“Kids need to feel the ‘hurt’ that losing can cause”, “Why celebrate a silver or bronze medal?”, “Go for gold or go home”

Freddie Flintoff has strong views about celebrating ‘failure’ and he doesn’t hold back when he’s asked about celebrating a silver or bronze medal either. Nor did he have kind words to describe the Welsh National teams open top bus parade on their return from the European Championships in 2016 after finishing fourth. Flintoff was expressing his somewhat cut throat and frank views whilst recording a Pod cast for BBC Five Live alongside Robbie Savage and Mathew Syed (If you haven’t yet listened to these I would highly recommend them, you can find them on the BBC website).

It wasn’t that long ago that Steven Gerrard spoke on BT Sports about the culture of the bubble wrapped modern day footballer perpetuated by Premier league academies offering lucrative contracts and producing oversized egos with a lack of appreciation for the importance of effort. He talked passionately about his very own desire to be the best he could be every day in training and how that spurred him on:

“I was obsessed [with being the best]..“I was obsessed at moving people out of the way and going into the training obsessed at being the best player in training every single day. If I didn’t, I’d go home and think about it and try to do it the next day. You have to be obsessed. Even though they’re your teammates, you’ve got to be obsessed to move them out of the way, and once you’re in, they’re staying out of the way and not coming back. The word talent frustrates me. I love talent and I love seeing it, but these players need to understand the other side of the game: fighting, winning, tackling, going where it hurts, letting your lungs burn, really digging deep. The end of games when young kids want to give up, you can’t do that at Premier League level or Champions League level so, for me, just as important as talent is the other side of the game.”

Getting back to Flintoff, Savage and the Ping Pong Guy (the name of the Pod cast) Freddie was telling a story of a time when one of his former teammates, the Australian all-rounder Andrew Simons, was playing for Kent and the management had asked an Olympic Silver medalist to give a motivational talk. The Olympian opened by showing the team his silver medal and claiming that this was his gold as he couldn’t have done anything else on that day to win gold. Simons, a win at all costs kind of guy, as Flintoff describes him, stood up and said, “That’s the problem with British sport, you settle for less” And I must say, to a certain extent I agree and I feel that the one major contributing factor to that attitude is our whole-hearted acceptance of “it’s not about winning, it’s the taking part that counts” which is confirmed using Participation medals. But it would be a kop out if I just left it there.

The use of an external award (a medal) can go some way to diminishing the intrinsic motivation to participate. Furthermore, if a reward, in this case a medal, is offered to everyone who participates then what message does that send? “It’s ok, even if I don’t put the effort in I am still getting rewarded” Don’t get me wrong if the effort/s of one or several individuals deserve recognition then I am all for it, but to be handed out freely promotes the idea that a lack of effort is just as reward-able as giving everything! There have been numerous theories proposed to try to explain the motivation derived from external rewards, one of which, The Over justification effect, was coined by Deci and colleagues in 1971, it suggests that an expected external incentive decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. There’s something quite telling about that previous sentence, reread it; can you see it? An expected reward, i.e. “I know that I will receive an award after this game”, decreases their personal motivation to perform. The award becomes an expectation rather than something of merit. Why does that matter? Well, failure is part and parcel of life. However, we need to equip young players with the mental attributes to overcome failure, see it as a learning opportunity and use it to develop not just the technical or tactical side of their game but just as important, if not more so, the mental side. Here’s Flintoff again:

“I Could accept losing if I have come off the field and I know that I have done everything in my power to perform on that day and I trained and practiced well”

It all comes down to mindset, Flintoff is suggesting that he could accept losing but only if he had done everything in his power to win. Later in the Pod cast he comments, “that losing hurt” add that to the overwhelming passion and obsession to be the best expressed by Gerrard and I think we are starting to build a picture of the need for a Growth Mindset to overcome failure and build character and resilience. And when talking about mindsets who else better to turn to than the world-renowned Psychologist Dr Carol Dweck.

Dr Dweck suggests that there are two different types of mindsets, #1 A Fixed mindset, that is when an individual has, what they believe to be, an understanding of the limits of their own abilities. That these abilities cannot be improved, almost as to suggest that they have a natural level of ability and no amount of hard work and effort can improve them. #2 A Growth mindset, unlike a Fixed mindset, someone with a Growth Mindset believes that you can improve your ability and to that extent, learn or expose new ones. That hard work, effort and commitment are key to development and that failure is not final, but it is a learning opportunity. Someone with a Fixed mindset allows failure to define them i.e. “ I lost therefore I am a loser, I failed therefore I am a failure”. They are unwilling to challenge themselves, to take risks and step outside of their comfort zone and are more likely to surround themselves with people who they perceive to be of a lesser ability so that they can enhance and protect their self-esteem. You might be thinking, “What’s he rambling on about and how is this connected to this blog topic” A good question by all accounts but here’s how I see it:

Participation medal = Decreased need for effort = Rewarded = external confirmation for the lack of effort = no exposure to failure = see’s failure as acceptable = decreased motivation to improve = perceives effort as unnecessary = a slippy slope toward a Fixed a mindset.

Those with a Fixed mindset will do all they can to protect their self-esteem. Take *John McEnroe, a self-proclaimed owner of a Fixed mindset, he once blamed the fact that the saw dust which he was using for extra grip on his racket hadn’t been chopped finely enough. He deflected the negative glare of the media and protected his self-esteem by blaming something he couldn’t control. Why is this important? Well, the very idea that you would rather use an excuse to explain your failure than ask “what went wrong and how can I change it?” results in the fish getting bigger and the pond getting smaller. If we go by the theory that the ‘medal for all’ approach shelters children from failure and the hurt that losing can cause, then it would not be unreasonable to suggest that this could also lead them down a path toward a Fixed mindset.

Character can be described as “having the ability to dig deep when things aren’t going your way” (taken from Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck, page 92) having a Fixed mindset i.e. ‘things aren’t going well because I am not good enough’ prevents character from being built. It could then be said that a Fixed mindset is also objected to the belief that one can be resilient to challenge by using character to dig deep and bounce back from failure or meet a challenge head on. This would be so, because as previously explained a Fixed Mindset does not allow for the possibility that failure can exist by being unwilling to explore new challenges. If it did it would diminish self-esteem and would be a defining experience.

It’s less about the medal itself and more about the mindset that it can create.

*Taken from the book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. By Dr Carol S.

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