Track Coach

TC235 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

Ture Grit

Gather any group of coaches and let the topic turn to “the one that got away” and the stories will flow. It’s not that one coach is trying to one-up the previous coach it’s just that the recurrent loss of talent is universal, it seems to happen to everyone to everyone’s eternal disappointment.

I had a HS coach call me once whose recent grad decided to “get back into it” and had been jumping on his own. The coach told me the kid jumped 26’4” out at the HS pit. I asked the coach if he realized what he was saying. He paused a few seconds and then told me the guy actually jumped 27’4” but he was afraid if he told me that, I’d think he was crazy.
He brought the guy over to have me watch him jump. He looked like a clone of Willie Banks. The guy said he wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t sure how he would do. I thought, “Here we go…” The guy warmed up, used a 10-step approach and popped a 25’10”. I measured it. He said his leg hurt. I’d seen enough. We talked. To my knowledge he never competed again. He never went anywhere with this talent.

The management or development of talent has been a topic of discussion since the gladiators. A new concept pops up every so often that changes the way people think about doing things. It creates a paradigm shift that can significantly alter the way things get done or how the methodology of achievement is accomplished. Angela Duckworth’s “grit” is such a concept.

If you are not versed in the back story of how the hoopla surrounding grit has emerged, it is worth a mention. Duckworth is a clinical psychologist who was contacted by West Point to see if she could pinpoint why some West Point cadets graduate and why others drop out. It bears notice that acceptance to the service academies is highly selective. All, read that as “all,” candidates have an exemplary high school record that includes significant academic achievement, athletic prowess and budding leadership qualities through participation in the boy/girl scouts, student government or some other service opportunity in their home communities. Bottom line, we are talking about the “best and brightest,” not slackers who spent their formative years in the detention hall staring at a white wall.

But the allure of early morning marches, push-ups and “sir, yes sir, may I have another?” may quickly wear thin and the thin gray line starts to get thinner. And this is a problem as the people who don’t make the grade carry the “failure” stigma forever, even though just months before they were viewed as talented, gifted and brilliant. What happened? Or more accurately, why did this happen? And what can be done to stop the Academy from bleeding talent?

One of the changes the new cadets face is how to deal with setbacks, challenges and outright failure. One of the common denominators the incoming cadets share is a continual history of success. These people were class presidents, team MVP’s and academic whizzes who have not earned these laurels by hanging out with the burnouts smoking cigarettes on a street corner. We’re talking cadets who at 14-years-old had the next 50 years planned out in quadrennial segments, along with retirement plans A, B and C.

Upon arrival at West Point, one is ripped from one’s past as you have 90 seconds to say goodbye to your family. The cadets are dropped into an alternate reality where directives are screamed to a population who may have never been reprimanded in their previous lives. Welcome to the brave new world. You’re transported to an environment where the only thing certain is the impossibly demanding Firstie who takes his or her job just a little too seriously. In no time you are cursed with the uncertainty whether you should ping (double time), pop-off (answer in military lingo) or pray to Odin (Norse deity, protector of heroes who controls the elements). The slightest resistance can change hell week to hell-life.

But some do make it, in fact most do, and what Duckworth and her research team found is that the secret quality of those who do make it is grit also defined as perseverance or stick-to-it-iveness. Interestingly, there is nothing new here as anyone who has read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill will recognize the magic to Hill’s classic from almost 80 years ago was persistence.

The challenge then becomes how can one teach or learn to be more persistent, more gritty? Can this be trained in? And if it can what are the necessary steps or methods to use when dealing with individuals vs. groups, men vs. women or the highly successful vs. the highly unsuccessful?

The advantage Duckworth has had over Hill is some 80 years of trial and error that are now confirmed with mountains of anecdotal stories backed up by boatloads of statistical data.

Grit can be measured with a simple 12-question multiple choice quiz downloadable from the Internet (Microsoft Word—GRIT Questionnaire.docx ( The quiz is public domain and the analysis is included. The scale is 0 to 5 with 5.0 being the most gritty. This might be a worthwhile pursuit, especially with older athletes endeavoring to squeeze those last ounces of talent from a career, but it can also be formative for a newbie to illustrate that with a little more stick-to-it-iveness hurdles can be hurdled.
Grit is seen by Duckworth as a skill that with diligence, some directed thought and conscientious application can change over time. Is it easy to do? Personal changes are rarely easy, if they were everyone would do them. Role models, directed practice and a never give up/find a way attitude all can help.
Our sport is a goal-directed one and any coach with even the least amount of experience knows that behavioral changes, however slight can often make a profound difference on the physical manifestation of desired goals.

The loss of talent we have all seen is tragic in a sense. You hope for the best for your athletes and the thoughts of what could have been ultimately proves to be unproductive and wasteful. Someone else always comes along. Accepting this, the task then becomes to practice the right things, do the right things for the “next time” when the uncut diamond, the world beater shows up, Odin gives you the nod and the rest of the story is history.