It’s all too easy to believe that the success of Olympians is due to their talent. But a US author and White House advisor says their achievements are earned through endless hours of practice. 

WE’LL start telling ourselves it’s all about talent as soon as the Olympics begin. 

Riveted to our screens, we’ll be stunned by multi-medal-winning performances, dazzled by almost superhuman breaking of world records. 

“Wow!” we’ll shout at our TVs — ‘what talent, what a sheer natural gift, what genius!”.

Being distracted by talent is understandable, says Angela Duckworth, author of new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. 

It’s understandable because we’re witnessing performance — not the thousands upon thousands of hours of dogged practice that goes into developing stamina, into perfecting the technique, confidence and judgment that earns an Olympic gold medal.

“When we can’t easily see how experience and training got someone to a level of excellence that’s so clearly beyond the norm, we default to labelling that person a ‘natural’. 

"We’re inclined to throw up our hands and say ‘it’s a gift! Nobody can teach you that’,” says Duckworth.

So why fool ourselves into thinking Olympians don’t earn their excellence? 

Because, says Duckworth, mythologising natural talent lets us off the hook. 

We don’t have to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. 

“It lets us relax into the status quo”.

Duckworth admits being “distracted by talent” when she started teaching 12- and 13-year-olds maths in a tough New York school. 

She expected the ‘achievement gap’ between the naturally talented and the rest of the class to increasingly widen over time. 

Instead, she soon saw some of her more talented students earning only mediocre grades — yet, those who initially struggled with maths concepts were doing better than she’d expected.

She took a closer look at what the second group was doing — reliably coming to class every day with everything they needed, taking notes, asking questions, trying repeatedly when they didn’t get something first time around, coming for extra help during lunch break.

“Their hard work showed in their grades,” she recalls.

The experience got her researching the concept of grit, which she defines as passion and perseverance for a long-term goal.

Her research (more than a decade’s worth) proved people can achieve remarkable things by showing up and working hard day after day, year after year — that grit beats talent hands down in determining who will succeed in school, work and life.

During countless interviews with people who epitomise the qualities of passion and perseverance, Duckworth realised paragons of grit have four psychological assets in common.

First is ‘interest’ – passion begins with enjoying what you do. 

While there may be elements of their work they enjoy less, “gritty people are captivated by the endeavour as a whole — they find it meaningful”, says Duckworth. 

(By contrast, she mentions a 2014 Gallup poll, which found worldwide only 13% of people call themselves ‘engaged’ at work).

Duckworth identifies the second vital psychological asset embodied by gritty people as ‘capacity to practice’ — the daily discipline of trying to do better than you did yesterday. 

This means repeatedly zeroing in on your weaknesses with a ‘whatever-it-takes, I-want-to-improve’ mindset.

Aileen Reid, Ireland’s top-ranked triathlete, is tipped as one of the country’s medal hopes for this summer’s Olympics. 

Aileen Reid
Aileen Reid

Unsurprisingly, in terms of being a grit paragon, she has interest and capacity to practice nailed.

“I get to do an amazing thing for my job,” enthuses the 33-year-old Derry woman, who recalls her younger self, committed even at the age of six and never missing a day’s training at her swimming club.

“I’d be the first person there, the first in the water. Maybe I wasn’t the fastest but I wanted to be the best that I could.”

Reid has no doubt she’s got grit. 

“I’m very determined. Grit’s like never giving up. If I want something, I’ll do it — I’m very hard to talk down. 

"On a wet, cold, windy day on the bike, I might rather be at home, but I know I have to train hard and be adaptable for different conditions. 

"I go to places to compete and conditions mightn’t be all sunshine and roses. 

"It could be raining, cold, windy, like it was when I competed in Stockholm, Edmonton and Leeds.”

Duckworth’s third psychological asset, essential for grit, is ‘purpose’ — being convinced your work matters.

“Fully mature exemplars of grit invariably say: ‘my work is important – to me and to others’,” she says.

The Rio Games will be Irish rower Sanita Puspure’s second Olympics. 

What’s driving her is “to be better than I was the last time”.

LEARNING CURVE: Olympian Sanita Puspure.
LEARNING CURVE: Olympian Sanita Puspure.

It fits with what drives her in life — to live life to the full, and for her two children, aged eight and nine, to be proud of her.

“I want them to learn something from what I do,” says the 34-year-old Cork-based Latvian.

Puspure and Reid exemplify the fourth key ingredient (cited by Duckworth) for grit — ‘hope’. 

This rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance, says Duckworth means getting up when we get knocked down.

When Reid came off her bike near the gates of Buckingham Palace during London 2012, her first thought was “Get up! Does my bike work?” 

She finished her race with as much energy as she could muster. 

“While that was 43rd place — not what I was hoping for — I wasn’t an Olympian until I crossed that line.”

Puspure qualified for Rio two months ago, having missed out on qualifying last September. 

Going for gold: How to succeed like an Olympian

“It took a while to overcome my upset about not qualifying early. I never wanted to back off but I was struggling a lot.

“At Christmas, I got into fighting mode. 

"At every training session, I asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? What do I want to get out of it?’ 

"It was about doing the best I could today, so I could be better tomorrow.”

The truth for Olympians is that greatness is really the sum of thousands of individual days of dedicating themselves fully to the goals of each 24-hour period — improve that technique, perfect that move. 

Which puts it all on a more human, less overwhelming scale.

Exactly as TV presenter Laura Woods said before participating in the Buplex Hell & Back adventure race in June.

STEP BY STEP:Laura Woods kept her focus on the next obstacle as she prepared for the gruelling Hell &Back event.
STEP BY STEP: Laura Woods kept her focus on the next obstacle as she prepared for the gruelling Hell & Back event.

Declared Ireland’s toughest physical and mental endurance challenge, it required Laura go through numerous obstacles — Sniper Alley, ice baths, 10-foot walls, and electric shocks.

“I’m anxious and a bit nervous, especially of Sniper Alley and the ice baths, and I never thought I’d voluntarily sign up to be electrocuted! But looking too far ahead can be intimidating and overwhelming. 

"In the literal sense, it’s a good mantra for life just to look at the next obstacle and concentrate on that.”

Duckworth herself is grit personified. 

As a child, her dad repeatedly told her she was “no genius”.

Her research into grit has seen her advise the White House, the World Bank and Fortune 500 CEOs. 

Grit can grow, she says, so she’s in big demand for talks to parents, teachers and business leaders. 

Her Ted Talk on grit has been viewed over eight million times. But her first rehearsal for this six-minute talk didn’t go too well. 

Both the Ted Talk leader and one of its producers told her that her initial attempt was too full of scientific jargon — and scarce on clear, understandable examples. 

They said she’d told a story with zero suspense.

So Duckworth rewrote the talk and practised in front of her family. 

“Why do you say ‘um’ all the time?” her older daughter, Amanda, asked.

“You bite your lip all the time when you’re nervous. Don’t do that. It’s distracting,” said her younger daughter, Lucy.

Duckworth refined her talk and practised over and over again. Her final Ted Talk was “a lot better”. 

Which shows, she says, that grit is about the hours and hours of becoming — leading to the highlight of your success.

Aileen Reid is among a number of athletes sharing their inspiring stories ahead of Olympics 2016 as a part of Electric Ireland’s campaign, #ThePowerWithin.

Think big to achieve goals

Bob Bowman, head coach of the US men’s swim team at Olympics 2016, is best known as coach of 18-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps. 

Going for gold: How to succeed like an Olympian

Bowman has just published The Golden Rules, his 10-step plan for helping people achieve goals in any area of life.

Set a ‘dream big’ vision: “Programme your internal viewfinder towards a scene you see taking place in the future,” instructs Bowman. 

Think about your vision in a place you find comfortable. Think: ‘I may be dreaming, but this could happen’. Find some element of your vision to put on your immediate to-do list. Write down your vision. Tell it to someone — who will then be in your corner.

Adopt an ‘all-in’ attitude: Work on having a positive ‘what-more-can-I-do’ mindset. 

If attitude lags and is unequal to the vision, nothing great will be achieved. Adopt a ‘why-not-just-try-it’ approach.

Take risks: “Risk provides the fuel to get on the road to wherever you want to go. Psychologists say once people hit a level of comfort, they get complacent. I live by the maxim that unless I take a chance I’m going to stagnate.”

Short-term goals lead to long-term success: Take small steps on the road to the big one. Short-term goals serve as benchmarks of achievement on the road to our long-term goal.

Live your vision daily: “Success becomes routine when you have a routine,” says Bowman. 

Going for gold: How to succeed like an Olympian

You want to read all of Dickens’s classics by year’s end? 

“Then allot at least 40 minutes of reading time each day.”

Team approach brings individual success: “To successfully reach your vision, you’ll need supporters — friends, family, colleagues, teachers. You’ll depend on them for inspiration, suggestions and advice.”

Stay motivated over the long haul: There’ll be days when passion wanes, when it all feels like a grind. Make every day seem different by including little events/treats that boost morale.

Adversity makes you stronger: “When roadblocks pop up, don’t abandon everything,” warns Bowman. 

Find a solution. Use the setback to motivate yourself further – what can I do differently? 

Prepare for setbacks by practising being uncomfortable. If you’re preparing a presentation, have a colleague listen while throwing you some challenges as you speak.

Perform with confidence: You’ll build confidence by succeeding in smaller challenges along the way. Faced with a pressure situation, stay in the present and remain true to yourself and your game plan.

Celebrate your achievements: “I’m a firm believer in the value of celebration,” says Bowman. 

“Whether big or small, [a celebration] signals something has been completed, and with completion, we have a marker of our growth.”


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