Sport is a paradox. It is a finite game wrapped in an infinite game. You can ‘win’ a football match, a chess game, a round of golf but you cannot ‘win’ sport. It will be here long after we are gone. Just like we cannot ‘win’ business or health. They are infinite games and we need to approach them with an infinite mindset.
I have long believed that how we guide the pupils in our care to view winning and losing, success and failure is absolutely key to how they will view life in general. It is process versus outcome at it’s purest. In PE and Games we have the opportunity to expose them to winning and losing on an industrial scale. We can weave it subtly into every lesson. But it is where we attach the importance that is key. If a teacher or coach focusses on the end point, the outcome, the ‘win’ then they are engendering a certain mindset in the pupils. One that says losing is worth less than winning. And if you don’t win, you are worth less. It’s frightening how many pupils I’ve taught over the years that believe their ability is tied to whether they win or not and not many of those pupils are still competing at a high level.
What if we started to place far more importance on the process? The hard work. The doing. If you listened carefully to many of the Olympic athletes in Tokyo then you will have heard a common theme. About “executing a plan” or “being their best” and the result was almost an afterthought. “I couldn’t have done any more” is a process based conclusion that people playing with an infinite mindset are comfortable sharing. There was barely an athlete that placed importance on winning over being their best self on that particular day. An interesting fact is that the Scottish Commonwealth games team in the 2000’s were asked by a sports psychologist how many of them were at the top of their sports when they were at school. Almost none were. Top 3? A handful. The vast majority were around the top 10 or lower. And every time they beat someone above them who had placed their importance on the outcome, being a “winner”, they overtook them and those “winners” weren’t heard of again. They were playing an infinite game with a finite mindset.
So how do we make sure that our pupils approach life with a mindset that will see them flourish? It’s in the language we use. And we have to back up what we say with how we act. Perhaps when we win matches in the future we could claim that as an ‘ahead’ day. And if we lose, it’s ok, it’s a ‘behind’ day. They don’t last. Words and phrases like hard work, effort and excellent are far more powerful than talented, gifted or perfect. Praise a pupil for their hard work and the evidence suggests that they work hard the next time because they can. Praise a child for their natural talent and see what happens the first time they fail, the first time that their natural talent isn’t enough to succeed. Does that mean they’re not ‘talented’ any more? Of course not. But it might do to them.
But perhaps most importantly we encourage a mindset to play. We take away the importance of winning over playing. The subtle distinction is that in a finite game, such as football, where there are agreed rules and structure and a set time, your best thinking is done beforehand and you can only win, lose or draw. And you try to win before you start. But with play, all of your best thinking is ahead of you. You expect to be surprised and you adapt to that that surprise. It’s how the army prepare soldiers.
Ben has been a Teacher and professional coach of Football (FA Level 3) and Triathlon (BTF Level 3) for 16 years. Starting as a PE teacher and Head of PE in the British State sector at secondary school level he has taught in private prep schools for the last 10 years as Head of Boys Games, Head of Year and Director of Sport. Ben is passionate about innovation in education and providing every pupil with the opportunity to discover a sport that they can be passionate about for a lifetime. Ben is a keen Triathlete and has represented Team GB twice at the European Middle Distance Triathlon Championships, in his Age Group.