by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
What enables some tennis players to play to their potential while most others fall short? Talent and motivation are necessary, but another fundamental and usually overlooked attribute is a player’s mindset when it comes to learning.
Modern research demonstrates the importance of approaching learning the right way—unfortunately, the majority of players make a critical mistake with their mindset on the court. Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading developmental psychologist, distinguishes between two primary beliefs children hold about their ability to learn: (1) a fixed, unchangeable belief about their intelligence and abilities and (2) a belief that they can incrementally learn almost anything with hard work, and eventually master what they are working on. This belief system is known as having a growth mindset. Children hold one belief system or the other. In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth and now a martial arts champion, eloquently explains the difference each mindset has on performance. Discussed below, these differences are often at the root of why players don’t reach their potential.
Players with a fixed belief system—those that have been influenced by their parents, teachers, and/or coaches to think this way, tend to use language like “I am good at this” or “I am bad at this.” They believe their success or failure is a result of an ingrained, unchangeable ability level. A player with a “growth” belief system thinks and learns differently—they tend to talk about their tennis with phrases such as “I have a strong forehand because I worked hard at it” or “I should have worked harder in that practice match.” Players with a “growth” mindset believe that hard work and perseverance are the keys to making improvements—the most challenging obstacles can be overcome incrementally—groundstrokes, volleys, serves, movement, strategies, fitness levels, and mental skills can be mastered over time.
Dweck’s research shows that children with a growth and hard-work mindset tend to rise to the occasion—these players will stay focused and positive during practice and are more likely to shine in the most important moments of matches. On the other hand, children with a fixed mindset have a tendency to break down and sometimes give up—their fragility frequently on display during matches. Players with a fixed mindset will view themselves and their game as black and white—thinking and saying that a particular stroke is “good” or “bad” or that they “suck,” depending on the day. Swearing is usually commonplace. On the contrary, players with a growth view are focused on mastering the task at hand and enjoying the process of improving.
The Art of Learning describes one of Dweck’s studies to illustrate the power of these two opposing approaches to learning. Researchers interviewed a group of children and noted whether each child had a fixed or growth mindset of intelligence. Each of the children were given a set of easy math problems, which they all solved with ease. The children were then given very tough problems that were too challenging for all of them. Children with a fixed mindset did not have confidence in themselves and readily voiced their concerns. Many of them told the researchers that they weren’t capable of solving these problems or simply weren’t smart enough. The children with a growth and hard-work mindset were excited to try their best regardless of the difficulty. Of course all of the children got the problems wrong, but the experience of the challenge impacted the children very differently. The researchers gave the children one more group of easy math problems, just as easy as the first time around. The children with the growth mindset finished them quickly and accurately, but many of the children with a fixed mindset struggled and made many errors. The hard math problems destroyed their self-belief.
None of these detriments to a fixed mindset, or benefits from a growth and hard-work approach, has anything to do with intelligence, talent, or ability level. Some of the most naturally gifted and smartest tennis players are the most vulnerable when challenged because they feel a need to live up to their perfectionistic beliefs. Talented players with a fixed mindset will sometimes get mad at themselves because they “should” be winning or “should” be at a certain level, often wanting to prove themselves to others. It doesn’t matter how talented they are, if they have a fixed approach to learning, they will be fragile under pressure. Players that approach tennis with a growth and hard-work mindset view their skill level mentally and physically as fluid and changeable—they love every opportunity to improve, view their training as a process, and do not define themselves by the outcome. These players love working to master new skills. When they fail, they reflect and think about how they could have done things differently, always looking for ways to improve. Failure causes them to increase their efforts. Players with a fixed mindset are susceptible to giving up easily in practices and matches, showing frequent frustration, feeling like the situation is out of their control, making excuses, and blaming—often linking failure to a lack of ability. Growth players are able to focus in the heat of battle instead of making excuses and feeling terrible about themselves. They fight for solutions and rise to the occasion.
What factors cause a player to end up with a fixed or growth mindset?
These mindsets, or approaches to learning, are learned behaviors. Players with a fixed mindset tend to have been told as they were growing up by their parents that they did well when they succeeded and weren’t good at something when they failed. A young boy perfectly memorizes and successfully delivers his lines during a school play and his parents tell him, “Amazing! You’re so smart and have an incredible memory.” But the next week the boy struggles on a spelling test and hears, “What’s your problem, can’t you spell? Those words weren’t even that difficult.” or “Your dad isn’t a great speller either—it’s probably not your thing.” This boy now believes that he has a good memory, but is bad at spelling. The real problem, though, is that he believes success and failure are linked to his ingrained ability. He will have a tendency to focus on short-term results instead of a long-term process of improving. Children with a growth and hard-work mindset were given different feedback. After doing well on a school writing assignment, a girl’s parent tells her, “Great job! You’re writing skills are improving! Keep up the hard work!” If she does poorly on an assignment, she might be told, “Study harder next time and you’ll do really well, and let me know if you need any help!” This young girl learns to associate success with hard work and develops a sense that she can accomplish anything with enough effort. She is focused on incrementally improving her abilities over the long-run—she starts to the learn the importance of having a long-term vision.
What can we do about it?
Parents, teachers, and coaches are the primary influence when it comes to which learning style a player develops. Regardless of the player’s current mindset, it is not too late to make a revolutionary change. It is crucial to understand that a player’s learning approach can evolve to a growth and hard-work mindset if parents and coaches commit to changing the way they give feedback during practices and after matches. There is strong research support that indicates that this mindset can be changed. With a healthier mindset, difficult practices and painful match losses will become the most valuable moments—players with a growth and hard-work mindset will learn the most from these moments and take these lessons with them the next day on the court. The hardest part, of course, is for players, parents, and coaches to maintain this perspective and keep their eyes on the long-term vision during the heat of battle.
Dweck, Carol (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Random House.
Waitzkin, Josh (2007). The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. New York: Free Press.