


The Debate: Development vs. Winning

An often debated question in youth soccer is whether it is more important to develop talent or win games?

A common situation that I have experienced in my many years of being involved in youth soccer happens at the youngest ages of the game.  We will call this "The Winning Scenario."  Let's take the U9 age group as an example.  As a coach if I want to win most games, I put the player that can kick the ball the farthest at central defender and my fastest player at striker.  Obviously, the defender will kick the ball the length of the field and the speedy forward will sprint past everyone and score on a breakaway.  This may happen three or four times per game, and the team will win most of the time.

Now let's look at "The Development Scenario."  I have the same players lined up in the same positions, but instead of coaching the defenders to kick the ball up the field as far as they can, I tell them to control the ball with one touch and find a short simple pass with their second touch.  With this scenario my team loses most of their games. But which scenario is best for kids?

The Winning Scenario:  This strategy will work for players at U8, U9, U10, and U11.  When they reach U12, they will struggle because these players will not have learned how to play the game of soccer.  They will have simply learned to kick the ball hard and run fast, getting by on their athleticism alone. After U11, when they come up against teams that have learned to pass and create space, they will end up chasing the game the entire time and most often lose.

The Development Scenario:  This strategy only works if the club has created the right culture.  What this means is that the Director of Coaching and individual coaches have clearly communicated the plan for development to parents and kids.  The challenge is to get players to stay with the development scenario even when the team loses most games.  What does it take to convince parents that a coach is doing the right things and that in a few years the team will win the large majority of games--communication.

Communication is critical to implementing the Development Scenario.  First, the Director of Coaching must have the credentials that show that he or she knows what he or she is talking about.  Second, there should be some record of the development model working.  Now I understand that this is not possible in all cases which means that the Director of Coaching and individual coaches must communicate their ideas repeatedly.   Once a club decides to coach for development, coaches must not waiver and get sucked into trying to be more competitive. It is important to stay the course and let the development model work.

So which approach is best for kids? Personally, I always opt for The Development Scenario, but as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, very few coaches, directors, and clubs actually stay true to this plan.  We are all naturally extremely competitive so it really is no surprise that people have trouble sticking to it.

Can you?