Mirroring Mindset

When coaching all PGA Pros need to make sure that they do not over emphasise the role of natural ability otherwise they risk demotivating their customers, writes Sue Shapcott. 

Over the last decade, books like The Talent Myth (Larry Gluck), Mindset (Carol Dweck), Peak (Anders Ericsson), and Bounce (Matthew Syed) have become popular amongst the coaching community. The message that threads its way through all books is the notion that talent is something that can be learned – not something that is given. With a combination of research-based data, and anecdotal stories, the books build a compelling case against the conventional wisdom that talent is a gift that only a few are blessed with.

If the evidence that success does not rely on innate ability is not enough, Carol Dweck takes things one step further. Through decades of research, Dweck demonstrates that not only are the beliefs around natural talent false, but just believing in natural talent can lead to undesirable behaviours and outcomes. This is the case regardless of whether someone believes they possess natural talent, or not.

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Dweck’s work has been applied to academics, management and even golf. In its simplest form, Dweck’s theory describes people who believe that ability is a natural gift as having a fixed mindset. They believe that talent is something that you have, or not, and there is nothing that can be done to change it. This is in contrast to those who believe that ability can be learned as having a growth mindset. Growth minded people believe that ability can be developed with practice and strategic effort. Importantly, the beliefs that people develop about ability are informed by their environment and feedback they receive from others; parents, peers and coaches.

Study after study has demonstrated that regardless of playing ability level, people who think ability can be learned are motivated and resilient. Subsequently, people with a growth mindset continue to improve their skills. Players with a fixed mindset demonstrate opposite behaviours. They are less motivated and shy away from challenges where they may fail. This makes sense. By believing ability is a natural gift, practice loses its purpose – it is something that only people without natural ability need.

Coaches tend to unanimously agree that the most desirable players to coach are those with a growth mindset. They work hard, are resilient and seek feedback to help them improve. However, this is where coaches have a disconnect between what they want from their players, and their own beliefs about ability. This is problematic because coaches have been identified as people who are most influential on players’ mindset.

My own research demonstrates that, unfortunately, golf coaches do not always believe that players are able to improve their ability. Although golf coaches acknowledge that players with a growth mindset are likely to be more successful, they may hold a fixed mindset about those players’ ability. When golf coaches hold a fixed mindset about ability, they are more likely to give judgmental feedback. For example, they are likely to say things like, “It’s OK, I’m sure you are good at other things,” or, “You’ll never be a long hitter.” Of course, as a player there is only one way to interpret this feedback; I must not have the ability to be good at golf. After hearing this type of feedback from a coach, players are likely to think that natural ability is required to succeed at golf – and they don’t have it! Over time, these players will develop a fixed mindset about golf ability and consequently motivation will decrease. Furthermore, any inevitable struggles the players have will be interpreted as evidence that the coach is right about their lack of golf ability. It should be noted that giving judgmental feedback to high performing players is equally as problematic. Praising players for their ‘natural talent’ will also develop a fixed mindset. Consequently, these players will not be motivated to practice, or develop strategies needed for long term improvement.

The takeaway for coaches is that their own mindset about golf ability is just as important as the mindset of players they coach. When you are coaching, are you judging how much natural ability you think they have? And how does this translate to the type of things you say when giving feedback to players? If coaches want players to develop growth mindsets, they need to take some of their own medicine. The first step is challenging your own perceptions of ability. Then commit to giving feedback that explains what players need to improve and how to improve it. Remember, their mindset starts with you.