Carol S. Dweck

The Big Idea

A good number of years ago the American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, wrote a little, sticky sentence when talking about learning.  It was this sentence: “We must have lions in our path.”  In a general sense, Carol Dweck’s literature research review turns nicely on exactly that sentence.  Dewey was arguing that progressive human development depended upon facing challenges.  How we respond to those challenges largely defines the extent to which we become all that we can be.

Dweck’s subject is motivation.  Even though this review paper focuses primarily on children in the classroom, the subject of motivation is not so easily confined.  What we have here is a really useful distinction between two patterns of response to challenges.  The lesson reaches from the classroom to the pitch.  Of the two motivational processes affecting learning of all kinds, one is healthier (better adapting) than the other.  Knowing the differences between these two patterns of motivation will be a useful diagnostic to help the coach help the players help themselves help to grow.


  • There is more to effective player success than ability and talent.
  • Perhaps even more important is the question of a player’s motivational pattern.
  • Player praise or excessive simplification of practice techniques does little to facilitate player growth and development.
  • Taking a social-cognitive approach to the study of motivation is showing some interesting discoveries about how to help motivate children to learn.
  • There are two kinds of achievement goals: learning goals and performance goals.1
  • Children who strive to learn something new or master a skill are driven by learning goals.
  • Children who are preoccupied with their existing ability are driven to cultivate favorable judgements or avoid negative ones.
  • The learning goal children are considered to be successfully establishing and maintaining achievement goals.
  • The performance goal children are less likely to accept challenging tasks for fear of revealing inability given they are so focused on their perceived ability.
  • The performance goal children, by virtue of avoiding possible failure in facing a new challenge, actually deny themselves the very experience that contributes to successful player development.
  • A lesson? Recruit learners and motivate performers to learn.

The Research

If there is any single aspect of effective learning and performance that frustrates teachers and coaches alike it is motivation.  How often do we see players, for example, who have the necessary cognitive abilities and physical talent to pick-up techniques, tactics, or offensive and defensive strategies for success, and yet who habitually sabotage their own further development by avoiding challenges and risks? While this research paper focuses on the psychological factors and motivational processes other than talent and ability that affect success on classroom cognitive tasks, there is relevance for coaches who want to be teachers as well.

Research has already thrown a bucket of cold water on the idea of using effusive praise to create, hold steady, or recover adaptive habits in children; or that “brighter” children will naturally choose more challenging tasks or to persist when they face difficulty.  On the other hand, there is a good amount of research consensus that patterns of social-cognitive behaviour are a lesser known but significant aspect of the motivational process.

Taking this more recent line of thinking, Dweck explains that the social-cognitive approach has given researchers the abilities to do three things: to distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive patterns; to expose differences in their underlying processes; and to learn how to conduct first-rate interventions to positively affect learning in children.

Adaptive and maladaptive motivational patterns

If we want to better understand motivation to achieve—no matter what that achievement is, there are two kinds of goals to recognise.  Learning goals are those in which children strive to improve or master or understand something new.  Performance goals are those through which children focus exclusively on their competence; they either try to cultivate favourable judgments or avoid negative ones.  The adaptive and maladaptive motivational patterns simply refer to the extent to which a child either succeeds or fails to establish and maintain personally challenging and values achievement goals.

What is known thus far is that children seem to lean either towards a belief that intelligence in general is either fixed, or that it is malleable—kind of a nature or nurture position.  Children who see a fixed nature of their intelligence will more often than not seek favourable judgment (performance goals); while children who believe intelligence is open to discovery will pursue opportunities for development and mastery (learning goals).

Learning and Performance Goals Contrasted

On the whole, children with a performance goals mentality build their task choices and pursuits around concerns about their ability levels.  If they pursue learning goals they will focus on progress and mastery.  If the former, there is an almost predictable withdrawal or avoidance of challenge; if the latter, challenges are sought after and serve to energise.

With a performance goal mindset, perceptions of one’s ability must be high and remain high before a challenge task is accepted.  Perceived ability must be high before a child will put themselves on display for judgement.  Or, if they have a low perceived ability they will select easy tasks to protect them from negative feedback.  In other words, they know they will succeed before they even try a challenge.  Either way, the child is intentionally avoiding learning opportunities and at the same time is promoting defensive strategies to avoid challenges.  And there’s the irony: by avoiding challenges the child actually stiff-arms the very tasks that can sustain and improve ability.  This is a fragile situation indeed.

A child who is driven by learning goals will seek challenge.  For if their perceived ability is low they will choose tasks that promote learning how to improve.  If they have high perceived ability they will accept challenges in order to get better. They are less preoccupied with how they will be judged, more willing to display their inability, and they are focused on the process of learning.  This distinction between focusing on ability or on effort carries through to differing levels of satisfaction with outcomes as well.  Coping with failure—to be avoided as much as possible—is also difficult for the performance goal child.  The child who sets successive challenges is far less disturbed with failure because in failure there is something always learnable.  There is inherently far more intrinsic interest in achieving a goal when the learner is focused on the effort, not so much on the outcome.

So what?

There is more to this review paper than what was plucked out.  The classroom teacher would want to also learn about whether ability predicts motivational patterns; or about whether motivational patterns predict ability over time; or even the question of gender and motivational patterns.  But essentially, this paper is especially relevant to the world of sporting practice and play because challenge defines this world.  After all, there is far more depth of experiences in sport than in classroom learning because of the inherently competitive environment that defines sport.  What is most relevant for our Player Development Project reader is this fundamental distinction between preoccupation with performance or with learning.  In other words, in sport there are indeed lions in our paths.  The question is what we do then?  Avoid or challenge?

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