• Greg Graber

A Growth Mindset Lesson with the Memphis Tigers

As an educator who also works with elite athletes on mindfulness training and mental performance skills, I am always interested to see the correlation between the way in which players talk about themselves (and to themselves) and their performance on the court. A prime example comes from when I worked with the University of Memphis Men's Basketball Team a few years ago. The Tigers were a nationally ranked team at the time, and high expectations for the squad throughout the basketball crazed city of Memphis put an extreme amount of pressure on the players and coaches.

After one of my mindfulness sessions with the squad, the entire team sat in the film room as I launched into a lesson on growth mindset, more specifically about how the way in which we talk about ourselves effects our performance. I sighted two examples I recently read in the local newspaper containing quotes from two of the players on the team. The first was from Chris "Clutch" Crawford, the team's shooting guard. Chris basically said that as a shooting guard, he knows after the first or second shot whether he is going to have a good game or not. The logic behind his thinking was that if he hit early shots, he was "hot," and if he didn't, it just wasn't going to be his night.

I told Chris in a respectful tone how much I admired him as a person and a player, but after reading his quote, I had come to the conclusion that he had a fixed mindset, and that his thought process was holding him back. I also said that it is no good giving up as soon as you miss your first two shots of the game if you could have not given up and scored on your next ten possessions afterwards. I explained how a shooter with a fixed mindset believes that he is not having a good night if he misses a shot or two, while a shooter with a growth mindset believes that missing an early shot or two is not an obstacle to having a good overall game. I implored Chris to work on the way in which he talked about his shooting to himself and others, as what we think about ourselves usually comes to fruition.

Next I addressed a quote from freshman power forward phenom, Austin Nichols. Austin and I were close, as I worked with him individually on a daily basis. Just like I did when I cited Chris' example, I told Austin how much respect I had for him. ( Side note: I usually do not talk about players I work with, but both of these instances were quoted in the newspaper). Next, I respectfully took umbrage with Austin in front of his teammates about a quote he gave the paper when he was asked about the difference between playing high school and college basketball. Austin said something to the effect that playing college hoops is much harder because the opponents are much bigger, stronger, and quicker than in high school.

While Austin's statement is true, I told him that he could have added a line or two to shift is mindset from a fixed statement to a growth statement. He could have said something like, "While college hoops is harder than high school because the players are bigger, stronger, and quicker, I look forward to the challenge. I plan to train hard and get bigger, stronger, and quicker myself." See the difference a few added words makes?

I explained to the Memphis Tigers that day in the film room that neurons in our brains that fire together wire together. The more we say something to ourselves or about ourselves eventually becomes our reality, as these firing neurons cut neural pathways and shape the ways in which we see ourselves and the world around us.

We can either use self-talk as an ally or as enemy to defeat ourselves. Some common examples of fixed mindset statement examples include:

I'm either naturally good at something or I am not.

I'm too old to learn this.

I can't do this.

No one in my family is good at this.

I always fail/struggles with this.

I could never be good at this.

I can't improve in this area.

I don't have the genes for this.

We can transform our lives by making it a practice not to use fixed mindset statements like the ones above. In addition, we can facilitate tremendous positive growth in the lives of our children by teaching them this at a young age. In fact, this is something we can work with our children on together. Instead of harshly correcting them every time they use a fixed mindset statement, gently ask them to rephrase the statement in a way that espouses a growth mindset. Make it a game. Show them that as an adult you are not above constructive corrections either by asking them to gently point out each time you use a fixed mindset, so you can fix it, too.

What are some things you often say to yourself that you could rephrase so that you are embracing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset? It's like a Casey Kasem Countdown! We all have our Top Ten or so. My most used was the ever-popular "I'm not good at math." I never liked math class. I always told myself I wasn't good at it. Some of the adults in my life also would say this about themselves. I am not blaming them, but there is no doubt that I heard this and picked up on it. So be cognizant that if you articulate a fixed mindset about certain things the little sponges in your life may absorb it!

Obviously we all have things were are good at and other things we struggle with. A growth mindset won't give a 5'4 guy the power to dunk a basketball or a tone deaf kid with a violin the ability to be the next Itzhak Perlman. However, a growth mindset at the very least gives us the confidence to try and improve both the things that come easily to us and things that are difficult for us.

As an educator I have tried to get out of the habit of asking my students and faculty to discuss their "strengths and weaknesses." I find the word "weakness" to be negative and the overall phrase to be a fixed mindset sentiment. Instead, I try to use the phrase "strengths and areas you would like to improve." Even though it is just a subtle change, I find this to espouse more of a growth mindset mentality.

Some common examples of growth mindset statement examples include:

I haven't learned to do that yet.

I will work on that skill.

I am not good at this yet, but I will be with more practice and effort.

This is not a priority for me right now.

There are no failures if a lesson is learned from the experience.

The obstacle is the way.

There is no reward without risk.

The standard for the subject of mindsets has been set by Dr. Carol Dweck. If you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com