Ms Jo Duffy, Director of Sport
It was apparent to me long before I commenced my current role, that Girls Grammar is a school that prides itself on achieving excellence across a broad cross-section of disciplines, including sport. Flip through the pages of Mrs Pauline Harvey-Short’s history of Physical Education and Sport at the School, To Become Fine Sportswomen, and you will appreciate the legacy of the world-class athletes that Girls Grammar has produced and the fine tradition of Sport at the School.
The quest for sports excellence is certainly a worthy challenge, but how is this defined? Is it a QGSSSA premiership, a personal best or a gold medal? And, what if we fall short of our aspirational pursuit—when we miss a critical shot or falter in a crucial decider?
In 2016, I embarked on a significant personal sporting challenge and entered the Gold Coast Marathon. During a marathon, the challenge of overcoming your mind’s demons and your body’s physical exhaustion is unique. As the blisters swell and the glycogen stores are steadily depleted, the athlete battles muscle fatigue, niggling injuries and the tumult of the mind. I thought I was prepared. I had executed my training program and adhered to advice from some experienced marathon campaigners, so I set a defining goal: to finish in under four hours.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how my first marathon race day transpired. Being competitive, the disappointment of missing my 42.2km goal race time by a just few minutes annoyed me, despite the personal significance of my endurance achievement. In some ways, I had triumphed—I’m certain I ‘hit the wall’, yet I bounced back. I had won, in the purest sense, by putting one foot in front of the other.
The ability to recover and refocus after a setback is an integral component of sporting excellence, and is also an essential part of managing life, both at school, as students, and in our professional lives. If we think laterally, Professor Carol Dweck’s renowned work on growth mindset has a particular relevance to thinking about the quest for excellence in sport. Dweck asserts that individuals who believe their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies and input from others have a ‘growth mindset’. She argues these people tend to achieve more than those with a more ‘fixed mindset’, or those who believe their talents or gifts are innate (Dweck, 2016).
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Dweck reminds us that ‘when we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth … to remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers’ (2016). For young sportswomen, who sometimes doubt themselves when faced with a daunting opponent or formidable challenge, this is sage advice. If girls are conscious of this trait of human nature and imbued with skills to repel these triggers when they materialise, they are on the way to being prepared to combat any self-doubt. Indeed, sometimes they may find that their fears are realised—games are lost, or their skill execution falls short. From this, they learn that the game goes on, and there is always another chance to learn and improve. This aligns well with the sporting ethos of the School, where girls train intensively, test their physical skills and tactical knowledge within the safety of a training environment, and seek advice and constructive feedback from coaches and their fellow team members. They learn that it is perfectly reasonable to say ‘I can’t do that … yet’.
Equally important as attitude and self-belief, are the skills of being able to set, evaluate and re-set goals. Research into theories of motivation tells us that goal setting is essential to performance, and that the best goals take feedback and early results into account, while focusing on learning rather than performance (Lunenberg, 2011). For our girls, setting a goal to master new skills over the course of a sporting season is more productive, and has more comprehensive and far-reaching benefits, than merely aiming to win. Skill-based goal setting encourages proactive effort in areas that girls can influence, rather than tying achievement to the outcome of a contest in a highly variable, unpredictable match environment. What’s more, the learning goal orientation sets students up for success in academic and professional realms, both of which require individuals to be proactive, problem solve, be creative and open to new ideas, and adapt to new and changing situations (Luthans, 2011). Results are far from everything.
True excellence in sport is about negotiating the pressure-cooker of major competition. It is about working as a team to improve, through painstaking effort, rather than taking risks on opportunistic, individual plays. Just as important as the elite competitor, are those girls who have strived for this standard, yet fallen short of clinching honours at their chosen sport’s pinnacle. They too have embraced all that the pursuit of excellence embodies. Undeniably, sporting excellence is also linked to playing on with humility and dignity when a call goes against you. Proudly, our Girls Grammar teams do this well.
Sport challenges you to place yourself on the precipice of the unknown, where a mistake is possibly imminent, and beads of perspiration dot your brow. Often when we fail in competition, success is just around the corner, so the raw result is not the measure of success. It is our hope that all Grammar girls who play a sport strive for excellence. We hope that in doing so they learn how to negotiate the variable highs and lows of team performance, they practise the skill of losing with humility and trying again, and they emerge with confidence in their actions and enthusiasm to give their best at their next opportunity.
Dweck, C. (2009). Mindsets: Developing Talent through a Growth Mindset. Olympic Coach, 21(4). Retrieved from http://assets.ngin.com/attachments/document/0005/2397/Mindsets.pdf
Dweck, C. (2016). What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means
Lunenberg, F. C. (2011). Goal-setting Theory of Motivation. International Journal of Management, Business and Administration, 15(1). Retrieved from http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Lunenburg,%20Fred%20C.%20Goal-Setting%20Theoryof%20Motivation%20IJMBA%20V15%20N1%202011.pdf
Luthans, F. (2011). Organizational behavior (12th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.