The Science of GRIT and Why it Matters

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

There would be little argument that the topics listed below are important items that lead an athlete to a formula of success. The purpose of this article is to take a brief look at these areas and what science is beginning to show us. First though, take a look at the list below and rank the following items in terms of importance. (Disclaimer: there are no right or wrong answers. This is from your own perspective, what you value and what you think matters most).

1. Talent and natural abilities

2. Preparation and effort

3. Passion and perseverance (We can think of this as a person’s will to do something)

4. Self-discipline and self-regulation

5. Determination and Direction

How does your list look? Why did you organize the topics in the rank order that you did? How would you build your sport curriculum and training plan with teaching these topics included? If we think about this list as a periodization of training mental skills: the periodization is about teaching one skill, leading into the next skill, and building on from the next skill you focus on, talk about and teach from, just like baseball skills.

We all have an idea of what it takes to be successful. This could be sport IQ, genetic gifts, kinetic genius, hard work or even natural talent. However, having these skills does not mean those individuals are or will be the best performers. Science has been trying to give us a better understanding and predication of what it takes to be successful in school, sport, and life. If we look to science to help us identify the keys to high performance and success, we are led to the work of Dr. Angela Duckworth and her research on GRIT.

Dr. Duckworth has found that a significant predictor of success is having GRIT. She shares that “GRIT is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. GRIT is having stamina. GRIT is sticking with your future goals day in and day out, not for the week, not just for the month, but for years and working really hard to make that future a reality.” In our five-key model (listed above) it appears the third, “Passion and Perseverance” and the fifth, “Determination and Direction,” would be important traits to emphasize and develop.

If having talent does not automatically make you gritty, how do we build GRIT in kids? For an answer to this question, we look to Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. Dr. Dweck has focused her work around the question, “How does a person deal with failure?” From her work, she has discovered two types of mindsets. One she has termed as “Fixed Mindset” and the other “Growth Mindset.” Her work suggests we should teach our young athletes to be flexible in their thinking and avoid getting stuck in the rigid “all or nothing” thinking. It is suggested that we teach athletes and kids that failure gives us the opportunity to learn. Failures and mistakes are part of the path to success and mastery.

Science now shows us that our brain grows and changes in response to challenge. We are naturally wired to overcome adversity. How we respond to success and failure both as parents and as a developing athlete is important in terms of building neural pathways and patterns of behavior in the brain. Duckworth’s ground-breaking work on GRIT gives us insight on a few important topics.

To expand on this idea, we (coaches, parents, and athletes) in the sport world often get distracted by talent. We often think talent and natural abilities lead to effort and achievement. However, the problem with talent is that kids who are extremely talented in comparison to their peers have a hard time learning the importance of effort and hard work. Success comes easily to them. A little effort is given, and they easily succeed and master new skills. Unfortunately, the message that is received is that “this is easy-I’m a natural.” This idea is also reinforced by coaches, parents, and others simply by saying, “Wow! You are so talented!” Nevertheless, other athletes catch up or the talented kids are now surrounded by other talented kids when they arrive at another level (we see this a lot with college freshman). The rigid “all or nothing” thinking kicks in, appearing as frustration with fixed mindset thoughts like “I shouldn’t have to work that hard. I should naturally excel, and win, as I always have.”

We mend this issue by teaching that effort absolutely matters. The repeated message throughout the sport environment is emphasized by the celebration of improvement within teammates and recognition of effort. In regard to the display of talent, we recognize passion and perseverance. Focus can be on the thrill of being a baseball player, being in your athletic body, hitting well, running fast around the bases, throwing far, the pure joy in simply playing the game, and enjoying time with our friends. If we absorb all of this information and put it into a simple the formula, the formula for success looks like the following:

Success = Preparation x Will x Effort.

Additional information:

To check in with how you are doing with your own grittiness take some time to read, reflect and discuss the questions below:

10 Questions: How Gritty Are You?

1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

2. Setbacks don't discourage me. I don't give up easily.

3. I often set a goal bu tlater choose to pursue a different one.

4. I am a hard worker.

5. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.

6. I finish whatever I begin.

7. My interests change from year to year.

8. I am dilligent. I never give up.

9. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.

10. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.

Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. London: Vermilion. For more information check out Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book: GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

To check in with how you are doing with your own mindset take some time to read, reflect and discuss the information listed below:

Adapted from Dr. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. For more information check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry, and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.