The Language of Growth

FasterSkierOctober 16, 2019

Do you know what a Growth Mindset is? How would you rate your growth mindset? Do you use it in all the areas in which you’re trying to grow?

The more I coach, the more I think that a lot of our problems as athletes and humans begins with how much we believe we can change, and whether or not we believe we have power over those changes. The belief that you can change is the essence of a growth mindset. Without the idea that we can improve, why try? Without the confidence that we can create change, why bother? 

Some of the fascinating work presented by Dr. Carol Dweck in the video above shows the differences in growth vs. fixed mindset in young students only by how the adults in the teachers communicated with the students. The simple phrase “you worked so hard” vs. “you are so smart” had a significant impact on how well the students performed in subsequent tests (if you don’t know what I mean, go watch the video). We know that language matters. 

What we often are less aware of is how much our language affects us. Your brain has loops and scripts running through it all the time, much of it semi-behind the scenes. We’re often too distracted to notice, let alone change some of this language. If a couple of small words between teacher and student can make a big difference, the hundreds and thousands of words that we think and say to ourselves each day make an even more significant difference. 

The first step is starting to recognize when you’re using fixed-mindset language. Only after you begin to NOTICE when you say fixed things can you begin to reprogram some of those scripts to reinforce your growth mindset. 

Here are a few things I want you to do as homework:

  1. I want you to notice when you say self-limiting (fixed mindset) things “I am X,” or “I’m not Y.” In Dweck’s original studies, the simple phrase “you are smart” actually had a very NEGATIVE impact because “smart” means fixed. What fixed things do you say to yourself? Create a system for noticing; for example, you could write them down in your phone every time. Then at the end of the day, see how often you say those things. 
  2. Take note of the subject of your limiting thoughts. Do you say more fixed things about your body? Or your intelligence? Or your emotional control? Observing fixed thoughts will inform areas on which you should focus.
  3. Once you have started to recognize these thoughts and phrases regularly, you can catch yourself in the middle of them and change the ending. Something as simple as “I’m not fast…*catch yourself thinking it*…YET” can be very powerful in the long term. Or you can stop, catch yourself, and say the non-limiting version. “I’m not good at this” can be replaced with “I’m a beginner at this.”

Importantly, make sure you notice the negative AND THE POSITIVE tenses. “I am” can be almost as toxic in the long term as the short term, as it’s a fixed belief that you will hold to even TIGHTER.

Joe Howdyshell holds a MS in Exercise Physiology from the University of Wyoming and is the founder of Summit Endurance Academy in Breckenridge, CO. Matti Rowe contributed to this article. He is a former nordic skier for St. Olaf College and coaches with Summit Endurance Academy.


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