The Grit to Become World Class

Based on conventional thinking about performance, there’s no way I should be a world class pentathlete.

And yet…on July 23, 2015, I won the bronze medal in pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, 200 meter dash, 1500 meter run) at the USA Track & Field Masters Championship.  Eight months later when I checked the pentathlon point totals for 2015 I was pleasantly surprised to see my score earned the #8 world ranking in my age group.

wma-results

The most valuable part of my achievement was the destiny-shaping mindset disturbance that resulted.  I discovered the upper limits of performance are NOT determined by the conventional notion of talent + experience + hard work.  It takes “grit.”

Grit researcher, Dr. Angela Duckworth, says grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long term goals. Bottom line – grit involves a blend of passion plus perseverance.

In this blog, I will share my field-tested approach for harnessing the grit to become world class in whatever role or competitive situation you choose.

WORLD CLASS PERFORMANCE HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH TALENT + EXPERIENCE + HARD WORK

Let’s start by telling the truth–I am not a gifted athlete. I’ve never been coordinated. My fiancée and I had to quit dance lessons or break up, it was so bad. I can’t even jump rope. Genetically, I ‘m missing a vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the right atrium of the heart –a serious deterrent for running events.

Unlike most master’s track athletes, I had no track experience. Four years ago, I had never touched a javelin or discus, two events that account for 40% of the pentathlon point total. These throws require complex moves that take years to develop the muscle memory required for peak performance.

I hoped hard work might overcome these weaknesses. But while I had worked hard for 6 years, my 200 meter dash score didn’t even qualify for finals at national competitions.

Turns out that my mindset was filled with inaccurate assumptions about what it takes to realize one’s full performance capacity. The real formula boiled down to talent + deliberate practice + mindset. Talent is advantageous when you’re first learning a skill and no doubt it helps to have it. But realizing your full upside potential requires knowing how to develop your talent and choose wisely. That’s where the elements of grit—deliberate practice and mindset—come into play.

THREE LESSONS FOR DEVELOPING THE GRIT TO BE WORLD CLASS

Lesson 1: Pick a unique role that requires grit and eliminates competition

After placing 30th in my 100 and 200 meter sprints at the 2011 World Championships, I was bummed out. World class masters sprinter, Charlie Brocato, suggested I try a multi-event, like pentathlon, if I really wanted to medal nationally. Once I confirmed there was no pole vault involved, it was game-on!

Choosing pentathlon eliminated competitors who didn’t have the grit to train for five events, let alone compete for five hours straight at a track meet. That’s a crucial point. Pick an area of expertise that requires passion and perseverance to increase the probability of being unique in your field or job role. In the words of the Fire Jumpers Credo: “Do Today What Others Won’t; Do Tomorrow What Others Can’t.” Rather than sheer talent, grit becomes your competitive advantage.

Questions for you to ponder:  

  • How can you create a role so you stand out among your peers? (Example:  Many managers can guide their team to execute tactical plans. Far fewer are also great developers of future leaders)
  • What unique skills can you add to be a role pioneer in your field?
  • What unmet needs do your customers have that none of your competitors seems to be equipped to solve?

Lesson 2: Engage in deliberate practice (the perseverance part of grit)

Hard work and experience alone won’t cut it. You probably know team members who work hard for many years but are not regarded as elite performers. They probably believe that performance will eventually max out, and stop attempting to improve before reaching their full capacity.

Using the perseverance part of grit—deliberate practice plus a “healthy disregard for the unreasonable” mindset –anyone can keep getting better skill proficiency every single year.

Deliberate practice focuses on mastering tasks beyond one’s current level of competence and comfort with a relentless intent to continuously improve. It is the most efficient and effective way to acquire new skills and optimize any talent.

The basic principles that distinguish deliberate practice from the common “going through the motions” practice are summarized by Dr. Anders Ericsson, in his new book Peak: How well do you measure up?

  1. Do you continually expand your comfort zone by being willing to be incompetent while attempting to perform tasks beyond your current skill proficiency?
  2. Do you seek feedback on strengths and areas to improve, from a coach/trainer and from yourself in self-coaching?
  3. Do you set well-defined improvement goals for discrete pieces of your overall target performance?
  4. Do you find ways to put in the many hours of practice to eventually reach elite performance standards?
  5. When you hit plateaus, do you revise your practice methods or engage a new coach, to generate a way to get better?

How many people do you know who want to spend much of their career practicing skills where they feel uncomfortable attempting and perform poorly at first? Not many. That’s precisely what separates world class performers from everyone else. In particular, they operate with a perseverance-driven mindset I call “healthy disregard for the unreasonable.”

Our mindset determines how we experience any situation either as a threat to constrain us or as an opportunity to free us to take action and practice. The way our mindset filters a given circumstance determines how we feel, what we see, what we hear, what we choose, how we act, and ultimately our results. Consequently, mindset is the root cause of our performance slumps, plateaus, and breakthroughs.

Elite performers take accountability not only for their choices, actions, and results, but also for their mindset. Their mindset contains assumptions that encourage frequent deliberate practice to improve their skill proficiency. They routinely discard fictitious difficulties and undertake unreasonable effort and risk in order to deliver breakthroughs in performance.

Perseverance played a huge role in my winning a bronze medal. As the competitors headed to the pentathlon’s final event, we all faced unreasonable circumstances. We’d already competed for four hours. The temperature in Jacksonville, Florida was 137 degrees on the track surface. And the final event is the 1500 meter run.

One competitor said, “I‘m thinking of jogging 10 yards out from the starting line and dropping out. Given how slow I run the 1500, I won’t lose many total pentathlon points.” I was thinking, “If I don’t finish I will never forgive myself, I’ve done far too much practice on holding up mentally in the 1500.”

As I reached the last lap, I felt very fatigued and for a fleeting moment, I thought, “Just finish in a relaxed pace.” But my body seemed to have a mind of its own—or at least a relentless muscle memory.  All my 1500 meter practices end with a 120 meter all out sprint. Out of habit formed from deliberate practice, I found myself changing my slower stride to sprint mode. Thank goodness!

I never check the scores during competition, so I didn’t know while heading into the 1500 race that I was in 4th place-behind the #3 competitor by 49 points. But my finishing sprint helped me beat the athlete in third place by 32 seconds, gain 110 points on him, and win the bronze medal. Grit separates the medal winners.

Questions for you to ponder:  

  • What are the vital skills in your job that exert the greatest impact on your results?
  • What new skills can you add to your repertoire that your competitors wouldn’t imagine developing?
  • What are occasions during a typical work day where you can deliberately practice?
  • Which principles of deliberate practice have you neglected, and now can incorporate?

Lesson 3: Come up with a list of benefits for an all-out effort (the passion side of grit)

Passion provides the compelling inspiration that drives you to aspire to world class stature. Your passion for both the process and the outcome needs to outweigh any emerging considerations for just doing what everyone else considers sufficient effort and good enough performance.

You need rock solid reasons to overcome the inevitable second guessing. Before nearly every workout, I wondered if the time and effort were really worth it. When I didn’t see improvements after hours of practice, I wondered if I should even show up for the national championship. Self-doubt, trepidation, and frustration are part of the every journey to be world class. So come armed with powerful reasons to persevere to achieve your goal.

I recommend some serious soul-searching to reveal the compelling benefits you will get by exerting more effort than most everyone else on the planet. I conceived a dozen benefits for excelling in pentathlon, including:

  • Benefit 1: Pentathlon is my version of Navy Seal training. It tests my sense of unreasonable effort so I expand my capacity for perseverance in sports, in business, in marriage… everywhere.
  • Benefit 2: Preparing for this competition will be my personal experiment for my next book, How to Coach Grit.
  • Benefit 3: I enjoy the privilege of inspiring fellow athletes, friends, and clients.
  • Benefit 4: Javelin offers an opportunity to learn how to persist in the face of little progress and unexplainable setbacks.
Decathlon

With the world’s greatest athlete, Ashton Easton, Olympic Decathlon Champion.

Questions for you to ponder:

  • What is the primary goal that you would go to extraordinary lengths to achieve?
  • What makes this goal so compelling?
  • What is the fear/barrier that prevents you from going full-bore in pursuit of goals that matter most to you?
  • By mastering this barrier, what wonderful opportunities are made possible?
  • Why do you want to be an elite performer in your role/field and not settle for doing a merely competent job?

EMBRACE EXTRAORDINARY FREEDOM

The point of this blog is really about expanding your freedom. Extraordinary freedom comes from taking extraordinary actions.

First, give up self-imposed limits like insufficient talent, lack of experience, or aversion to hard work. Second, identify the passionate result that will fuel the grit to do something others may not even consider. Third, commit to being a deliberate practitioner. And then be in wonderment about where your journey ends up–maybe delivering a world class performance.