Goal Posts

Commentary on the complex relationships between motivation, performance, competition, cooperation, and goals.

I Know I Can’t, I Know I Can’t

How psychological mindsets affect motivation and performance.

Have you ever heard a child say something along the lines of, "I'm terrible at math!" or "I'm stupid"? How about a child who typically performs quite well, but often quits in the face of failure? These statements and actions reflect belief systems that can be crippling to our children. How can we help our children conquer these self-doubts?

Recently, I had a college student who is an excellent student tell me that she is terrible at math. As we discussed the truth of her claim, it became apparent to me that she was in fact quite capable of doing good work in math. When I asked her when she began to believe she couldn't do math, she initially was dumbfounded. After a few minutes of working our way backwards, it became clear to her that her 3rd grade math teacher had convinced her she was "bad at math". My student interpreted this as "You are bad at math now, and you always will be".

In the past two posts, we have examined the powerful roles of hope and optimism. Part of developing hope and optimism involves believing one can improve. In her superb book, "Mindset", Carol Dweck highlights the myriad ways that a growth mindset can benefit individuals in sports, school, relationships, and work. Dweck outlines two distinctly different mindsets:

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1) Fixed mindset - the belief that talent is fixed; we are born with a certain level of ability and that innate talent dictates our success

2) Growth/incremental mindset - the belief that talent is nurtured and is malleable; people can develop and grow their skills

Dweck reviews numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects of having the belief that one can improve. Dweck does not argue that ability is 100% innate or 100% developed; that nature-nurture debate has been waged for decades with no simple answer. Rather, Dweck argues that what is critical is the belief that one can improve. Kids (and adults!) who believe they can develop their skills stand a much better chance of actually doing so. As parents, how can we help to instill this growth mindset in our children?

In one study, Dweck and her colleagues (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck, 2007) told junior high students that the brain is like a muscle that can be developed and strengthened through practice. This simple but elegant explanation led these students to higher levels of motivation and better grades! All my student needed to hear in 3rd grade may have been a simple, "You can learn math if you work at it."

As parents, teachers, and coaches, we have the potential to impact our children in powerful ways. One of the simplest ways we can have a positive effect is by communicating to our children that they can get better and that temporary failures are actually tremendous opportunities for personal growth. Children who believe in this growth mindset will be happier, psychologically healthier, more motivated, and more successful!

 

John Tauer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas.

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