Track Coach

Thoughts and Applications of Grit in a Track & Field World

Angela Duckworth’s work on grit and self-control has inspired our editor to think about applications to track & field. Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

By Russ Ebbets, Editor, Track Coach

Grit has become somewhat of a franchise entity. Below are some ideas on how applying the principles of grit, such as skill acquisition, deliberate practice, role models and continuous development may bear fruits in a track and field setting.

What is talent?

Talent is potential. It is the ability to do something but not necessarily to have “it” done yet. American culture seems enamored with the concept of talent. This is the the person who is a natural and seemingly has the effortless ability to do something that the average person either can’t do or can only do with great difficulty or practice. There is almost a magical component to talent. We see the natural athlete do something and are amazed that they can do “that.” It reminds me of Doug Henning’s quote about how he creates magic, “Make the difficult habit, make the habit easy and make what is easy beautiful.” To a degree talent is magical.

Then why don’t all the talented people succeed?

It boils down to effort. One can have all the talent in the world but if one sits on his hands nothing will get done. And it becomes important that one not confuse effort for activity. The effort must be purposeful, working towards a goal, for things to be accomplished. Without purposeful effort one is like a ship without a sail, you’ll be afloat but you’ll never get anywhere.

Angela Duckworth was big on using word diagrams to lay the foundation for her arguments on developing grit. How does the word diagram talent x effort = skill work?

Skill could be defined as the ability to do things, to express things. In a coaching sense we can think of the ability to apply force correctly as with the technical execution of an event, speed actions, and again the refinement of techniques that are biomechanically efficient. But the skills can also be psychological. The ability to remain calm and effective under pressure is something that some have a natural “talent” for, but it is also a skill that can be honed with visualization, learning to control one’s respiration rate and generally to control one’s thought processes—self-talk.

As one matures there is hopefully an increase in one’s skill inventory so that one can better handle the challenges of greater responsibilities. I am reminded here of Matveyev or Bompa’s four-year schedule for the development of physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities (Figure 1). Although this is not in the Level 1 curriculum it was always positively received by the class when I offered it as a means to organize the development of skills over the course of an Olympic cycle or a typical high school or college career.

Figure 1: Suggested 4-year plan for developing a distance runner. A specific plan could be devised for each athlete (i.e. 800m runner, jumper, thrower, etc.) with the specific tactics, strategies, goals and skills necessary for success in that event.

There are listed a set of desired skills that are to be mastered during year 1, year 2, etc. which present goals. An interesting thing about this grid is that the athletes who are in year 4 have the potential to model the desired skills that a year 1 athlete will be expected to develop. If this process is done correctly the series of physical, behavioral, psychological or leadership skills are continually exhibited within the coach’s program that leads to achievement but also development of an achievement team culture.

Skills x effort = achievement

In a performance based environment achievement becomes the ultimate goal. We are not running a fitness class. With that in mind if the environment of the team is one of diligent refinement and application of the various skills that are deemed important there will be this sense of continual improvement. I think it is important that skills learned in the initial stages such as punctuality and cooperation and service to others are critical foundational values that a team should be built on. If these core values are deeply engrained the addition of the subsequent values and skills, however they are defined, can have a synergistic effect on both the individuals on the team and the culture of being on the team. I’d refer one to John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success (Figure 2) for ideas.

Figure 2: John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success

How does the concept of Kaizen fit into all this?

Kaizen is a Japanese word that has been popularized lately to define the concept of continuous improvement. One cannot, does not “rest on one’s laurels.” There is always something that can be improved and work is done to that end. This is a Japanese business term that can be foreign in both a literal and figurative sense when applied to American business. In the U.S. most of our corporations are driven by the quarterly reports and the success or failure of these corporations is intimately tied to the quarterly report. In Japan they have long-term goals. I even remember reading that SONY has a long-term plan of 250 years into the future. I was stunned when I read that fact as it is highly unusual that any American company to even last 100 years. For those over the age of 50, think back to a time when transistor radios were all the rage—In spite of the crackling sound, spotty reception and being easily broken—and they were almost all “made in Japan.” There was a time when “made in Japan” was a slur for anything cheaply build and not meant to last. That is not the case today where Japanese automobiles and technologies are now a standard of excellence. This was achieved through the concept of kaizen, continuous improvement that didn’t happen overnight, but happened every night.

What is deliberate practice and what role does rest play?

Deliberate practice is attention to the task at hand. It is a highly focused time where the athlete, or learner, is intensely focused on what he/she is doing. If it is something he is trying to learn or master it can require both a tremendous amount of mental and physical work. Why deliberate practice requires a proscribed rest period is that the intense focus can be mentally exhausting which in turn requires one to “take a break” to rest and recharge before returning to the task to achieve further mastery.

Why is the habit of practicing at the same time each day in the same place important?

To me this speaks to why there is a decided “home court advantage” in sports. The home court has similar sights, sounds, smells, lighting, travel times, bathrooms and water fountains, and that takes those seemingly trivial concerns off the radar screen. This is a technique that writers have long used to produce their daily word count. The writers use the same place, at the same time with “distractions” that become so familiar as to become invisible. For the athlete the same place allows one to focus more intensely on the task at hand, and not use valuable mental energy distracted by worry or trying to figure out where the necessary equipment can be found to complete a practice.

The downside of the “same place” all the time is that sometimes the arrival at a new venue, a hostile venue can be disconcerting. I am reminded of the famous scene in the movie Hoosiers where the basketball team enters the state championship arena (Butler College) and all the “hicks from the sticks” stare up at the ceiling and around the arena, never having seen a building so big. What does Gene Hackman, the coach, do? Gets out a tape measure, measures the height of the basket rim and measures the distance to the foul line. What does that do? It totally refocuses the team with the message – the rims are the same height, the foul line is the same distance, all we need to do is focus on basketball and the result will be the same.

What role do role models play?

Role models are important for several reasons. For the novice or upcoming athlete a role model can essentially “light the path” to show the newbie that it has been done before and can be done again. For the more experienced athlete, even a world champion, a role model can prove to be inspirational in that that individual no doubt overcame some setbacks and has succeeded or succeeded again with the proof that it can be done. Even though the challenges the role model faced may be significantly different the fact that they rose to the challenge, gave themselves permission to succeed, and entered the challenge with an optimistic mindset can be something the current champion can learn from. One final aspect of a role model that may be worth using as a model is how the role model handles the pressures of responsibility and greatness. Is it with dignity and grace or do they shirk the responsibility? The values, mannerisms, their opinions nowadays with tweets and Instagram posts, in effect lay the groundwork for those who will follow and will be emulated for better or worse.

Why is having hope not a good strategy?

Hope is not a solid strategy because it shifts the burden of responsibility. If I were to solely rely on hope and were unsuccessful at my desired task I could say it wasn’t really my fault as God or some other deity let me down. The thought, “If it is to be, it is up to me,” becomes critical as one proceeded though life. Is there luck involved? Certainly, but then there is the old adage that the harder one works, the luckier one gets. It reminds me of Cromwell’s famous supposed encouragement from the 1600’s, “Trust in God boys, but keep your powder dry.”

What is positive self-talk and why is it important?

We all have “thoughts” that filter in and out of our mind. Sometimes it is things like, “You can do this!” or “I am ready and prepared for this!” While other times one can slip into negative thoughts such as, “What am I doing here?” Or, “Why is this happening to me?” It goes back to focus and what one is trying to achieve. With positive self-talk there is an expansive awareness where one is ready for the opportunity and looking for things to happen, an opportunity that can lead to a successful outcome. With negative self-talk, one is closing down, is in an intimidated stance, essentially withdrawing from the experience. I am reminded of Stephanie Brown-Trafton’s preparation for the Beijing Olympics where her father had a panoramic picture made of the Olympic stadium where she could throw each day in her garage. When she got to the actual stadium, she had in effect been there (the Beijing Olympic Stadium) many times before. She knew why she was there and had the smallest details memorized so that all she had to do was what she had practiced, at her “home” practice area. And she nailed the first throw and forced the rest of the field to play catch-up, which they never did.

What is the difference between a virtuous and a vicious cycle?

Poverty is said to be a vicious cycle. There is a lack of opportunity that fosters a limited view of the world and the opportunities of the world. Certain pathways “out” are either not valued or not available which in turn limits opportunities. Poor decisions and hanging with the wrong people, alcohol and illicit drug use all can change the trajectory of one’s life downward in a day. There is much frustration and disappointment and a repeated belief that “one’s efforts don’t matter.” If there are any “successful” role models they are more often possessing smart survival skills in their ability to work the system, hustle or somehow function on the fringes of the law. The bigger problem is that these issues become generational and the cycle of poverty is repeated time and again.

On the other hand, a virtuous cycle is one where a culture of success is woven into the moral fabric of an institution, city, team, culture, country, family, or person. The next generation is expected to carry the baton and repeat the acts of the past. Reverence is given to those who have come before. I had a college teammate who became a Navy SEAL and spent his whole career as one. One thing that always struck me was when he talked about the U.S. Marines and the utter respect he had for them. He told me he loved to see them show up, as whatever job they were to do would be done quickly, efficiently and completely. It is something that is trained into the DNA of a Marine to do that.

Another example would be the system Greg Popovich has created with the San Antonio Spurs. In college track & field there any number of programs in all three NCAA divisions that, year after year, produce excellent teams.

It is simplistic to simply say that these teams succeed due to favorable aid packages or nice facilities. There is something more, a tradition of excellence that that offers team members something to aspire to that not only helps them shine as individuals, but at the end of their career, their accomplishments reflect positively on the coaching and guidance those programs have afforded these athletes.

Why are core values important?

We come into life without an instruction manual. We also come into life with varying degrees of parental competence and experience. Our extended families also can play a major role in our development whether it is the current generation or something that has been passed down through the generations. Core values help create a network that can direct behaviors. If you need ideas, I’d suggest you review John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success or see what Phil Jackson did with Michael Jordan’s teams at Chicago in the Netflix series The Last Dance. Even Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympic hockey team had values (it is worth re-reading E.M. Swift’s Sports Illustrated article, “A Reminder of What We Can Be” from 12/22/80 for details). The psychological qualities Brooks tested for (rather die than lose) in the 300 question “test” referenced in the movie “Miracle” was essential to select a team he felt he needed to beat the Soviets. This article will give one a deeper understanding of the cruel scene of “one more” and the dramatic final scene when Brooks refused to change his line as the seconds wound down in the semifinal game against the Soviets to the disbelief and consternation of Tikhonov, the Soviet coach.

Core values give those involved something to believe in and aspire towards. If you were to trace the methods and teachings of Lydiard, Cerutty, Igloi, the Finns with sísu, the East Africans, and even trace it to the successful collegiate programs and the “systems” that are used which are more than simple recruiting. There are standards, traditions behaviors that are adopted, modeled and carried on. These programs never seem to have to rebuild, they simply reload.

How can continuous improvement be achieved?

I think this has to become an accepted goal by the participants. Initially there will be a steep learning curve as the newbie finds out about “the system” but once that is achieved there becomes a continual challenge of finding the nuances of the sport. I think of my father in this case. He was a high school valedictorian, collegiate scholar but also the top collegiate golfer on the East Coast. He became a professional golfer while many of his friends from college went the doctor, lawyer route. I used to wonder why he chose the path he did and eventually came to see that more than just hitting a little white ball with a stick there was always the continual challenge of mastering the winds, the weather, the greens and one’s self to produce the “perfect” round that kept him challenged on a daily basis. I am sure it is the same with musicians and their instruments and the endless possibilities music allows them. That is one of the challenges of coaching track & field. Nowadays most programs have throws, jump, sprint specialists with less crossover knowledge than was necessary 30 years ago. Needless to say, the technical demands of the different jumps or throws can be significant enough for one to keep finding nuances for years and years.

How can one establish grit?

This becomes the $64 dollar question. I think there needs to be some stability in a program for a period of time. If one were to look at the most successful coaches, most would agree, the development of their successful programs was the result of years of trying to develop the culture they desired before things “clicked.” Mike Krzyzewski at Duke made four Final Fours (in five years) before he finally won the NCAA Championship. John McDonnell of Arkansas coached there 12 years before he won his first of 40 NCAA titles.

I referenced earlier the four-year development pattern of Bompa or Matveyev, the Four Global Concepts. That chart has been helpful to coaches (and athletes) to get a visual of how one can progressively develop and athlete’s physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities over time, over a four-year period that will insure as possible the athlete’s integration into the system. It may not be perfect, but it does give map of sorts for both parties so that there is an understanding of the expectations that become goals and guiding lights that serve for decision making and career direction.