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The Nitty Gritty

Updated: May 6, 2023

Not only are you finding something that you are passionate about, but how long can you stay passionate about it? Is your goal big enough and important enough for you to continue pursuing it against all challenges, including time? I know that for myself, this is especially difficult. I can go between a hyperfocus that has me locked in for days or months and then having a passion and fire for something different seemingly at the blink of an eye. When I start something, I go all in and even when a new passion springs up, I will at least reach a certain level of completion before shifting gears. However, it is then a toss-up as to whether I come back to that original passion or not. There are numerous facets to these two components of grit, passion and endurance, and many ways that a person’s grittiness could be impacted.

Athletes can run into this issue of being gritty during their careers as well. Maybe it is a kid who is trying to be a top prospect. Then they get benched for however long (it could be one game; it could be a week or month). During that time, they become so frustrated with what they see as missed opportunities from a lack of playing time and they abandon the sport. Perhaps it is a professional player who feel slighted by a trade or does not feel appreciated for their performance. Do they tough it out, keep playing at a high level, and continue to work at achieving their goal? Or do they decide that they have had enough?

A perfect example of how we tend to destroy the gritty nature of our youth athletes came for me when I was taking a course for the U.S. Soccer coaching license. My instructor talked about how we always ask, “where are the strikers and goal scorers?” when looking at the lack of quality attack on the national team. We had just watched a perfect example unfold in front of us. One of the kids we were coaching was taking defenders on one-on-one all the time. Most of the time, it was because he was alone. But there were times that he had an option to pass and did not take it. So, the coach that was working on the field at the time made a comment during the break about needing to look for the pass. What happened then was this player almost never pushed forward. All he did was try to pass. Our instructor pointed out that this kid was exactly what happened to all our potential strikers.

You see, we emphasized teamwork but did not praise enough the individual talent. We as coaches hurt the kid’s drive to do what he loved and was excellent at (although a small and likely short-lived impact). That gritty nature to take on all comers and overcome the challenges to score was gone. This kid had the passion, but we quieted his drive. Passion + endurance. Athletes who are gritty seek the pursuit. It is the process of getting the details down and achieving each step on the staircase to obtaining their ultimate goal. Being gritty is something that we used to subscribe to as a nation. Lately, especially seeing the evolution of sports, I wonder how much we are losing that by coaching, or even officiating, the need for grit out of our sports.

When it comes to officiating, in some cases we do this for the safety of our athletes. In others, it is because we focus on the business of sports more than the sports themselves and are trying to find ways that make it more “exciting”. In the process of doing that, we take away the struggle that is innate in sports. I talked about this in a personal paper that I wrote about why soccer, specifically (but it does apply to sports in general), is so connected to the human soul and why that contributes to it being the largest sport worldwide. Having to win individual battles, while relying on and being a part of a team. The constant flow of the game with only having significant breaks for an injury. Overcoming the obstacles of having an outside force (weather, officials, etc.) impact your ability to reach your goal of scoring and winning. The key aspect of human error that is always present. These things help, and in some ways force, athletes to be gritty. Can you keep that passion for an extended period when things fluctuate between good and bad in a nonstop flow?

How can we expect athletes to be gritty when we take away their opportunities to prove this? There is a lot of talk about how these younger generations of athletes are “soft”. Instead of soft, we should say that they lack grit. Certainly, there is a danger in overreaching the definition of grit. Often, this looks like players who think that to be gritty or tough means things like playing through serious injury or putting themselves needlessly in harm’s way. That is the utmost examples of passion right? However, a person with true grit knows when to push and when to shift gears back down. Remember that endurance is one of the components of grit. You cannot be a gritty person if you throw away your longevity. Maybe, just maybe, instead of coaching and regulating grit out of our athletes, we should spend more time teaching them how to be gritty. If we teach our athletes how to see the big picture and take the little steps to the larger goal, especially when they are young, then we can give them a gift and foundation that generates success in more than just sports.

Remember, being gritty is passion + endurance. Loving something (passion) is easy. Continuing to love something after doing it for an extended period and going through all of the ups and downs (endurance) is hard and can easily be draining, even if you are doing something you love. It does not mean that to be gritty you must set a plan and never waver. It means that even if plans change, you still find a way to work towards your end goal. So, for all of us former, current, and future athletes if you have a big goal in mind then give it everything you can. Show your grit and reach your goal. If you know an athlete, or anyone, with a big goal then give them all the support that you can in helping them to obtain that goal.

  1. Duckworth, A. (2018). Grit : the power of passion and perseverance. Scribner.

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