Henry Ford is reported to have said “Whether you think you can or you can’t you’re right”. This short quote highlights that your mindset can have a big impact on your actions. Your ability to learn and develop is dependent on you believing that with hard work, you can achieve. This is the difference between a growth and fixed mindset. If the children in your martial arts classes think that their abilities are fixed, they will often be reluctant to take on new challenges and learn new skills. Those with a growth mindset will be enthusiastic or even excited at the opportunity to learn something new.
The book popularising ‘Growth mindset’ (called Mindset) was written by Dr Carol Dweck and published in 2006. In 2017 Dweck rewrote her Mindset book to address the ‘praise problem’ due to people misinterpreting her research. As a consequence of the original copy of her book, people had wrongly taken to indiscriminately lavishing praise on their participants like it was a magic fairy dust that guaranteed motivation. Any praise you give should be specific, authentic and directed towards behaviours we want to see in the future. Ability is not something you can model but effort and process are. Praising effort and the process students use to learn skills, in conjunction with quality feedback, can give students more ownership over their own development. This is true even from a young age and can be facilitated by asking questions more than micromanaging their every move.
What is a growth or fixed mindset?
Growth mindset is the belief that with effort, we can improve our abilities and intelligence. A fixed mindset is the opposite and people with this mindset generally think that their abilities and intelligence are fixed and cannot be changed. These beliefs are formed from interactions with the world around us and the learning process starts early during our childhood years. This is why we like to introduce the principles of growth mindset in our youngest children’s martial arts programme.
It should be noted that people tend not to be fixed or growth mindset only. The truth of the matter is that people are usually a little of one and some of the other. What we are really interested in is their predominant mindset and what we can do to tailor our environment to foster a growth mindset. These people tend to prioritise learning over achievement.
10 benefits of a growth mindset
- Helps reduce stress
- Improves confidence in dealing with uncertainty
- Realigns challenges as opportunities to learn
- Students don’t chase constant attention and approval
- Improves self-regulation
- Builds intrinsic motivation
- Enhances self-esteem
- Helps develop reusable processes
- Opens students to feedback
- Helps develop resistance to mental health issues
Motivation and Growth mindset
Everyone has a definition of self. Those with a fixed mindset look to protect their ego by not taking on tasks they suspect they may not be capable of completing. A child with a fixed mindset would rather say “I didn’t try” than “I tried and failed”. The obvious problem with this is that you don’t know what you are capable of unless you test yourself. Someone with a growth mindset actually enjoys taking on new challenges, even if they are hard. A child with a fixed mindset is only likely to take on a new challenge if they feel they have a high chance of success. This research is in line with the findings of Self Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 1985) that suggests ‘competence’ as a facilitator of intrinsic motivation. It is our job as coaches to provide an environment that is a safe space to try new things and develop new skills.
As the saying goes “The magic begins at the end of your comfort zone”. We want children to be bold and creative in solving problems, confronting challenges and learning new skills. If they don’t attempt to learn ‘hard things’, they will never enjoy the benefits that come from constant development. While a child with a growth mindset would see a new challenge as an opportunity to learn, often the closed mindset child would only see a potential risk to their ego if they don’t get something right on their first attempt.
Mueller and Dweck (1998) carried out an experiment where a group of 9-12 year old students were given a problem-solving game. While somewhere praised for natural ability, others were praised for the effort they made. The students that were praised for their ability said they didn’t enjoy the task, were less likely to persist when the puzzles were harder and performed worse in subsequent tasks. The children praised for effort saw challenging tasks as an opportunity to learn, they persisted on hard tasks for longer and performed better at future tasks. 86% of the students praised for their ability asked how other students had performed in the task, only 23% of the students praised for effort asked this question. While competition between students will start to develop as they get a little older, where possible we want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn new skills.
Be careful what you focus on
In children’s martial arts programmes honesty is usually one of the core values we try to cultivate. In the same Mueller and Dweck (1998) study that reference in the ‘Challenge point’ section, 38% of the students praised for their ability actually lied about the number of the puzzles they solved while only 13% of the students praised for effort did the same.
In another study (Zhao et al., 2017), half of the students were told they had a reputation for being smart and then took part in a guessing game. Just this fact alone created a 20% swing in the number of students that took the opportunity to cheat when it presented itself. The students more likely to cheat included children as young as 3 years old. In the martial arts community, I have seen whole clubs so focused on winning that their students (and even more disappointingly their instructors) have often done everything in their power (including cheating) to get the win. While outcomes like winning may be important for performance programmes, it is more constructive to focus on effort and process with this younger age group.
So why is developing a growth mindset important to your martial arts classes?
Over the up and coming weeks, we are going to be talking about our student’s ability to preserver in the face of adversity, delay gratification and take responsibility for their own actions (amongst other positive psychological characteristics). Before any of that can happen, the students need to first believe that they can initiate positive change by dedicating time and effort to a task. This is the reason I wanted to write about growth mindset first. This is the first domino we want to knock over to help the students open up to future learning.
The discussion around if people’s abilities are fixed (nature) or developable (nurture) has been going on in sport and physical activity for decades. While both sides of the coin have research to back up their side of the story, most scientists agree that it is actually both. Even if you have the ‘right’ genes, they still need input from the environment to work. That said, research is currently showing that humans have more protentional for brain development and life long learning than first thought. We need to take advantage of this by creating an environment centred around learning so we can facilitate development.
You already know from my previous articles that your students will not all develop at the same pace. When you combine this with the fact that the students are pretty early in their development, you will understand that there can be large developmental differences between students. To cater for this, we tend to run our gradings for this age group a little differently. As already documented in this article, the children have little control of their achievements but what they are in control of their effort and willingness to ‘have a go’ at a difficult task. The requirements for our 3-4 and 5-6 year old gradings are that they simply get up in front of the other students and try their best at the activities and techniques we ask them to demonstrate. While I know this may rub some more hardcore martial arts instructors the wrong way, just give me a little more time to explain.
While I am against giving extrinsic rewards indiscriminately, the grading format I am suggesting does have test requirements, the only difference is that I am not going to penalise an underdeveloped 5 year olds because they can’t perform a turning kick as well as a 6 year old that is a little further ahead in his physical development. All I need to know is that each child stood up and performed in front of the others. If either child does not come into the grading room or refuses to take part, of course they don’t get a new belt and certificate. The main reasons behind these gradings are to model effort and build confidence.
The context of these gradings is that this is not the Olympics, this is a pre-martial arts system and we are talking about children between the age of 3-6. Yes, the gradings in our subsequent systems are different with tougher requirements but if you have learnt anything about MAPLE so far, you will know that our focus is on providing an age-appropriate martial arts programme.
We have talked a lot about developing a growth mindset in children, but it’s also worth mentioning that this is something that we should be looking for in our coaching staff too. While it is great if your staff members are technically and physically gifted, there are two aspects that come well before these attributes when selecting staff. These are that the coach cares about the students and that they are willing to learn what they don’t know. Effectively we are looking for coaches that care and have a growth mindset. Again, I know this may be a shocker to some of the hardcore coaches out there but children’s martial arts does not begin and end with technical excellence.