Angela Duckworth is a professor at University of Pennsylvania, a Power Athlete Radio alum, and the reason “grit” has become an essential component of the coaching vocabulary. Grit is a prized capacity in athletes, and Duckworth literally wrote the book on it. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance has become an international bestseller and a paragon of pop-psych.
Duckworth’s research proves time and time again that high levels of “grit” map on to uniquely high achievements. She has tracked it in professors, professional athletes, army cadets and national spelling bee champions. To reach the finish line of any meaningful accomplishment, grit seems to be an essential component.
Importantly, she has taken an abstract concept and provided us with a usable definition: Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007).
In common understanding, before Duckworth and her colleagues took time to study and name it, grit was most commonly associated with effort and toughness. On a football team, the receivers might be referred to as flashy while the linemen were gritty, grinding away in the mud-stained trenches. (To be clear, there are plenty of gritty wide receivers.)
Popular associations and research-based definitions are distinct, and an educator should work to understand the difference. That is, if they hope to cultivate the quality in young people.
Before one can teach grit, one must first work to understand it. Duckworth’s definition includes three key components: 1) sustained interest, 2) sustained effort; 3) long-term goals.
The Differentiating Factor
A deep understanding of human performance will acknowledge that luck plays a role in high achievement. Good genetics, fortunate timing, and a trust fund might set you on a solid life path, but those things (obviously) cannot be counted on. Those are the exceptions to the rule. And in those cases – for example, in a pool of those with the genetic gifts it takes to make the N.B.A. – grit still becomes the determining factor for high achievement.
Talent squandered is a tale as old a humankind.
Have you ever heard of Shawn Bradley? He was one of the most prized recruits in BYU history where, at 7 feet 6 inches tall, he was a dominant presence. After blocking 5.2 shots per game in his only collegiate season, he was selected 2nd overall in the 1993 draft. As a professional, he is referred to as one of the greatest busts of the last few decades.
His genetic gifts kept him in the league for 14 years, but he was only a starter for 4 of those years, racked up an underwhelming 8.1 points per game, and was never a true impact player. Critics note that he never hit the weight room hard enough to fill out that 7’6” frame. Instead of being a dominant presence, he was pushed around by grittier opponents.
Nate Robinson, on the other hand, was often the epitome of grit. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, the All-Pac-10 performer from the University of Washington was considered by some to be an N.B.A. risk. He played all four years of college ball and won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith award, given to the nation’s best senior basketball player under six feet tall, (some refer to recipients as the nation’s finest overachiever).
Nate would not let his stature hold him back. The dedicated weight room warrior was drafted 21st overall by the New York Knicks, played 13 seasons in the league, averaged 11.0 points per game and is the only three-time winner of the N.B.A.’s Slam Dunk Contest (Michael Jordan won twice).
So what is the difference between the 7 foot 6 inch, 2nd overall pick and the 5 foot 9 inch, 21st overall pick? Some would say the difference in grit. Certainly, something within Duckworth’s equation (interest, effort, and the pursuit of long-term goals) skews in favor of Robinson.
Shawn Bradley is probably a perfectly nice guy and was likely a dedicated athlete – but it is important to highlight the success of the underdog. Nate is genetically gifted in many ways, but in a pool of people who are equally or more gifted, he found a way to stand out from the crowd. Stories of the 5’9” N.B.A. player allow us to recognize that luck and genetics are not the only determining factors in one’s success.
Understand, then Share
Educators see gritty behavior on a daily basis. Students might put in long hours of study, forego activities they enjoy (like watching T.V.), and bundle themselves up to brave the cold during their winter commute in the name of academic achievement. Their effort might be aimed at good grades, performing well on standardized tests, or earning a college acceptance. Those same students might want to make a varsity sports team, secure a leading role in the school play, or develop meaningful relationships with their peers.
All of these tasks require grit.
For some, swapping The Simpsons for a science textbook is simple. It comes naturally to them. But for most, developing the skill of grit would be wildly beneficial.
How?? In our professional development workshops at The Good Athlete Project, coaches often look for advice on how to build a grittier team. They want their athletes to demonstrate toughness and give more effort. Intense pursuit of that abstract notion, try harder, can lead many coaches to burn out.
Grit does not have to be an abstract concept. Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have defined it for us. As previously mentioned, Duckworth’s definition includes three key components: 1) sustained interest, 2) sustained effort; 3) long-term goals. In the absence of these, a behavior cannot be considered a strict demonstration of grit.
Here’s where the work comes in…
Coaches must work to identify the interests of their group. It is important to ask athletes what they want and what they like – oftentimes they must investigate beyond the sport – and listen to their feedback with genuine interest. If a coach regularly imposes their own ideals on a team, then that team is less likely to display grit. Though it is not impossible, it is harder to display grit in pursuit of someone else’s interests.
After all, to motivate someone to do anything, you first have to align with their motives.
The second step in the grit process is effort. Remember that this cannot be effort for effort’s sake – it has to be effort in pursuit of long-term goals. It is the coach’s job to identify why the athlete should finish their sprint through the line, why they should squat heavy, push hard, and do uncomfortable things.
Frame the importance of an athlete finishing a sprint through the line in the context of their goal. Explain how important those final few steps can be to the outcome of a game. If, at the end of a football game, two athletes are running down the field – one chasing the other, equally exhausted – then the differentiating factor in the game’s outcome might be as simple as not stopping.
We often ask our athletes to be aware of the moments when they feel the instinct to throttle down. Are they doing it to conserve energy? Or, are they indulging their desire for comfort? Energy conservation is part of sport. But if an athlete can recognize when there are simply avoiding challenge, we teach them to identify that as a differentiating moment – an opportunity to display grit when others would not.
If you keep going when your opponent pulls up, you win.
A Continued Effort
Building grit is a process. As with all psychological skills, it cannot be owned, it must be regularly cultivated, reevaluated, and consciously enlisted. An athlete does not wake up one day and have grit. They build a capacity for it. And they must keep building.
Some days will be harder than others. In certain circumstances, one’s reservoir of grit can be tapped by lunchtime. But the gritty do their best to keep going – it is a paradoxical relationship that can be self-propelling. When one’s grit is drained, they might have to remind themselves of their long-term goals, stoke their interest in that goal, then dig deeper. In that digging, they increase their capacity to put forth effort.
In being gritty, they build grit.
A coach once said to me that “the only way to get tough is to do tough things.” It makes sense. Experience matters. As long as those tough things are interesting to the person performing them, and if those tough things align with their long-term goals, then Angela Duckworth might also agree.
Reach Out as Needed
This is the sort of work we do at the Good Athlete Project. If you’re looking to talk through the complex issues on your team, reach out to us. If you’d like to host a team workshop, we’re in. Find us at goodathleteproject.com, @goodathleteproject on Instagram, or reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PODCAST: PA RADIO EPISODE 242 – Jim Davis’s Good Athlete Project
PODCAST: PA RADIO EPISODE 301 – Angela Duckworth Talks Grit
BLOG: How to Empower Uncoachable Kids w/ Effective Influence by Jim Davis
BLOG: High School Weight Room Management by Jim Davis
EDU: Trainers Course – Power Athlete Academy
Jim is a former professional football player and champion powerlifter turned author, educator, and coach. He is the founding director of the Good Athlete Project (@goodathleteproject), Director of the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (@ihspla), and the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School (@ntstrength), where he runs one of the nation’s largest strength programs. He was the 2018 NASA National Coach of the Year and has recently been recognized as a 2020 Semper Fidelis All-American Mentor by the U.S. Marines. His keynote and invited presentations have taken him all around the world (from L.A. to Ireland to Haiti) and his writing has been published in the Harvard Crimson, the Orlando Sentinel, the Psychologist, World of Psychology, and the USOC Coaching Magazine, among other journals. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. Find him on Instagram @jimdavis.art
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