What is the grit that mucks up your performance mechanisms or undermines your best intentions?

This week, I’m thinking about the stuff that gets in between us and where we want to go. And came up against an interesting distinction that (big surprise) involves the word “grit.”



There’s Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit as that which provides the necessary traction to keep going on the path up to our Big Goals. On the other hand, there’s grit’s other definition (courtesy of Oxford Dictionary): small, loose particles of stone or sand. The stuff that mucks up machinery gears and slows us down…or stops us entirely. Today, I’m talking about the latter. What is the grit that mucks up your performance mechanisms or undermines your best intentions?


Never mistake activity for achievement, for those unfamiliar with his story, he is arguably one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time. He won ten national college basketball championships -- and seven in a row in a 12-year period, as head coach at UCLA. His achievements are all the more remarkable when, in contrast to successful professional coaches, he had only four years to work with any given player before they graduated. By necessity, then, he had to craft a highly efficient and effective model for player development that focused on three fundamentals: conditioning, basic skills executed under pressure, and teamwork. From that system, he was able to craft - over and over again - teams that performed.


This sounds great, right? Notably, no one has been able to replicate Wooden’s success. When asked about the secret to his long-lived success, he often responded with a version of that above quote - which makes sense in theory but can confound many of us in practice. Here’s a story about why athletes (and the rest of us) sometimes lose our way in this space.


Back when I lived in the US and worked as a sport psychologist with wrestlers, they were known best for their ability to wrestle on their feet. This part of a wrestling match can look like a warrior chess game, as the two opponents circle the other, taking their measure while throwing in a feint or a dodge to see what will happen. Sooner or later, one wrestler takes their “shot” - a lightning-fast move to gain body or positioning control. If successful, the action would often be forced to the mat, with one wrestler eventually attaining a dominant position on top of the other. This part of the match is known as “par terre” (literally “on the ground”).


If “on feet” wrestling was the US team’s superpower, par terre wrestling was perceived as their kryptonite. Par terre wrestling is plain hard work where the wrestler on top attempts, through sheer strength, to turn their opponent over, or—more spectacularly—lift and throw them over. Either move was likely to win the match outright.


Andy Bisek at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, Canada. So it was with interest that I heard the story from one of the USA Wrestling coaches about how one of our 1996 Olympics medallists made a commitment with his coach to spend extra time after every practice in the year before the Games (mind you, well before he even knew that he was going TO the Games) working specifically on his par terre game. By all accounts, it was in this athlete’s commitment to shore up of this critical weakness that took him to an Olympic medal.


Despite this success story, I was unaware of any wrestlers who were at the time inspired to emulate this athlete’s strategy. Why? No one said this out loud to me, but I suspect it was because, not surprisingly, it’s more fun practicing the stuff you are already good at. This is not unique to wrestling; gymnasts love their favourite moves, basketball players like dribbling with their dominant hand, and so on.


It is human nature to crave the gratification expertise can provide - the things that come easier, look good, and get rewarded. Getting better at your craft to turn weakness to strength, is hard. Working on your weaknesses is also just that much more painful - often literally as well as figuratively. Fulfillment when you are learning, trying, and failing on a regular basis can be hard to come by. As well, it can often be a lonely journey. We love watching and being with winners…but other than their coach, who makes the time or effort to support an athlete’s early and often awkward efforts?


But when athletes work on the stuff that comes most easily or is the most fun, like wrestlers focusing on their footwork over mat work, are they in fact committing the sin John Wooden’s quote warns us against: mistaking activity for achievement? Unintentionally "gritting up" and slowing down their own progress?


And what about the rest of us? Are you busy in that way that feels like achievement but is just activity? I fell into this trap often - doing lots of small things like painstakingly and personally answering all of my emails - which was very rewarding to me as it pushed both my “tick things off the list” button as well as my “be as nice to others as possible” button. A double win but it would eat up hours in my day.


What can you do about this? First, get clear what “achievement” versus “activity” in your context means. I’ve been in workplaces where it was a source of pride to be seen as the first person in and the last to leave, as if performance was only about the hours you were present. In that kind of culture, it’s easy to slide into thinking that time equals performance, when in fact, it may have the opposite effect. Are you prone to giving yourself credit for time spent rather than what you were able to get done? I used to see this when athletes would show up in body but not spirit to training. The slow walk into the gym, the lean onto the wall, the slow slide of butt to the floor. The “get into the middle of the pack” mentality. Cruising, not engaging. Active but not achieving.


Second, get yourself a routine. John Wooden had his athletes follow a well-defined and planned routine that maximised efficiency while focusing on his priority core principles. He drilled this into his players until it became second nature. At the end of each day, consider what your priority goals and actions for tomorrow should be, define and schedule your plan, and then do those things.


When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur... Don't look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That's the only way it happens- and when it happens, it lasts. —John Wooden.


P.S. I will be sharing some pre-publication snippets of my forthcoming book When Grit's Not Enough. Stay tuned! For more information about all of my events, check out my website.


P.P.S. 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 kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.

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