The context is a gymnastics competition, but it could just as easily be Judo, football, swimming…
Nine-year-old Elizabeth was on her way to her first gymnastics meet. Lanky, flexible, and energetic, she was just right for gymnastics, and she loved it. Of course, she was a little nervous about competing, but she was good at gymnastics and felt confident of doing well. She had even thought about the perfect place in her room to hang the ribbon she would win.
In the first event, the floor exercises, Elizabeth went first. Although she did a nice job, the scoring changed after the first few girls and she lost. Elizabeth also did well in the other events, but not well enough to win. By the end of the evening, she had received no ribbons and was devastated.
What would you do if you were Elizabeth’s parents?
1. Tell Elizabeth you thought she was best.
2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers.
3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.
4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time.
5. Tell her she didn’t deserve to win.
There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run. Why?
Let’s look at the five possible reactions from a mindset point of view – and listen to the messages:
The first (you thought she was the best) is basically insincere. She was not the best – you know it, and she does, too. This offers her no recipe for how to recover or how to improve.
The second (she was robbed) places blames on others, when in fact the problem was mostly with her performance, not the judges. Do you want her to grow up blaming others for her deficiencies?
The third (reassure her that gymnastics doesn’t really matter) teaches her to devalue something if she
doesn’t do well in it right away. Is this really the message you want to send?
The fourth (she has the ability) may be the most dangerous message of all. Does ability automatically take you where you want to go? If Elizabeth didn’t win this meet, why should she win the next one?
The last option (tell her she didn’t deserve to win) seems hardhearted under the circumstances. And of course you wouldn’t say it quite that way. But that’s pretty much what her growth-minded father told her.
Here’s what he actually said: “Elizabeth, I know how you feel. It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win. But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet. There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.”
He also let Elizabeth know that if she wanted to do gymnastics purely for fun, that was just fine. But if she wanted to excel in the competitions, more was required.
Elizabeth took this to heart, spending much more time repeating and perfecting her routines, especially the ones she was weakest in. At the next meet, there were eighty girls from all over the region. Elizabeth won five ribbons for the individual events and was the overall champion of the competition, hauling home a giant trophy. By now, her room is so covered with awards, you can hardly see the walls.
In essence, her father not only told her the truth. But also taught her how to learn from her failures and do what it takes to succeed in the future. He sympathised deeply with her disappointment, but he did not give her a phony boost that would only lead to further disappointment.
I’ve met with many coaches and they ask me: “What happened to the coachable athletes? Where did they go?” Many of the coaches lament that when they give their athletes corrective feedback, the athletes grumble that their confidence is being undermined. Sometimes the athletes ‘phone home and complain to their parents. They seem to want coaches who will simply tell them how talented they are and leave it at that.
The coaches say that in the old days after a little league game or a kiddie soccer game, parents used to review and analyse the game on the way home and give helpful (process) tips. Now on the ride home, they say, parents heap blame on the coaches and referees for the child’s poor performance or the team’s loss. They don’t want to harm the child’s confidence by putting the blame on the child.
But as in the example of Elizabeth above, children need honest and constructive feedback. If children are “protected” from it, they won’t learn well. They will experience advice, coaching, and feedback as negative and undermining. Withholding constructive criticism does not help children’s confidence; it harms their future.
Interestingly, after reading this for the first time, I discussed these options with the eldest children on the mat. Almost without fail, they described their reactions to the different scenarios as Dweck predicted… But it’s not what we always say as coaches or parents, is it? It is not always easy to tell someone they need to go away and work even harder if they want to be the best (I know that I haven’t always got it right, personally or professionally) – and not everyone wants to hear that message, especially if that is not the feedback they get from elsewhere.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Random House.