Have you ever wondered what separates athletes that ‘make it’ from those who don’t? Are physical skills the key determinant? While at times it may be the case, I’ve seen many players in tennis settings with superior physical abilities get outperformed...so fitness alone isn't the answer. It must be technical and tactical abilities, right? While critical, I’ve also witnessed supreme skill, coupled with a sound game plan, get beaten time and again. So what is it then? All of these factors play a massive role in who succeeds and who doesn’t, I’m sure of it, but in my books, one factor seems to outweigh the rest - by at least a hair. The psychological component.
Whether you call it mental toughness, psychological readiness or whatever else, this factor, based on what high performers across many fields and sports have to say, is critical in high performance settings. It’s the resilience to fight back when a match gets tough. It’s the will to push beyond one’s current physical capacities in the gym. It’s what disciplines the elite player to hit the hay early while others succumb to late night distractions. And most of all, it’s what keeps these players from giving up in the long haul - even after injuries, setbacks and adversity. Day after day, week after week, year after year, these athletes continue to show up. This, as behavioural psychologist Angela Duckworth exclaims, is what defines a ‘gritty’ individual.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at grit and in particular, its relation to elite sport. We’ll define it and look at the early research on the topic as it relates to elite sporting individuals. This is a two part post - in the second instalment, we'll take a look at tennis specific examples of grit while consulting Duckworth and other researchers in the field of behavioural psychology, in order to gain insight into developing this quality.
What Does Grit Really Mean Anyway?
I grew up in Canada and my favorite sports team was always the Leafs (in fact, they still are). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Leafs, they’re a professional NHL team (ice hockey). I bring up hockey because as a kid, I often heard this word grit thrown around by hockey coaches. “Oh he’s a gritty player, he’s always fighting for the puck in the corners” or, “that was a gritty effort”. Because of this, I’d come to associate grit with things like being tough, not giving up and doing the so called 'dirty work'. While some of these ideas may have some merit as to the defining characteristics of grit, it doesn’t give us a clear explanation.
Here’s what the leading expert on grit has to say (Duckworth et al 2007):
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
One of the key takeaways from this definition is that it doesn't just takes months or a year to achieve long-term goals, but rather years of strenuous effort. On top of that, it’s this idea that, no matter the aim, regardless of the setbacks and failures which will inevitably arise, the gritty individual carries on. Here’s what famous movie director Woody Allen once said - “80% of success is showing up”. Allen believed that once you give up on something without seeing it through - like a movie script that doesn’t see its completion or a player who gives up their career after only one year on tour - you’re striking out on the first level; "it guarantees failure".
Is Consistent Effort All it Takes?
Since the recent rise of books like Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Anders Ericsson Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (which I’ve eluded to previously), many now agree that when it comes to achieving extraordinary success in sport (or any field for that matter), talent alone, isn’t enough. While researchers acknowledge that some people have a genetic and/or psychological predisposition and/or attraction to certain activities - whether you call that talent or something else - it only tells us half the story. According to Duckworth (2016), at the most basic level, there are 2 equations that are critical when trying to understand achievement.
Anything strike you when looking at these two equations? Firstly, no matter how gifted a tennis player is, for instance, without the necessary effort, it’s impossible for them to hone and refine their skills. As coaches, we’ve likely seen this before - especially in developmental settings. When first starting, some youngsters are naturally more adept at making contact with the middle of the strings, compared to others. This may be due to some sort of innate abilities (call it talent if you will), but that doesn’t mean they’re the next Serena Williams. Effort, long-term effort for that matter, is critical here. It’s what develops and refines skill.
Secondly, once some form of skill is present, effort doesn’t, and shouldn’t, come to a halt. As you can see by Duckworth’s second equation, for achievement (or success) to manifest itself, effort still plays a key role. This is where a lot of players get it wrong - and I’ve seen it many times before. They have a pretty good forehand or serve (insert any skill here) - so the mentality is they don’t need to practice it as often. Could you ever imagine that sort of comment or reaction from a player like Rafael Nadal? He’s said on multiple occasions that he’s constantly learning and trying to make refinements to his strokes - and game in general. This, as Duckworth would say - is an example of a gritty individual. Regardless of their talent or skill, effort is always at the forefront.
The Research on Grit
It’s not the scope of this post to look at all the available research on grit. I’ll just point out here that grit has been shown to be a predictor of success at the National Spelling Bee (Duckworth et al 2011), predicted dropout rates at West Point, the US Military Academy (Duckworth et al 2007), school and job success predictions (Eskreis-Winkler et al 2014) and so on. For the curious reader, I suggest taking a closer look at some of the research on grit or picking up Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
The aim of this post, on the other hand, is to look at some of the more recent evidence on grit in sport.
A Closer Look at Grit Research in Sport
The scientific literature on grit is still in it’s infancy, especially when looking at this concept in the context of sport. That said, two recent studies have had similar, promising findings, to previous research on grit.
In one study (Larkin et al 2015), close to 400 youth soccer players (ages 12-15) completed Duckworth’s Grit Scale test. Larkin and his colleagues sought to find out whether these youth players performance on the Grit Scale was associated with sport-specific engagement and perceptual-cognitive expertise. To determine sport-specific engagement, players were asked to fill out an adapted version of the Participation History Questionnaire (PHQ). On the perceptual-cognitive side of things, players underwent a series of film-based tests to assess decision making, situational probability and pattern recognition.
So what did they find? It appears that over the 8 year span of their soccer specific involvement, players who scored higher on the grit scale, also accumulated more indirect hours in soccer related activities, compared to less gritty individuals. Why is this important? Indirect involvement in sport related activities (that means, outside of organized practice and competition) consistently represents about half of total sport-specific engagement (Larkin et al 2015). The preliminary conclusion here is that if you’re gritty, you spend more time practicing on your own. What about perceptual-cognitive skills? As you can probably guess, grittier players scored higher on these tests as well. It’s not surprising - if you’re spending more time practicing your sport, you’ll generally develop more expertise in said sport.
Practice Type Also Has an Influence on Grit
The study by Larkin et al (2015) was the first of it’s kind when looking at grit in sport - but it had it’s limitations. One of those being that, while classified as 'elite', the population was quite young. Further to that, different types of practices - which have been associated with expertise (Ericsson 2016) - weren't measured.
In a more recent investigation, Tadesqui and Young (2016) recruited over 250 athletes from a variety of sports (swimming, athletics, tennis, hockey, soccer), a variety of age groups (average age was 23 but ranged from 13-30) and a variety of skill levels (local, city, regional, provincial, national and international) with the aim of gaining further insight on grit in sport. The international group was deemed ‘expert’, national was ‘advanced’ and the others comprised of the basic/intermediate group. The difference in this study was that the grit-scale was broken down into 2 categories to reflect a) perseverance of effort - PE - and b) consistency of interests - CI. Duckworth et al (2007) contend that “CI represents the direction, while PE represents the duration of an individual’s efforts toward a goal”. In this study, PE and CI were compared to variables related to both practice and commitment.
Here’s what they found. Higher scores on the PE portion of the grit scale were significantly associated with deliberate practice (DP), along with attendance to mandatory and optional practice. The authors reaffirm that DP is hard (as we’ve seen before) and often times, is associated with failure - in other words, if you’re working through challenging drills and practices, you definitely won’t be achieving success on all of your efforts. In fact, in some cases, an athlete may experience more failed attempts compared to successful ones. A possible explanation for expert athletes obtaining a higher score on this portion of the grit scale may be related to their ability to delay gratification - compared to less gritty individuals - who require constant reassurance. Note, it’s my belief that coaches and parents should be able to tell an athlete “hey, that’s wrong, do it this way instead”. In fact, it’s the coach's responsibility to keep the athlete accountable - rather than to give them a false sense of reassurance.
The graph above (Duckworth 2016), does a nice job of highlighting that time alone, doesn't lead to expert-level status. Along with practice type, researchers argue that other factors play contributing roles.
Furthermore, as skill level increased, so did PE (this was also significant). The question here is, were these athletes gritty to begin with, which led to expert status? Or did engagement in sport over the years, develop this gritty behaviour in them? I share similar sentiments to Duckworth (2016) - both have their place. Although there aren’t any longitudinal studies to confirm this yet (apparently Duckworth and other researchers in the field are working on them), grit is thought to be a skill that can be developed over time. On the flip side, there may be ingrained grit amongst individuals - whether they’re inherent, or as a result of early upbringing - we don’t yet know.
The other measure - CI - was significantly related to commitment across all skill levels. In other words, it didn’t matter what level of sport the athlete had achieved, gritty athletes were committed to their sport over the long haul. What was particularly interesting, however, was that CI was inversely related to thoughts of ‘switching out’ or ‘quitting’ one’s main sport. What that means is that athletes who scored lower on this portion of the grit scale, were more likely to quit their chosen sport down the road. As many in the field of expertise have previously said “(one) key to amassing the quantity of training required for developing expert-level skill is sustaining commitment across years of involvement in a domain” (Baker and Cote 2003).
These are still early times for grit. As Duckworth (2016) and others stipulate - more longitudinal studies need to be administered to gain further insights into grit’s progression (or regression) over time. Regardless, initial investigations have given this concept validity as it relates to sport performance. In the second part of this post, we’ll take a closer look at how grit can be developed and provide practical examples from world-class performers across a variety of sports. We’ll also look at tennis specific settings of grit - both from a macro and micro lens.
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To learn more about grit, listen to Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on the subject below and check out part 2 of this series here.