Raising athletes to be resilient and persistent in the face of struggles or challenges is an important role for every coach, but it can be hard to know where to draw the line when helping athletes develop ‘grit.’ An athlete with grit, as explained by Angela Duckworth, the scientist who coined the term, is able to “sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”
Here are a five common mistakes that coaches make when trying to instill that spirit in athletes.
It’s easy to praise hard work and ‘grit’ when it’s leading to successful games or competitions. Unfortunately, this means that determination and grit often end up feeling synonymous with ‘winning’ and ‘being a winner’ for young athletes.
It’s your responsibility as a coach to help them understand that it’s possible – and perhaps more important – to have grit when things aren’t going their way.
A board-certified family physician and respected youth development and resilience expert, Deborah Gilboa, MD, explains on her website, “The most important lessons are learned in adversity, so we have to remind ourselves not to shield young people, but to enable and encourage their problem-solving and self-confidence.”
At the end of the day, emphasizing an athlete’s determination during hard times is more important to their long-term development than praising it when the athlete is finding success.
Offering a reward like a pizza party for winning seems like an easy motivational tactic, but it can backfire. Even athletes who are initially intrinsically motivated can become focused on the material rewards rather than performance and grit for the sheer love of the sport.
Gilboa agrees and shares, “The social science research on behavior change shows that rewards systems (usually called Token Economies in the literature) are effective for only short periods. Over time, the motivation decreases even if the rewards don’t change.”
“The biggest problem is this is not great preparation for the world ahead of our children,” Gilboa states on her website. “When we want our kids to learn good habits, we need to expect it of them and link the mastery of a task to a new privilege. Kids are desperate to be acknowledged as older or more mature and this is a great motivator.”