One of the most impactful attributes sports can help athletes improve is their grit or resiliency. Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Duckworth studied more than 11,000 West Point cadets. Her research found that grit was a better predictor of whether a cadet would graduate from West Point than strength or brain power. In the sports context, skills are important but it is likely that the ability to continue to stand firm and keep trying despite setback is equally or more important. Many athletes have the skills to play college athletics, but the biggest differentiator, at least from my personal experience, tends to be the athlete’s ability to press on when challenges arise.
Inter-relating passion with perseverance in Duckworth’s definition of grit is interesting and also very relevant to the sporting experience. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between passion and one’s ability to persevere. I’ve never seen an athlete that lacked passion for their sport be able to consistently and with the right energy, approach offseason training. I too often seem them stumble when the road gets rocky. When you lack passion, perseverance in sport becomes near impossible.
When we understand the fundamental importance of passion, it perhaps becomes easier to understand the foundational blocks that parents and coaches need to put into place for their athletes. From the very youngest ages, parents, coaches, and program administrators need to encourage play and let athlete’s develop autonomy and ownership for their sporting experience. This is crucial if we want to raise up athletes with high degrees of grit!
Encourage play as a way to build passion for sport. Parents should look for programs that emphasize play as the main teaching method for youth athletes. If they can’t find associations or community programs that do this, they should create play groups with neighbors and friends. From practically the time a child can walk and throughout childhood, at least up until age 13, athletes should spend hundreds of hours in unstructured play every year. Combining sport and active outdoor play should equate to five hundred hours (or more) per year. Play helps build passion but it also helps athletes learn how to focus longer. Children involved in play are able to maintain focus on a given task longer than when they are involved in more mundane and rote tasks. Play implicitly teaches children how to do something for a longer time than they otherwise would. I believe this likely translates to one’s ability to deliberately practice something in the future.
Give athletes autonomy of their engagement in sport. It’s hard to be disciplined to do something when you don’t have any autonomy over the process. Play is so important because it gives athletes autonomy. They can choose to switch up the rules or change games. When we take away autonomy, the coach and parent own the experience. Without ownership of the journey, how far do you think an athlete will be willing to go to succeed? How many obstacles will they knock down simply to satisfy someone else?
After athletes develop this absolutely crucial base of passion for sport and ownership for their success in it, we then can maximize our return on grit investment. The following are some general principles and tangible action steps coaches, parents, and program administrators can take to help athletes develop grit!
Push athletes beyond their comfort zones through high intensity practice and behavioral expectations. I am often asked how to help athletes learn how to work harder. To some extent, their ability to do both of these things is related to their personality and innate interests and degree to which they were given opportunities to play as younger athletes. However, in many cases, parents and coaches are thinking about developing the “hard work habit” from a short-term perspective. It’s as if a team huddle discussing the need to work hard or even a coach’s exhortations to work harder will magically teach athletes to just work harder. The issue here is that athletes often don’t understand how much harder they can push. They artificial limit themselves, as all adults do as well. Learning to work harder and have more grit seems to be more of an implicit rather than explicit process. When you take a team and push them just beyond their comfort zone through conditioning or some competitive pursuit, each player implicitly learns that they can get through something that was previously considered near impossible. The new comfort zone is extended by the realization that they can do more and therefore are more comfortable with greater demands. This done consistently training session after training session, year over year, can absolutely transform young athletes!
Let them fail but do not let them give up. When your athlete fails – and they will fail – use it as a learning opportunity to dig deeper, train harder, and push themselves more. Even if the failure is, in your opinion, unjustified. That is even better and possibly more reflective of the challenges they will face as adults. What are you going to do when faced with unjustified failure caused by externalities you cannot control? You won’t quit, if that’s what you’ve been taught to do. When this happens, athletes become grittier. Then someday when they “fail” a class because the professor was biased against them or miss on a promotion at work because of an unfair assessment of their abilities, they won’t quit.
Set goals. Setting goals can help develop grit because it helps athletes consider long-term impacts of their daily actions. When I sit down with athletes I’m always amazed at the lack of understanding as it relates to goal setting. They want to get stronger but can’t define it. They can’t articulate a future end-state that is tangible, specific, and measurable. It’s hard to persevere when you don’t even know where you are trying to go! By outlining the steps to reach your goals, you demystify the journey. A little light along the path reduces the likelihood that you’ll stumble and veer off course.
Find a mentor. No journey is done entirely alone. Mentors can help athletes stay accountable when adversity gets difficult and they can help encourage an athlete and guide them through the difficult times. They can also help identify future pitfalls, and help athletes set goals that’ll be more attainable and better outlined.
Read books, nonfiction or fiction, that highlight individuals who persevered and displayed high degrees of grit. Understanding what other people have endured, how they have succeeded, and what they did to overcome trials and tribulations helps all of us. We are inspired when we see other people succeed. We also learn tangible lessons from others that often can’t simply be taught outside of a story’s alluring narrative. Find books that that teach grit through story and example.