Attitude of a Champion

by Gary Fisher

mountain-climber-899055.jpgAttitude is an intriguing concept. What exactly does it mean? Moreover what makes a good one–or a bad one for that matter? Perhaps most critically of all, what kind of an attitude is required to be a champion? I don’t particularly mean a champion in trems of athletics, although that certainly fits the bill. A champion can be a parent, coach, teacher, student, worker, business owner, entertainer, or just about anyone. The topic is broad, and deep. But let’s take a swing at it.

According to Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Phd, and author of Mindset, attitudes or mental orientations come in two broad flavors. One is what she refers to as the ‘growth’ mindset, and the other is the ‘fixed’ mindset.  People with the growth mindset are characterized by personal accountability, and a willingness to fail and take risks that might lead to failure. One can be a growth mindset person in one area and fixed in another. In the main, people with the fixed mindset believe things like “I’m a certain kind of person and there isn’t much I can do to change that”. They might say things like “You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.” Conversely, growth mindset folks think “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are,” and “You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.”

In the book, Dweck cites Michael Jordan and his comment that he’s “never really failed” because every time he wasn’t successful “He learned something valuable.” Jordan had an iconic commercial in the 90’s in which his voiceover said “ I’ve missed more than 9000 shots, I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to make the game winning shot and missed.” Then he looks at the camera and winks and says “That’s why I’m so successful!”  That ad sort of sums up the growth mind set.

Next up on the list of attitude ingredients is optimism. The belief that you can be successful is paramount for winning. Optimism, like attitude is hard to pin down in terms of definition, but we know it when we see it, and when we feel it. Dr. Martin Seligman, Phd states in his seminal book Learned Optimism, that  “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” 

Seligman found that people who skewed depressive handled set backs and disappointments very differently than Michael Jordan, and other optimists, did. Depressives, and by extension pessimistic people, believe that set backs tend to be unchangeable, pervasive and general (the ‘everything sucks’ mentality), and personal.  Optimists tend to believe setbacks are a chance to learn, improve, and move forward- the growth mindset Dweck speaks of. They believe that bad things always have specific causes that can be known. They don’t take it personally, don’t presume it’s pervasive, and they used it as leverage for future success.  Seligman makes a strong case for the benefits of optimism over pessimism.

The Pessimistic Attitude
Pessimism promotes depression.Pessimism produces inertia rather than activity in the face of setback.Pessimism feels bad subjectively: blue, down, worried, anxious.

Pessimism is self-fulfilling.

Pessimists don’t persist in the face of challenges, and therefore fail more frequently and quit–even when success is attainable. (This should be separated from the Jordan form of failing where it’s used to catapult one to greater achievements).

Pessimism is associated with poor physical health.

Even when pessimists are right, and things work out badly, they still feel worse. Their explanatory style now converts the predicted setback in to a disaster, a disaster in to a catastrophe.

He goes on to say, “The optimistic moments of our lives contain the great plans, the dreams, and the hopes. Reality is benignly distorted to give the dreams room to flourish. Without these times we would never accomplish anything difficult and intimidating, we would never even attempt the just barely possible. Mt. Everst would remain unscaled, the four minute mile unrun, the jet plane and the computer would just be blueprints sitting in some financial vice presidents wastebasket.”

The plot thickens considerably when the work of professor and author Daniel Goleman, PhD is factored in. Goleman rightly suggested that there are various types of intelligence in his book Emotional Intelligence. He posits that emotional intelligence or EI, as he refers to it, is just as important, if not far more so than what we call IQ. He presents an equally  compelling case for optimism. “Consider the role of positive motivation- the marshalling of feelings of enthusiasm, zeal, and confidence- in achievement. Studies of Olympic athletes, world class musicians, and chess grand masters find their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines….and that doggedness depends on emotional traits – enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks above all else.”

Dweck’s research concurs with Goleman, saying that “Finding #1 about success” is that those with the growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning and improving. And this is exactly what we find in the champions.”  Finding #2 was that those with the “growth mindset found setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake up call.  Finding #3 was that “People with the growth mindset in sports (and in pretty much everything else) took charge of the processes that bring success–and that maintain it.”

The science is in. And it’s good news!  Once we know how we have to begin, we can focus on precisely those processes that make or break success. And that’s exactly what we’ll tackle in the next issue of THE MENTOR!•