Art of Learning

I make no excuse for naming this blog post after a great book of the same name by Josh Waitzkin. It is a salute to a piece of work which triggered so many (painful) memories for me.

We all talk about players that should have made it in the game. I remember many who were outstanding when we played together. Players who scored goals for fun; players who could beat four or five men on a run; players who were just a magnet for the ball with their positional sense. Yet, none of them made it. So, why do players fall by the wayside and why do others keep marching on or develop late?

Carol Dweck has shown, at length, how a Fixed v Growth mindset works. Her research has looked at students ability to learn and ultimately master their trade. Basically children who link success with hard work tend to have a ‘mastery centred response’ while children who see themselves as smart, dumb, good, bad, fast, slow, poor first touch etc. fall into learned helplessness. This is the Entity v Learning theory of intelligence. I am in the middle of reading Josh’s book which very much gives the real life example of how this works. Josh was regarded as a child protege at chess and was acknowledged as one or possibly the best player in USA from a very early age. There are real clues in his early years of development. While other top players at the time were learning how to win, Josh was gaining an appreciation of the value of learning itself. While his contemporaries focussed on results, he felt this was very one-dimensional. They concentrated on winning and winning fast.These players won by memorising opening sequences and were displaying an entity theory of intelligence. Josh didn’t go down this route and was prepared to lose in order to learn.

In football, players with entity intelligence and a fixed mindset talk about results, not effort. They are the type who focus on what comes easy and ignore the harder areas of skill and technical development. You will hear them saying “I wasn’t really trying anyway” after a miss or poor play. They love to play against weaker teams and won’t test themselves against better teams and players for fear of losing. Players like this are praised from an early age as being talented as they are shown to be ‘winners’. They like to be the big fish in a small pool, however soon they become paralysed and can’t develop further as they don’t want to move out of their own imposed comfort zone. These early ‘talents’ are usually blessed with a good set of genes in which they may be stronger, faster or bigger than their peers. This early advantage is very telling where skill development may not yet be embedded in many opponents. At this point it all looks great for this ‘talented’ individual but then disaster strikes. Opponents catch up physically and mentally thus because they have a fixed mindset and are defined by winning then the problems are born. They start to lose interest. They start to avoid challenges and have a real feeling that the real world is a scarier place now. Their confidence is on a downward spiral. As Waitzkin says ‘Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth – if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser’

The long term effects of this early protege where we tell and define them as a special talent creates a fundamental flaw in their make-up. We have created an environment for the player that will ultimately lead to failure, disillusionment and them dropping out of the game.

Luckily, we have the benefits of research nowadays and all this points to creating players who have growth mindsets. This just might be the single biggest factor in determining where they end up. As coaches, ignorance cannot be used as an excuse. The data is out there if you care to look for it. There are books aplenty.I was once told by a great mentor that he had never met any successful person who did not spend a lot of time reading. The answers are out there and I would start by reading Josh’s book ‘The Art of Learning’  and Carol’s book ‘Mindset’. Although The Art of Learning is based on chess that is not what it is really about. A bit like this blog!!

For coaches who don’t have time to read books, I’ll make it easy for you in the diagram below.




Art of Learning

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