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Key Ways Parents Can Use Sport to Develop a Growth Mindset in Their Child

Our mindset determines the way we learn, what motivates us, our approach to adversity, and has a huge impact on our development as human beings. Understandably, as parents, we want our children to form positive, productive mindsets that will underpin a lifetime of participation, hard work, and fulfilment in whatever activities they pursue. As parents, we also appreciate that the actions we take, and the opportunities we give them, during these crucial years can dramatically influence the type of mindset that they develop.

In this article, we discuss the growth mindset — what it is, and why we should help our children to embrace the principles that underlie it — and how parents can use sport to help our children develop growth mindsets that will benefit them across all aspects of their lives.

What Is a Growth Mindset?

Before discussing how we can use sport to help our children develop a growth mindset, we should take a moment to learn what a growth mindset is. The concept of mindsets, first developed by internationally renowned psychologist and Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck, states that a person’s mindset is their perception of intelligence, talent, and ability — namely, whether these qualities are innate and unchangeable, or traits that can be developed. Expanding on this, Dweck presents two contrasting types of mindset: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The defining difference between these two mindsets is that people with a fixed mindset do believe that our abilities are natural, and not things that we can earn or hone; growth mindsets, on the other hand, promote the idea that our abilities can be improved with effort.

Other notable characteristics of fixed and growth mindsets include:

Fixed Mindset

  • Views failure as permanent.
  • Likely to take critical feedback personally and negatively, and often ignore it.
  • Tends to choose easier tasks and contribute less effort.
  • Quick to give up when tasks seem difficult.
  • Unlikely to take creative risks.
  • Often threatened by the success of peers.
  • Fixates on measurable accomplishments and outcomes.

Growth Mindset

  • Views failure as an opportunity to learn.
  • Considers feedback a valuable tool to aid improvement.
  • Embraces more challenging tasks.
  • Appreciates difficult tasks as opportunities to experiment and problem-solve.
  • Sees creative risk-taking as vital to improving.
  • Inspired by peers’ success.
  • Focuses on a journey of ongoing development.

Ultimately, a person’s mindset will affect their motivation and willingness to learn, their perception of competence and sense of self-esteem, their levels of resilience and determination when facing (and hopefully completing) tasks, and even their feeling of autonomy. Dweck’s research has shown that, consequently, people with growth mindsets enjoy more positive developmental outcomes and higher levels of achievement.

A child’s perceptions of their own capabilities can have a huge impact on the direction of their life. So it’s inevitable that we want to help our kids develop a mentality that values learning and hard work, embraces challenges, and fosters positive character traits and a healthy sense of identity. Sport can offer invaluable opportunities to do this.

Helping Kids to Develop a Growth Mindset Through Sport

The potential for sport to help individuals build character and identity is gaining increasing recognition. As Dr. Ralph Pim, international character development and leadership expert, explains, “Sport is a perfect vehicle to help someone gain self-confidence, develop friendships, and learn life skills. It also provides a setting to teach about respecting others, working hard, and becoming more resilient.”

LIkewise, sport provides a great environment for helping kids to develop the components of a growth mindset. Below, we examine some of the ways parents can use sport to help instil a growth mindset in our children.

Teach Your Kids about Growth Mindsets

A crucial step in helping kids to develop a growth mindset is teaching them what a growth mindset is (and why it’s important). After educating ourselves, we should look to share this knowledge with our children, using terms and language that they can understand and relate to.

We can also empower kids by telling them about the human brain — informing them that the actions they take will impact how their brains grow, and that hard work will make their brains stronger — thus reinforcing the principles of a strong mindset.

Once we’ve helped our children to understand and value a growth mindset, we can use cues to encourage them to ‘practise’ their mindset when participating in sports. We can do this simply by reminding them to ‘turn on their growth mindset’ when we drop them off for practice, and affirm it by recognising when they ‘turned it on’, either after practice or at the end of gameday.

Prioritise Processes over Results

A central tenet of a growth mindset is prioritising the learning process, not the outcomes it produces. As parents, we can help impart this value to our children by placing them in sporting environments that value effort and learning over results.

We may also find that certain sports, such as rock climbing or surfing, are typically more process-driven than invasion games like football or rugby, and therefore seek to give our children experience of multiple sports and values systems.

Further to this, we should try to place our children in programmes where there are enough participants (of varying ranges of ability) to adequately group athletes based on ability and experience, and thereby provide every individual with an appropriate balance of challenge and success.

Think about the Language You Use

The way we communicate has a profound impact on the type of mindset our children develop. For example, while many parents and coaches are naturally inclined to praise athletes, that praise is often directed at outcomes. Instead, we should try to use positive affirmation  — the process of praising things like intention, effort, and discipline. We should also be mindful to avoid social comparisons; instead of comparing children to one another, try comparing them to their own past performances.

Another powerful addition to our vocabulary is the word ‘yet’. Instead of letting our child say “I can’t do that,” remind them to believe that “I can’t do that yet.” This technique is simple, but constantly reinforces the principles of a growth mindset. 

Redefine Success

Redefining success for our children is another way to shift their focus from outcomes to the learning process, and help them to prioritise their learning journey.

We can start by promoting the idea that failure is a learning opportunity, thereby encouraging our kids to take risks and try new things in all areas of their lives, including their sporting environments, without fear of making mistakes. We can even underline this principle by talking openly about our own mistakes and the lessons we’ve learned from them.

To go further, we can encourage and celebrate self-reflection by asking our children to think honestly about which things went well and which didn’t after each training session and/or gameday. We might even invite them (or work with them) to set themselves small, frequent developmental goals, and then reflect on whether they have achieved them. By focussing on the attempt, not the outcome, we can use these challenges to give children confidence and a sense of their own progress, as they gradually see themselves doing things that they couldn’t do before.

Remind Your Children That Development Isn’t Linear

Finally, we should reassure our children that development isn’t linear, and discourage them from comparing themselves to their peers.

In most sports, childhood success is a poor indicator of adult success; differences in levels of experience are often more pronounced among younger children, kids undergo their growth and maturation phases at different ages, and individuals develop at different rates. So it’s vital that children don’t place unnecessary pressure on themselves or damage their motivation by comparing themselves to others.

As parents, we should remind our children that the important comparison is with themselves. All that matters is that they’re trying their best and continuing to improve. And just because they aren’t at a certain level now, it doesn’t mean they’ll never get there.

The Value of Sport in Helping Children Develop a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset perceives qualities like intelligence, talent, and ability as changeable; an individual with a growth mindset will believe that they can hone and improve key attributes through hard work and effort, and is therefore likely to enjoy greater developmental outcomes and heightened levels of achievement.

As parents, we can help our children to develop a growth mindset by teaching them why a growth mindset is important; promoting intentions and effort over outcomes; using positive affirmation instead of praise; and redefining success so that they are prepared to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. This will, in turn, help them to become better learners, cultivate healthier forms of self-esteem, and generate the motivation to participate and try hard in whatever activities they pursue.

By placing our children in sporting environments that embrace these principles, we can reinforce the development of a growth mindset that will benefit them throughout their lives, both in and away from sport.

In Summary

  • A growth mindset perceives traits like intelligence and talent as things that can be developed and improved through hard work and effort.
  • Individuals with a growth mindset are generally better learners and more adept at overcoming challenges and adversity, possess greater resilience and improved work ethics, and thus usually enjoy better developmental outcomes.
  • We can help our children to develop a growth mindset by valuing the learning process instead of results, embracing failure as a learning opportunity, and carefully choosing our language to reflect this.
  • Positive affirmation — the process of praising things like effort and intentions — is key to encouraging a growth mindset in children.
  • In the right environments, sport can be a powerful tool in helping kids to develop a growth mindset.

Image Source: Canva

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