by Jeff Smith
In the 1990s, two psychologists performed a unique study that has changed how learning is viewed in the U.S. and around the world. They examined two groups of fifth-grade students in a case that helped change the way that millions of people think about a term called growth mindset.
The two groups of students were given the same test. In one group, the teachers heaped one type of praise on the students who registered a high score, telling each student, “Nice job. You must be really smart!” The other group received praise along the lines of “Nice job. You must have worked really hard!”
After the first test, the teachers gave the students a chance to take a more difficult test. About 90 percent of the students who got feedback about their great effort on the first test agreed to tackle the second test. By contrast, less than half of the students agreed to take the second test who had received feedback about excelling on the first test because they were smart.
After taking several different tests, both groups took one final test that was similar in difficulty to the initial test. The group that was praised for its effort scored 30 percent higher than the group that was praised for its intelligence.
The results of this study clearly show the strengths of a growth mindset (“I can learn almost anything with enough hard work and dedication”) over a fixed mindset (“I can only learn things that I’m genetically gifted to learn”).
All it ultimately takes is understanding and believing that we can improve substantially at almost anything in sports, academics, music, work and daily activities — i.e., we can be powerful learners. The key is through consistent effort combined with perseverance, feedback from our coaches and teachers and a willingness to stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone as we face challenges and deal with the inevitable mistakes we’ll make along the way.
A growth mindset is the belief that you are not merely born with specific abilities that will determine how successful you will be at volleyball, music, math or any other area of life. Yes, we each have born qualities that make us more likely to excel at certain sports, hobbies or interests. But scientific research shows that your attitude, work ethic and commitment level can influence how well you perform at volleyball.
In fact, your attitude, hard work and dedication will impact your level of success in volleyball more than anything else, including more than your natural athletic talent.
I personally think the secret for many young athletes is their attitude toward mistakes.
A player with a fixed mindset — believing she is what she is right now and that she can’t change — is easy to spot. She fears making mistakes, so she is reluctant to try new skills or positions. She also is concerned about what others think of her, which makes her even more hesitant to try new skills for fear of looking silly, uncoordinated or embarrassing herself when she struggles to hit, set, overhand serve or perform other skills she hasn’t mastered.
(I’ve taught private lessons with countless athletes who were afraid to venture out and learn a particular skill in practice for fear of making mistakes in front of their peers, especially either overhand or jump serving and setting, two of the hardest skills for young players to learn. They’re fine with making mistakes in the safety and privacy of an empty gym. If they can take that mentality to their practices and not be concerned about making mistakes that teammates see, that makes a big difference going forward.)
Again, fear of mistakes and fear of being embarrassed in front of others keeps players with a fixed mindset from embracing a growth mindset. It makes you afraid to take risks and prevents you from developing a can-do attitude that leads to learning new skills, positions, tactics and strategies.
Of course, volleyball is a challenging sport. At times it can frustrate young players (and older players, too). And the fact that matches are played in front of an audience can make it even more frustrating when you inevitably make mistakes with people watching you. (That’s one advantage of academics. You don’t have to take a test and miss questions on the test with spectators observing your every error.)
One of volleyball’s biggest proponents of a growth mindset is Karch Kiraly, three-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S.. women’s national team coach. Karch has fantastic advice for how to overcome the temptation to hold on to a fixed mindset.
“If you’re concerned what others think, you may take few risks and hold yourself back. But if you’re excited about the possibilities of how good you could become with enough hard work, you’ll welcome the chance to challenge yourself,” Karch says. “Chances are, when things get tough, you’ll summon more grit and work through it rather than walk away, as someone with a fixed mindset might do.
“Embrace a growth mindset and go for it! You can be a much better player, and with enough effort and purposeful practice, you will be.”
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.