Monday, May 9, 2016

Grit, masters athletics, lifestyle

Making the rounds lately is author/psychologist A. Duckworth and discussing her book:

"Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance"

I heard her interview on NPR, this one for the WHYY program: Radio Times (listen here).

Probably nothing new here but I enjoyed her interview because of the many references to athletics, and the concept of training toward longterm goals.

What is 'grit'?  A ton of adjectives can describe it, although many terms have subtle differences ... willingness to persevere in pursuit of long-term goals, perseverance and passion, discipline, work ethic, willpower, resilience, industriousness, impulse control and self-mastery, fortitude, conscientiousness, pluck, tenacity, persistence, stick-to-itiveness, balls, sacrifice, guts, drive, etc... you get the idea.  It's also a commitment of the 'long term' variety.  Most of all, a commitment to do what is hard and uncomfortable, a willingness to repeatedly leave ones comfort zone on a schedule or on a program.

'Grit' has been a component of my life and athletic training, especially since I started masters athletics almost 10 yrs ago running 5k road races.   While 'grit' in concept is something that sounds good, and can be seen as something one would like to have, in reality .... it doesn't feel good.   For a 55+ 400m sprinter, it hurts ... a lot.  When I'm alone on that blustery cold/hot/rainy/foggy/wet/windy track, and my heart rate is already over 140 bmp, I'm bent over gasping, and that beeper goes off telling me that I have 10 seconds of rest before I must start my 4th 400m, no one is there to see if I cheat and wait another 10, 20, 30 seconds... when it comes true grit, that's where the 'rubber meets the road' ... and doing just that for months, on schedule, no matter what the weather or how you feel.  All the best intentions for most people will fade quickly when faced with the level of pain that a tempo (limited rest) set of long sprint intervals will bring, or a day that is raining and 40ยบ.  All those childish sayings ('when the going gets tough... etc....') don't help much.

According to Duckworth and many others, like K. Anders Ericsson (the '10,000 hour rule)' enough quality practice can make perfect, or at least very good.

I have issues with this concept.   Others do as well.

Culture.  As M. Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, in addition to the '10,000 hour rule', other factors such as family, upbringing, culture, and role models play a part in an individual's success and personality.   Learning from a young age that hard work results in achievement can foster grit.  When parents, teachers, coaches, mentors instill values that prevent quitting and promote rituals of hard work, leaving the comfort zone to achieve ... these values can carry over into later life.  That's why lessons learned in sports training as a youth can carry over.  But, such background is not always indicative.  There are individual intangibles in there that can't be predicted.  Most parents nowadays see sports as pure recreation and a pursuit of fun, rather than striving for excellence. Hard work only detracts from the fun.  Parents sometimes allow their kids to quit when the going gets tough.

Innate ability.  A person can have all the passion and work ethic in the world and still not be able to achieve... like sprint a fast 100m.  The 10,000 hour rule does NOT apply.  Nowhere is genetic predisposition on display more obviously than in a world elite 100m race final.  So, in most disciplines, even math and science, predisposition, innate ability, 'talent' ... remains a big factor, a factor that is down played by Duckworth's thesis and Erricson's '10,000 hr rule.'  However, in the case of math, I think the quality of instruction/teaching is a huge factor.  (I was a victim of horrible math teachers).   Physical attributes and body type often contribute to innate ability in athletics.  Sometimes I look at a fit person my age, usually tall, muscular, and think, "if that guy would train, he'd smoke me and everyone else."  I was thinking this just yesterday when I met 58 yr old Mitch, a very young looking black guy, brick layer by trade, extremely tall and fit.  Of course these perceptions are purely superficial.  You can't 'see' grit and fast twitch muscle percentage by just looking.  (I'm reminded that David V. won the USATF Nationals in the 400m last yr and he's only 5'6".  He beat LaShawn Merritt).  Also, part of innate ability for a masters athlete is to have a body that is youthful and resilient.  Joints that are in good enough shape to take the punishment of training.

Opportunity,  participation, and measure of achievement -  lifestyle factors that will allow or be conducive to success, the willingness to participate, and the idiosyncrasies of the process used to identify achievement. Having the time and opportunity to devote to a certain discipline, having the facilities and materials to do so, is a factor.   For something like Masters Athletics, it's all about 'who shows up.'  As Woody Allen said, "80% of success is showing up."  That's why I think National Titles, medals, etc... are nice, but it's about who can afford to travel to the event. You don't see a lot of masters athletes from Kenya showing up at world masters meets.  Then again, perhaps that's cultural... elite athletics in such countries is seen as a means to make a living, and masters athletics has no culture there... perhaps because many track and field pros are African, and masters athletics does not pay.  In fact, it can be expensive.   Masters World Rankings are a little more appropriate measure of achievement, but still not definitive, since conditions vary.  Again, ultimately, it's who shows up.   For example, seems like once every 5 years or so, Willie Gault shows up at a college meet, sets World Masters Records in the 100 and 200m, then you don't see him again for 5 yrs.  He never comes to USATF Masters meets (which I'm sure Alan T. is thankful for).   Where opportunity overlaps innate ability is the ability to avoid injury, to heal quickly, and have joints that are not compromised.  Pain can take away opportunity.


'Grit' is one of a number of necessary elements.  It's tough to be world class on talent alone, or just by showing up... especially in an event like the 400m.

Lastly, what motivates one to have grit?  For me it's the love of participation, the empirical nature of the sport where achievements are precisely measured and quantified.  Pushing my limits.  From the time of my childhood, my favorite toys were measuring devices, stopwatches and measuring tapes...  where me and my brother would 'make and break records.'  I think high jumping over a bar was one of the first things we did, because we could do it in any weather in our basement on Edward St.

Being successful and competitive is another motivator.  As I said before, winning USATF Masters Nationals is nice, but it is what it is... an old man's foot race of whoever shows up.  Very few people outside of masters athletics really know or care about it.  However, I do feel it is an elite group and I feel lucky to participate in such a well organized world-wide sport.  The camaraderie and friends are valuable.   The achievement of awards, titles, American and World relay records, and personal bests are all motivational.  I've missed medals by hundredths of a second, and won them by as much... the nature of the sport.  And, I feel most privileged when I get into the starting blocks as an unattached athlete in a college meet... especially when I don't finish last.

That being said, I'm fairly certain I would not have the motivation and the grit if I couldn't be competitive.  I don't think the pain and hard work would be justified for me, or I doubt I would work as hard if I could never compete somewhere near the top in my age group.   Perhaps, thats why I didn't attend outdoor nationals at age 54.  I admire this guy Will who competes at my local DIII college as a sprinter.  If I were him, I would never stay on the team.  He ran over 26 sec in the last two 200s we raced.  For college, that is very noncompetitive.  I know he does it purely for the love of the sport, and that is to be admired.  I doubt I would receive that much reward if I finished last in every race among my peers.  Certainly wouldn't justify gritty 400m training for me.

Like athletics, I had a serious passion for music, learned quickly and was good at it.   Being good at it was a motivator.  I have seen cases where people commit to careers as musicians who aren't good at it.  It can be done, because ... unlike track, music is subjective.  That is why I'm drawn to athletics at this point in my life... I've seen the musicians achieve success on the force of their personality, marketing, image, and a whole lot of extra-musical things.  The basic fact is that music is subjective and musical ability doesn't translate to success.  The public doesn't value musical virtuosity and 'success' in music is determined primarily by others opinions of how good you are, or how much they like your sound.  Such is art.

Even through the decades that I didn't compete: age 19-47, I still felt the responsibility to stay in somewhat decent physical shape.  I was pretty much a conscientious vegetarian and healthy eater through most of my life.  However, I don't think that health conscious guy is totally me.  I am also a binger and indulger, a hedonist, a procrastinator and lazy bum.  I'm totally spoiled with an easy lifestyle, having about the lowest stress job, and the most reasonable schedule imaginable for someone employed 'full time'.

I recognize the 'path of least resistance'... succumbing to things that make me feel good.  Eating sweet carbs, cereals, pastries, bread and butter, potatoes, fried food, and things that make me fat.  Carbs for me have almost an opiate-like addictive quality... comfort food.  Seems like when I start, I can't stop.  Also, vices like smoking pot and drinking ... which I did for decades (mostly pot).  Relaxing and being sedentary, staring at a screen.  Playing music while stoned (not practicing/learning - big difference).  Part of having grit is leaving these negative behaviors and habits behind for the greater good of a long term goal.  I've gone to bed hungry many times in effort to get to the weight I want.  I've found ways to 'cheat' hunger, by drinking sweet tea and coffee, anything to avoid eating carbs until I get to the weight I want.  Having this self control is part of having grit.  I don't always maintain this level of dietary discipline ... like now as I am on a break.  Have eaten bread n butter, potatoes and most of a Panera pastry ring since this weekend.  I know next week I'll be back to low carb, fish n salad.

 Although I'm still the same indulgent lazy spoiled hedonist, I enjoy such pleasures as my spa on the mountain, my easy work schedule, and my Jura coffee machine... after busting my balls on the track. Would I have the same energy and ability to commit if I worked a 40 hr a week warehouse job and had a family?  Very doubtful.  That's where the 'opportunity' element comes into play.   It's easier to be gritty when you have the opportunity.   For example, some masters athletes like Sonja, Oscar, and Bill C. are essentially professional athletes, not that they make a living from it, but they are devoted full time to it as they are either retired from their careers, or are in athletic/fitness careers where they are training and on the track anyway.

Opportunities are sometimes made by paying dues and having grit.   I have these things that I have now because I had some grit.  I lived like a pauper for 11 years, working menial jobs, living in college dormitories and apt complexes, going straight through to get my doctorate in music without taking anything but summers off ... and not getting distracted by quitting school to enjoy ego boosting endeavors like playing in a rock band... like so many music school dropouts do.

As to the question of fostering and developing grit... yes, I think it can be done but like a language, you have to learn young.  I think in today's society, grit is not emphasized among kids in America as much as it is in other nations.  Asians dominate fields like science, engineering, and music.  Parents today put more value on their kids happiness than on their work ethic, so kids never leave their comfort zone.  They grow up coddled.  Obesity is rampant.  A lot of times I see positive things in students like good attitude, curiosity, etc... but not much work.  Not much 'nose to the grindstone'.  Not uncommon with kids 'of privileged background'... rich kids, often those with the best opportunity.

When I was a kid, I lived in a culture of work and athletics.  My parents were young and hard working.  I swam across the lake at age 5, I was put on a swim team at age 9 and endured a hellish first workout but didn't quit. Did little league baseball, flag football, junior high and JV football.  Dad was an all-conference semi-pro football player.  My mother (still to this day) preparing and directing dance productions.  I later worked hard as a wrestler, and as a landscaper around my parents house.  Had some marginal success as a sprinter / long jumper in my region, and my brother was a 2x state champion vaulter.   Injury limited me and I focused more on music.  I always enjoyed nature and outdoor adventure.  That was my culture.  Both my parents always worked.  It always seemed weird to me that some of my friends' moms didn't work.

In conclusion, success takes grit, but more than that, talent, opportunity, and motivation.  You have to be taught grit and at some point, I think it needs to be forced on you so you know what it feels like.  I often think, only 0.001% of the population knows what the pain of running high intensity tempo intervals feels like.  It's not a natural thing to put yourself in that situation voluntarily.  Many who never leave their comfort zone would think it's a mental disorder.  But then again, for 99.9% of the population, being elite at something is unimportant and/or unattainable.  Being comfortable is what it's all about, expending as little effort as possible.  For some, especially in the mountain community where I live, there are people who have rarely or never worked really hard in their lives, and essentially live off of a trust fund or an estate bequeathed to them by parents/family.  Not to say these are bad people; they are often kind, loving, relaxed, smart, talented ...  just have different values.   I see this fortunate situation as an opportunity to apply grit to a chosen endeavor... although more often than not, 'the path of least resistance' is taken.   For those who don't have that luxury, opportunity and lifestyle can be created by good life choices.  However, grit can be hard to come by if you've never had it.  Then again, I guess there are 'degrees' of grit.  Gritty behavior can be diverse, but in my opinion, true grit requires sustained effort and often, a level of discomfort.

For me, I love having a purpose when I get up in the morning.  Even if it's just to rest and recover before another training cycle ... or do projects around the house... or to practice for an upcoming concert.... or just write shit on this blog.

If my body doesn't hold up in the long run as a masters sprinter, I'll probably find some other discipline.  Passion and goals make for a richer life.


  1. I see a 'book' in your future. Enjoyed this trip down 'your' memory lane. I admire you and when I grow up, perhaps I can be 'a little' like you.

  2. Very good comments about self-control/discipline and comradery - goes a long way. Also "...only 0.001% of the population knows what the pain of running high intensity tempo intervals feels like" - don't forget the flip side. That being the 0.001% who train for long distances. The physical and *mental* swings of pushing through a three hour contiguous run requires grit in a similar manner.

    1. Long distance running/training is certainly painful. But on the masters level, it's far more common than sprinting. I got into 5k running in '07 because it was so popular, seemed like everyone and their brother was running 5ks. The entire "running community" in my town seems to be about road running/ racing... as a masters sprinter, I feel like a lone wolf. So, I think training for long distances ... maybe not so rare.

    2. Enjoyed the read and the insight immensely --plus I see Mr. Gault just affirmed you as a Track Prophet !