Marc Smith, a secondary teacher and psychologist in Great Britain, made the point in a recent blog article that Olympic athletes have something important to teach students about success and failure.

Smith points out that sports psychologists play an important role in the success of British athletes.  These psychologists teach athletes to understand their personal psychology as well as their physical capabilities, enabling them to deal with failure better. Students do not learn these same skills and are unaware of the relationship between success and psychology. In school, students are more likely to think of their intellectual abilities as fixed and unchanging whereas scholars have found that adolescent intelligence, here measured by IQ scores, fluctuates significantly. Dr. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has concluded that academic success has more to do with motivation and “grit” than genetics.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes that a person determines his or her own success or failure based on self-perception, some people possessing a “fixed mindset” while others having a “growth mindset.” People with the fixed mindset believe in pre-programmed intelligence. In this mindset, students label themselves intelligent or unintelligent, or a teacher believes that some students are innately more capable of success than others. A growth mindset, on the other hand, views intelligence as fluid and under the control of each individual. A person with this mindset sees failure as a temporary setback on the path to success and a teacher associates hard work with success in his or her students.

If this “fixed” versus “growth” mindset is relevant to athletics and academics, does it also apply to the spiritual life? When we pray with our students or join them on campus ministry retreats, are there those who have decided already that they are not very spiritual and will never be? Are there those who think that they can be spiritual without effort? It might be a good idea to point out that the need to persevere in prayer applies to everyone. Dragging oneself out of bed for Sunday Mass is a common challenge of the spiritual journey. Failure or sin is a temporary stop on the path to success if we avail ourselves of the Sacraments and other opportunities for grace.

From the growth perspective, discussing both the successes and failures of saints, for example, can help students see when, like sports and school, holiness requires determination and effort, and when only God’s grace is necessary.