Carol Dweck (2016), Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, observes that an individual’s mindset – how they perceive failures and obstacles – dramatically impacts their endeavors. She goes on to state that “Exceptional people seem to have a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future successes” (p. 11). Essentially, Dweck’s research outlines two types of people; fixed mindset people and growth mindset people. Contextually speaking, a fixed mindset athlete assigns blame, make excuses, get defensive and ignore useful feedback. A growth mindset athlete, on the other hand, embraces challenge, views setbacks as motivating, and learns from failures. Dweck examines a number of former high-profile athletes, including John McEnroe and Michael Jordan, to highlight the differences between the two mindsets.
John McEnroe was a Fixed Mindset Athlete
John McEnroe, a fixed mindset athlete, “could never stand the thought of losing…in 1979, he played mixed doubles at Wimbledon. He didn’t play mixed doubles again for twenty years. Why? He and his partner lost in three straight sets” (Dweck, 2016, p. 100). For the fixed mindset athlete, failures are unacceptable, fruitless, and detrimental to their self-esteem. As a result, they are likely to quit, assign blame or make excuses for why they lost. Dweck notes that McEnroe never took ownership of the losses or failures he encountered on the tennis court:
It was never his fault. One time he lost a match because he had a fever. One time he had a backache…One time he lost to a friend because the friend was in love and he wasn’t…One time it was too cold, another time too hot. One time he was undertrained, another time overtrained” (p. 36).
Michael Jordan was a Growth Mindset Athlete
Fixed mindset athletes do not thrive in the midst of challenging circumstances. Michael Jordan, on the other hand, was a growth mindset athlete; he embraced his failures and used them as fuel for becoming better. Jordan “was cut from the high school varsity team…He wasn’t recruited by the college he wanted to play for… [and] He wasn’t drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him” (pp. 85-86). Yet, these setbacks did not deter Jordan, on the contrary, the challenges Jordan encountered made him work harder. After becoming a global basketball phenomenon, Jordan put it best when he said,
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed (Zorn, 1997).
Growth mindset athletes, like Jordan, demonstrate resilience in adversity and they use setbacks as opportunities to become better and stronger competitors.
Athletes Should View Failures as Opportunities to Grow
Nick Foles, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the 2018 Super Bowl, is another example of a growth mindset athlete. Foles, who started the season as the backup quarterback for the Eagles finished the season by leading the franchise to its first National Football League (NFL) championship, describes his approach to failures and the process of growth:
Failure is a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes…I think when you look at a struggle in your life, just know that it’s an opportunity for your character to grow (Reyes, 2018).
Athletes with a growth mindset embrace setbacks as motivating and informative, and according to Dweck, “Those with the growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning and improving. And this is exactly what we find in champions” (p. 98). In addition, Dweck’s understanding of the growth mindset parallels Coach Wooden’s (1910-2010) secret of success:
For most of my life I have believed that success is found in running the race. How you run the race – your planning, preparation, practice, and performance – counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort…Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable. (Wooden & Jamison, 2005, p. 8).
Similarly, Anshel (2016) believes that trial and error are often the very ingredients for success in life and in sports.
“Failure should be a useful experience, but it is useless if performers [athletes] do not learn from the experience…feeling comfortable with failure requires forgetting about traditional interpretations of failure” (p. 159).
Both the growth mindset and the trial and error disposition highlight that failures are simply events; they should never become the building blocks of an athlete’s identity. With the right perspective, the athlete can use failures to ignite a passion for learning, growing and for developing their skills.
Anshel, M. H. (2016). In praise of failure: The value of overcoming mistakes in sport and in life. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Reyes, L. (2018, February 5). Nick foles ‘not worried’ about future despite carson wentz’s impending return to eagles. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/eagles/2018/02/05/nick-foles-2018-contract-philadelphia-eagles-carson-wentz/306676002/
Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Zorn, E. (1997, May 19). Without failure, jordan would be false idol. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-05-19/news/9705190096_1_nike-mere-rumor-driver-s-license