Developing Grit in Youth Athletes

Developing grit in youth athletes is probably one of the toughest tasks a coach and parent can try to take on. There isn’t an easy solution and understanding where a player should be at in terms of mental toughness, grit, and competitiveness is hard to measure. Because players have different personalities and develop at different rates, knowing how to respond to them is especially hard. Some athletes are born day one ready to fight anyone that challenges them – others are on the fast track to work as diplomats and therapists. A motivational technique that might be needed with one player is likely to have no effect or a negative impact on another. So how do we teach kids to be resilient and mentally tough? How do we get a player that would rather watch the play to engage in it?

First, we need to realize that for most youth athletes, they genuinely think they are going as fast and hard as they can. If we belittle kids by telling them “you’re not working hard!” when they think they are and feel as if they are doing everything they can to work hard, the message can cause them to shut down. In their heads, they’re thinking, “I’m trying as hard as I can and dad still thinks I’m not. I’m tired of hearing that I need to work hard. I’m going to start ignoring him.”

Imagine a Navy Seal watching the average adult go through a workout or tough day at the office. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the adult thought he or she was going “all in” while the Navy Seal thought the workout or effort on the job was sub-par. Almost everyone, including myself, is in a state of learning when it comes to hard work and mental toughness. Can you imagine how offended we would be if someone told us we were “lazy” or “lacked a hard work ethic” (even if we know that we can push ourselves more)?

Second, we cannot expect to see players learn how to work harder and develop grit if they are going through monotonous and year-round training. Consider a Russian study from the 1950s that challenged one group of children to stand as long as they could, while a second group was simply asked to pretend they were soldiers on guard at their posts. The first group (monotonous, mundane training) lasted two minutes. The second group lasted eleven! When you hear complaints that kids don’t know how to work hard these days, perhaps we should take a look at how our sports have been structured. What if our obsession with drills and structure is contributing to kids lacking mental toughness and grit? I’ve witnessed this numerous times as a coach. Do a drill lacking in competitiveness and play with 8-year-olds and then try one that has those elements and you’ll see a major difference in work ethic.

Finally, we need to empower youth athletes for them to intrinsically develop grit. Very few will learn it by being yelled at. When an athlete understands that a coach or trainer cares about them and is genuinely invested in their well-being, they are far more likely to listen. Then if we provide athletes with goals that require slightly more effort than they currently provide and they put in the work, we have hit the jackpot! The kids make the connection and their intrinsic motivation lights up – “I shot 500 pucks and my shot is better. What if I shoot 2,000? I can’t even imagine how much better I’ll get.”

As coaches, parents, and trainers, what is more motivating than working to help youth athletes develop grit, perseverance, and mental toughness? Tests that measure grit are some of the best predictors for future success, more so than natural ability . Unlike solely skill-focused training, the development of hard work and perseverance is proven to provide our kids a better shot at successfully completing whatever task they ultimately endeavor to take on. That fact alone is reason enough to double-down on our efforts to teach athletes hard work.

By Josh Levine