Scroll Top

Learning How to Learn


Carol Dweck, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford, has written a well known book called “Mindset”. In the book, she identifies two different mindsets that exist within all of us to varying degrees; the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. The reason this is important is that regardless of your beliefs on talent, we can prove all skill and ability exists within the neural pathways of our brain. So, if we develop “fixed mindset” behaviors we are in essence stunting the development of any deeper neural connections, thereby road blocking our improvement and allowing any self-fulfilling prophesies we might have about IQ or talent being inherited to come to fruition.

I have been lucky enough to correspond with an educator from Australia, Lorraine Davies of “Mindset Mastery” who has tried valiantly to deepen my understanding and get me to see the glaring defects within my own thinking. It’s been quite a journey for me to analyze my own fixed mindset traits, and attempt to correct them, so I can hopefully teach better habits to my own athletes.

The initial reason this grabbed me was the undeniable effect Ms. Dweck’s mindset studies had on performance. People displaying growth mindset traits worked harder, learned better, and improved faster than those displaying fixed traits. Maybe we all can intellectually understand this, but it becomes much more difficult to see examples of people consistently living it, especially as we become convinced of our own status and knowledge. An easy pitfall for coaches and educators of all levels. The equivalent for an athlete would be someone convinced of their superiority, or talent, or simply worried about perception. This is probably more common a problem of athletes attempting to learn a skill while desperately wanting the acceptance of the group.

I think sharing our knowledge of volleyball to each other is really important, but I’m not sure it means much if we don’t embrace this topic first.

If the quality of our practice, if our level of engagement to learning, are the most critical factors towards our improvement, don’t we have to take great pains to teach our athletes and students how to learn? And, what does that even mean?

Dweck’s studies, as well as Ms. Davies’ work with students labeled as troubled, have given a lot of weight behind research suggesting students who are taught about the brain and how it learns are much more likely to display the growth mindset behaviors of focus, effort, and learning thereby improving performance. So, maybe day 1 of practice is a little brain lesson with our teams. Maybe there’s even a fun and creative way to do it.

We can always look at our game’s greatest player, Karch Kiraly, and observe how he developed skill as a player, and how he’s gone about growing ability as a coach for our USA Women’s National Team. There may be no finer example available to us as to how to approach each day with a growth mindset.

And finally, here’s a quote from Ms. Davies in one of her emails to me. It hit me square in the nose when I read it, because I could understand so completely how I could fall in this category, and how hard I would have to work to be in this for the right reasons:

“It might be helpful to know that I deal with a lot of fixed mindset educators and parents (with the inherent cardinal rule to look smart at all times) who really want to know – but not do. The relevance being the accompanying defensiveness, too often expressed in their annoyance/irritation after their initial joy hearing about mindsets because it fills in so many blanks. I find they generally deal with their need to regain feeling ‘smart’, by rejecting/attacking me – the messenger. In essence no biggie, BUT to really feel self-satisfied they reject growth mindset learning. Knowing that this creates more fixed mindset students, staff, athletes etc really disturbs me.”

So, here are some things that might help to develop this growth mindset culture within our volleyball team:

– Give a class on the brain before the season begins

– Tie this lesson into practice all year long. Develop a common language to understand when learning is occurring and how our brains are changing

– Cite the behaviors you’re seeing in your athletes that you want to see more of

– When you give praise, it should be about them. Take yourself out of it. It’s not about pleasing you, it’s about you guiding them to what they can become.

– Language is everything. Way more than the pretty banners, slogans and flashy goals we post throughout the gym (especially if we’re doing these things to fulfill a perception). The best gauge we have to the growth mindset culture within our gym is the language used with each other and to ourselves. Setting some standards and some things we will and won’t say could go a long way.

And, finally, most importantly, remember:

The Cardinal rule of the growth mindset is: Learn, Learn Learn (even if that means looking bad, or embarrassed sometimes.)

The Cardinal rule of the fixed mindset is: Look Good/smart/talented (even if that means not learning)

It’s not an absolute, it’s a continuum, and by focused effort, and careful reflection, we can push ourselves and our athletes (if we’re willing) further and further towards the growth mindset scale.

So for sure, let’s study the game, teach the skills, and analyze our methods. In the end, we love to coach and play volleyball and compete in this wonderful sport. But maybe before it all, let’s really attempt to understand what it takes to learn and improve to the best of our ability.

Follow Us
Most Viewed
How to Dig a Volleyball

Written by Rob Browning, Head Volleyball Coach, Saint Mary’s College...