The athletic experience is in my estimation unparalleled in its value and the extent of its impact. John Wooden’s legendary pyramid is perhaps the best example of the scope and significance of the character that can be developed. I will debate anyone on the merits of athletics under the guise of a well-trained coach. I often show my parents his pyramid and ask them, is there any trait listed that you don’t want your kids to possess? I have always considered their silence as agreement.
I have often wondered if I had to rate the importance of each character trait, which would I rank at the top?
There are many fantastic traits to choose from and you could likely argue the top spot for any of them. However, after five decades of coaching, my most valuable trait would be “grit”. In psychology, grit is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual's perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state. The dictionary definition is courage and resolve, strength of character. Quite simply it’s the ability to maintain your passion and poise through adversity. In contrast to those considered academically gifted who breeze through cognitive testing, athletics will with all certainty, at some point humble you and drag you to the bottom. It will test your grit and require you to persevere through unexpected hard times.
I have witnessed grit first hand in players of all different skill levels finding their way through slumps, demotions, injuries and evaporating confidence. Athletes struggling to find meaningful playing time, others who suddenly can’t score, make a routine putt or find their role on the team. Failure and adversity are the saddlebags every athlete must carry. There is no escaping them, only finding the grit to persevere through them. Soon enough young athletes discover their athletic experience is a dress rehearsal for life.
I like to believe that grit, like most character traits is something we pass on to our children. Acquiring grit is dependent upon hardship and disappointment. It would be impossible to understand it without feeling the discomfort that fuels it. As a parent witnessing the struggle, your most difficult task is not stepping in and trying to fix it. Regrettably, this is where many parents fail in using this opportunity for their children to learn an invaluable lesson. Too often the solution offered up is to walk away instead of fight through it. The subtle difference between offering sympathy and sorrow, and offering empathy and the encouragement to persist is the key to developing grit.
My most recent bout with grit came with my youngest daughter and her journey as a UW-Eau Claire Blugold on the women’s hockey team. Even as a veteran coach and someone who has experienced first-hand so many “rose colored glasses” parents, I know it is virtually impossible for me to see my daughters through a perfect lens. At times I was completely convinced that Emily was not getting the same chances as her twin sister and was getting unfairly benched. There were many times when I disagreed with her coach’s decisions. I felt he missed opportunities to build confidence in Emily the way he did with her sister. I even drafted a letter or two during her freshman and sophomore years, but could never convince myself to send them. Deep down I knew better and understood these are not decisions I can challenge because I don’t have the same information the coach has. Perhaps I wrote them more for therapeutic reasons, knowing deep down I would never actually send them. It was still hard to watch it happen, but in fact helped me be a better coach because I was able to see it from a parent’s viewpoint. That dual perspective offers great insight.
While I indeed benefited from her struggle, it was Emily that gained the most. There were plenty of texts and tears through the four years, but as parents we did our best to stand back, offer support, making it clear the solutions lay within her. If we don’t teach our kids to fight through adversity they will be ill-prepared to deal with it later in their life when you won’t be around to fix it. Emily now sees more clearly the value of the struggle and how it turned her into a better hockey player and a better person. When you are immersed in the battle you often can’t see the end reward. It is your passion and your grit that drives you forward and never allows you to quit.
As her sister went on to become the second All-Time Leading Scorer in Blugold history, Emily earned her stripes making what her coach calls “the hard plays that don’t show up on any stat sheets”. Her teammates voted her the “Blugold Award” as the team’s unsung hero. Coach Strand tabs it as “the biggest honor of our hockey family”. Her success story will help future Blugolds. “In the end her success was earned by her hard work, dedication and positive attitude,” said Strand. “It taught me a number of lessons. Her hard work and perseverance is definitely an example I will always use going forward for as long as I coach.”
Both of my daughters will be better people because of their Blugold experience. There were so many learning experiences through their four years, adding to their rolodex of life lessons. They were fortunate to have a great coach, not a perfect coach, but one who taught the right lessons when the game laid them out in front of him. He coaches his players in all three dimensions, the physical, mental and most importantly, the heart. Through their great accomplishments and heart-breaking losses, he taught them to accept responsibility, be humble and never give up. Coach Erik Strand was a tremendous role model of unlimited energy, enthusiastic attitude and transparent passion. He demonstrated first-hand how successful people attack their job and their life.
From the outside it might appear that we participate in athletics for the trophies and the championships. While they provide necessary motivation, it is the character we develop through athletics that is the everlasting reward. As coaches when we learn to see past the shiny trophies and look into the hearts of our players, that is when we truly become the coaches that can change people’s lives.
Grit may waver, but it will never quit. It may become disheartened, but will never lose its optimistic outlook. It may even fall down, but will always get back up. Grit is the antidote to the struggle that often seems insurmountable.
From grit rises greatness.