Why Grit Might Not Always Be Enough


When Angela Duckworth coined the term grit (and wrote her book with the same title) back in 2016, it took the sport world by storm. In her book, she speaks of grit being the combination of passion and perseverance. She gleaned these insights after studying the differentiating characteristics of people who persisted versus those gave up in the face of challenge in numerous domains.


Who doesn’t love the idea of grit? Who wouldn’t wish this for themselves (if they are not already gritty) — the ability to remain steadfast and tenacious in pursuit of a long-term, valued goal, even when things are hard?


In sport, the characteristics of grit were borne out as game-changers which separated the good from the great. Unless you were just freaky talented (or super lucky), the truth about elite sport is that, oftentimes, it can be a grind — long periods of training with little overt reward, slow progress, with the occasional disheartening setback thrown in for good measure. There are four long years between Olympic Games, so if you didn’t have grit to get through the periods in between, it was a long road indeed.


As a sport psychologist, it was sometimes my job to help athletes find reasons to maintain their intensity and avoid the trap of “cruising” through training (when you show up in body only, go through the motions, and go home). Looking back at those efforts, I was there to try to increase grit.


Fast forward to the unprecedented and chronically uncertain times that defined 2020. It was supposed to be an Olympic year…but now suddenly, it has become a rewind of 2019 as the Year Before The Games, only with constantly shifting schedules (and virus hotspots), little opportunity for competition, and precarious funding opportunities for sports and athletes alike. I was talking recently with Bernard Savage, high-performance director for Rowing Australia about this, and he pointed out that adding an extra year to the Olympic cycle has literally never happened before in the history of Olympic Games. “We have no experience with a 5-year cycle,” he said.

What I am wondering now, though, is whether we need a rethink of the notion of grit in times like these. Is it really in anyone’s best interest to keep one’s foot tenaciously on the pedal, chasing passion when the outlets for that passion and effort literally don’t exist or have been delayed for months? I have seen athletes and coaches get unstuck here, persisting with a gritty performance development model that is, at least for right now, perhaps not fit for purpose. Athletes burning out, coaches searching for motivational answers, staff reaching the limits of compassion fatigue trying to keep everyone running.

I’m proposing that sport — Summer Olympic, professional, or community level — consider pressing the pause button for a moment and rethinking a few things. Consider this pandemic version of “slow down to speed up.”

To that end, I have a program I’m calling (oddly enough :)), When Grit’s Not Enough: Adjusting Attitude and Purpose to Thrive in Uncertainty. I’m offering a few free webcasts over the next few weeks to unpack my thinking in this space and offer up some program and coaching solutions for suitable for sporting organisations, coaches, and sport staff.

For more information about the webcasts, check out my website, https://www.kirstenpetersonconsulting.com/. If you have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.

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