When you think of the most successful players on the field or court, do you think of the “natural” athlete?  The biggest, strongest, fastest?

When you really analyze it, are they always the best players the team?

Funny thing, if you’ve been around sports long enough, you have probably heard this about a player – “he’s got a lot of talent, but he is just missing something.”

What is that “something”?

According to John O’Sullivan at Changing the Game Project, in all likelihood, that missing ingredient is the inner drive and will to succeed, a burning desire to push on despite obstacles, failure, and challenges.

In a word, grit.

From O’Sullivan’s blog…. “in 2005, Dr Angela Duckworth, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, began studying self-discipline. She measured 164 middle school students through both IQ and self discipline assessments, and then tracked their progress over a year of school.”

“She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were better predictors of GPA than IQ scores. This self-discipline, combined with a passionate commitment to a task and a burning desire to see it through, she termed GRIT.”

The Grit Scale

Dr. Duckworth developed a 12-question test, “The Grit Scale” (click here for link to the test), that takes only a few minutes to complete, and it has been shown to be an incredibly good predictor of success.

Sullivan continues, “In their most remarkable finding, Duckworth and her team administered their test to an incoming class at the United States Military Academy at West Point.”

“There, cadets already undergo a complex evaluation of academic grades, physical fitness measurements, and leadership testing, administered by the Army to predict which cadets will survive the rigors of West Point.”

In the end, Duckworth’s twelve-question Grit Test was a more accurate predictor of who would stay in school.

Guaranteed Success?

Do I think that grit is the single determinant of success or achievement?

Of course not – but it clearly is one of the key attributes that successful players have.

High level performance is made up of a variety of factors, such as talent, good coaching, deliberate practice, avoiding injury, and motivation….just to name a few. Yet when I think of all the talented players I’ve seen who didn’t achieve their potential, the missing ingredient was often very close to Dr. Duckworth’s description of Grit:

“the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”

Many players have talent, they’ve worked hard in spots, but they did not maintain their interest and effort long enough to become superior competitors.

I’d highly recommend that you view Dr. Duckworth’s 6 minute exposition here.

Developing Grit

My advice is this: if your child is young and struggling to succeed in a sport, help them develop the grit to persevere, and the love of the sport to stick with it. Find them a team that allows them to play and have fun.

If your child is older, don’t make excuses for their failure. Let him or her own-up to their shortcomings. Encourage them to work harder and ask for help in getting better

Here’s a great video from John O’Sullivan that can teach us to help our kids develop grit.

Here’s what he says parents can do to instill grit, determination and self-control in your players:

  1. Allow them to FAIL: In fact, encourage them to fail! If you are always making excuses for failure, blaming other coaches, referees, players, etc., you have lost sight of the fact that failure is a MANDATORY component of both learning and becoming mentally tough. Children who are not allowed to fail never have any obstacles to overcome, and blame things outside of themselves for their failure. Every time they encounter an obstacle, they wait to be carried over it, they wait for the problem to be solved for them. They do not persevere, they do not persist; they only learn to give up. Let your kids fail, and teach them how to learn from failure.

  1. Praise Them for Effort and Tenacity: if you want an athlete with sports “affluenza,” then by all means praise him for his talent, intelligence, and ability. But if you want a determined, gritty athlete, then praise tenacity, point out the importance of perseverance and struggle, and highlight his achievements which came through sustained effort over the long haul. Children who are praised for being gritty will come to value, and even embrace the persistent pursuit of long term goals.


  1. Be a Model Grit for Your Athletes: This is a tough one, but remember that kids hear what we say, but remember what we do. Don’t complain about things out of your control that effected a sports outcome, or blame your boss or co-workers because you did not get the promotion. Instead, be honest about your disappointment with your kids, explain to them how while you are upset, you are going to work even harder, that this is a goal worth attaining, and soon achievement will come. You can even do something on your bucket list, such as sign up to run that marathon, do your first triathlon, or set out to lose some weight. Demonstrate for your kids that what you are doing is not easy, but it is worth the struggle, disappointment and perseverance required of achieving it.

Let’s agree that many of our kids’ today lack this quality – and let’s also agree that it is a key attribute to success. Don’t make excuses for your child – help him/her understand that setbacks are merely temporary.

It’s climbing over them that makes us better!