Effort over Achievement and Mindset Theory
Grit /grit/: noun
Courage and resolve, strength of character. A positive trait combining passion for a long-term goal and a powerful motivation to achieve the objective
Grit has become the recognized as the key character trait for success both in childhood and in later life. Intelligence is helpful, but if you don’t have the determination to learn, you fall short. Athleticism can be a marvelous advantage, but means little if you don’t have the persistence to cultivate it. Grit is what keeps you going when others have given up and is a gift that any parent would want to give their child. But how is this trait developed and what can you do to help your child in this area? In this series of articles, we will look at some of the theories behind grit, what helps children develop grit, how we at Traditional Martial Arts Academy (TMAA) apply those concepts in our approach to students, and then how you can bring those strategies home.
I have been teaching martial arts for over two decades now. Grit is essential for success in martial arts, and in this article I will share with you some of what I have learned. All students struggle with the ups and downs of learning. Sometimes it comes easily and feels rewarding. At other times, it comes slow and painful and is accompanied by feelings of frustration and uncertainty. In martial arts, everyone thrives when it is easy. Those who earn a Black Belt do so only because they have learned to not only press on when it is difficult, but also to embrace it as an opportunity. This is a mindset of growth-orientation—challenging learning is seen as a chance to grow and learn more than when learning comes more easily.
Fixed vs. Growth-Oriented Mindset
To help students access this growth-oriented mindset, my staff and I emphasize effort over achievement. We don’t remind them of the reward of a belt or certificate. Instead, we work to teach them a love of the process itself. We encourage them to enjoy not just learning new material (though we all love that as well), but also the steps that lead to learning: stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, practicing, learning from mistakes as well as failures, and engaging the challenging emotions that can arise from learning.
This is a strategy that I have used for decades now to bring passion to the martial arts experience that can leave the Dojang (martial arts school) with the student. Several years ago, I was delighted to discover Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher and professor of psychology who, for over thirty years, has specialized in the study of motivation. Her core work, a concept she has dubbed “Mindset,” not only confirmed what we at Traditional Martial Arts Academy have learned over the years, but also gave us a solid body of research to back up our methods.
Dr. Dweck contrasts the growth-oriented mindset with the fixed mindset. Students, when confronted with a difficult task, can have two primary reactions. One is to wilt under the belief that they have failed before even trying. The other is to embrace the challenge as an opportunity for growth and learning. These two patterns, fixed and mastery-oriented respectively, are common in adults and children.
Imagine I have a student who is learning a spinning kick for the first time. He approaches the task tentatively, looking at me and around the classroom with apprehension. He throws a couple of slow, wobbly kicks not fully committing effort to the new techniques. He then lets out a defeated sigh, his shoulders slump, and he says, “I’m not very good at this.” This can be an odd, yet familiar, perspective for a student to take. I have seen many students before this one struggle with something new, but with effort, time and guidance, they improve. As a seasoned martial artist, I have seen it in myself. In fact, a big part of the confidence martial artists project into the world comes from a habit of embracing the knowledge that effort and determination will see us through any difficulty.
So I tell our deflated student, “Don’t worry, everyone struggles with this at first. You’ll get it.” But my words do not inspire as expected. Instead, my student responds, “I have terrible balance, I always have. I’m just uncoordinated.”
As you may have already guessed, my student is demonstrating the fixed mindset pattern. When confronted with a difficult task or obstacle, these people exhibit maladaptive responses. They tend to show negative self-judgments, blaming their failure (or potential for failure) on poor ability or attributes. They also may take on a negative affect by showing anxiety or irritability, and stating that they are bored or simply do not like this activity. Sometimes, they will attempt to divert the situation by changing the rules of the task or brag about other things that they are good at doing. Finally, people engaged in fixed mindset patters no longer apply effective problem-solving strategies.
People with fixed mindset patterns avoid challenges. When obstacles are unavoidable, their performance will deteriorate. My student wilting in the face of a spinning kick may have been doing just fine with other techniques practiced earlier in the class, showing speed, power and confidence. But then when confronted with this kick that he perceived to be beyond his skill, he was suddenly a shell of the student he was moments before.
Whether consciously or not these students are very concerned with their ability and, ironically, behave in ways that limit their skills and growth. They will seek to emphasize tasks that highlight their adequacy, and avoid those at which they are likely to fail. Any experienced Black Belt has areas of their training in which they excel and areas in which they struggle. As invigorating as it can be to do well at something, it is those dark moments in the Dojang when an obstacle seems insurmountable that we learn who we are and what we are capable of. It is here where we grow, and it is here where a fixed mindset person fears to wander.
Strangely, fixed mindset students, when in areas of activity in which they are confident, will often perform better than other students. But this is because they have so much experience within their comfort zone.
Mastery-oriented people will show a very different response to difficult tasks. This pattern drives people towards challenges and inclines them to exhibit effort even when confronted with failure. Think of another student being presented with the same kick and having the same level of difficulty, but this student gets a very concentrated look on her face. Her eyebrows furrow as she wobbles gracelessly throughout the technique. On her second attempt, she barely avoids falling, but she laughs at herself and settles into endless repetitions—the rest of the room seems to have disappeared around her. Over and over again, she tries the kick with the same awkward results. She begins to experiment, trying to spin without kicking, seeing if she can keep her balance that way. She extends her leg without spinning, confirming that she can hold it at the correct angle. This student is breaking the kick down, looking at it from different angles as she tries to understand why she is not doing it well. From time-to-time, she lets out a deep breath and starts executing repetitions again.
Clearly, she has no more or less ability than the first student. But her willingness to commit effort, her seeming lack of concern about failure and her persistent application of effective problem-solving strategies will certainly have a very different outcome for her.
People with a mastery-oriented pattern see challenges as opportunities for growth and learning and are much less concerned with perceptions of their performance than those who are fixed mindset. When they are presented with difficulty, they do not seek to explain away their failures. In fact, they often do not even seem to register that they have failed, persisting in the task and adapting their efforts towards a successful outcome. When they hit an obstacle, these students create hypotheses about the task, test there hypotheses and then evaluate the results. They continue applying effective problem-solving strategies and may even develop more sophisticated strategies for the task at hand. Rather than judging themselves and their ability, their “self-talk” is more instructional, reminding themselves to try harder or to concentrate more. Throughout the activity, they hold a certain optimism that they will succeed and will even relish the difficulty it presents.
In this article, we explored Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory and looked at how a fixed vs. mastery-oriented mindset can impact a child’s performance when confronted with a challenge. Later in this series, we will look at strategies we have applied at TMAA when working with our students as well as how you can bring those strategies into your home. In the next article, we will explore how a fixed vs. mastery-oriented mindset impacts your child’s understanding of the world around them. This will help you better understand his or her choices and behaviors when problem-solving. This understanding is the first, and most important, step in developing a strategy to help your child strengthen their grit!