Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Winning Mindset

A Winning Mindset

By Dr. Randy Borum

(Article first appears in Black Belt Magazine, April, 2008)


No competitor likes to lose, but the best competitors in virtually every sport seize a loss as an opportunity to improve. Even if you do not compete in martial arts, you can apply the same lesson to any challenge or undertaking: You are not shaped by a particular loss or failure, but by what you do with it.

Research conducted by Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck has shown that most people have one of two types of “mindset”: Fixed mindset or Growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their positive traits and potential for success are essentially fixed. You have them – in whatever amount - or you do not. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset are more grounded in “possibilities.” They believe that positive traits and skills can be developed and that they can overcome failures to ultimately achieve success.

In rebounding from a loss, your mindset will affect how you understand and explain what happened. Developing some explanation – for yourself and for others - for the loss is usually the first step in determining whether and how you will move forward. Losing can be devastating for a fixed mindset competitor because they will assume they lost because they were “just not good enough.”

Georges St Pierre demonstrated the advantages of a growth mindset after losing his UFC title to Matt Serra. St Pierre consulted a sport psychologist who helped him realize that “it isn’t always the best team that wins the game, it’s the team that plays better." GSP modified his personal explanation for the loss, saying: "I truly believe I’m the best fighter in the UFC but, that night, Matt Serra fought a better fight than me."

When questioned about why he did not fight to his potential in that bout, Georges said: “I forgot what was my number one priority. My number one priority is to stay champion and being the best in the world. I forgot that. I paid for it, I made a mistake. But I'm the type of guy that never makes the same mistake twice." Remarkably, his conclusion: "I truly believe that this loss is probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

Being an effective competitor in martial arts (or doing any challenging task for that matter) requires that you develop faith in yourself and in your ability. Having faith means that you can believe in yourself when you are consistently landing your strikes and when you miss them. Faith “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Although you missed the last takedown attempt, you are confident that you will get the next one. The key to bouncing back from a loss is never to lose faith in yourself.

Different people recover from setbacks in different ways, but here is a quick formula that you can adapt to your own needs.

First, you will have to develop an explanation to “frame” and understand the loss. Try to explain it from a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. It is natural and acceptable to feel disappointment, but keep it in perspective and try not to let yourself wallow in it. Disappointment, not devastation. If you let yourself spiral down into a self-critical cycle, it will undermine your faith and confidence. Maintain your core belief in your ability, grieve the loss, and move on. Some athletes say that if you have never lost, you are not competing against the best people.

Second, develop a plan for what and how you can improve. If you identified any “holes” in your game, work with your coach or training partner on strategies to fix them. Reflect on your loss – not the emotional or self-critical element – but like an objective observer. If you were coaching yourself, what would make you better.

Third, envision that plan working. Once you have a clear explanation of what went wrong and an account of what needs to change, then spend some time visualizing what your game will look like after you successfully enact your plan. In your mind, take time to see and to feel the success of your plan. Image what you will be like when you have taken your game to the next level, then step inside that image. Experience the unwavering confidence and faith in your ability.

Finally, move forward with confidence. The loss was an event. You disappointment was just a mental event. It does not define you and it does not determine your future. Part of the “envisioning” is to set yourself mentally on a forward-moving path. That vision contains everything you need to retain from the past event. It is over and reliving the negative emotions will not enhance your performance.

Your task is to implement your plan with faith and a positive focus. Scientists suggest that the human brain is naturally “wired” to be negative. If you do not take control of your thoughts, images and emotions, you might have to spar a couple of more rounds with the “what ifs.” But you can thoughtfully direct what you say to yourself and the emotions that you generate. Reduce the negatives and create positive messages, images and emotions. With resilience, you can grow as a martial artist and create a mindset that will accelerate your path to success.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Psychology of Teaching Martial Arts to Kids

Psychology of Teaching Martial Arts to Kids
(Column appears in Black Belt Magazine, March, 2008)

By Dr. Randy Borum


All advanced martial artists and martial arts instructors should invest in kids. Not just because kids will determine the future of our sport, but also because they will choose our nursing home when we get old. :-)

Anyone who has taught or observed a kids’ martial arts class, however, knows that they are not just “little adults.” They often get into martial arts for different reasons. They learn differently. And they stay in or drop out for different reasons also. Effective advertising and marketing may bring kids to your school, but their experience, the climate of the class and their relationships with the instructor and other students is what will keep them there.

Over the past 25 years numerous studies have explored why kids participate and continue in sports. Having fun is consistently at the top of the list. They also want to achieve and improve their skills and to hang out in a positive environment with other kids (and an instructor) that they like. Winning doesn’t even make the top ten. Young people enjoy the excitement of competition, but winning isn’t the most important thing or the “only thing.” In fact, most kids say they would rather get to play more on a losing team than have to sit on the bench more on a winning team.

Participation rates in youth sports peak between the age of 11 and 13, then steadily decline through adolescence. The main reason that kids drop out of organized sports, research shows, is that they are no longer having fun. The other specific reasons that kids cite include a perceived lack of ability, too much pressure, and poor coaching. All of those things might understandably take some of the fun out of sport participation.

Parents are also a big part of the equation. Studies show that when parents support and encourage their kids’ sport participation that the kids enjoy the sport more, and tend to have more positive feelings about their own performance. On the other hand, when parents create pressure for the kids, it reduces their enjoyment and increases their stress about how they perform – both factors that cause dropout.

What are the implications of this research for martial arts instructors and parents?

First, when teaching kids, consider how you might make learning fun and enjoyable. This does not mean that you only do “fluffy” drills or never critique students’ performance. It does mean that you can choose to create an instructional climate in which kids are more or less inclined to learn and retain what you are teaching.

Second, consider how you can provide regular feedback to students about their progress. As an instructor, you understand the difference between effort, skill and ability. Young kids often do not. They think if they lose it is because they did not try hard enough. Without correction, they may just continue to repeat the same mistakes but with greater effort. When they continue not to do as well as they would like to do, they may conclude, they just don’t have the ability…and drop out. Young people - particularly in a competitive environment – may only gauge how well they are doing by whether they win. As an instructor, you can help kids find other ways to monitor and assess their progress and give them specific feedback so that they can focus on their performance, not just on the outcome.

Third, remember the power of specific, positive feedback. Being specific is an important part of making feedback effective. If we equally praise good and poor performance and effort, then it loses its impact. This may mean that you will have to look more actively and more closely for specific signs of improvement.

Correction will also work better when delivered along with positive feedback. Some have recommended a “sandwich” technique in which corrective feedback is embedded between two positive comments. For example, an instructor might say: “You were giving really good effort right there. Remember to keep your hips low on that move. Your timing is excellent.” In general, you can consider the ratio of positive to negative comments you make in any given class or lesson, as well as the tone and manner in which they are delivered. You might even videotape a class and count them for yourself. If they are out of balance, try to even them out a bit more.

Some research suggests that positive feedback from the instructor may be even more important for male than female students. This may be – as other research shows – because girls’ sport participation tends to be more strongly motivated by intrinsic factors – like enjoyment – than is boys’ participation, which may be driven more by needs for achievement and status.

Finally, martial arts training provides a venue for kids to learn and apply important life skills. Instructors and parents will model these lessons whether or not they intend to do it. How we handle frustration, how we treat and speak to others, and how we exercise our authority will not only affect how kids learn martial arts, but also how they navigate the challenges of youth and develop their character.