Test or Stimulus? How You View Your Workouts May Say a Lot About Your Overall Mindset

I’m working on a new book on the psychology of endurance sports. It’s titled The Comeback Quotient and it’s a sort of sequel to How Bad Do You Want It? As part of my research, I’ve just read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. You may be familiar with Dweck’s work, which has been mainstreamed by a 2014 TED talk and a 2016 NPR interview, not to mention by her 2-million-copy-selling book. 

For decades, Dweck has studied the practical effects of different attitudes toward challenges. She has found that some people harbor a belief that intelligence and other abilities are essentially fixed (“fixed mindset), whereas others believe these abilities can be developed through hard work (“growth mindset”). Those with a fixed mindset tend to dislike challenges because they view them as permanent judgments on their ability. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to like challenges, because whether they do well or poorly, they see a challenge as a stimulus for improvement. As Dweck puts it in her book, “The fixed mindset makes you concerned with being judged; the growth mindset makes you concerned with improving.”

As to the practical effects of these two mindsets, Dweck’s work has shown that, as you might expect, the growth mindset leads to greater success. In one study, for example, Dweck and her colleagues looked at the independent and combined effects of poverty and growth mindset on academic achievement in Chilean children. They found that, whereas poorer children were less likely than their wealthier peers to have a growth mindset and that they tended not to perform as well in school, “students in the lowest 10thpercentile of family income who exhibited a growth mindset showed academic performance as high as that of fixed mindset students from the 80thincome percentile.”

But wait: Isn’t it possible that it’s actually greater ability that engenders a growth mindset rather than a growth mindset that, over time, yields great ability? Dweck’s research suggests not. In another study, her team distributed jigsaw puzzles to a group of four-year-olds and later offered them a choice between redoing an easy puzzle or trying a harder one. As expected, some kids (fixed mindset) elected to redo an easy puzzle while others (growth mindset) to try a harder puzzle, but there was no correlation between these choices and the kids’ initial puzzle-solving ability.

Dweck’s research has been criticized by other psychologists for being non-replicable. My own critique is that, to me, the mindset construct seems over-general, collecting a variety of disparate psychological “fish” (self-efficacy, optimism, etc.) in the same net. Nevertheless, my coaching experience indicates there is definitely something to it.

I have worked with a number of athletes over the years who clearly viewed their harder workouts, if not all of their workouts, as tests, the results of which passed judgment on their fitness and perhaps even their ability and potential. These athletes tend to look ahead to their more important workouts with anxiety, to push harder than they should to hit their numbers on days when circumstances are against them or their body just doesn’t have it, and to hit the panic button when a session doesn’t turn out well.

It should be noted that endurance sports select for individuals who possess at least some degree of growth-mindedness. I’ve never met an athlete who did not believe he or she could get fitter and perform better through hard work. But some athletes are a lot more growth-minded than others. These individuals view workouts more as stimuli than as tests. Hence, they don’t get as anxious before important sessions, they don’t force things unwisely when circumstances are unfavorable or their body just doesn’t have it, and they are less prone to panic when a session goes poorly.

There are three ways I try to help my mixed-mindset athletes shift toward a growth mindset. The first is education. I explain to them, and thereafter constantly remind them, that no single workout defines their limits, that today’s limits are not their final limits, and that they will eventually get closer to their final limit with a growth mindset—all of which happens to be true.

The second thing I do to help these athletes is exploit their dependence on external validation. Initially, they want and expect me to praise them when they crush workouts, but I thwart this expectation by chewing them out when push harder than they were supposed to and reserving my praise for instances when they exhibit good adherence, discipline, and restraint.

Finally, I give my fixed-mindset athletes little mantras to use when they experience anxiety caused by approaching hard workouts as tests. One of my favorites is “Just do the work.” It’s an excellent reminder that the true value of a workout lies in the benefits it yields, not in what it says about your fitness or talent level, and that you get the benefits just by completing it, regardless of how good you feel or how well you perform. Feeling good and performing well are just gravy.