Developing athletes and coaches with a growth-oriented mindset

In sports, it is necessary to learn to react immediately to mistakes, building a work culture that views failures as an integral and non-eliminable part of the improvement process. However, it is not easy for athletes and coaches to accept this assumption even though everyone knows that mistakes are a constant in every performance. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect performance but only the one that is provided at a given time, an expression of personal or team limitations and how the typical as well as unforeseen obstacles present in every competition are dealt with. The relationship between performance, skill and error is investigated, in which the first factor depends on the interaction between the other two factors. To predict what the reaction to error or failure might be, it is important to know what an athlete’s motivation for skill is and what personal beliefs it is set on.

Does the athlete exhibit a growth-oriented approach to competition or has he or she developed a fixed conception of his or her sporting qualities? These two different approaches affect the reaction to an unsatisfactory performance in different ways. Those who exhibit a growth-oriented mindset are more likely to decide to try harder, spending more time and experimenting with new strategies. Athletes with a fixed conception of their mindset, on the other hand, will be more concerned about showing their shortcomings again and will engage less. Practical implications and how to orient athletes toward a growth-oriented mindset are discussed. In many cultures, there are sayings that remind us how important it is to learn how to react to negative situations and mistakes. For example, it is said, “When a door closes, a door opens,” while Americans like to repeat, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall, but how quickly you get back up,” and the Japanese state, “Fall seven times, get up the eighth.” These statements highlight that in order to succeed, one must develop a full awareness of how frequent it is to make mistakes and how equally relevant it is to react constructively. There are no shortcuts, for mistakes cannot be eliminated; one must necessarily make mistakes, as during an obstacle course in which one is aware at all times that it is possible to make mistakes, to slow down, to make a great effort to overcome an obstacle even if one is well prepared and knows the path. Then if this is the way to go, one must prevent mistakes from becoming alibis used to confirm to oneself the impossibility of overcoming one’s current limitations, with the effect of leading to a reduction in commitment, since “There is nothing to do anyway,” or “Yes, there would be a lot to do, but I am not talented enough or I am unlucky.” It is therefore necessary to build, through daily activity, a work culture that considers error as an integral part of the improvement process.

On the other hand, sport is a context in which the presence of errors is a constant in every performance, very often even in winning ones. In  shooting, the world record, hitting 125 out of 125 has been achieved 13 times in the past 25 years. On every other occasion, shooters have always made mistakes. In the sports of body coordination in space, there are very few times when an athlete, male or female, has achieved the highest score. In basketball, Michael Jordan said, “In my life I have missed more than nine thousand shots, I have lost almost three hundred games, twenty-six times my teammates entrusted me with the decisive shot and I missed it. I failed many times. And that’s why in the end I won everything.”

Also in basketball, in the EuroLeague only 8.5 percent of players make 90 percent of free throws, 35 percent make 80 percent, 32 percent make 70 percent of attempts, and 24 percent make less than 70 percent (Cei, 2018).

In soccer, everyone misses penalties from Roberto Baggio in the ’94 World Cup final to those missed by Messi, Modric, and Ronaldo at the World Cup in Russia. Despite this data, many athletes do not accept the possibility of making mistakes, in fact sometimes they are even amazed by them, “Because everything was going so well” or “Because I felt so good that I thought I could never make a mistake,” while other times the difficulty in accepting them emerges when the athlete is in the opposite situation, whereby he or she thinks, “It couldn’t have gone worse, that mistake caught me suddenly and I didn’t know how to react, I got confused thinking about what to do differently and from there it was a downfall.”

Both of these situations, one positive and the second negative, reported by athletes quite frequently, highlight the difficulty in accepting the mistake and not having planned beforehand a way to deal with what could have negatively affected performance.

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