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  • Writer's pictureRick Traugott

Growth Mindset and Your Athletes

Sometimes I feel the need to go back a re-read a book or article, or watch a movie that I remember I really enjoyed. Last week I sat down and watched two movies: Moneyball and Coach Carter, both of which are on Netflix right now. What appeals to me about Moneyball is that Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) was unwavering in his belief in the game plan he and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) had put in place for the season with the Oakland A’s. As pressure mounted from fans and his manager, Beane never flinched. It is a great story - and based on a true story written by Michael Lewis.

Coach Carter, another true story, follows Coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) and his inner city high school basketball team as he tries to teach them basketball while pushing them academically and helping them get to college. There are a number of interesting interactions with parents that see them pushing for basketball “because it’s important to the community” rather than pushing for better grades in school. Again, Coach Carter was unwavering in his belief in the game plan and never flinches.

I put my phone down this week when I was getting into bed at night and re-read a book I had read a number of years ago called Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. It too is written by Michael Lewis and is autobiographical. From Publisher’s Weekly (online):

“Lewis remembers his high school baseball coach, Coach Fitz, a man so intense a room felt "more pressurized simply because he was in it." At the New Orleans private school Lewis attended in the late 1970s, Coach Fitz taught kids to fight "the natural instinct to run away from adversity" and to battle their way through all the easy excuses life offers for giving up. He was strict, but he made such an impression on his students that now, 25 years later, alumni want to name a new gym after him. But the parents of today's students aren't as wowed by Coach Fitz's tough love. They call the headmaster with complaints, saying Coach Fitz is too mean to their children and insisting on sitting on his shoulder as he attempts to coach.”

What Lewis wants us to take away from the book is that Coach Fitz, in hoping to make a difference in young men’s lives, forces them to face “fear and failure” head on (which are the “two greatest enemies of a well lived life”). It’s a little like I would imagine Navy Seal training to be like: if you can survive this you can survive anything. But on a smaller scale of course. Coach Fitz puts his team in tough situations, lets them fail, the pushes them to be their best and overcome. In the most poignant scene, Lewis, a young pitcher on the team, is forced to pitch the final out in a very close and important game after Coach goes to the mound, in error, a second time to talk to their star pitcher and has to pull him out of the game. As Lewis writes, "I didn't have words for it then, but I do now: I am about to show the world, and myself, what I can do."

The greatest opportunity we have as coaches is to see our players be better people at the end of the season than they were at the start. If we do our jobs even remotely well they are going to be better hockey players and better athletes just by showing up. What is a tougher road is to instill the idea of a “growth mindset” in our players. From psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

To me, a growth mindset is one where players feel they can come away from every situation and be better than they were before. Lose the game 12-0? What can we learn from that experience and how can we be better. Watch coach meticulously hang all the jerseys in our stalls before a game and make sure they are aligned just right? What can we glean from that and apply it to our own lives. Spend the extra hour studying for the science exam only to come away with a better mark than expected? How can we replicate that on the next exam. Michael Lewis getting that final batter out after Coach Fitz has to put him in the game? How does that impact confidence the next time on the mound.

Sometimes, the external pressures of success being defined by wins and losses turns us, as coaches, away from the much more important task of helping athletes face “fear and failure” head on. We get away from life lessons of having a player miss a game or two because there are late assignments in school, or deportment isn’t acceptable, or basic responsibilities aren’t being met. I have a hard and fast rule with my teams, if a player gets an unsportsmanlike penalty they can go directly to the dressing room when the penalty is over. This happens once a season. It never happens after that first time because the message is sent.

The best way to make an impact in your athlete’s lives is to be a terrific role model. As coaches, we have a huge impact on our player’s lives over the course of a season - and sometimes more than one. Although I would guess that there are pieces of the Coach Carter and Coach Fitz stories that are somewhat embellished, we too can find genuine ways to have a positive effect on our athletes away from the rink.

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