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3 Shifting to Growth Mindset

Continuing to explore the cognition of our struggling athlete, it is important to remember that between her sport and school, she already had a lot on her plate. To make matters worse, her sudden injury threw her out of her plan for college recruiting, forcing her to seek self-help in hopes of being able to regain her confidence and self coherence on the court. The caveat is the kind of self-help she uses. As we know, the Self Memory System informs identity by guiding us to think about past experiences and using that to set future goals. When past and present do not line up, goal setting and motivation suffer. But the words we use to guide and adjust this process matter. And if the wrong words are used, the self-help could end up being detrimental to the athlete’s ability to gain back her confidence. This is why it is essential that she uses self-help strategies that are grounded in psychological science.

Regardless of the specific language, the general functions of a language are to communicate or connect with others and help ourselves comprehend what goes on in our lives. Humans are social creatures which makes communication a very important part of our lives. More importantly, communicating or writing about something can help people digest and understand what happened or how they are feeling. Our athlete could certainly benefit from some kind of handwritten journaling. Not only can this help her reach a cognitive understanding of herself upon returning from injury, but it has also been shown to improve overall mental health, which surely a busy student-athlete would benefit from as well. Writing has also been connected to behavior improvements such as better grades in college and faster acquisition of new jobs (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). Language can also help alter people’s self-perceptions as their cognitive understanding develops. And the words we use allow them to seek coherence and find meaning (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). In this athlete’s case, we need to make sure that the kind of self-help she uses can illustrate her working self as dynamic and change her fixed mindset to a growth mindset to help her rebuild her identity after injury.

As one might expect, neglecting our emotions or choosing not to understand them is not good for us. In fact, this form of “active inhibition” can be extremely stressful and exhausting (Pennebaker, 2018). However, as we already know, writing can help us explore these emotions and achieve a greater cognitive understanding of ourselves, which is why expressive writing is moving away from the inhibitory model and striving towards a cognitive model says Pennebaker (2018). We also know that language is a powerful tool, but how powerful is it? Pennebaker said that “people revealed parts of their personalities, social behaviors, thinking styles, and social connections through their word use” (2018). Another importance of word use is illustrated by the researchers that used causal and insight words in language studies. The use of causal words such as “because,” “cause,” and “reason” and insight words such as “realize,” “know,” and “understand” resulted in significantly larger health improvements. Back to our athlete, expressive writing and specific language can help enhance her sense of self and rebuild her confidence through meaning-making and adaptive behaviors. Keeping this in mind, the companion workbook is specifically designed to have spaces for initial thoughts and reflection writing before and after each activity.

One specific kind of language that can be used in expressive writing is called metaphoric language. Although it is literally false, metaphoric language can shape the way we think and help facilitate our communication (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). Metaphors have also been used to change behaviors. For example, one metaphor-based intervention encouraged students to adopt an incremental theory of intelligence, rather than fixed, by describing the brain as a “muscle that grows with practice” resulting in students who are “more committed to their learning goals” and who persevere in adversity (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). Metaphors provide a powerful framework for abstract thinking “by drawing on structured knowledge from a semantically unrelated domain” (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). Keeping that in mind, let’s explore how metaphors are structured and how they work.

Metaphors are like analogies. Metaphorical reasoning and analogical reasoning both refer to describing “how people use knowledge of one domain to talk and think about another” which brings us to the structure of metaphors (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). There are three main components of a metaphor: a source domain, a target domain, and the mapping between them. A source domain is typically more concrete than the target domain (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). For example, if “crime is a virus” is the metaphor, “virus” is the source domain, and “crime” is the target domain. Depending on how structured the metaphor is, structure mapping can be a mechanism of correspondence between domains (for more structured) or can be more of a byproduct of the overlapping of each domain (for less structured) (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). This model is dynamic and can have a variety of effects on people depending on the language, situation, and person (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). However, while people need to have some kind of prior knowledge and attitudes toward the target domain in order to make inferences, people’s knowledge and attitudes must be malleable because strong initial beliefs could interfere with the metaphorical mapping (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). In this article, many studies that were discussed used metaphors to cue something up or prime people to think about things a certain way or pay more attention to a specific thing (such as social cues or environment). This is how we can use metaphors to help our athletes. Similar to the metaphor mentioned above about changing a fixed theory of intelligence, we can use metaphors to help emphasize that she has a working self and a growth mindset, and can rebuild her sense of self as an athlete. In the companion workbook, language is carefully used at the beginning of each section with a specific quote that will prompt the athlete to think about the activities in a certain way.

Now, let’s look closer at how a growth mindset can help our athlete in rebuilding. A growth mindset reflects the belief that “personal characteristics such as intelligence, abilities and skills may be determined by hard work, strategies utilized, or seeking help when needed…” (Fisher, 2019). A fixed mindset reflects the belief that a person’s attributes are static and therefore not dependent on efforts or decisions (Fisher, 2019). People with growth mindsets tend to embrace more challenges and persevere in the face of adversity (Fisher, 2019). Growth mindsets can also lead to an “increase in learner’s perceived competence” (Fisher, 2019). This is important to note for our athlete because if she can change her mindset enough to where she believes that she is capable of high performance again, her confidence and sense of self will increase.

Another specific factor that can increase growth mindset is the practice of mindfulness. Saraff, Tiwari, and Rishipal conducted a study exploring the effects of mindfulness on self-concept, self-esteem, and growth mindset in undergraduate college students (2020). Compared to the control group, their findings significantly increased for self-concept, self-esteem, and growth mindset variables of treatment group 2, which had the mindfulness-based intervention (Saraff, Tiwari, & Rishipal, 2020). Mindfulness allows us to stop and be in the present moment. And for athletes, this is extremely important not only to their performance, but to improve their mental game as well. Especially at this point in return to her sport, it is critical that “the physical preparation can meet the mental preparation” because they are equally important (Pratt-Kielley, 2020). Mindfulness is the tool to help athletes prepare their minds, the same way a band activation exercise would prepare and activate an athlete’s shoulder muscles (Pratt-Kielley, 2020). The non-judgmental self-awareness and present moment thinking help ground and center the athlete which is extremely important when a nervous athlete is returning to performance after injury. In the companion workbook, mindfulness is the second main section where athletes can learn to practice meditation and mindfulness across several different activities.

Expressive writing, the use of specific language and communication, metaphors, mindfulness – each of these help our struggling athlete along the process of changing meaning. As athletes can learn and practice these things, they can learn to move towards a growth mindset and rebuild their sense of self which is the framework for this project. In the next chapter, we will continue to explore the identity disruption of injury and the rebuilding of athletic identity, more specifically looking through the lens of executive functioning.