On Grit

Mattie Ross: Who’s the best marshal they have?
Sheriff: Bill Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitiless man, double tough, fear don’t enter into his thinking. I’d have to say L.T. Quinn is the straightest, he brings his prisoners in alive.
Mattie Ross: Where would I find this Rooster?

A recent New York Times article gives a fascinating perspective on how some schools are trying to figure out the keys to personal and academic success, and inculcate these skills into their students. The ramification for soccer players is not hard to interpret.

It starts with a portrait of Dominic Randolph, the non-traditional headmaster of the tony Riverdale Country School. When hired, he wasted no time demonstrating that would was an “anti-muffin;” he eliminated with Advanced Placement classes in the high school. He encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign, and he says that the

Grit: passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission

standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system.”

He felt that the critical missing piece is character, the ability to persevere through adversity. He learned while at  boarding school in England but knows that it runs deep in American history. He cites the migration west in covered wagons and other immigrants’ experience as demonstrating a national cultural belief that Americans hold: “there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. And he worries that his fancy private school and its parent-clients are failing children by not teaching this.

The article goes on to explain how Randolph arranged to talk to Dr Martin Seligman, author of the seminal book Learned Optimism. In the process he also met David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools that target under-served communities. Levin had noticed that while his KIPP schools placed students in colleges at an outstanding rate, only 33% of Kipp students actually finished. (Although that is considerably better than the 8% of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of all income groups,  31%.) The tools that prepared them for high school and college admission were apparently not sufficient for completion. What was missing? For one thing, he found the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.

In delving further into the mystery they started working with Angela Duckworth, a

Nica vs. three opponents. One is trying, one participating, one wants no part of it.

colleague of Seligman’s.  While they already understood that at both schools, I.Q. was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, Duckworth could help with understanding long-term achievement. Her early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.s. And here’s the kicker: while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, she came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.”

In summary, they identify three different skill sets and what they predict:

  • I.Q. predicts success on test scores
  • self-control predicts good grades
  • grit predicts outstanding achievement

So it is with soccer. You can liken my club, the SF Vikings to the Riverdale Country school.

Brandon (L) is at the most practices, trains on his own and watches a lot of games. My grittiest player.

Most of my players attend the best private schools in the city. I don’t think it would be hard then to say that the KIPP schools are like the Mission Youth soccer league teams (MYSL) that we often face. Even though we serve different communities, as coaches our hopes and challenges can be similar but not identical, just as with the protagonists of the  NYT article.

I.Q. or raw aptitude will predict who will score well in assessments. For soccer, this is equivalent to tryout day, and it is a certain type of athlete who often stands out in these two-hour snapshots. A good body, top 10% foot speed and skillful first touches will get you through here. But these tryouts can not, and will not detect who has the other attributes of self-control and grit that predict long-term commitment and success.

In school, self-control shows up in the report card because day after day it is the student who makes the often unpleasant choice to study who will rise. This is tortoise and hare stuff. In soccer, it’s a little different. I do track attendance. It’s true that the kids who show up the most would get “A”s in my report card, if I had one. They understand the system, they have good touch and they make smart decisions. But there’s one difference between

The player in black has no business trying this hard. Some have it, some don't. Sam is not using good technique here and will lose the ball.

elective activities like soccer and homework though: soccer attendance is not purely a decision the player makes. Most of the difference between my 95% present players and the 75% present is the conflict of other activities that parents have enrolled the players in. Almost no parent will schedule an activity over homework, because they believe academics are the top priority. But they will actively create or passively allow situations where the player does not train for conflicts like:

  • social engagements with family (e.g., grandparents in town)
  • school dances
  • Confirmation
  • too much homework
  • school camping trips
  • music lessons

The take-away here is that instead of assessing self-control, we as coaches might do well to ask families who aspire to join our teams about their collective commitment to soccer. Or ask about the “parent’s self-control” in not adding multiple conflicting activities to his child’s schedule.

The third component, grit, shows up in soccer too. The gritty player is the one who trains more than 100% of the times the team gets together. It is in the player who actively looks for other opportunities to play. And the one who works on fitness outside of our practices. Or a player who spends the summer attending or working at soccer camps. It’s the guy who watches hours of top-class professional play and then juggles for an hour in the garage.

As we select players for our teams, aptitude is not hard to identify. But commitment and grit are the keys. If we can find all three in the same player, we’ll be working with a future star.

Want to take the Grit Test and see how you do? Here are two choices:

Go to this easy to access version and you score it yourself, or register here and get your results tabulated.

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