How We Apply Mindset Theory at Traditional Martial Arts Academy
In this series of articles, I have been exploring how Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory explains why children (and adults) react differently to challenging learning situations and how praise shapes the mindsets that lead to these differences. In this article, I will discuss strategies we use when working with children at Traditional Maritial Arts Academy (TMAA) that apply Mindset Theory. My hope is that in seeing concrete examples of how the theories can be applied, you will start to have a better understanding of how you can bring these strategies into your home.
I’ll begin with belts. Traditionally, the use of belts in martial arts was meant to support teaching: An instructor walks into a room full of students; she can see right away where they are in their training and teach appropriately to their skill level. In the West, belts have come to be more a measure of the person than a reference to their experience. Some martial arts teachers point to the motivational power of earning a new belt. If a student is losing interest, reminding them that they are within reach of new rank can inspire them to stay engaged and, of course, stay enrolled.
As mentioned earlier in this series, we at TMAA seek to put emphasis on the process of learning rather than reward of earning a new belt. But is using belts for motivation harmful to students? We martial arts teachers see students get excited when they get that new belt tied around their waist. How could that joy be undermining their growth as individuals and as martial artists?
We have looked at how people learn fixed mindset by receiving praise for attributes and by tying their self-esteem to performance. For these people, external indications of success and failure, such as grades or how they compare to others, describe fixed qualities about them. If they do well on a test, it proves they are smart. If they struggle with a new kick, it proves that they are clumsy.
The consequence is that, since they see themselves and the world as being fixed, effort should only be applied in directions of least resistance, avoiding difficult tasks that would offer the greatest reward in growth and learning. This is a condition that is diametrically opposed to what we, as martial arts instructors, claim to teach.
When martial arts teachers give students belts to motivate their interest in learning, they distract them from the inherent value of what they are learning. Students begin to limit themselves to what is required, rather than being inspired to be creative and to explore. Belts as the focus for motivation encourage this surface approach to learning.
This type of extrinsic motivation can tie self-esteem to external rewards. Earning a belt becomes the evidence of whether or not one is successful as a martial artist, and the color of the belt describes the level of that success. Yet most experienced Black Belts, while proud of their accomplishments, see their rank through the lens of the experiences it represents, rather than the praise it earns them from others.
I have seen many students over the years that have excelled at martial arts because they held a growth-oriented mindset towards learning. These are the students who are always asking questions, experimenting with different training methods and constantly playing with and deconstructing what they are learning. They may enjoy receiving new belts, but they show up for class hungry to learn and leave glowing with enthusiasm for the material.
If instead, a student comes to martial arts with a fixed mindset, they can learn mastery-orientation, and many do. This is made easier when both teachers and parents understand mindset principles and support the student’s development accordingly.
Is Praise for Effort Enough? Dweck’s Theories Updated
Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory has had a profound impact on education and parenting in recent years. People have seen the value of praising effort over achievement. As a result, teachers and parents increasingly are more careful to encourage children to continue trying, even when it is difficult, and to move away from attributional praise (“you are so smart”, “you are so athletic”, etc.). But there is an important element that got lost in translation. This missing part is so important that Dweck has recently come forward and worked to clarify her research for fear of it doing more harm than good.
What is missing? Being mindful of the objectives driving effort and getting feedback on the quality of effort. People have interpreted Dweck’s research to mean that all you need to do is praise effort and children will then be motivated to keep trying. But effort is meaningless without an objective in mind. And children need feedback to tell them if their effort is being applied appropriately. Without objectives and feedback, there is nothing to motivate a child through the boredom and frustration that can arise when applying effort.
Every day and in every class, you can hear conversations in our school in which teachers are giving praise for a student’s effort and giving them feedback to improve the quality of that effort. For example, you might here an instructor tell a child, “Your spinning kick is looking better—I can tell you’ve been working on it. You are spinning much faster, which is great! But you are still having some trouble with your balance. Let’s make some adjustments so that you can start improving your balance.”
And this is where belts come back into the picture at TMAA. Our standards for earning a belt are consistent. Students know what they have to do to earn their next belt and that anything short of those requirements will not be enough. So the belt can serve as an effective objective because it represents a specific, measureable outcome.
Furthermore, we set very high standards for the quality of learning of material for any given belt. Students know that not only will they have to learn new material, but that they will have to stretch themselves in order to learn it. Think of the two students earlier who were learning a new spinning kick. For both, it wasn’t simply an issue of learning something. The new technique challenged their minds and bodies in ways that required them grow in new directions.
Additionally, at every belt level, our students are required to set a goal for themselves. They fill out a goal sheet that describes what their goal is as well as what action steps they have taken towards achieving their goal. Whether or not they complete their goal is not important to these projects. Instead, the objective of the projects is to teach children not only how to set goals, but also how to create an action plan that will move them toward success.
The goals themselves are whatever the child chooses and do not even have to be martial arts related. What the goals are is less important than the fact that the child chose it for himself or herself. This gives the child a stronger connection to the goal and gives them the inspiration that increases the chance that they will see it through.
Children at TMAA receive praise and encouragement that focuses them on their effort more than their achievements. We seek to engage them in the process rather than motivate them with external reward. But we use the standards set by our belt system and the goal-setting skills of our goal projects to teach children to set objectives for their effort and to seek feedback on the quality of their effort. With this, children have a better understanding of how to apply their effort more effectively towards the outcomes they want.
In this series of articles, we have explored Carol Dweck’s mindset theories and how they relate to the trait of grit (the ability to follow through on a task, even when difficult). We have also explored how the teaching staff at Traditional Martial Arts Academy applies these theories in our approach to students. Now I want to look at how you bring these ideas home to work with your child outside of the martial arts school. We will cover this in the next, and final, article.
Our Philosophy Of Effort Over Achievement With Head Instructor Sabumnim Espy