When an Olympian Has No Grit.



What comes to mind? An athlete pushing through pain and fatigue. A potential Navy Seal surviving “Hell Week.” Or for the more research savvy amongst us, Angela Duckworth’s definition of Passion + Perseverance.

When I began thinking about writing Do Hard Things, my attempt to redefine toughness, I knew where to start. I looked back in my files for a survey I conducted long ago.

Early in my coaching career, I utilized a validated survey to assess the level of “Grit” of a smattering of college and professional athletes who I knew well or worked with. I fully expected that the athletes who I thought were tougher, more consistent, and ultimately faster would score higher on Grit. After all, this was during the beginning of the hype train on Grit. I’d read how it separated those who made it and those who didn’t. Of course, the Olympians in the group would score higher than the college walk-ons!

As I sat there waiting for the surveys to be completed, I wondered if I could predict the results. After all, I’d watched many of them train, workout, and race week in and out. Who showed up when conditions were rough, who bounced back from failure or fatigue, who tended to push when suffering was at its highest? Those would be the gritty athletes.

When the results came back, my initial hypothesis proved wrong. When ranked from fastest to slowest, there was no discernible pattern. Better runners weren’t any grittier than their slower counterparts. A national champion was just as likely to score low in grit as a walk-on was to score high.

What was going on?

As I searched for answers, talking to different athletes and coaches about why they answered the way they did, a pattern emerged. Stories were the driver. When asked about their reasoning, they’d recall instances where they overcame a challenge, or ‘gave in’ instead of pushed through.  The national champion who rated themselves low would get caught up on how they had ‘choked’ at an NCAA championship or an Olympic Trials, not even registering the dozens of other performances where they exceeded expectations.

Our perception of grit, toughness, resilience, or whatever attribute you want to evaluate is heavily influenced by memories of the spectacularly good and the spectacularly bad. And when it comes to evaluating ourselves, the best of the best are often far harsher than the rest of us. We get caught in a myopic view of the world, where finishing 6th in the country is an abject failure. And all of a sudden, the story that stays with us is that we have no ‘grit.’

We hang on to moments of failure as if they define who we are. But they don’t.


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