Kids Fitness: Emphasize Effort, Not Achievement

It is important to focus on a growth mindset when working with kids - one that encourages effort versus intelligence.
“I can’t do it.”
“I don’t know how to do it.”
“I don’t like to do that.”

These are all statements that we occasionally hear when working with kids during fitness activities. So, as group-fitness instructors, how can we best support kids when they are faced with physical challenges? To answer this question, we need to look at a movement that has swept across educational institutions in America.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Three decades ago, while studying hundreds of 7th graders, Stanford professor Carol S. Dweck linked students’ motivation to the way they perceived their own intelligence. From her studies, she established two distinct mindsets. She determined that students with a “growth mindset” are considered to seek out challenges, learn from mistakes, and keep faith in themselves even when faced with failure. In contrast, students with a “fixed mindset” feel discouraged by failure and reluctant to take on challenges.

Dweck also discovered that teacher practice had a big impact on student mindset. When teachers gave praise for being “smart,” students looked for an easy way to continue looking smart, therefore avoiding challenges that may lead to failure. However, when teachers gave praise based on effort, students were more likely to look for challenges and learn from their mistakes.  Dweck’s studies reflected that 7th graders performed better on math tasks when they had been praised with effort comments, instead of intelligence comments.

View the graph The Impact of Praise on Performance After a Failure.

The Impact of Praise on Performance After a Failure.

Let’s now apply this concept to moments when kids are working on physical challenges, such as during their PE class, exercise class or their dance/sports practice.  It is reasonable to suggest that when kids receive praise based on effort, they will be more open to trying physical challenges, value their effort, and maintain faith in themselves if they “fail.” However, if students receive praise based on how strong, fast, or coordinated they are (the equivalent of smart praise), they will likely develop a fixed mindset that avoids challenges in fear of failure.

So, what can we as GFIs do to foster a growth mindset in our kids, which will lead to a greater love for movement? What can we do to help our kids “step” into a lifetime of fitness?


“How should we praise our students? How should we reassure them? By focusing them on the process they engaged in—their effort, their strategies, their concentration, their perseverance, or their improvement.” ~Carol Dweck


Establishing a Growth Mindset for Fitness

  1. Teach kids what “growth mindset” means. Discuss how brain research does indicate that our brains keep growing. Kids actually will love to hear that their brains are growing like a muscle! Explain that behind that growth is effort and perseverance.
  2. Create a culture of risk taking. First, make sure kids feel safe in their setting—meaning “safe” to share their ideas and be respected. A safe environment is also one that is not based on who is the fastest, strongest, or best dancer. Once a safe environment is established, kids can generate a meaningful personal goal that’s based on improvement, not final achievement. Kids can share their goals with their peers and even put them in writing.
  3. Emphasize challenge, not success. As leaders, we should choose physical movements that are meaningful to our kids, helping them to gain strength, speed, agility, flexibility, balance, etc. Portray those challenges as fun and exciting to entice kids to want to try them. Avoid easy, “boring” tasks that don’t present much challenge.
  4. Give a sense of progress. Make it a big deal when kids show progress and improvement. It will drive them to keep trying.
  5. Implement the word “YET.” Teach kids to add “yet” to their statements. This implies that their efforts will lead to progress, improvements, and possible achievement in a task. Consider the power of these statements:
    1. “I can’t do it YET.”
    2. “I don’t know how to do it YET.”
    3. “I don’t like to do that YET.”
  1. Focus on long-term success. Remind kids that many meaningful physical challenges take time to improve and accomplish. They may not experience immediate results, but through perseverance and improvements, they will see progress.

Remember the Big Picture

Given all of this great brain research on mindsets, also keep in perspective the big picture: we want kids to adopt a lifestyle of movement; we want kids to be turned ON to fitness, not discouraged or bored.

If hounding them for perfect form distracts them from having fun, we will lose them. So, while emphasizing the concept of effort and challenge, also recognize the need for fun. The balance between these concepts can be a gray area, so learn when to push them and when to just “let it go.”


What’s YOUR mindset? Do you welcome challenges and relish in improvements? Hopefully you do have a growth mindset. Hopefully your group-fitness instruction is driven with a passion for struggling and making progress.

This generation of kids—more than ever before—needs to understand that success is produced from effort and determination. With this mindset, kids will welcome a lifetime of fitness—a “step” in the right direction.


  • “Dr. Dweck’s discovery of fixed and growth mindsets have shaped our understanding of learning.” November 23, 2016.
  • Dweck, Carol. “Brainology: Transferring Students’ Motivation to Learn.” Independent School Magazine. Spring 2008.
  • Sparks, Sarah. ““Growth Mindset’ Gaining Traction as School Improvement Strategy,” November 21, 2016.
  • “You Can Grow Your Intelligence: New Research Shows the Brain Can be Developed Like a Muscle.” Independent School Magazine. Winter 2008.

Kids & Youth Fitness: Emphasize Effort

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