Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

fixed mindset vs growth mindset

How a growth mindset helps build great athletes.

We see certain athletes that can get through numerous obstacles, but how are they doing that? What allows them to work through practices, failures, learn new skills and continue to grow? It all comes back to their mindset, and mentally how they are working through these obstacles.

There are also those athletes that are incredibly skilled and talented, but seem to have the mental resilience of a peanut. They seem to crumble with any setback or pressure that comes their way.

It all comes back to their mindset, and mentally how they are working through these obstacles.

How do you help build the right mindset in a young athlete? We want them to strive, to compete, to work hard, but we don’t want their entire self-worth tied to winning or losing.

RELATED: Discover the Secret Elite Sports Organizations Know About Building Champion Athletes.

Mindset and learning

A really powerful answer comes in the concept of a “growth mindset” as proposed by Stanford professor Dr.Carol Dweck. The premise is that there are two basic mindsets that people use in the “talent” paradigm, fixed and growth.  A fixed mindset can limit effort and development while a growth mindset can enhance it.  Importantly, a growth mindset can be taught and fostered.

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that talents and abilities are “fixed” by genetics, chance, or other circumstances, and can’t be changed through any means.  They believe they are born with a specific amount of talent. In their mind failure at a task or skill is proof they don’t have enough talent.

People with a fixed mindset often resist challenges that could results in failure because they don’t want others to see this “proof” of lack of talent, or don’t want to acknowledge it themselves.  Challenges are viewed negatively, not as a chance for growth.

Growth Mindset

On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset believes that their actions and efforts can change their abilities. Basically, they believe working at something can help them get better. Because of this a failure or set back aren’t proof of their inferiority, but a natural part of learning.

Practical Mindset Coaching Take-Aways

  • Praise effort not ability.  This is critical in working with young athletes. It relates directly to the point below.
  • Teach that skills are primarily learned through work, not through talent. I thoroughly believe there are minimum thresholds of “talent” you need to succeed in sports. Still, after almost 20 years of coaching I have seen so much talent wasted on individuals who give up because they don’t have a growth mindset. Teach them this directly. Dweck talks about the impact teaching this topic has on college students and their success rates.
  • Create an environment where it’s rewarded to push your limits even when you make mistakes. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give your athletes. Freedom to make good mistakes. Mistakes that occur when they are trying to use the right technique, or a good strategic idea, or a creative play. There are lots of times when they have to push their boundaries of skill to improve, if we make these types of mistakes feared, then the athlete won’t grow.

6 Ways to Build Confidence in Young Athletes


In order for youth athletes to make it to an elite level, they have to have talent, dedication and the drive to work hard and improve their skills. While ability and work ethic are very important skills for athletes to develop, the one skill that sets elite athletes apart is confidence.

By improving one’s confidence on the court of field, it benefits all aspects of an athlete’s life. On the other hand, a lack of confidence can have devastating results for an athlete’s performance in sport and in the classroom.

As a coach or parent, we want the best for our athletes. We want them to have faith and confidence in their abilities. We want them to know what they’re capable of achieving today and, with hard work and dedication, what they’re capable of achieving tomorrow. When an athlete is confident in their abilities, they are more aggressive and generally play harder and better.

Just like physical skills, confidence is something that can be developed with practice.

Here are 6 ways to develop confidence in youth athletes to set them up for long-term success:

Lead By Example

Kids learn how to react to situations by watching their role models. For example, when a young kid trips and falls, they pause for a second or two as they try to figure out how to react. Am I ok? Should I Cry? During those few seconds they are looking at a coach or parent to gauge their response. They search for cues in the faces of their coaches or parents, and will respond accordingly. If we rush over panicked and worried, they are going to be panicked and worried. If we respond by acknowledging the fall calmly and offer a bit of encouragement— “you’re ok, it was just a fall, dust yourself off” — they will usually pop right back up. It is important for parents and coaches to be role models constantly displaying the discipline, hard work, and self-belief that you hope to see in your athlete.

Practice Makes Perfect

Confidence is based on evidence and experience, which comes from practice. Practice is the time for athletes to work on their skills. If an athlete is constantly sharpening their skills and abilities, they are constantly reinforcing faith in their capabilities.

Start Off Easy & Develop the Fundamentals

A simple way to improve confidence is to start with something easy. For example, if you’re teaching someone how to hit a baseball for the first time, you won’t start by pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound. You wouldn’t do this, because it simply won’t be fun for a new player to constantly swing and miss. Instead, start them off hitting from a tee. They can learn how to keep their eye on the ball and make firm contact. As they get better, you can try tossing the ball under hand to them from a few feet away. Finally, as their skills continue to develop and their confidence grows, you can move back to the pitcher’s mound.

Break It Down

Anything you do well becomes enjoyable. That is the idea for starting on the tee and developing the fundamentals from the last example. It is important for coaches to break down the skills so the athlete can understand what they need to do. Once they have consistently shown that they have mastered the fundamentals off the tee, they will get bored of the tee. Once they get bored, a coach will introduce a slightly more complicated skill to develop. Putting in the time and working on the basics doesn’t appear glamorous — but athletes who constantly sharpen their skills, sharpen their confidence. MLB players warm up the same way by starting on the tee to make sure their fundamentals are dialed in and they are confident before they hit live.

Focus On Doing Your Best

In sport, the objective is to win. But the desire to win shouldn’t take away from an athlete’s most important goal: doing your best. The best team or player doesn’t always win, it’s the team that plays the best that wins. As coaches and parents we have to let our athletes know that there is no shame in losing if you do your best. Sometimes its bad luck, or sometimes the opponent is just better than you. If you know during practice that you put your best effort into learning and mastering the fundamentals, and focusing on doing your best instead of being the best, the wins will come as long as you play hard.

“Don’t Fear Failure”

Lastly, and perhaps more important, teach kids not to be afraid of failure. Confidence in youth athletes comes down to the battle between faith and fear. Fear of failure can really destroy an athlete’s confidence even to a point where they don’t want to participate so they don’t make any mistakes. As a coach, we have to recognize when athletes are afraid and nervous. When we recognize this, we must empower them, we must offer words of encouragement and remind them of their abilities. Understanding fear is the best skill you can teach a young athlete. Fear of failure holds us back from being the best we can be — not just in sport, but in all areas of our lives.