Growth Mindset: The Idea Shaping the Eagles’ Offseason

Photo By Jeff Fusco

Photo By Jeff Fusco

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way— in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments— everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

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When informed recently that copies of her book were circulating around the NovaCare Complex this offseason, Carol Dweck was thrilled.

The Stanford psychology professor has heard the name Chip Kelly before, but she knows very little about him. Kelly and his coaching staff, however, are very familiar with Dweck. They’ve been using her 2007 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, as a teaching tool all offseason. The book focuses on the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

“A growth mindset is the belief that people can develop their talents and abilities,” Dweck said during a phone interview with Birds 24/7. “It doesn’t mean everyone’s the same. It doesn’t mean they have the same abilities now, but it’s the idea that everyone can get better with good practice, good strategies, good coaching.”

The idea is relatively straightforward as it pertains to football and athletics. Those with a fixed mindset believe they have a ceiling, that their talent will take them to a predetermined limit.

Those with a growth mindset operate without such boundaries and are able to better overcome failure, take coaching and develop.

“It applies to everybody in the building, from the coaches all the way to veterans all the way to the rookies,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “Each person can take that and apply it to themselves. Whether you’re a veteran who feels like you’ve been playing the game all your life and you know it pretty well, you kind of check yourself. Are you trying to grow? Or are you fixed in the mind frame that you’ve got it?

“Whereas a rookie, you’re coming in and you were the man, do you feel like you still need to improve to make this league? Or have you just arrived? Same thing with coaches. Are there different ways we can be going about this to make the team better? I think when everybody’s trying to get better, it just makes the whole team that much better as a collective whole.”

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The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Sam Bradford has admitted he thought about calling it quits. He didn’t know if he wanted to go through months of rehab yet again after suffering a torn ACL for the second straight season. But eventually, he decided he had more football left in him. Now he finds himself in Philadelphia looking to resurrect his career at the age of 27.

Asked if the emphasis on growth mindset has resonated with him, Bradford said: “Yeah, absolutely. Especially with my knee, it’s easy to get down and get frustrated and say, ‘Hey, I’m just worried about my knee. I just hope it gets better.’ But when you come in and you’re positive every day and you’re looking for other ways to improve… I can’t be out there on the field, but there’s a million other things I can do to get better. I think that’s what has really been brought to light to me. And there are things that I am doing to improve my game.”

Dweck focuses quite a bit on failure when explaining the difference in mindsets.

“In the fixed mindset, a failure means that you’re a failure,” she said. “It’s a test of your fixed ability and your fixed potential, and it says, ‘Hey, it’s not there, and everyone sees it’s not there.’ In a growth mindset, it’s not always necessarily a happy thing, but it means these are things you have to work on. And you don’t waste time wallowing in self-doubt. You get going on what needs to be done.”

There’s also an emphasis on process over results, an idea many coaches harp on. Kelly has been obsessive about this point since he got to Philadelphia.

In his third game as an NFL head coach, the Eagles dropped a Thursday night matchup to Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. That put them at 1-2 with a matchup against Peyton Manning and the Broncos looming. In the days leading up to that game, Kelly’s message was clear.

“The one thing I do know about it, when you do lose, you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” he said at the time. “That’s not going to solve any problems. It’s about putting your head down, going to work, understanding mistakes are made. If you continue to make the same mistake, that’s where we really have an issue. Let’s fix what we saw that went wrong on Thursday night and try to build upon it.”

Kelly has repeated some version of this philosophy over and over in the last two-plus years.

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Managers with a growth mindset think it’s nice to have talent, but that’s just the starting point. These managers are more committed to their employees’ development, and to their own. They give a great deal more developmental coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they welcome critiques from their employees.

Rick Minter has been a football coach since 1977 and made 13 different stops in the college ranks before Kelly called on him to direct the Eagles inside linebackers in 2013.

The 60 year old has read Dweck’s book and has been referencing it constantly with his players all spring.

“The majority of our coaches have read it,” said Minter. “We’ve offered it up to all of our players to read, and a lot of my meetings every day, I try to hit on something, just a coaching point or two, about that. Just to keep it in front of them and to keep it in front of myself.”

New defensive backs coach Cory Undlin has been referencing it often as well.

“At the start of every meeting,” said Jenkins. “It’s not just always about what we do on the field. It might be what you do in the weight room, how you take care of your body, sleep, everything. It’s just, are you fixed in your mindset? Or are you trying to continually get better?

“Each position coach kind of broke the book down to their position, and then it’s just been a theme that’s circling around the team, really, in everything we do.”

The concepts in the book most directly apply to players who are trying to perfect their craft. But Dweck writes a lot about management and leadership as well.

The ideas have led Minter to identify and accept new teaching methods.

“I’ll tell you this,” Minter said. “Before I came here, I was more of a fixed than a growth. I was more fixed, been doing it my way forever. Then all of a sudden I came here, got revealed a lot of different things by the way Chip Kelly does things, the way our defensive staff does things, and all of a sudden it’s opening up a whole new world through different eyes as an assistant coach rather than a head coach/coordinator.

“I mean, I’ve improved my teaching techniques. Never too old to learn new tricks. Tried to reach guys differently. Tried to have them see things differently, more clearly. …I can’t play on the field. So it doesn’t matter what I know. It’s what I can get my players to know. And the guy that has the open mind and the growth-oriented mindset is actually the guy who’s very, very receptive to being taught and to being coached. The guy who’s a fixed mindset guy is not gonna be coached very easy because you’re invading his territory. ‘I’ve got the answers, coach. That’s OK. I’ve got the answers.’

“So that’s what we’re training our guys to do is when crap hits the fan up there in the stadium, our guys can have their answers themselves. I’ll be there with them on the side, but a well-prepared team can answer its own questions and its own problems.”

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Isn’t potential someone’s capacity to develop their skills with effort over time? And that’s just the point. How can we know where effort and time will take someone?

The first time Kelly talked about growth mindset was back in April after the Eagles spent their first-round pick on wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

“It’s about guys that look to grow every day, exactly what the title explains,” Agholor said. “Guys that have a fixed mindset are the ‘I got it’ guys. Guys that think they’ve arrived. We have a team full of guys that just want to progress every day and grow.”

The Eagles take a three-pronged approach to scouting and the draft. They look at physical measurables and scheme fit, but also appear to be obsessed with how guys will fit into their culture.

Vice president of player personnel Ed Marynowitz categorized the third prong as character, attitude and intelligence.

“That’s really the hardest part of our job is figuring out the wiring and the makeup of these guys,” he said earlier this offseason.

“What we’re looking for, and I’ll use the term a lot, is we want guys that are wired the right way. So an old [Bill] Parcells saying is when the best players are your best people is really when you have something. That’s the type of culture that we want, where the best people, the best players are the guys that have the best intangibles. We’re big on culture here and the right fit. And I think it’s important that we continue to bring guys in that are wired the right way.”

There’s no doubt that identifying prospects with a growth mindset is a significant part of the equation. Once the rookies arrive, nothing is handed to them. Most start out with the second or third team in practice until they work their way up.

Tight end Zach Ertz has proven to be one of the Eagles’ best pass-catching options. He might be unhappy about seeing limited snaps, but Ertz now seems to realize he’s not going to get on the field more unless his run blocking improves.

“You don’t want a fixed mindset,” he said. “There’s always room to improve. You never want to be complacent or satisfied in any way. And that’s kind of what we want to work on each and every day, whether it’s blocking for me in particular, I know there’s room to improve. Even a guy like Brent Celek who’s probably one of the best blocking tight ends, there’s room to improve. And my receiving game, there’s room to improve. Just having that mindset where there’s something to improve each and every day. And ultimately, that’s gonna get you better.”

In the book, Dweck discusses the idea that some people don’t want to rehearse, they just want to perform. Those types of players don’t last too long in Kelly’s program, even if they produce results.

Dweck would make a lousy draft analyst because she scoffs at the idea of projecting ceilings with anyone, but especially 20-somethings who are just entering the league.

“The whole idea of a ceiling is a terrible concept,” Dweck said. “And also, even worse is the idea that you can know in advance what someone is capable of. You know what they can do right now, but you have no idea who or what they could become with great coaching and dedication.”

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True self-confidence is “the courage to be open— to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.”

Asked who introduced him to the book, Kelly responded as if it just fell out of the sky into his lap one day.

“I don’t think anybody introduced anything to us,” he said. “I think a lot of us just felt that way. I think it puts it in better terms for us to be able to discuss it, and most of our players here have that mindset anyway. It’s just something that they bring when they’re here.”

Added assistant head coach and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro: “I think it applies to all organizations. You’re just looking for people that are willing to grow. That’s basically it. How do I view this practice? Am I willing to take direction? Am I willing to take constructive criticism? Can I view myself in real time, and say, ‘Hey, I need to work on those things.’? It’s not like hocus-pocus dust or anything.”

Perhaps the parts of the book that best apply to Kelly are the ones that discuss leadership in business, best practices in management and how to foster a culture that encourages healthy debate.

“Groupthink can also happen when a fixed-mindset leader punishes dissent,” writes Dweck. “People may not stop thinking critically, but they stop speaking up.

“Remember, people can be independent thinkers and team players at the same time. Help them fill both roles.”

This is the challenge for coaches: Finding the balance between keeping an open mind and staying true to their convictions. Encouraging debate, but getting players to buy in.

Dweck suggests four key points for creating an environment that fosters a growth mindset:

1. Presenting skills as learnable.
2. Conveying that the organization values learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent.
3. Giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success.
4. Presenting managers as resources for learning

These concepts are central to the Eagles’ operation, and coaches will continue to harp on them going forward.

“We all need to realize that 10 wins is not enough,” Minter said. “We’ve gotta find ways to do more. And so if everybody, coach and player, reaches down and finds more, then perhaps the outcome will be better.”

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