A Fresh Take on Player Development and Potential

September 19th, 2013 | by Dan Clayton

Is our understanding of player potential all wrong? According to an expert in development psychology, it probably is.

Every now and then I read a non-sports book with so many sports linkages that I can’t help but relate it to the Jazz or the NBA. I picked up Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck because of a work-related initiative, and found it really compelling in the way it describes the approach to growth by successful people in a variety of areas.

In short, the book presents two mindsets: fixed mindset and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that skill, intelligence, ability and character are commodities that are both innate and finite: you either have them or you don’t. You’re either a smart person or you aren’t. Growth-minded people believe that, while individuals are certainly endowed with their own talents and personalities, just about any skillset or trait can be developed.

You can see how this would change someone’s approach to personal growth. If you’re a fixed mindset person, there’s very little to encourage a lot of effort. Once you’ve been labeled a person with the intelligence and abilities to be successful, you now how very little motivation to prove anything – you’re special and there’s no need to risk losing your gold star by putting forth much effort. If you’re a fixed-mindset person who has been labeled as anything less than gifted, why bother trying? You’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’m no good at _____,” without even regarding the possibility that they could get good at it with a little effort and practice.

In fact, some of Dweck’s studies have shown that if you tell a kid he is smart, his effort level is likely to drop. Tell a kid, on the other hand, that he worked hard to solve a particular problem, and he’ll welcome the next challenge. There are some amazing developmental insights here for parents, teachers… and coaches.

It’s easy to see the sports parallels I’m heading towards. In fact, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call Mindset a non-sports book; Dweck dedicates a whole chapter to examining how the growth mindset impacts athletes and coronates champions. She points at icons like Jackie Joyner-Kersey, Pete Sampras, Muhammed Ali and, yes, Michael Jordan as people who overcame plenty of doubt and circumstance to rise as champions.

In hindsight, it’s easy to think that Jordan was destined to be one of the game’s greatest, but if you rewind far enough, you’ll see a point in history when he was a skinny kid who was cut from the high school team, rejected by NC State and severely doubted as a winner in his early NBA days. Today, we’re quick to deify him based on his athleticism and seemingly natural skills, but Dweck says that what really made him special was his maniacal focus on getting better, to the point where we hardly even remember the scrawny, flawed youngster who supposedly wasn’t good enough to unseat the Bad Boy Pistons.

Here’s Dweck:

We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary. Why not? To me that is so much more amazing. (p. 90)

Isn’t it though? The fact that Sampras and Jordan and Ali were just dudes with dreams like the rest of us until one day they made a commitment to work hard and grow is a lot sexier than the idea that they dropped out of the sky into a field outside of Smallville, right?

In fact, when Dweck quotes public comments made by these champions, it’s evident that they don’t think of themselves as superhuman. In fact, it’s not just that they don’t see themselves as some freakishly endowed mutant species; it’s that every comment that makes reminds us that if they DID think that way, they wouldn’t be champions.

None of them thought they were special people, born with a right to win. They… worked hard, learned how to keep their focus under pressure and stretched beyond their ordinary abilities when to had to. (p. 97)

The ones who do view themselves as entitled to greatness because of their special, fixed gifts rarely achieve the type of greatness we’re talking about. They don’t respond to setbacks because those setbacks are an affront to their fixed qualities, so instead they find ways to disassociate themselves with failure by finding an external source for blame. John McEnroe did this a lot: after a loss, it was usually too hot, too cold or too something. Compare this to Jordan, who very frequently would head back out to the gym after a loss to work on his shooting.

From that standpoint, we should be able to identify a fixed mindset pretty easily by listening to post-game interviews. The second we see a player, say, blame his teammates for a playoff series loss or throw the ball at his rookie wing in frustration, we might be seeing the signs of a guy who views himself and specially endowed and immune from the laws of growth and development.

Basically, winning isn’t a birthright. It is earned just like every success you and I enjoy.

If we grant this premise – and there are enough studies and empirical data to support her theory that it’s hard not to – then we probably are all wrong in the way we define players’ ceilings. We should be more cognizant of the fact that what defines a champion is not some secret DNA that we regular humans don’t have access to, but rather a commitment to development. We miss this because it’s easier to assess talent by looking backward, and in hindsight it’s easy to see Jordan and his elite-level peers across sports as naturals who barely had to work to become what we know them for today.

But guess what: they weren’t naturals, they were hard workers. Ali and Tiger Woods were so unnatural in fact that they defied and later redefined the prototype for their respective sports. Ali was so completely contrary to the definition of a “natural” boxer that he shouldn’t have given Sonny Liston and others many problems at all. But in retrospect, we account for the discrepancy by just remembering that he was a natural all along, which is intellectually dishonest and developmentally discouraging to anyone who doesn’t fit the mold.

So if we have it wrong, what does that mean for our Jazz players?

Most importantly, that it’s foolish of us to put a limit on how great any player can be – and even more foolish for them to apply those limits to themselves. The worst thing anybody can do is approach the profiles of these players as immutable or absolute.

That doesn’t mean Derrick Favors or Gordon Hayward will wake up tomorrow and be Finals MVP material. Performance forecasting is a rapidly improving science which tells us that improvements are likely to happen within a range and that transformations to the elite level are likely to be long journeys that require a lot of dedication.

But if any of the Jazz’s youngsters decide to double down and make a commitment to greatness like the ones made by Dweck’s champions, they can change their trajectory and start pointing to a completely different destination than the ones we’ve currently imagined for them.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton


  1. cw says:

    “The fact that Sampras and Jordan and Ali were just dudes with dreams like the rest of us until one day they made a commitment to work hard and grow is a lot sexier than the idea that they dropped out of the sky into a field outside of Smallville, right?”

    Nope. In sports you have to have a baseline of physical abilities in order to be elite. I am 6′ 4″ which is the right size for a guard, but in high school I weighed 150 and I had a 20″ vertical jump and I ran the 40 in about 6 seconds. Add to that my inability to dribble and shoot and you can predict my NBA career. No matter how what kind of commitment to work I made, I would never have played in the NBA or even in a division II college (I might have been a bench player in junior college or Div. III).

    But anyway, Michael Jordan was given super rare gifts that enabled him to become the player that he was. He could have squandered the gifts but he had the family and temprement that enabled him to fulfill hid potential: more gifts.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      Yeah, but that’s precisely what the growth mindset is about. I can sit around and say, “I’m no good at science,” or I can put in the work to get better at science. Or as one student put it in one of the studies, “You mean I don’t have to be stupid?”

      Put another way, let’s take your example – you could have worked on your build in high school and gotten to the right weight. Through practice and targeted exercise, you could have increased your vertical and sped up your 40′. Maybe you or I couldn’t have been MJ, but your or I had the opportunity to select a path for growth and commit to it as maniacally as MJ did.

      I play the guitar, but for years I told myself and others, “I don’t have the coordination to pick.” I only strummed. Until one day I decided I’d learn to pick. It took me months of practicing, overcoming, honing. I’m still no Tony Emmanuelle, but now I can pick because I decided it was important enough to me to reach that goal. That’s what Jordan, Ali, Sampras, Joyner Kersey did (although, admittedly, some of them were working with a different toolset than the rest of us and had a head start – but not all of them).

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