Grittier athletes more likely to succeed

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2016.

After the annual NCAA football signing day, NFL.com wrote that 57.3% of the 288 Rivals.com five-star prospects between 2002-11 went un-drafted by the NFL. Five-star prospects are the elite 18-year-old football players; NFL draft picks are the elite 21 or 22-year-old football players. Only 40% of those who are considered elite at 18 years old remain elite three to four years later, despite five-star prospects generally playing for more prominent football programs with more prominent coaches, bigger budgets, better facilities, and better competition, advantages that should widen the gap between the elite and non-elite rather than shrinking this gap.

The moderate correlation between a five-star recruit and an NFL draft pick illustrates two points: First, an 18-year-old male is a developing athlete, not a finished project; and second, the ranking of high-school athletes (and below) is biased toward physical performance and anthropomorphic measurements, while ignoring the underestimated psychological skills. The physical qualities are the prerequisite for advancing up the competitive ladder, but once the physical gap between players closes in college and the NFL – everyone is big, strong, and fast – mental, psychological, emotional, and social skills separate those who succeed.

During the prep and NFL combines, football experts value every tenth of a second in a straight-line sprint. On the field, can one differentiate the player who runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash from the one who runs 4.5 seconds? How much does that tenth of a second in an offseason, controlled test matter? Not much. In Australian Rules Football, physical qualities do not predict defensive agility (Young et al., 2015), and in basketball, planned agility tests do not differentiate semiprofessional and amateur players (Lockie et al., 2014). Television analysts prior to every NFL Draft make that tenth of a second appear to be the most important attribute in one’s football future, but the NFL pre-draft combine accurately predicts the draft status of only a few positions (RBs, WRs, DBs), and does not predict actual NFL performance (Lyons et al., 2011; McGee & Burkett, 2003). The transfer of these tests to on-field performance is small because on-field performance depends on many factors, not just physical qualities that are measured easily in a battery of tests. The hyperbole explains the differences between the five-star players and the NFL picks, as the tests do not capture a player’s character, ability to learn, desire, or grit. The 40 describes a player’s physical prowess, but one’s mentality determines ultimate success as much as physical skills.

In Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success & Failure (1993), Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen wrote, “People who use their skills to the utmost enjoy the hardships and the challenges of their task. It is not that they are more likely to encounter pleasant experiences, but that they persevere when they meet difficulties that would daunt others and occasionally succeed in turning experiences that others find meaningless or threatening into highly enjoyable ones.” Every athlete overcomes some roadblocks in his or her development. There are tryouts for teams, battles for playing time, arduous workouts, problems with coaches, unmotivated teammates, social sacrifices, and other hurdles that young athletes must navigate as they develop.

Grit and a growth mindset are two key traits that young athletes can develop that will help them to persevere through the tough times and embrace the challenges. According to University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth, grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, and maintaining effort and interest despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in one’s progress.

I once worked with a high-school player who broke down frequently during our sessions because he focused on every mistake. He could not see his improvement although he improved as much as any player who I have coached in the year or two that we worked together. He wanted daily improvement; he wanted x amount of work to equal x amount of improvement, and skill development does not have an exact dose response. Instead, skill development is like chopping down a tree; one swing of the axe does not fell the tree. It takes swing after swing with little to no noticeable change in the tree’s condition. Eventually, one swing fells the tree. However, it was not the one swing that felled the tree; it was the cumulation of swings. Similarly, a single repetition or a single day of practice may not change a player’s skill; instead, it is the cumulation of hours of work. Athletes must be able to sustain their motivation and effort through these hours with no noticeable improvement.

Grit has been shown to correlate with success; grittier individuals are more likely to succeed. To become grittier, an Outside Magazine article suggested that one should set goals, be optimistic, expect difficulty, and avoid distractions. Goals help to maintain motivation when there is no visible improvement, as the work has a purpose. Optimism helps to maintain positivity, and expecting difficulties prepares one for the inevitable hurdles; preparation for the negative times makes them easier to overcome. Avoiding distractions maintains motivation and effort in the direction of goals.

Many young athletes mature without experiencing the negative hurdles or challenges, which prevents them from developing grit. In A Nation of Wimps, Hara Estroff Marano wrote, “Over-parented kids wind up without a sense of self. They grow up overly compliant. They lack coping skills because everything has been done for them by anxious parents. They’re weak from within, and it’s a pervasive weakness. The grow up risk-averse and unable to make decisions on their own. They, too, have a low tolerance for frustration.” By solving problems for children and preventing frustrations, children do not develop grit. Rather than expecting difficulties, children learn to expect their parents, teachers, or coaches to eliminate the difficulty: Parents switch teams or transfer schools when their child does not play enough; teachers offer extra credit to make up for poor performances; and coaches schedule easy games to guarantee wins.

When the player broke down during our workouts, I did not employ easier drills to eliminate the difficulty; he struggled through and overcame the frustration. I intentionally used drills at the edge of his abilities, and I used drills that required full concentration. When his concentration waned, and he made a mistake, he grew frustrated. However, he learned to expect the difficulties, and over time, he learned to embrace the work and persist with greater effort and concentration. He developed the required coping skills; he developed grit.

The second key trait is a growth mindset. Stanford University professor Carol Dweck said, “A growth mindset fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal with setbacks, and significantly better performance over time.” Dweck divides people into two groups: Those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that talent is innate. When confronted with a difficult challenge or an obstacle, they give up because the obstacle demonstrates that they lack the requisite talent. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can improve through their effort and hard work. When faced with an obstacle, they embrace the challenge as a learning and growth opportunity. The obstacle does not demonstrate a lack of talent, but an opportunity to improve.

Parent, coach, and teacher behaviors and feedback shape a child’s mindset in an activity. After a game, it is normal for a coach or parent to say to a child, “You played so well. You scored 10 points, or 2 goals, or had 3 hits.” For the developing athlete, this connects his success to his performance. What happens in the next game if the athlete fails to score or get a hit? Instead of focusing on the result, to encourage a growth mindset, focus on the effort and improvement. A parent or coach could say, “You played so well because you worked so hard,” or “Your hard work is paying off because I can see your improvement.” Rather than connecting success to performance, this feedback connects success with effort. When the athlete believes that his or her effort controls future success and performance, motivation increases, and the athlete is more likely to embrace the challenges rather than giving up when faced with obstacles.

Grit and growth mindsets are not the only factors that separate the five-star recruits who are drafted into the NFL and those who are not. There are numerous factors that contribute to talent development and success in sports. When athletes face the inevitable obstacles, setbacks, and failures that occur during the talent development process, grit and growth mindset are two traits that enable players to cope, demonstrate resilience, and move forward. Oftentimes, the willingness to attack the challenge is the difference between good or great, or between a five-star recruit and an NFL draft pick.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

1 thought on “Grittier athletes more likely to succeed

  • Really good post. People’s mindsets and perseverance are so difficult to measure that it is easier to attribute the difference in success to that .1 of a second rather than the multitude of other factors that are involved such as confidence and self belief.

    Watching the NCAA tournament yesterday, I saw two examples of that Stephen A. Austin and Northern Iowa both controlled their games for 38+ minutes yesterday by utilizing both player and ball movement beautifully. If you the players switched uniforms with their opponents, very few would have been able to tell the major from the mid-major.

    However, in the last two minutes, when the pressure of the result overcame the pressure of the performance, both teams (maybe, it was both coaches) didn’t have the confidence to continue to do what had been successful for the vast majority of the game and stopped moving the ball and isolated the game to one or two physical skills rather than the variety of physical, cognitive and emotional skills that had been so successful. Maybe it was a lack of confidence in their skill or the skill of their teammates but it was a shame to see them lose playing a completely different style for two minutes than they had played beautifully for 38:00.

    Many people have stated that it was just skill winning out but I would disagree that it was the eliminating of many team skills and the focus on the one on one individual skills that caused the loss, not a significant difference in talent or ability.

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