The power of 'not yet'

All sport coaches should learn to teach the basics of their sport to youngsters. I coached swimming for over 30 years at highly competitive levels in the United States. But I also taught swimming to beginners, usually young children. Teaching at the beginner level helped me to understand the power of mindset and how a growth mindset allows a learner to overcome challenges and be successful. I'm convinced that people can learn anything they really want to and at the very center of this ability you will find a growth mindset.

Swimming teachers probably hear "I can't" more than any other teacher on Earth. "I can't go underwater." "I can't blow bubbles." "I can't jump into the pool." The litany of negative self-evaluations is long. But I remember once when I asked a 5-year-old if she could blow bubbles. She replied, "Not yet." It may not have been the first time I heard it but it was the first time I really thought about the answer and how it made that child different from others who simply said they couldn't do it.

The "not yet" answer implies a growth mindset. A student or an athlete who says they can't do something yet is saying that they are going to keep working at it until they can. This is the outlook needed for success in competitive sport and one that coaches and teachers have an opportunity to shape at the earliest levels.

How can we help children form this mindset? There is one way that is useful both in the classroom and on the playing field.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset, studies how mindset affects learning and performance. One of the interesting things she's found is that when children are praised for their effort they tend to persist at a challenge longer and are more willing to accept new challenges.

Praising effort rather than ability was key to developing the growth mindset. When praised for effort ("You really tried hard on that.") children were more likely to persist at a task until they accomplished it. Children praised for their ability or intelligence ("Oh, you're so smart!") had to protect this evaluation and thus were reluctant to accept further challenges for fear that they would fail and therefore change the teachers opinion of them.

By praising effort we are reinforcing behavior that we know will aid in developing whatever we are trying to teach, or help an athlete perform at a higher level. A child praised for the quality or level of their effort will feel the need to continue behaving in this way so that we continue to admire them for their effort. In other words, they will continue behaving in ways that will help them improve or learn, and they will look for opportunities to do this.

Now think about what the effect is when we praise children for their ability or intelligence. The child feels the same need to maintain our positive evaluation. But it is unlikely that they will seek new challenges. If they fail at something new our evaluation of their ability may change, thus they avoid new challenges. Both ability and intelligence are seen as 'fixed' commodities and trying to learn new things or accepting challenges may reveal that the child's' ability or intelligence is not really as good as we thought.

Take-away: When we praise effort we encourage a growth mindset. When we praise ability we encourage a closed mindset.

This has a huge impact on sport development programs. Ill-conceived talent identification programs reinforce a closed mindset and do nothing to raise the level of sport performance in a country.

But be honest!

While praising effort is the best strategy, honest praise about effort is critical. Not everyone works equally hard so it's important that our praise be based on actual effort. Simply saying "nice job" or "good effort" is meaningless unless it is based in fact.

Be careful to separate effort from result though. Sometimes no matter how much effort a student or athlete expends on a task the result will not be what we want. But that's OK. Remember, it's the effort to keep trying that will eventually get them there. And if you ever do hear an athlete or student report that they can't do something yet remember it because they are saying that they are right on track!