In 2009, I was the head coach of our Middle School girls soccer team. During that season, our leading scorer was also the most likely to kick the ball over the goal. Multiple times per week, I would work with her and remind her about how to position her body over the ball and with which part of her foot she should use to shoot.
As a parent of three young children, I have spent the better part of the last seven years teaching my children how to do things. Whether they are learning how to read or to tie their shoes, they do not master skills on the first try. There is failure, frustration, encouragement, repeating the cycle until they are finally successful. The first success fuels self-confidence and they take off towards a higher level of self-sufficiency. As a teacher and coach, I have seen my students and athletes experience the same process. However, we all know that the 99% of the process before the first success can be grueling for everyone involved. It’s hard for us to watch children struggle and our instinct is to rush in and help them. But what if that’s not the answer?
This summer, I had the pleasure of reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth. In this book, the author uses social psychology data and interview responses from some of the most successful and grittiest individuals in the world to develop guidance for adults in how to help young people succeed. Duckworth explains that all gritty people have four common assets: interest in what they are doing; practice with intent to improve; a purpose bigger than themselves, and hope.
Interest is a passion for what they are doing; in short they love what they do. While this makes sense, this doesn’t make the job easy. There are lots of things that kids don’t enjoy doing, so how do we sort out what they are passionate about? Jean Côté, a sports psychologist, finds that reducing the period of sampling interests and play makes this job harder. How are children going to know what they are passionate about without experiencing a variety of interests? This is the beauty of Randolph; it gives students an opportunity to try new sports in the RAP program or the 3rd/4th grade musical, in a safe and encouraging environment. Also, trying new things takes time. Duckworth states that “over time, we learn life lessons we don’t forget, and we adapt in response to the growing demands of our circumstances.” Change takes time and multiple exposures; if the very first exposure was not successful, kids need to get back on the horse and try again. This can be expressed in terms of seasons as well; just because the youngest member of the team did not get as much playing time as he or she had hoped, does not mean that that won’t change the next season.
Practice is the less glamorous part of developing grit. Sociologist Dan Chambliss says that “superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole.” Writer John Irving said that he “came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature.” Both would agree that consistent repetition develops skills to the point where they are second nature. Again, this takes time devoted to developing these skills. At the end of the 2009 season, my leading scorer who had been practicing her shot had the opportunity to play with our varsity team in the state championship tournament. Randolph won the championship game, 1-0, and my young player scored the winning goal, in exactly the way we had been practicing for months. Her practice had eventually become second nature and in the heat of the moment, she was successful without even thinking about it.
Gritty people practice deliberately: first they set a goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Then, they strive to reach their goal, revising it when the initial one has been met. Gritty people seek feedback on their performances to fine tune their practice. This is a process we emphasize all of the time and in every area at Randolph. Coaches constantly have conversations with their athletes to improve both individual and team performances. Musicians have progress checks to monitor their improvement in playing their instruments. Teachers not only provide feedback on assignments, but have individual conversations with students on how to improve. Advisors also help support students on this journey.
Because we are trying to encourage students to improve, it’s important for this feedback to be as free of emotion as possible. When I coached cross country, we focused on the data, helping kids compare times on the same courses, showing them video clips of their running form and pointing out ways to increase efficiency, and guide them through evaluating their own performances. Sharing this data took the emotion out of the conversation and allowed for growth. This also helps kids to continue to be passionate about their endeavor; it’s hard to stick with something when most of the feedback you receive is negative.
Grit is more than committing to something and not giving up. Gritty people have a higher purpose. Extremely successful people feel that what they do matters to people other than themselves. Again, this is not something that happens overnight; Duckworth explains that “most people first become attracted to things they enjoy and only later appreciate how these personal interests might benefit others.” This also emphasizes the importance of trying many things first before narrowing down interests. But the key to this is reflect, reflect, reflect.
Our job as educators and parents is to show students how what they are learning connects to their greater world and in my experience, the younger the student is, the more important it is for adults to initiate that reflection with questions such as, “What did you learn from this experience?” or, “What did you learn about yourself through this experience?” How a student phrases an answer can be telling of grit as well. When a student habitually searches for both temporary and specific causes of suffering and looks for ways to change the situation, she is embracing a trait called learned optimism and is far more likely to be successful.
Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, states in one of my favorite songs, "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall," that he would “rather be a comma than a full stop” and I think he is on the right track. The punctuation we use can make a profound statement about how we approach challenges.
Consider the sentence, “I failed the test.” That’s it, the result is final and nothing can be changed. However, if we change the sentence to, “I failed the test, but I met with my teacher for extra help, which improved my grade on the next test," the temporary pauses before finishing the thought express not only hope, but also increased mastery of skills. As a teacher, coach, advisor, administrator, and parent, I want all children to be commas, looking for ways to change the statements they are making in their lives, instead of just accepting a perceived fate.
Finally, successful people surround themselves with other people who emphasize grit, creating hope for themselves. As parents, we are the primary role models for this. Kyla Haimovitz, coauthor of a study on parent influence on a child’s grit development, published in Psychological Science, explained that “parents need to represent [a growth mindset] to their kids in the ways they react about their kids’ failures and setbacks. We need to really think about what’s visible to the other person, what message I’m sending in terms of my words and my deeds.” This is not only pertains to parents, but to all adults who work with children.
The best ways to emphasize grit are: 1) teach your child to ask for help; and 2) respond to setbacks by asking the question, “How can you use this as a jumping-off point?” By teaching children to ask for help, they not only practice speaking to adults, but more importantly, they learn that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for help. Doing so does not make one weak or less intelligent, but resourceful. By modeling a growth mindset, we reinforce safe mistake-making and increase the likelihood of children asking for feedback to improve.
As we begin another school year, students and teachers alike are filled with hope, enthusiasm, and excitement, wondering what learning will take place within the life of the school. It is my hope that our students will learn wherever they are, whether it is in the classroom, the athletic arena, or performing in front of their peers. My hope for this school year is for our students to use more commas than periods, taking control of the statements they make, thereby making larger ones about who they are.