Growth Mindset in Sports

Physical education, games and sports are a vital and integral part of a fully rounded holistic education. I also believe that for many children they also provide some of the most powerful and transferable experiences of what it means to be an effective learner. A child who develops a strong inclination towards a particular student quickly learns the natural connection between effort and outcomes – the more I train and apply myself, the better I become and the more success I can achieve in the sport.

So, as the concept of ‘Growth Mindset’ has developed over the last few years, it was important that specific attention be paid to its application in the area of sport. So, I was very pleased to see from this article that a book has been written on that subject;

Mindsetworks – Blog – Put Me In Coach – Growth Mindset in the World of Sports

Whilst I’m very keen to read the book, the article suggests that the writers have done a good job. One of the points that struck me was one where from time to time i’ve deliberately chosen to have provocative and thoughtful debates with teachers – how should children be chosen for school sports teams? All too often, the child with the high level of innate early talent gets called up for the team over the child who may be starting from a lower base, but who has the growth mindset and potential to work and strive to develop the technical skills.

The other thing the article talks about is the areas where sports coaches can sometimes have ‘blind spots’. Whilst they may pride themselves on a growth mindset approach towards the children and their technical skills and competence in the sport, they may harbour fixed mindset attitudes towards things like resilience, motivation and mental toughness. It’s important that coaches recognise that these are all things that can be learned and tailor their approaches accordingly.

Higher quality coaching that utilises and harnesses the power of growth mindset thinking can ensure that more children get more rich and rewarding experiences from their engagement with games and sports.

Get Outside!

Here’s a report which, whilst initially shocking, is not really at all surprising;

TES – Sir Ken Robinson Urges Schools To Help Increase Outdoor Playtime For Children

We can only begin to imagine what the implications are from this in terms of both physical and mental health. I even find myself wondering whether this has a whole set of implications that I and many others haven’t thought through yet. many in the medical field have suggested that, as science and medicine have moved forward, today’s generation of young children is the first with the potential to live a life beyond 100 years. What if the result of mistakes in childhood lifestyle, diet, exposure to sun and lack of physical exercise mean that they are actually the first generation that will see a shorter lifespan than those older.

There is no excuse for this. It shouldn’t happen. Do we have the willpower and the sense to arrest the negative trends?

Learner-Centric Approaches to Physical Education

I’ve written in the past about my belief that physical education should be treated as an important and relevant part of learning in school as much as any academic subject. It is absolutely NOT a period of light relief from the real learning, a break or even just a way to get children to let off some steam and physical energy, so that they concentrate better in the other classes. As we acknowledge the significant interrelationship between mind and body, we have to give PE its rightful place in school.

In the past, and especially in my experiences in India, the low importance given to PE has meant that very little regard is given to understanding how to integrate modern teaching pedagogy, practices and methodology in to the PE domain. Too many compromises are made in the professional development and accountability of PE teachers. Worse, too many school leaders haven’t bothered to take the time to understand the role and importance of PE and too many schools use PE teachers as glorified policemen to handle control and discipline, especially when the children are together in large numbers for assemblies and other gatherings.

So, when I come across good resources in this area, I’m always glad to share them. This is a really good podcast that I came across recently. It’s an interview and Q & A with Dr Stephen Harvey on the subject of Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). I would urge that not just PE teachers, but also school leaders, other teachers and even parents can gain considerable understanding of what’s possible when it comes to developing PE programmes that are motivating, engage all students ad lead to growth, development and learning for every pupil;

Dr Stephen Harvey – TGfU – Podcast

(For those who want to take their understanding further, there are some useful references on the summary page and in the podcast itself)

Exercise for Better Learning

Why deny children regular exercise, when the evidence in favour is so powerful?

I would put particular emphasis here on the word ‘regular’. I get very troubled when i see data or evidence in schools that suggests that the amount of physical activity the children are getting is actually dwindling. Even when they do gt physical exercise, all too often for administrative convenience it’s squeezed in to one weekly session, thereby significantly reducing the benefits.

Here’s a nice, short article that sets out in very simple terms what we know about the benefits of regular physical exrcise. Incidentally, this article isn’t even written to refer to children – it’s just as relevant for us adults!

Fast Company – 3 Reasons Exercise Makes You Smarter

It’s ironic that the volume of curriculum is often given as one of the primary reasons for squeezing out time for recess or PE. As the article highlights, our memories actually work better when we get good regular exercise – which should mean we can learn more in shorter time. Also, in schools there’s a very big factor that isn’t touched upon here. When children are getting good exrcise every day they’re calmer and more focused in the classroom – thereby significantly reducing discipline issues and off-task beaviour.

Not only does this make the classroom a more effective place of learning, but it reduces health risks for the children and makes the classroom a ‘nicer’ more empathic place. It’s really time to rethink the role of the physical body in the school.

Physical Education in Primary School

Body and mind are all part of one integrated system. However, until we see universal education that acknowledges this, we have to question the commitment to holistic education – development of the whole child.

I was once a speaker at a school event in India talking to a sizeable gathering of parents, sharing the stage with a senior policeman. I spoke first, sat down and then he got up to speak. In my short speech I had highlighted the importance of physical exercise and being active in terms of the overall development of a child. When the police officer stood up, he gleefully told the audience they should take full note of what I’d said because – “Look at Sachin Tendulkar! Your children can make a lot of money in sport!” I cringed. The full intent of what I’d been saying was lost on that audience.

So, we get a number of problems, especially in the Indian education system, when it comes to physical wellness and approaches to physical education;

a) The schools system is so wedded to the idea of education as the transfer of a body of knowledge from educators to pupils, to be memorised, reproduced and graded. There’s not much of the learnable ‘stuff’ in PE, so it’s often treated as an add-on in the day to day school programme. It’s given titles like extra curricular.

b) Most of a child’s day in school is spent being so ‘suppressed’ that PE lessons are seen as a thankful release and nobody is surprised that they’re treated as a fun break time away from the ‘real stuff’ of school.

c) Nobody wants to be a PE teacher. Children are taught for these lesson periods by people who claim to be sports coaches, rather than PE teachers. Even though classroom teachers, especially in the Primary years may believe in the ‘mother teacher’ concept (sometimes begrudgingly), rather than subject specialists, they would be truly shocked if asked to conduct PE lessons for the children in their class. They fail to see that this is completely incompatible with the idea of educating the whole child.

d) Too many school leaders also see sports, games and PE as the light relief from the real, genuine reasons for schooling. As a result, the PE lessons are often the first to get sacrificed when extra time is needed for other things. In addition, they will largely be happy if the children have some activities to engage in which are fun, they enjoy as relief and where those with the best, natural comparative innate abilities go in to teams and bring some accolades and trophies for the school to be proudly displayed in a cabinet.

e) The parents and the children also buy in to ideas of sports and games as what’s important, put those with initial innate talent on pedestals and fail to understand the connections between development of foundational skills, effort and practice and eventual potential in physical activities.

f) One result of this is that by around Class 6, those children not seen as having innate talent for a sport choose to voluntarily opt out of physical activity. This proves useful for the schools as most of them don’t actually have enough space for all these children right through to class 12 to stay physically active. However, it destroys the association between physical wellness and the good of the whole person.

I have had many times when I’ve challenged teachers that they cannot afford to perpetuate these approaches. They could develop the finest minds in their classrooms, children with the finest knowledge, the abilities to succeed in all sorts of examinations and academic pursuits. However, if that young person has their first stroke or heart attack in their 30’s, can the educators really deny the role and responsibility they have for the situation?

In way too many schools, pandering to all the misguided notions, PE lessons consist of children playing or, at best, being trained for sports like cricket and football. It might look cute to parents to watch 20 5 year olds running around a football pitch chasing a ball – so close that you could throw a blanket over them. However, it provides those children very little of what they truly need.

Even in adult sport there are many clues. One that I witnessed personally was to see Subroto Cup level football players at the high school level who couldn’t kick a long ball without falling down and then having to get up before they could start running again. I recently also heard similar issues from rugby coaches working with youngsters at the top level at club and national level in India. They needed to find a lot of extra time to work with these youngsters if they were to come up to sufficient ability. They lacked in body awareness, balance, flexibility and body suppleness and stamina – the sorts of things that form the foundational bedrock of a good Primary School PE programme.

People in India wonder why all the enthusiasm and the sheer numbers of participants don’t translate in to any kind of success in football. The country has a lowly world ranking, loses ignominiously against countries with far smaller populations to select from and has only even seen a couple of players able to make the grade to play overseas, even at modest club levels. Whilst nothing can ever be put down to a single problem, the lack of foundational skills development in primary school is a significant issue impairing the ability levels. The issues holding back ability levels in rugby are similar. There’s no question, the young people playing do so with enormous dedication and enthusiasm. They put enormous effort in to their training, especially for fitness and strength. However, the country is yet to see any kind of international breakthrough.

When you compare children’s primary school experiences with those in Britain there is one massive contrast. The vast majority of British athletes and sports men and women have come through government education systems, especially at the primary level. Most of those schools have little in the way of specialised manpower for PE and sports. Instead, they are taught by their regular teachers who see the physical development of the children as being as much a part of their responsibility as language or maths skills development.

Here’s a good 15 minute professional development training video from UK that gives good insights in to the kind of skills developed in Primary School PE classes;

An education system that tries to develop fine minds whilst neglecting the body will, in my view, always fail. The development of a healthy body is not just for the few who might go on to play a sport, but the start of fundamental life habits that can benefit every pupil throughout their lives. We have a long road ahead in our schools.

Daniel Pink – Getting Out of Children’s Way

This is a really thought provoking short video from the writer, Daniel Pink. Somewhat understandably, when you look at the comments on youtube, he's taken a lot of criticism for the views expressed. However, I believe that there's a great deal of truth in what he says.

When I was in school it was very rare for parents to show up on the sidelines of the sports pitch. During that time, our entire focus was on the pitch, on the team and our role within it. That was more than enough to think about. I know that one of my worst ever sports experiences was when my grandparents came to a rugby match when I was 11. Apart from anything else, I could tell afterwards that my grandfather wasn't impressed by what he'd seen and that really undermined my confidence and hurt a great deal.

On other occasions, I remember how important it was to be able to give my interpretation of a game, a match or an athletics race - having had the chance to fully assimilate it, think about it and rationalise it in my mind.

Attending a boarding school from age 11 to 16, even athletics sports day wasn't attended by parents. To me, it was a vitally important day and the focus of much attention in the weeks beforehand. I set my own goals and targets for the day, I trained, I listened to my coach and at no point did I have to worry about who would be watching. I recall on one occasion that one of my first races of the day (when 15) was the 100 metres hurdles. I had trained hard and was very focused when I got to the start line. The gun went, my start was good. By the fourth hurdle i was competing at the front of the race. Putting my all in, I stretched too much for the next hurdle instead of putting in an extra step. I just failed to clear the hurdle, started to topple and went down heavily. I scraped a lot of skin off a knee and one arm. I eventually got to my feet and jogged to the end to complete the race. I had completely failed in my first goal for the day. Looking back, I think if that had happened in front of family, it would have negatively affected everything else I was to do that day.

However, here, I was on my own. I was in some physical pain and the consolation of my competitors wasn't doing too much. I walked off alone and sat behind the pavilion alone for about 15 minutes. My internal dialogue eventually brought me around to the fact that I'd really done nothing wrong, but tried a bit too hard. This enabled me to focus on the other events that day. The result, by the time i emerged from behind the pavilion I was even more focused and determined. I went on to set a personal best in the discus throw and then a new personal best, coming second in the 1500 metres (beaten by one of my best friends who was a very highly regarded schoolboy athlete).

Interestingly, no trophies or certificates were given out on the day. The entire focus was on the competitions, the races and the performances.

The challenges that afternoon were mine. The eventual achievements were also mine and I had the clarity of understanding how I'd been able to turn failure in to success. I'm glad my parents weren't there that day.

Today, there are many clues of what's gone wrong in school sports. Sports Day is often referred to by educators and school staff as a 'show', display or 'event'. The focus becomes unhealthily on who wins, glory - as though somehow competing, striving for one's best etc. don't carry enough excitement. There's another clue in that most schools don't keep accurate records of the times and distances achieved (all that matters that day is relative performance against others on the track). This prevents a student from competing against self over time and also denies them the ability to understand what has been achieved in their school, at their age group in past years.

There's so much we can do to improve the sports and physical exercise experiences of children in schools. One of the most important things we've got to do is bring a real separation between what's going on and what children understand from professional sport in the media.

Physical Education in Schools

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. How about, all study and no PE makes Jack and Jill in to underachievers – even in their studies.

When it comes to the issues of physical wellness and physical education we really have got ourselves in a fine mess in the education field. However, I believe it’s time we started getting rational and working our way out of these things. After all, aren’t we, the educators, the people who have held ourselves out to have the knowledge, wisdom and experience to prepare children and young people for their future lives?

Yet, what do we see? At the worst such evidence as;

a) Indian Supreme Court has to threaten schools with dire consequences if they continue to allow junk food and drinks to be sold through school canteens,
b) Students convinced/ cajoled in to not being sport or being physically active because they have Board exams coming up, even when that sport has featured as a prominent part of their life,
c) PE lessons as the first thing sacrificed when a child is given remedial teaching (because the standard lessons didn’t meet their needs),
d) Withholding of right to do PE and sport as a punishment when there are discipline issues,
e) PE and sport programmes amongst the first to be axed in State education systems when there are budgetary constraints.

Less obvious, but equally damaging are the ways that PE is treated and seen in school as a form of ‘light relief’ that excuses away any boredom in the academic classes. Next, from a very young age too many schools and PE teachers are seeing PE as pre-sport, rather than as a fundamental subject that teaches children about their body, exercises it and stimulates it and ensures that it is flexible, adaptable, strong and supported by a healthy cardio-vascular systems to enable it to perform at its optimum.

Children move out from their classrooms for a PE lesson that might be 30 to 40 minutes. There’s a familiarity to the drill. The boys ask for (and are given) a football and set off to split in to teams according to their own rules. Some girls will take a basketball to the neighbouring court, while some others even in lower classes sit out on the sidelines having already ‘opted out’ of physical exercise. Sometimes there might be a bit of refereeing, maybe a bit of coaching, but a lot of the time will be pretty unproductive and some will involve learning some bad sports habits. Result – at best maybe 10 minutes of real exercise for those already most active. Many of the children on the field may be getting little more than 3-4 minutes of activity – not enough to raise heart rate discernibly or to give any real health benefits.

To me, one of the saddest elements comes because children themselves start to see the PE lesson as a way of separating out those who have some innate ability for a sport and those with none – the purpose being to determine who will grow to be part of the school soccer team, basketball team etc. When children get to Middle School (Class 5 to 7), consciously or unconsciously they begin to figure out whether or not they are going to ‘make the team’. For those who don’t expect to, the option is easy – opt out of being physically active and take to the sidelines as a spectator.

The education system has again effectively produced an unbalanced person, one who doesn’t see or experience the inherent interconnection between mind and body. Can educators really, seriously say they have fulfilled their responsibility when they turn out a young mind trained to excel in passing exams, but who has their first heart attack in their mid-30s or gets diabetes and lives a life hampered by a regime of treatment?

There is now more than enough evidence to suggest very strongly that it’s not even just the body we’re letting down when we don’t adequately develop the habits of being physically active in children. As the following Fast Company article highlights regular exercise brings benefits both mentally and emotionally;

Article (Click on link to read article)

So, in short, we need a renewed effort to an integrated approach to physical exercise in schools that respects it as something more than a precursor or sorting mechanism for sport. Only in this way do we have the chance of a future generation that benefits from this balanced approach to human development, has better mental and emotional health and lives up to more of its potential.