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Enhancing Grit with...Doubt?

Grit, that differentiator concept, separating the good from the long-term great, is as we have explored, a combination of passion (it helps to love the thing you are doing) and perseverance (the secret sauce of stick-to-it-ive-ness).

This combination of characteristics makes intuitive sense and makes a critical performance difference in many situations. That is, until it does not. Situations where life is uncertain or volatile, such as during a global pandemic, natural disaster, or even personal illness, can render “being gritty” less useful and even counterproductive.

This week, I want to address a grit “vulnerability” I have noticed (which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms :)). Grit implies implacable strength and unwavering determination, even in the face of setbacks, a sense of inexorable onward movement no matter the circumstance. Here’s the thing. We have not identified a grit enhancement curriculum. Yep, I get it that clarifying your goals and purpose will bring you closer, as will inserting yourself into a culture that prizes grit, but we don’t really know how to directly train this other than, well, to behave “as if” you are gritty until you get used to it. Getting used to doing and getting on with it even when you are tired or unmotivated. Clearly, there’s a certain amount of necessary ignoring that goes on in this space. Some of it is useful - as when you ignore the urge to sleep in when the alarm goes off, and get to training anyway. When you ignore the siren call of Twitter and get on with the coaching program you are writing. I’d argue that there are other situations where this ignoring is not so helpful and that grit actually encourages —if one is not self-aware—a willful blindness that can risk undermining performance rather than enhancing it.

Let’s take the case of doubt as one of those feelings that can - if left to fester - lower morale and undermine action. As far as I can see, it has no place in a gritty world. To be clear, I have yet to meet the athlete (or human being, for that matter) who enjoys this particular feeling, and many a self-help book has been written as a weapon against it. Doubt is the mind’s way of trying to prepare us for worst-case scenarios, usually by questioning our abilities or predicting negative outcomes. Doubt usually comes to our consciousness in form of questions. Typical examples include, “what if I don’t get selected?” “What if I lose this race” and the pinnacle, “what if I’m not good enough?” I would argue that job #1 in these instances is to fairly-and-squarely answer the questions doubt asks.

Doubt-induced question: “What if I don’t get selected?”

Reflective answer: “I’ll be upset and disappointed. Maybe I will take a couple of days off, and get back to training, after talking to selectors about why I was not selected.”

Doubt-induced question: “What if I lose this race?”

Reflective answer: “I’ll be devastated and shocked. But I will show up to cheer on my teammates and know that my parents will still love me win or lose.”

Doubt-induced question: “What if I’m not good enough?”

[This is the black hole of doubt in that, on the one hand, it’s shame-based AND undefined and therefore harder to defend against. So at least be ready to counter this thought with a robust and honest “good enough for what?” exploration. By clarifying your answers to that question, it becomes apparent that, on the other hand, you are “good enough” for many things.]

Reflective answer [After doing the exploration and narrowing the question]: “If I’m not good enough to win, I will talk with my coach about what I need to do to improve…and build some extra time into training a couple of days a week and work on those areas.”

Athletes who do this work generally start to feel better about their relationship to doubt. But let’s be clear here. Dealing with doubt in this way will not remove it - and isn’t even the goal - but can go some way toward de-energizing it.

When, on the other hand, we ignore doubt or avoid answering its questions, we are in fact empowering it. We provide traction for doubt to dig in, for the questions to loom larger and more forbidding. It is important to recognize that doubt is a natural phenomenon, not a source of shame or a sign of a flawed character. The key to working intelligently with doubt is to at least acknowledge it and, more importantly, allow for its right to exist. One might even go so far as to say that we should welcome doubt in. While unintuitive for many athletes and coaches, this idea of giving doubt a warm welcome accomplishes a couple of things.

1. It brings a sense of friendliness, maybe even a touch of humour to what is often experienced as a negative, destabilizing, and shameful internal experience. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather feel a bit silly laughing with my doubts than being ground to psychic dust under their heels.

2. It promotes the radical notion (for many athletes, anyway) that they can compete well with doubt rather than presuming that the only way for performance success is to ignore or eradicate it. By making room for doubt as a welcome guest, athletes realize at the same time, there’s also room for their competition plan. One can doubt and perform.

Because what’s the alternative? Ignore or fight it, get it to go away for a bit, and be shocked anew when it resurfaces? Some athletes take this a step further, allowing their doubt to pour gasoline onto the notion that great athletes don’t doubt, so the fact that they are experiencing doubt must mean they’re not and never will be great. How does any of this work as a performance enhancer?

So why am I advocating for doubt as a way to enhance grit? Because often, athletes will see grit as this all-or-nothing phenomenon, especially if it has paid off for them in the past. I am working with a few athletes on the cusp of their Olympic selections. The reality of nearly everyone’s 2020/21 training regime in the run-up to selections has been one of on, delay, off, disruption, and fragmentation, leaving everyone less sure about where they stand. Even when performances are good, athletes are questioning, "is the foundation there? Really? Can I trust it?" Given the unique nature of these times, these are entirely reasonable things to wonder about and factor into competition preparation. As in, "it could well be that I am not as prepared or conditioned as I would like to be. Right now, it’s like this."

The problem for some of these athletes is that it feels sacrilegious to question a process that has served them so well in the past. That is, I have learned that X amount of work combined with Y evidence of good outputs will equal Z (high and justified) levels of confidence as well as a great competitive performance. This formula, hard-won and refined through years of ever grittier work, should not be questioned. Yet, there are these niggling doubts…and I am tearing myself apart trying to justify these two conflicting realities. It’s about walking backward through and therefore making obvious the magnitude of the current level of abnormalacy and normalizing the doubt. By welcoming doubt, we end up crafting better competition plans that have robust and realistic Plan Bs to account for possibilities unheard of at other times: lack of fitness, under-recovery, not enough competitions to fine-tune a race plan. With this clear-eyed view, athletes are better able to face up to and cope effectively with the relative greater uncertainty of their status.

Using doubt in this way isn’t for everyone. Developing athletes are not likely to have the foundation of knowledge and experience from which to draw intelligent conclusions based on their doubts. I’d argue, though, that it is vital for those who have come to depend on the certainty that grit has brought to the performance table in the past. These times (and all times of uncertainty, frankly) demand we listen to our doubts and adapt to reality itself with more flexibility and friendliness.

Thanks for reading and I welcome your feedback and thoughts!

I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at

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