Mind Over Matter: Attitude and mindset

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In the last posts in this series, I discussed the importance of self-awareness for learning and improving. Having knowledge of your body, how it moves, and the corresponding effects of that movement is what helps us work towards our dance goals.

At the same time, it is important to maintain the right mindset when assessing or analyzing our own movements. When working with students, or sometimes even just dancing with them, I noticed they’ll suddenly make a face of disapproval. When I ask what the matter is, I get a response along the lines of, “Oh, I messed up” or “I did that wrong.” My partner is chastising herself for doing something other than what she wanted or meant to do.

The problem with this self-reprimanding approach is that it infringes upon our own progress. Our attitude and state of mind are directly associated with our ability to learn. This has been examined with respect to students in other countries who are studying English. One study of students in northern Malaysia found that attitude was significantly correlated with performance in English classes (motivation, however, was not a significant factor in performance). In fact, the more positive their attitude, the better their grades. A similar study also found that attitude was positively correlated with learning English, and even revealed that anxiety significantly and negatively affects learning. So not only does a positive attitude help, but stress and anxiety hinder one’s learning.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, studies people’s self-conceptions (mindsets) and how they affect their behavior, their achievement, and their success. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she describes two different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In the former, people believe that their traits and characteristics are fixed, and failures and incompetence are reflections of their deficiencies. In the growth mindset, however, people believe they can develop their traits through passion, education, and persistence, and they see failures as opportunities to learn and grow. They also pursue learning for its own sake, rather than seeking achievement to prove their skill and worth.

When we chastise ourselves for mistakes, we are adopting a negative attitude, and when we get negative about improving, we run the risk of reinforcing a fixed mindset – especially if we focus on our ingrained habits.

The trick is to adopt the growth mindset. To do this, we should first observe our movements objectively, without judgment. Recognize what you did as if it were matter of fact, rather than classifying it as good or bad, right or wrong. Then accept that whatever you observed can be done differently the next time – that the way you’ve done it in the past is not reflective of who you are or what you are capable of. After all, the truth is that while we may not learn as quickly as we would like, we can in fact learn and improve, with the right combination of motivation, instruction, and perseverance – and mindset.

A negative attitude and a fixed mindset can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy, whereas a positive attitude and a growth mindset can accelerate our learning. So stay positive, remember that you have the capacity to grow and improve, and enjoy the process of learning.

When you observe your own dancing, are you positive, negative, or objective? What do you do to stay positive about your progress and adopt a better mindset? Teachers, how do you talk to your students in a way that reinforces a growth mindset?

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