Gridiron Grit: Angela Duckworth on Excelling in the NFL and Beyond

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The 2017-2018 National Football League (NFL) regular season opens with the defending champion New England Patriots taking on the Kansas City Chiefs in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Patriots fans in attendance will be treated to the unveiling of their team’s fifth Super Bowl Championship banner—more than double that of any other NFL team since the year 2000. All were won under head coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick is a polarizing figure. Behind his surly demeanor, legendary stonewalling of the sports media, and distinctive wardrobe choices, is one of the greatest coaching minds in history. As with any highly successful person, pundits endlessly attempt to drill down exactly what has led to his success and the success of the players he coaches and the organization he leads.

One of the of the most compelling explanations of what drives success in the NFL and elsewhere comes from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. Duckworth’s own research on “grit”—passion and perseverance for long-term goals—has earned her a spot on the The New York Times’ Bestseller List, and, among other honors, a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant.’

Part of her journey to understand grit included spending time with Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl champion coach Pete Carroll. Though the effervescent Carroll is a perfect foil to the publically dour Belichick, it’s easy to see how both coaches personify key components of grit. It might not be a coincidence that one of them has coached in three of the last four Super Bowls, including against each other in Super Bowl XLIX.

We asked Duckworth about the role of grit in the NFL and what she learned working with Carroll. Is it possible to teach a talented player to become grittier? Is there a psychological revolution underway in professional sports? And how can you teach youth athletes about grit—and other values—through sports? Read on to find out.

DJ Neri: Let’s start by setting the record straight. A lot of sports fans might think of grit in a certain sense—like being generally tough or willing to do the “dirty work”—but you mean something else. What do you mean by grit?

Angela Duckworth: It is true that the word “grit” suggests different things to different people. I think a lot of people who watch or play sports think of “mental toughness.” There is an element of mental toughness in grit, but it’s not fully what I mean. Grit in my view is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. The perseverance part of grit does include mental toughness, because when something is hard to do, either on game day or in practice, the gritty endure even though the momentary experience is not pleasant, or can even be incredibly hard.

But what about passion? I think the passion side of grit is at least as important. Waking up and wanting to think about something, day after day; going to bed and dreaming about it. Great players are also passionate.

Waking up and wanting to think about something, day after day; going to bed and dreaming about it. Great players are also passionate.

DJ: Every year, there’s an influx of talented players into the NFL. In high school and college, many of these players may have been succeed primarily based on their level of talent. But in the NFL it usually takes more to stick around. Is it possible to teach a talented, but less-gritty player to be gritty? Or at this point—when someone is in their early- to mid-20s—is it too late?

AD: I’m realizing more and more that when people use the word “talent” in the context of sports, some people are using it in the way I’m using it: you can have an aptitude to learn faster or better than other players. A talented player would be somebody who isn’t necessarily skilled yet, but has huge potential. I use the word talent to talk about a player’s aptitude, or the rate at which they learn. I think other people use the word “talent” to mean, “They’re already good,” at football or basketball, for instance.

Do I think you can teach someone with aptitude or a very steep learning curve to actually stay on the learning curve—to be gritty? I think you can. But “teach” may not be the right verb. Can you bring it out of them, encourage it, cultivate it? Yes. I think it’s less, “Give them this handout and they’ll get it.” It requires people feeling that they have the security to fail, to look a little stupid when they try to do something they can’t yet do. You need to feel inspired. Often that’s another teammate who goes the extra mile. Or a coach: I’ve talked to a lot of players whose coaches have made indelible changes in their lives for the better.

I do think that you can cultivate grit. I don’t think it’s ever too late. But I also don’t want to make this sound like it’s easy. That’s the reason why professional teams aren’t just trying to cultivate their players, but also select players who are already incredibly hard working, gritty, passionate, resilient when they meet them.

DJ: Over the past few decades, there has been a statistical revolution in sports. I’m thinking particularly of the statistical revolution in baseball, or even the new analytics used by the teams such as the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets and discussed in Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project. Many teams now have stats gurus working alongside their coaches and management teams, but it seems fewer teams have a sports psychologist. And when they do, they seem to have a more clinical focus.

After your work with Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, have you noticed an increased interest from sports teams in applying concepts from your or other psychologists work to improve their teams? Do you think we may see an analogous “psychological revolution” in sports?

AD: I actually think there is an increased interest in psychological science—and behavioral science more generally. When I say “behavioral science,” I include our friends in economics, for example, or sociology—anyone who as a profession tries to understand human behavior and motivation.

I think that the economists and statisticians got there first, in a way, with sabermetrics. Using multiple regression to know that on-base percentage is a better measure than something more salient, like home runs. Or Micheal Lewis’ observation that someone who looks like an athlete may not be as valuable to the team as someone who doesn’t look quite as good.

Psychologists bring a slightly different set of observations. Psychologists always want to know “why.” Would a coach like to understand why some of his players are harder working than others, or why some had higher aspirations, or why some player are obsessed with their craft and others less-so? There is potential for a psychological revolution. But whereas in sabermetrics they just applied multiple regression to data that existed to come up with insights, the psychologists are going to be working hand-in-hand with coaches because psychologists don’t have all the answers. They don’t have one hammer that’s going to be useful for all the nails that coaches need to nail down.

My goal is to learn alongside these coaches I work with, as opposed to just imparting knowledge that they don’t yet have.

DJ: Grit seems like a concept that is almost tailor-made to be taught through sports due to the culture of practice and repetition. What advice would you give to youth coaches about teaching grit through experiences like little league baseball or youth soccer?

AD: I think that most parents who encourage their kids to do sports early in life—say it’s little league or youth soccer—are not expecting to raise future professional players. And maybe many of these parents aren’t expecting their kids to play varsity at the college level, or even make the team at the college level—there are many more players at the youth level than would be possible to fit on college teams.

So why do we play sports? I think it is in part to learn character. Not only grit, but teamwork, and having a purpose that’s greater than yourself. My advice is to help kids see that the lessons they learn on the field generalize to life.

I don’t think many players—especially young children—will spontaneously generalize and understand that math class has a lot in common with playing soccer. We need our coaches to do that.

When I went to West Point and I talked to the coaches of every team, I was struck by how much they cared about their players as people. Like parents, these coaches weren’t trying to cultivate Olympians or professional athletes, but instead wanting these people to take something from sports that they would carry over into the rest of their lives. Then, when I met with the players and asked them, “Tell me about the coach who changed your life,” they would tell me that their coaches often would talk about how to behave in life, and how to be motivated in life—and as a secondary point would say, “Oh, yeah, you should also apply this in the game today.”

My advice to youth coaches would be to think about sports as a way that we learn valuable lessons about life, and that coaches need to make it explicit. I don’t think many players—especially young children—will spontaneously generalize and understand that math class has a lot in common with playing soccer. We need our coaches to do that.

DJ: Pete Carroll has said many times how much he learned from your time together. Did you learn anything from him, or being around the Seahawks, that changed the way you think about grit? Or something that sparked a future research question?

AD: I am still trying to figure out the Seahawks and other great teams. But when I am with those coaches or around those teams, I think they’re doing many things, all at the same time. As a psychologist, it’s a great challenge for me to understand the many things a coach is doing or saying that make a player feel confident and supported.

In my time in front of the Seahawks—there were a lot of players, and they were all huge, and I don’t know anything about football. I was nervous! One of the rare times in my life that I was nervous before public speaking. Just being coached by Pete—his five-minute pep-talk, he looks me in the eye, tells me I’m going to be great, tells me to speak from the heart—it’s hard to explain, but I think I understood the power of a great coach. I remember thinking, I want this every day! I want Pete Carroll by my side every day. I could be so much better than I am without such encouragement.

In my time in front of the Seahawks…I was nervous! Just being coached by Pete—his five-minute pep-talk, he looks me in the eye, tells me I’m going to be great, tells me to speak from the heart—it’s hard to explain, but I think I understood the power of a great coach.

Maybe more than anything, I realized that when you read a book about, say, John Wooden and read first-person testimonials from his players, it’s different when you experience it. It’s an extraordinary experience. Maybe players who have been coached really well will resonate with this. You really do feel like you would be able to do much better with that person in your life than without.

I’m still working with Pete, and I continue to learn from him. One thing he says is that everyone should have a personal philosophy, and it should be 25 words or fewer. I joked with him that it could be 10 words or fewer, because good writing is sparse. He agreed, laughing. But I really feel that if people could articulate what they’re all about then it could, as it did with Pete Carroll, put them on a clearer path. I don’t know of any research study that has tested this idea: Half the people figure out their personal philosophy—their “this I believe”—and half the people don’t, and determine what is the enduring effect. I would love to study that.

Editor Cameron French contributed to the article. Disclosure: Angela Duckworth is an advisor to the Behavioral Scientist and Cameron and Angela are colleagues at Character Lab.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner. (Link)
  • Duckworth, A. L. (2013). Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. TED. (Link)
  • Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology92(6), 1087. (Link)
  • How do you build a culture of #grit [Conversation with P. Carroll & A. L. Duckworth]. (2016, May 19). (Link)