What makes a Champion?

- January 27, 2012 6 MIN READ

I once had the privilege of meeting Lute Olsen (a college basketball coach who’s widely regarding as one of the most successful and respected coaches in any sport) and hearing him speak. In answering a question as to why he had not accepted numerous offers to coach at the professional level he said: ‘I am not interested in working with people who think they know it all, I believe its what you learn after you know it all that counts’ This stuck with me at the time & soon after this I learned exactly what he meant.

Whilst coaching a group of athletes recently I had an interesting challenge when providing some constructive feedback to an athlete within this group. The reaction to my feedback was along these lines: ‘You cant teach me anything here, I’ve played at the elite level for over 7 years, a veteran of this team and one of its best and most consistent performers’

As you can imagine, this type of reaction can be quite jarring when your obvious intention is to improve this person’s performance and help them succeed. Why would any athlete at the elite level NOT wish to improve anymore??? I first wondered if the reason for this response was due to the way I framed the information.

Over the next few weeks though, I became aware that this guys response was always the same with regard to feedback regarding his technique and skill level (in terms of athletic movement and efficiency) on field. It seemed he was un coachable in this area. Now this athlete is by no means unskilled in this area, but a few simple tweaks here and there could improve his performance dramatically, reduce his risk of injury and potentially help him recover faster on field. Useful information right??

His summary of himself was spot on though; he has performed at a high level for a long period of time and is certainly one of the highest performers in his sport in the world.  The question is though, at what point does someone decide they no longer need to or want to improve? And how do they come to this decision?  Especially at the elite level where 2-3% improvement can mean the difference between winning and losing, or in this athletes case MVP or also ran. Its fair to say this one had me stumped!

Funnily enough, it turns out the answer lay with a bunch of primary school kids. Some research using primary school children by Carol Dweck (a professor of psychology at Stanford University) led to the theory that people can fall into one of two mindsets within different areas of life. The fixed mindset or the growth mindset.  Dweck found that these two mindsets where the result of the type of feedback the children received and this could also dramatically influence their subsequent behaviour.

Those who were praised for their results and ability in a task chose not to challenge themselves on further tasks, whereas those praised for their effort chose more complex and difficult tasks with greater potential for learning and development. Consequently those who continued to challenge themselves were much more likely to improve their results. Whereas those who chose not to continue to challenge themselves saw a drop or plateau in their performance.

In the growth mindset, people believe that hard work and dedication can lead to success. They believe that people have the capacity to learn and improve their intelligence and skill at any task with practice. This belief influences their behavior accordingly. People who possess the growth mindset are prepared to put in the hard yards and accept failure as an inevitable stepping-stone on the path to success.  These are the people who choose to continue to challenge themselves and usually these are the people who create exceptional results.

“Champions embrace a challenge and thrive on the opportunity to learn”

In the fixed mindset, people believe that talent and intelligence are traits people are born with and cannot be modified in any significant way. Those with a fixed mindset believe that in the end natural talent will trump hard work dedication to a task. This belief causes people in the fixed mindset to view hard work and failure as direct feedback on their talent (since only those who lack talent are likely to have to work hard and are the ones who more often than not fail repeatedly) and subsequently they avoid both like the plague. As we will see, this can have dramatic implications for potential and success.

Dwecks’ research showed that these mindsets could actually be the result of conditioning. she showed that teachers, parents coaches or anyone charged with influencing people can actually push people into one of these two mindsets as a result of the way they frame their feedback. Dweck found that when praising someone for their results by describing them as ‘gifted’ or ‘a natural’  etc  the message these people are receiving is: wow you are good at this task, I value your ability to complete it successfully.  Positive feedback when framed in this way can actually work to push high performers into the fixed mindset. This is because the feedback is solely focused on the outcome.

Now if the feedback were framed in a manner which acknowledged both the outcome AND the process, as in: ‘Gee you do that very well, you must have worked quite hard at it well done!’.  The message the person receives is: I value the effort and persistence that was required in order to for you to have produced this excellent result! Now this feedback although only marginally different, produces very different results. This feedback fosters the growth mindset in those who receive it.  These people will be more likely to persist at a task and their response to failure is one of gratitude since they value its role in teaching them what is NOT working.

Great teachers and coaches have always focused on the process over the outcome. John Wooden, the man who is pretty much universally regarded as the greatest coach of any sport ever, (John’s UCLA basketball teams won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, 7 of which were in consecutive years and an enjoyed an 88 game winning streak) was so process focused, that when he first coached players he took them to the dressing room and showed them how to put their shoes and socks on correctly. He did this so that they would avoid any blisters.  Blisters John reasoned, could cause you to lose focus.

Great sports stars; performers and business people all possess the growth mindset. It is well known that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he openly values failure as the reason he has succeeded in sport and afterward. Elvis Presley was fired and famously told ‘you aint goin nowhere son’. Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was fired from his OWN company. All of these people were obviously of the growth mindset, since failure did not deter them. In fact they used failure as feedback for future success.

Sure there are talented individuals who have done quite well, but never have they become legends as the three above did. John McEnroe was a very good tennis player, but his violent and aggressive reactions to failure and the fact that he was negligent in his training and preparation suggest that he was firmly entrenched in the fixed mindset. And what is John remembered for? Not his tennis that is for sure.

The tragedy is that the world may have been robbed of the full expression of McEnroe’s genius as a result of the feedback he received when growing up.  I wonder how good he might have been if he had grown up a lifelong learner as all of the highest performers are.  The fact that he was able to be number one for around four years with in this mindset is actually quite amazing, however it is no wonder he was such an angry person.

If you are a parent, teacher, coach, manager or anyone who is in a position to influence others, consider how this information might benefit those around you who listen to you and respect your opinions. Is it possible you may have crippled those around you with outcome-focused feedback?? If so, how could you adjust your communication to ensure you foster a growth mindset in those you have the honour of influencing.

Also, consider how this information could impact your own life. Look at the different areas of your life and assess where you might have a fixed mindset. (I’ll give you a clue here, these areas will usually be areas where you show or have shown little or no improvement and have had limited success) Alternatively, identify areas of your life where you show an obvious growth mindset. Notice how this mindset and its implications have worked to create results within these areas.

Thanks for reading


Terry Condon is an Entrepreneur plus Fitness and Physical Therapy trainer for high performance athletes and teams. His blog www.terrycondon.com always has great inspiring content that is useful for both entrepreneurs and athletes alike. Terry is pictured above kitesurfing, one of many active hobbies.