Mental ToughnessSports Parenting

If you have coached long enough, you have probably said this about a player:

“He’s got a lot of talent, but he is just missing something.”

I have written on similar subjects in the past, and there has been academic research in this area. In all likelihood, that missing ingredient was often the inner drive and will to succeed, a burning desire to push on despite obstacles and challenges. Well, now we have an academic term to describe all of this.

In 2005, Dr Angela Duckworth, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, began studying self discipline. She measured 164 middle school students through both IQ and self discipline assessments, and then tracked their progress over a year of school. She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were better predictors of GPA than IQ scores. This self-discipline, combined with a passionate commitment to a task and a burning desire to see it through, she termed GRIT.

Duckworth then developed a 12 question test, which she termed the Grit Scale (click here for link to the test) that takes only a few minutes to complete, but has been shown to be an incredibly good predictor of success. From the National Spelling Bee, to college campuses, Duckworth and her colleagues found that their Grit scores were strong indicators of higher GPAs and better performance.

In their most remarkable finding, Duckworth and her team administered their test to an incoming class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, cadets already undergo a complex evaluation of academic grades, physical fitness measurements, and leadership testing, administered by the Army to predict which cadets will survive the rigors of West Point. In the end, Duckworth’s twelve-question Grit Test was a more accurate predictor of who would stay in school!

Now I certainly do not think that Grit is the single determinant of success or achievement. As I have stated many times, performance is made up of a variety of factors, such as talent, coaching, deliberate practice, luck, and motivation to name a few. Yet when I think of all the talented players I coached who did not make it, the missing ingredient was often very close to Duckworth’s description of Grit: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” They had talent, they worked hard, but they did not maintain their interest and effort long enough to become elite competitors.

On the other hand, I coached many players who displayed less competence at younger ages, yet often turned out to be the top players in their late teenage years. When I think about this, I truly believe that many of these athletes were forced to develop grit, for nothing came easy for them. They were often younger, smaller, slower, and received fewer accolades than many of their teammates. They possessed many limiting factors, experienced more disappointment, and had to fight much harder for playing time than some of their teammates. Many were not even selected to the all important “A” team in middle school. Yet the more obstacles they faced and overcame, the more grit they developed. Then one day, they grew, and all of a sudden they were equally fast, strong, and skillful. Yet they possessed an additional quality that their teammates did not develop: GRIT!

Any athlete that strives to play in college, or professionally, will face numerous obstacles that talent will not overcome.  The world of professional sports is littered with extremely talented individuals who did not have the fortitude to fight for a spot, maintain their fitness and discipline, and continue to work hard and improve. I think of Freddy Adu, the young American soccer prodigy who signed pro at 14, and was recently released from his tenth pro club at age 25. I read a recent story how, in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, Adu came in dead last in a 20 minute training run, behind even the coaching staff. He was not selected for the team, and his career has continued in a downward spiral since. Why? Because he had the world handed to him at age 14, and he never developed the grit it took to continue to improve.

My advice is this: if your child is young and struggling to succeed in a sport, help them develop the grit to persevere, and the love of the sport to stick with it. Find them a team that allows them to play, and have fun. With these things, if they have the talent, they will likely enjoy a successful athletic career.

If you are a parent of a pre-pubescent all-star, do you child a favor and make sure that early success does not prevent them from developing grit. If they are the best in their age, take them to play against older kids where their athletic advantages no longer exist. Put them on a team that does not win all its games so they learn to deal with disappointment. Don’t overlook poor effort and focus -especially when they win – because one day only their very best will yield results. Above all else, remember that if your child does not develop grit, the likelihood of high-level high school, college and professional athletics are quite slim.

Here is Dr. Angela Duckworth’s recent TED talk on Grit. It is only six minutes and worth a watch. Then, below, please share your thoughts on the role of grit in developing elite athletes. Can you instill it? Are you born with it?  Is it equally important as talent and coaching? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.


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