Cultivating Mastery and Success WITH Your Teen

by Chris Chiochios, LMFT,
Site Director at JLS Middle School

With so much emphasis on achievement and concern about our children being prepared and “ready” to enter adulthood and be “successful”, there is a hidden cost that many youth can experience.  This cost involves developing a mindset that becomes fixed on what success means and what it looks like to be successful, which can often be somewhat narrow, limiting, and detrimental to future success and functioning.  When success is lacking or setbacks are experienced, these “failures” are can limit motivation and resilience.  Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, has written much about fixed vs. growth mindsets in child and adolescent development.   A fixed mindset involves seeing abilities and potential as set (i.e. “you either have it or you don’t”), emphasis on looking smart (i.e. not struggle outwardly), attributing competence and self-concept to successes (i.e. grades, score, “winning”, etc.), avoiding challenges, possibly feeling threatened by the success of others, ignores useful negative feedback or constructive criticism, and giving up easily, if not easily “successful”.  A growth mindset involves a desire to learn, embracing challenges, persistence and resilience, recognizing that improvement and progress comes with effort, being able to learn from negative criticism/constructive feedback, and learning from others’ successes and/or setbacks.  Predominantly, individuals who are able to develop a growth mindset often grow up to be more successful, grounded, and well-rounded in their lives.

These ideas can be applied to many different areas in our children’s lives.  I have witnessed and experienced firsthand in schools currently, as well as in youth sports and coaching youth, how these 2 mindsets play out in terms of focusing on “just win/succeed” vs. “learn, try your best, and have fun”.  Obviously, we all want our children to succeed, to win, and to be successful at everything that they do.  However, there are fundamental consequences to holding a “win/succeed at all costs” approach.  In a recent article from the Greater Good website by Vicki Zakrzewski, she cited a UC Berkeley professor, Martin Covington, who said that “a fear of failure is directly linked to a person’s self-worth, the belief that you are valuable as a person.”  No one likes to fail and no one wants to be seen as incompetent or unsuccessful.  Failure can breed more failure if the conditions are such as to continue to perpetuate this dynamic.  Perpetuated long enough with little support or understanding, and this can become an entrenched and vicious cycle.  Yet, if the conditions are such that effort, learning and improvement, and bouncing back from mistakes are also a part of the focus, then the benefits and implicit message is one that is quite different.  Certainly, there is still a focus and emphasis on success and winning, but the key factors revolve around cultivating mastery and focusing on what is within one’s own control, and learning from mistakes and setbacks.  Mastery and success take effort.  Learning and improving, and realizing that mistakes are part of the process, feed this approach.  The main benefit is that we can help our children recognize what they can and cannot control. Recognizing what we can control can lead to decreased anxiety and increased self-confidence.

As I was preparing this article, I pondered this list that I received at a workshop with the Positive Coaching Alliance.  This list comes from the “Best Practice Coaching Guidelines for Player Development Staff for the Cleveland Indians Baseball Organizations”, which is cited from Charlie Maher, Feb. 22, 2013, communication:

  1. Know Yourself: keep abreast of your values, strengths, and needs for professional development
  2. Know Your Players: strive to understand them not only as performers on the field but also as people
  3. Know the Game: given your role on the staff, work at becoming a subject matter expert
  4. Take a Mastery Approach: guide each player to develop so that they can be the best they can in relation to themselves, not in comparison to others
  5. Communicate: be clear with players and staff about what you expect and how the game is to be played; have a way to manage conflict
  6. Motivate: encourage yourself, players, and other staff to set and pursue SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals and, in the process, to play the game with energy and effort
  7. Be Patient: stay in the moment and do not let your emotions hijack you
  8. Prioritize: out of all of the things that come your way, deal with the three or four items that are most important to development of players and your team
  9. Promote Quality: make sure that the activities, drills, and other things are well planned and implemented at a high level
  10. Lead: guide, direct, and interact with your players and staff- before, during, and after the game
  11. Enjoy the process: pay attention to the things over which you have control and influence, on and off the baseball diamond
  12. Be Consistent: strive to do all of the above by implementing an effective routine, day in and day out

I believe that these guidelines can directly tie into how we might approach, support, and cultivate an environment at home, in a classroom, at school, and within a community that promotes a growth mindset in our youth.  Whether you are a parent, teacher, mentor, coach, or other support person in a youth’s life, your relationship, your presence, and your approach and message matters.   What is important is that we maintain a strong belief in, and an awareness and understanding of the impact that we can have on youth by the way that we approach and handle performance.  Thinking about applying these principles to your role with your child or student can be greatly beneficial.

Vicki Zahrzweski proposed 3 ways that we can help overcome a fear of failure, and more of a focus on mastery.   One is to emphasize effort or ability.  Be specific in praise for things that your child or student does.  General praise can have the opposite effect.   This also relates to the notion that ability and outcome tie directly with one’s self worth.   Second, we can encourage self-compassion in the face of failure.   The ability to maintain a sense of acceptance and understanding about what happened and what could have been done differently to possibly influence the outcome are very important life skills.  This process certainly involves being able to utilize coping skills to bounce back and deal with the painful emotions that can come from failing.  Third, we can build and maintain positive relationships with our youth, whether they are our children, students, players, etc.   Through these relationships, we have the opportunity to teach, share, model, and impart very useful life skills, wisdom, and learned life experiences.   Madeline Levine identified seven essential coping skills that can go a long way in supporting youth in developing a mastery approach and weathering the expected ups and downs that life has to offer to us all.  These include the following:

  1. Resourcefulness– independent problem solving and learning that there are many ways to solve a problem, including being able to seek out assistance and support from others, especially parents and other adults
  2. Enthusiasm– approaching a task or activity from a stance of interest and choice, being fully engaged and interested in what you are doing
  3. Creativity– learning that there is more than one right way to go to solve a problem or issue, or to approach a situation
  4. A Good Work Ethic– being able to see a task, activity, etc. through to the end
  5. Self-Control– being able to trust one’s gut feeling or intuition instead of following the group’s decision, or peer pressure
  6. Self-Esteem– needs to be cultivated from within and results from two areas, competence (doing well at something) and confidence (believing in oneself)
  7. Self-Efficacy– the belief that what we do matters and makes a difference, involves “agency”, which includes how we put our beliefs into action

These coping skills can be of great assistance, but often require repetition, practice, and ongoing modeling and guidance from adults to become an internalized part of a youth’s repertoire.   Having other parents to share experiences and practices with can be very helpful, as can working with a professional.  The books cited below also have great information and practical examples and tips of how to implement some of these practices.   Ultimately, it is up to us as adults to facilitate and support the conditions that will help our youth to be “successful” in all areas of their lives.



Teach Your Children Well by Madeline Levine

Mindset by Carol Dweck

How to Help Kids Overcome Fear of Failure by Vicki Zahrzweski, Greater Good website

The Power of Double-Goal Coaching by Jim Thompson

One Response to “Cultivating Mastery and Success WITH Your Teen”

  1. Elizabeth Schar Reply June 8, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful comprehensive review of the opportunity to help youth discover their own competance.

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