Mindset Theory - Getting in the right frame of mind

Professor Carol Dweck's work on learning psychology has proposed a theory which she calls 'Mindset'. If you've read the “YET” article already, this is part of mindset theory. It's all about being in the right place mentally, to learn the most from an experience. It was developed in regard to academic learning, but fits learning by experience like a well tailored glove.

Mindset theory comes from a basic position that there are two frames of mind, or Mindsets which we will prefer one of. (you can hold different mindsets in different areas at once, but we will talk about being one of the two at any given time)

The two Mindsets are:

Fixed Mindset – Holding a general belief that we can be born with a certain ability and/or intelligence and this will not change.

Growth Mindset – Holding a general belief that we can develop our intelligence or ability, almost like a muscle, through use.

Fixed mindset is already limiting in its capacity to grow and develop, but Growth Mindset is only limited by the imagination and effort taken to develop. Throughout this short article you will find contrasting quotes around different areas of Mindset to illustrate the differences. Here's the first:

Fixed Mindset – I have a fixed ability and therefore anything that affects my ability is external to me

Growth Mindset – I have an ability to develop and therefore while I accept external factors, I am generally responsible for my ability to develop.

So this may all seem pretty fluffy so far, but here's the first bit of meat:

Consider well established sports psychology: An athlete practices an action specific to their sport over and over again to get better.

They are training their muscles to specifically make the movement required with less and less conscious control over the action. They aim to make the action unconscious but precise.

This would be a golfer practicing driving, a diver practicing a dive, or a rider perhaps practicing a trail skill. If successful, the athlete will be able to produce a precise action or series of actions with barely any thought, unconsciously. This unconscious element has to reflect that the brain gets better at recognising the need for the action, making any precise calculations of say wind speed and direction, or angle of take-off, and better at sending the correct signal to the muscles to fire them off in the right combination and power.

If you can accept this as basically what happens when you develop a new skill, then you can see how we can develop the brain's ability.

Dweck proposed that the brain could be thought of like a muscle and this exercise was strengthening the brains ability to quickly create neural pathways and transmit messages, Sports psychologists have used the idea of creating a 'library' of actions, which the brain accesses in any situation, and the more the actions are repeated, the easier the brain finds it to access them when needed, hence the muscle analogy.

Thinking about every move, or using trained 'reflex' actions?

Still not convinced?

If you've ever known someone who has suffered from a stroke, you will know that if caught early enough, they are able to regain some or all of any function lost whether it be physio for physical effects, or therapy perhaps for lost speech. Simply put, the sufferer is finding new neural pathways within the brain areas affected, to retrain to rebuild the damaged ability. Training the brain to develop it's ability.

So if we accept that the brain can develop through exercise, and that as bikers we know that exercise means effort, then its a small jump to development means effort (or learning and development isn't easy) – this is very significant.

 Learning isn't easy (the body building analogy)

This is central to Mindset:

Fixed Mindset – If it's hard, this area must be something I'm not good at, therefore I'll move on to something else and avoid this.

Growth Mindset – If this is hard, this must be something I need to work on.

Using the body building analogy we can see that an approach accepting hard work (and even perhaps seeing hard work as an indicator of need and therefore opportunity to develop) will develop weaker areas and result in a balanced body shape. Only working on areas that are easy might end up with a huge set of abs and spindly little legs for instance.

So Growth Mindset is also about Balance, and recognising opportunity

Dweck went on to look at typical responses from the two mindsets to similar circumstances:

growth mindset response

This is hard, there must be something I can learn here

They are better at this than me, what can I  learn from them?

I got that wrong, great I can learn from this

This isn't working out, how can I get help?

I worked hard and look at my success!

I worked hard and wasn't successful this time

fixed mindset response

This is hard, I want to avoid this

They are better at this than me, I am intimidated, I'll hide my lesser skill level

I got that wrong, I'll avoid this in the future

This isn't working out, how do stop people finding out?

I worked hard, I'm so relieved it all worked out in the end

I worked hard and just proved I can't do it

Growth Mindset in action (a bit of dodgy History)

The story of Thomas Eddison inventing the lightbulb highlights the benefits of a Growth Mindset. It's said that Eddison made about 100 attempts before he successfully came up with the lightbulb.

The Growth Mindset displayed by Eddison is his that he was said to see each of the 99 previous failures as part of building success. In effect he was sure that within the 100 potential ideas he had was a successful one. All he needed to do was to try one, and apply what he'd learned from that attempt, and he would be one solution closer to the final solution, so that every time he 'failed' he had actually succeeded in learning more, and getting closer to the solution.

This is a very positive frame of mind, allowing a huge amount of resilience to be present. 'Failure' now becomes an opportunity to learn, and is therefore easily dealt with positively. Dweck found this Growth Mindset attitude in students she experimented on.

Growth Mindset is linked to improved resilience

Dweck also found another key difference between students with fixed and growth mindsets, and that was linked to their attitude toward comparison to others. Students with a Growth Mindset wanted to know what their scores were in tests, so that they could see what answers they got wrong, find someone who got the answer right, and try to learn from them – getting a wrong answer became a public and open thing, and had a positive outcome.

For students with a fixed mindset, their results reflected their fixed intelligence, and therefore they wanted to hide their mistakes as these indicated their intelligence limits. They were less likely to be open about the answers they got wrong, and more likely in fact to lie to other students about their results.

From this we can draw that:

Growth mindset – More likely to be happy for others to see their mistakes so they can be helped to improve.

Fixed mindset- More likely to want to hide their performance so that others are not aware of their shortcomings.


How then do we use this in mountain bike development?

By helping eachother reinforce a growth mindset attitude they we can help develop an attitude toward learning that is based on hard work being an indicator of an opportunity to fill a weakness, and that percieved 'non-success' is also an opportunity to learn.

The opinions of others become useful as feedback on performance and indicators of areas to develop and so riders become less worried about being judged by others, and more open to getting observational feedback from them. This results in more relaxed riders, and that in itself can help people ride better.

Having a coaching opportunity and then being given an opportunity to practice then gives room for all the hard work needed to improve less strong areas.

And so how is that done?

By careful use of language in feedback. Accurate feedback in reference to the action rather than the ability of a person reinforces the progress in that action. Feedback in reference to effort reinforces the positive attitude (Eddison aspect). Encouraging participants to learn from eachother reinforces the openness needed for a relaxed atmosphere, and allows for participants to operate at different levels within the same group without individuals feeling intimidated by others practicing in an area of strength for them or performing 'better'. The resilience gained by having a Growth Mindset also allows for continued hard work to develop in one participant, where others may have mastered the same skill.

If the case for using Mindset theory is made clearly enough here, it can be seen that generating a positive Growth Mindset in eachother can be seen as the foundation of a learning and development environment. Mindset will affect some of the other models, and the ability to maintain a Growth Mindset will be affected by them in turn, but this forms a foundation on which to base a set of models on.