Think about the last time you complimented an athlete you coach, or the last time you heard another adult compliment a child. Did that adult say something along the lines of “You did such a great job! You are a natural” or “Well done on that math test! You are so smart”?
My guess is that it would not be hard to find examples similar to those, but is that the best way to compliment a child? Carol Dweck, Ph.D. of Stanford University would say it is not the best way and might be counterproductive. Dr. Dweck argues that when we compliment kids on a good performance with phrases like “such a natural” or “being so smart” we are establishing what she calls a fixed mindset.
In a fixed mindset, traits such as intelligence or athletic ability are immutable or “fixed” and cannot be improved, so we spend time measuring them rather than developing them. Dweck says that, in doing so, the kids who are not successful begin to believe that no matter what they do they cannot improve. Thus the thought becomes: “If intelligence or athletic ability is something you are born with, then why should I work to develop it?”
When kids are told they are smart or talented, then too often they believe they do not have to put out effort. This mindset also gives underperforming kids an excuse not to get better, “Well, I am just not smart.”
Dr. Dweck counters the fixed mindset with the growth mindset. Basically, we want to send messages that instill a belief that one can improve and that getting better at math or fencing involves effort. Effort is something that each person has complete (or at least a lot more) control over. Rather than praise the “talent” of an athlete, recognize and verbalize the hard work and effort that went into achieving that outcome. Rather than saying: “You did well on that history test. You are so smart,” try “All that hard work and studying you did to prepare for that test paid off.”
The fixed mindset of praising “talent” can also keep an athlete who perhaps has been at the sport longer than others or matured early from seeking to get better: “I am talented so I do not need to put in effort to get better.” If a young fencer is constantly praised for his or her talent, then the motivation to challenge oneself to get better might be reduced. The athlete might think that he or she is so talented and does not need to work hard to master skills. What may (and likely will) happen down the road is that the fencer will encounter someone who is equally gifted, but also worked hard to master skills. Another aspect of the fixed versus growth mindset is that the fixed mindset can be a little insulting to an athlete. Let’s say you have an accomplished young fencer in your club who is winning a lot and an adult tosses out the “she is so talented, a natural” statement. Well the fencer might be thinking “You have no idea how many hours each week I put in at the club and also in conditioning. It is not talent; I am working my butt off.”
Praise the effort and hard work the fencer has put in. When a fencer wins a bout (or a tournament), say something along the lines of “I saw how hard you have been working the past few weeks to get ready for the competition and that hard work paid off.” This sort of praise can reinforce the hard work and effort.
A key point to add is that when you praise an athlete (or your child or partner), the praise needs to be specific. The general “good job out there today guys” is a poor way to praise. If your fencing group did a good job paying attention during the lesson and were not disruptive, then praise them on their effort in paying attention during the lesson.
It is easy to look at athletes who have accomplished great outcomes in sports and think about them as being “naturals,” but I am willing to guess that for every hour they compete they spent many more hours in training and preparation that goes unnoticed to the public. Let’s praise the effort that went into the outcome.
When you are ready to praise an athlete, take a moment and choose your words carefully. Will your praise nurture the growth mindset? Learning to give praise is this way requires effort on your part as a coach (or parent). You might lapse into the traditional way of praising. If that is the case, acknowledge it and add in growth mindset language. Then praise yourself for the effort in working on changing.
If you want to learn about Carol Dweck’s concept of the growth mindset, you can visit https://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/.