How do we as coaches enhance the point of difference between elite athletes to high performance sportspeople?

So how is talent or greatness in any atmosphere, sporting business or otherwise acquired? Fredrich Nietzche amonst others believed greatness was learned or obtained through accretion of small activities, working it into a habit and building them into a disciplined, synthesised system performed daily, resisting complacency and seeking to improve everyday. The belief is great things are accomplished when people think actively in one direction, have passions and enthusiasm for working towards and achieving their innate goals AND display the endurance and tenacity required for constant high performance. As equated in Duckworth’s book “GRIT”, effort is required at both stages to turn talent into skill and skill into achievement.

These ideas led me to ask where is the point of difference to elite age grade athletes to high performance sportspeople? Early results from my current research INVESTIGATING PERSONAL STRIVINGS OF ELITE EMERGING ADULTHOOD RUGBY UNION PLAYERS IN AUSTRALIAN RUGBY would suggest that elite age grade players are lacking innate drive and passion towards mastering their sport of interest. These players are highly motivated and show high levels of achievement strivings, which are very much individualised and personally focused, looking to improve themselves and their capabilities as opposed to “winning” within their sports settings. However, intimacy and personal growth strivings such as happiness, meaningful, quality relationships and appreciation are heavily displayed away from rugby settings. 


The passion for most endeavours (sport included) builds from discovery and development to deepening interest which is triggered by interactions, not introjection, which again highlights the importance of relationships and endeavours being personally interesting or integrally connected to others when trying to develop enduring high performance. These ideas were initially supported by Charles Darwin who believed that zeal and hard work where more important than intellectual ability when referencing earlier writing by his cousin, Francis Galton whom said remarkable people made from unusual ability, capacity for hard labour (perseverance) and zeal for task at hand (passions), which in turn echos Duckworth’s recent research into grit being made of PASSION and PERSEVERANCE. Duckwoth, whose research found grit is a better predictor of success than IQ, income, and other factors, defines grit as: 

Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals; grit is about having what some researchers call an”ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organises and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.To be gritty is not to hold steadfast to you to-do list goals. To be gritty is to have a well-organised pyramid of goals and what researchers call an ultimate concern, a goal that you are (persistent and determined) about.

Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting; this would help support Duckworth’s research of grit whereby working towards singularly important goals being the hallmark of high achievers in every domain. While passion and intrinsic motivation stems from innate physiological need of competency and represents the prototype of self-determined behaviour, self-determined extrinsic motivators, which are extrinsic motivators which have been internally rationalised with oneself, become activities which are being carried out as are important and concordant to one’s values (Mageau, 2003). Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behaviour, resulting in peak performance and persistence (perseverance for this example) (Deci and Ryan, 2008), important factors remembering deliberate practice can take supreme effort and concentration with top performers only able to complete between 3-5 hours per day.

Elite age grade players whom are aligned with task involvement goals and judge their competency through self-referenced targets or goals, are recognised as evoking high effort to obtain mastery and continually improve personal performance. Remembering grit predicts achievement in really challenging and personally meaningful contexts, their ability and effort is not differentiated by others and the perceived ability is self-determined and success only realised when mastery is achieved. Ego involvement or orientation shows athletes are more concerned with their evaluation against normative standards and recognise success as measurement against others, which is now infinity more conman in the world of social media, when performing as equal as others with less effort; therefore, not displaying striving for mastery or being focused on task. We can assist as coaches or supportive educators by encouraging a growth mindset through personal practised humility, both teaching and encouraging optimistic self talk with the athletes and supporting emotion free mistake making to encourage exploration and development as opposed to seeing mistakes as harmful or problematic. For that reason, it is important for coaches and supporting staff to both recognise and support player's passions and make SMART goals, coined by Wade Gilbert, which are targets acknowledged as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time bound. Adopting those practices and ideas shall acknowledge and encourage grit within the player. 

What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should support gritty athletes? Like Superbowl winning coach Pete Carroll has defined “(we’re just) helping people be great competitors, teach them how to persevere (and be resilient) and unleash their passions”. Sophia Jowett’s research into coach-athlete relationships looked at the interrelated emotions and behaviours captured through constructs of commitment, closeness and complimentary, tied in later studies with coordination (Jowett, 2004). In this sports research, commitment (or perseverance) within coach-athlete relationships is recognised as intention to maintain a loyal, long term relationship while showing closeness as mutual trust, respect and appreciation for roles played in partnership. The coach’s and athlete’s ability to have mutual relatedness, common ground in beliefs and actions while having stress-free interpersonal behaviours displays coordination and complimentary aspects for successful coach-athlete relationships and support athlete's goals and targets. Meaningful connections is key here; interests are not discovered through introspection but through triggers with the outside world. High quality coach-athlete relationships, which are optimised by mentioned harmonious passion, result in higher subjective well-being within player (Lafrenière, 2008), an area which is critical for age grade player retention and development of self-determined motivations and mastery mindset. The main aspects of influential and successful relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship.

Therefore, we as coaches should engage on a significant and sincere level and teach our young athletes or leaders to do likewise. Interests thrive when there is encouraging support, supporting a feeling of competency and relatedness. Both parties having harmonious passion and unified persistence towards sport specific goals should be positive for all dimensions for leader-follower relations, continued development of grit in sporting atmosphere and result in understanding of importance of pursuit of mastery yet not over whelming in each other’s identity. Combining these ideas alongside comparisons against Erikson’s deliberate practice model and Csikszentmihalyi’s theroy towards flow, as we offer supportive guidance, we should ensure we offer clearly defined stretch goals, outline and expect full concentration and effort, offer immediate and informative feedback and offer an environment where progress can be developed through repetition with reflection and refinement.

Jean Cote said “before hard work comes play”, which suggests deliberate play and sampling in younger ages both prepares athletes for future commitments while ensuring players don’t specialise too early and emotionally burnout. Personally, I believe this developed passion is a very important point here. I believe we as coaches, teachers, parents, need to encourage our next generation of leaders to explore and experiment to find their passionate areas of interest, allow people to work towards goals they care for in a abiding, loyal and steady fashion, "double down" on these areas and block out possible areas of distraction through the world of social media and non-resilience. We need to empower athletes to combine those achievement strivings with endurance, gratitude, happiness and appreciation as opposed to resting on talent or potential and being distracted from the effort required. We need to remind our young leaders that true success comes when we devote ourselves to endeavours which give us joy and purpose and that traits such as self control, character and perseverance is what shall set us apart.