By Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA, RSCC*D
The saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This not only limits the way you interact with problems, it influences the way you see them.
Grit is defined as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). It belongs in a coach/educator’s toolkit. The term “toolkit” refers to skills and strategies used by the professional with a student, and taught to the student for future use. We can only teach ‘life lessons’ we understand. We can only give from what we have.
Grit is a powerful capacity, everyone can benefit from it, but it cannot fix all problems. When a basketball player does not play defense with the level of intensity his coach would hope for, it is possible that he does not have enough (or is not enlisting enough) grit.
It is also possible that there are other concerns in the athlete’s life that might be limiting effort and performance. If a coach does not take the time to investigate, they might misdiagnose the concern and coach for grit, when what the athlete needed to improve performance was a bit of patience and understanding.
The story of “Mike” highlights this idea.
During the fourth week of the football season, the Trojans were undefeated with their eyes on a state championship. About twenty minutes into a practice, the coaching staff assembled the starting defense and began lining them up against the offensive formations for their upcoming opponent. This is called a formation recognition drill. “If they line up with a tight end, how do we adjust, Mike? Mike??” Mike was a senior captain and starting inside linebacker. “Mike?!?” Mike was missing.
Frustrated, the coaches called in Mike’s backup and continued with the drill. After a few more plays, Mike came jogging around the bleachers and onto the field. As soon as the head coach noticed him, he erupted. He laid into him for being late, publicly addressing how this sort of behavior would not be tolerated, especially from a captain, and if Mike wanted to win, he should be the first one to practice. Being late was unacceptable. He told Mike that he should be embarrassed and questioned his commitment to the team.
The term “toolkit” refers to skills and strategies used by the professional with a student, and taught to the student for future use. We can only teach ‘life lessons’ we understand. We can only give from what we have.Tweet
What the coach somehow forgot were the countless moments Mike had gone above and beyond in service of his team and his teammates. Mike started every game during his junior season and was voted a captain by his peers. Mike was a regular in the weightroom and was usually among the first to show up to practice. The coach was not a bad man; in fact, he was well-respected, and graciously shares the story of “Mike” as a precautionary tale for other coaches. But in that moment, this good coach let his anger get the better of him. He assumed that “grit” was the appropriate lesson to teach. Patience and care would have served him better.
Earlier that day, Mike was in science class. He received a message from his sister to call her as soon as possible. Mike’s dad had been in a car accident. Mike ran out of school and headed to the hospital to be with his family at his father’s bedside. When the head coach blew up at Mike for his tardiness, he broke down. Sobbing, Mike apologized to the coach, who was still not aware of the situation. The coach, stunned by his 6’1” 220lb captain breaking down in tears, realized that he had made a mistake.
Mike was not lacking grit. He had plenty of it. The issue was that Mike had already used up his grit, being strong for his family and sitting at his father’s side in the hospital, then leaving his family to hustle across town to practice with his teammates. By the time the coach blew up at him, his grit gas tank was on empty.
Please note that Mike’s story does not carry some sort of moral agenda, only a question… did the coach’s behavior match his goal? It did not.
The coach’s goal was to get some intensity out of his players and his team. Instead, one of the team leaders was in tears. The coach’s stated mission was for the Trojans to treat each other like family, with respect. In that moment, the coach realized he his behaviors were running counter to that mission.
Grit, in this case, was misapplied.
“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This not only limits the way you interact with problems, it influences the way you see them.
Again, this is not a question of morality. Instead, it is the suggestion that leaders should listen to their emotions but not be governed by them. It is okay to feel frustrated and angry, but how that subsequently guides one’s behavior should be thoughtful, rather than reactive. I will not make a case for or against yelling. I will say that if yelling is your only motivational strategy then you’ll notice more moments where it feels like the appropriate response.
And I will certainly not suggest that everyone who is late to practice has experienced a family tragedy. Now and then, discipline and intensity are necessary. Especially in sports like football. Either way, a coach must be responsible for their behavior – better to take accountability for a decision made thoughtfully that one made out of reactive anger.
The saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This not only limits the way you interact with problems, it influences the way you see them.Tweet
Mike’s story is not common. In the words of author David Foster Wallace, while using hypothetical narrative in the act of perspective taking, “none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends on what you want to consider.” Foster made that statement in a famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech, turned into a book called “This is Water”, refers over and over to one’s ability to slow down, pay attention, and avoid “default” settings. Too often, when a coach sees lack-luster effort, they assume their team needs to be grittier. Sometimes they are right. But to lean on that default setting comes with countless limitations and, simply, is not a successful approach.
I should know. I’ve done it wrong many times.
Is grit good? Absolutely. But not when it is misapplied. Mike’s story shows how limited, default, reactive thinking can lead to the misdiagnosis of a situation and the misapplication of grit. This can happen at a larger scale as well. In those cases, it is not only thoughtless, but it can be dangerous.
Coaches, work to build a full toolkit of character, mindset, and social emotional skills. It’ll take work, you’ll have to learn and try new things and step out of your comfort zone… You need it. Your students need it. They also need safety. They need care.
Grit is good. Grit alone is not enough.
For support, or to bring a Beyond Strength workshop into your team or school, don’t hesitate to REACH OUT!
James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.