Basketball on the Edge – Grit vs. Talent

What makes a person successful in their life? Is it natural talent? Is it exposure to opportunities? Is it measuring up to an arbitrary standard? There is mounting evidence that grit is the one characteristic that successful people seem to have in abundance. How does that apply to your young basketball player and the way they approach the game, their studies, and their future? Let’s examine how those with grit gain an advantage over those without it.

First of all, what is grit?

“Grit is passion & perseverance for very long term goals; Grit is stamina; Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years and working really hard to make your dreams a reality; Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”  – Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania who has been conducting groundbreaking studies on grit—the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals.

This definition points out that grit does not occur at one moment, but rather is an ongoing process/personality trait that remains in place over an extended period of time. The first thing that it requires is a vision of where a person wants to go and how the activity/skill/task they are working on fits into that vision. For example, how does this math homework help me achieve my long term goal to be an accountant? Or, how does taking 500 jump shots a day in the summer help me to reach my goal of being a starter on my high school team next year? The connections between the action and the long term result produce grit. The desire to make the dream a reality.

Talent on the other hand is often inversely related to grit. The talented player or student often gets by on talent alone. They can get an A with minimal effort. They breeze through homework assignments in 15 minutes when it takes others over an hour. They can score 20 points a game in middle school because they are taller, faster, or more naturally gifted than other players. Their talent allows them to coast and they become satisfied with good enough. They reach an arbitrary goal and they are through working hard, they have done what is required of them.  Talented students and players without grit do not maximize their abilities.

Grittier students and players are not satisfied with what they have achieved. Their results are not measured by outside forces like grades or a starting position. Gritty kids always want more. They want to learn more and practice more. When school or practice gets tough they keep working. Gritty kids do not place limits on themselves. There is never a limit to how much they can learn or how badly they want to succeed.

Grit allows kids to keep plugging away at skills or problems that are difficult. As parents, we have all sat with our kids helping them with homework and they just can’t seem to figure out a tough question or a difficult math problem. A kid with grit wants to figure it out, wants to get it right, wants to understand. A less gritty kid is more likely to give up, or say the problem is too hard. In basketball, a kid with grit keeps working on a new skill until he or she gets it, and then asks for more. A kid with less grit says, “I can’t do that”, and doesn’t put in the time to master the skill. It comes down to the growth mindset that I have referenced numerous times. Kids that attribute their success to hard work and seek out challenges are much more likely to develop grit than those that are always making excuses, avoiding challenges, and focused on trying to make themselves look good.  Kids with grit aren’t afraid to make a mistake or look silly while learning a new skill. Grit makes them determined to push through the difficult times to achieve their goals.

Greatness comes when there is an intersection of great talent and grit. When you are raising a talented athlete or student who also has grit, then there is a tremendous chance that your child will be successful in whatever they choose to do with their life. Grit is a valuable skill in sports, academics, and most importantly the real world.

How can we help our kids develop more grit? First of all, I believe we must allow them to fail and make mistakes. In today’s society parents are often there to watch over everything their child does, especially when it comes to sports. From a young age it is important that we allow our kids to struggle. Don’t try to step in and “fix” things when they go wrong. That is not teaching kids anything. Someone won’t always be there to bail them out of difficult circumstances. Secondly, teach your young player to look inward for the solutions. The answer lies in what they can do to figure out a math problem or improve their ballhandling. Hard work and persistence usually lead to change and improvement. Those are under your child’s control.  That doesn’t mean that hard work always leads to success, but without hard work failure is guaranteed.

I believe grittiness had a great deal to do with my success as a player. I didn’t know it was called grit back then, I just knew that I wanted to maximize my talent. I did that by trying to outwork my opponents year round. I took basketball more seriously than anyone I knew. I had a relentless desire to improve and get better. Grit is still a part of my personality today. I can’t put a project aside until it is finished. Working on a computer problem keeps me up all hours of the night until I figure it out. I don’t know for sure whether my grit was innate or I learned it through my upbringing as a kid, but I know it has served me well in basketball and in life.

Commit to making your kids and young players grittier and the benefits will last a lifetime. Here’s a quote from former N.C. State Basketball Coach Jim Valvano.

“Every morning when you get out of bed, you have a choice to make. You can choose to work hard or you can choose not to work hard. Not working hard is actually a choice.”

Let’s wrap up with this TED Talk as Angela Lee Duckworth explains the importance of grit in success.

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