Growing Gritty Teens
People who develop grit from an early age are more persistent and resilient in achieving their goals than people who are not. Dr. Caren Baruch Feldman, a clinical psychologist and expert on grit, provides strategies for coaches, group leaders, and parents on how to help teens grow their grit and set themselves up for success in every aspect of their lives. Her most recent book is The Grit Guide for Teens, a workbook designed to help teens develop perseverance, self-control, and a growth mindset.
Overview of grit
My definition of grit is based on Dr. Angela Duckworth’s definition. Dr. Angela Duckworth, the psychologist and researcher who popularized the term, defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” I would add to that definition the word, “meaningful.” For me grit is having both passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals. It is the ability to persist in something you feel passionate about and persevere when you face obstacles. Grit is important because it explains and creates success, independent of and beyond what talent and intelligence contribute. Being naturally smart and talented are great, but to truly do well and thrive, children and adults need the ability to both persist and be resilient.
Why I chose to focus on grit with kids
I believe that more than ever, young people today need to grow their grit. Today’s children face intense pressures, academically, socially, and personally. In addition, there is so much to distract and discourage youngsters, from social media to peer pressure. Furthermore, many children today experience either too much stress (toxic stress) or have been overprotected (no stress at all), thus making it even more difficult to cope with challenges. With all of these pressures and distractions, it can be especially hard to set long-term goals and find the strength to accomplish them—unless children have grit. Grit is a necessary skill for the 21st century. What better time to learn it than as a young person when it can be practiced and honed into a habit for a lifetime.
To grow grit you need the right mindset, behavior, and team
Often when we are trying to work on growing our grit, there may be two competing voices in our heads: a loud, impulsive voice directing us toward more immediate rewards, and a quiet, thoughtful voice encouraging us to consider long-term outcomes. When we are trying to stick to a goal or overcome a challenge, we will be more successful if we tune into what we know will feel good in the long term and quiet down what feels good right now (in the short term). By adopting a mindset that focuses on the long term, our grit will grow.
“If it is doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” and that “The magic happens when you get out of your comfort zone.”
We also need to reframe challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. I often share with my clients that, “If it is doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” and that “The magic happens when you get out of your comfort zone.” We need to help young people understand that failing is part of any successful journey and that FAIL just means, “First Attempt in Learning.”
Although developing a gritty mindset is important, if that mindset is not accompanied by a change in behavior, results will not be achieved. For example, it’s not enough just to want to get better in tennis; you need to actually get on the courts and practice. Allow the children you work with lots of opportunities to practice their gritty behavior. It is only through practice that behavior changes and grit grows. Teach your clients about deliberate practice: a type of practice that gritty people use to improve performance. Deliberate practice is focused, intentional practice combined with feedback from experts and plenty of repetition. Think of a basketball player who needs to work on his or her three–point shot, taking three-point shots over and over again. When you combine focus, repetition, and feedback, you can improve performance and achieve hard goals. Lastly, gritty behavior needs to be turned into a habit. When we look at the behavior of gritty people, we see that they are not exerting self-control or using willpower all day long; rather, they are engaging in habits that promote grit. When an activity becomes a habit, it is automatic and no longer needs to draw upon our limited resource of willpower. It is like changing a tennis serve or a golf stroke that is not working for you. At first, it is hard to change, but through repetition and practice, the move becomes automatic and a habit. Changing a habit is hard, but the good news is that if you are hardworking and consistent, these new routines will become as automatic as your old bad habits.
Model gritty behavior by taking on challenges yourself, being persistent and bouncing back from failure.
Although children need the right mindset and behavior, it is equally important that children build a community of grit, or a grit team. When I speak to children about what has actually helped them grow their grit, they often respond that it was a friend, teacher, or coach who helped them persist and persevere in the face of obstacles. Having a charismatic adult, someone from whom we can gather strength, is key when coping with stress and building perseverance. This is because when we connect with others we have better attention, emotional regulation – even immune functioning. Having an accountability partner, someone who gives you both support and keeps you on track, can also be helpful when building grit. It is also essential that as the coach or teacher, we lead by example. Model gritty behavior by taking on challenges yourself, being persistent and bouncing back from failure. Share with the children you work with, how you overcame a challenge or setback and how you had a “FAIL.” When you show both vulnerability and grit, you will inspire others.
Gritty people don’t just have one person they can count on. They are surrounded by a community of grit, a place where individuals come together to motivate and ignite each other’s passions and purpose. When you surround yourself with gritty people, you are more likely to be gritty yourself. Being part of a sports team or extracurricular program is a natural way to build a “grit team.” These groups allow you to connect with others and give you a sense of place and purpose.
Actionable practices for developing strong grit in kids
Using sports examples is an excellent way to illustrate the power of grit. I often share with children the iceberg illusion. The iceberg illusion is that when you see an iceberg, you only see the top. For example, when you see a successful athlete like LeBron James, you just see the “top.” What you are not seeing is all the hard work, practice, and setbacks associated with their success. To be successful in sports or in any other area, requires hard work, commitment and the right mindset.
Sports is all about passion, practice, and people, lending itself as a natural place to grow one’s grit. Furthermore, what better way to get support than through your team and through your coaches. The lessons and strengths children learn and show through sports can be brought into other aspects of their lives, creating ripple effects that are far-reaching. Ultimately, we want to help children see that to be truly gritty they will need to dig deep in themselves and find a way to see how growing their grit can be meaningful to themselves and the world at large (having a sense of purpose). Having purpose allows you to be both persistent in your long-term goal and resilient when you have setbacks because you feel inspired by that higher meaning. Simone Manuel, the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, connected her personal triumph to a higher purpose when she said, “The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people who came before me and inspired me to stay in this sport, and for people who believe that they can’t do it.” It is clear from Simone’s statement that she connected her swimming and training to a higher purpose. She worked hard and trained not only for herself, but for others both before and after who might be motivated and inspired by her. This is what purpose is all about.
As you can see, I am quite passionate about the topic and eager to spread the power of grit. What I found to be an effective way to share this message is often student-to-student. At my school, I have older children teaching and buddying up with younger students to help each other grow their grit. Having older children teach these skills is an excellent way for younger kids to learn the material but as importantly, a great vehicle for the older students to really take home the message. For example, for one project, fourth grade students helped second grade students develop grit goals. The fourth and second grade students became accountability partners to one another. When they saw each other in the hall, they checked in with their buddies to see how they were doing.
Sharing this message with teens can be tricky. Teens are sensitive to how a message is delivered and do best when nudged rather than nagged or bulldozed. For example, instead of having a direct conversation with a teen about his/her lack of grit or why “teens today” are just not gritty, give him/her a leadership position where he/she has the opportunity to teach others. Similar to with younger children, I have founds teens sharing their own grit stories with fellow teens often through video can be a powerful vehicle for all involved. If you are interested in being truly inspired by some gritty teens, check out my Grit Guide for Teens YouTube channel where teens have posted their grit stories.
Remember, when you have a positive mindset, committed behavior, social support, and a higher purpose you can achieve true greatness. Wishing you much success in any challenging, long-term goal you take on.