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by Coke Ellington

October 4, 2019

Angela Duckworth's book "Grit" can help swimmers improve their grit

Some swimmers might think of grit as the sand that gets in their swimsuits at the beach. Others will have a greater understanding because they’ve read Angela Duckworth’s bestselling book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

The book had me hooked within 75 pages. As a swimmer for more than 65 years, I was delighted that, at roughly the middle of that span, Duckworth reached the subject of swimming. She writes about her interview with sociologist Dan Chambliss, who “devoted six years to interviewing, watching, and sometimes living and traveling with swimmers and coaches at all levels—from the local swim club to an elite team made up of future Olympians.”

Duckworth asked Chambliss, “Wouldn’t you say that some swimmers improve more than others, even if they’re trying equally hard and getting the same coaching?”

Chambliss’s response was twofold: “Yes, but the main thing is that greatness is doable. Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.” And “The real way to become a better swimmer is to join a great team.”

Duckworth explains: “What Dan was getting at was the reciprocal effect of a team’s particular culture on the person who joins it.”

“When I first started studying Olympians,” Chambliss tells Duckworth, “I thought, ‘What kind of person gets up every day at 4 in the morning to go to swimming practice? These must be extraordinary people to do that sort of thing.’ But the thing is, when you go to a place where basically everybody you know is getting up at 4 in the morning to go to practice, that’s just what you do. It’s no big deal. It just becomes a habit.”

Another part of the book that resonated with me was about how experts practice. Lacking artistic talent of my own, I’ve been selling ideas to syndicated cartoonists for almost 50 years. In “Grit,” Duckworth writes: “This is how experts practice … They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet.”

Her exemplar in this case? Three-time Olympic gold medalist and Masters International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee Rowdy Gaines, who is quoted: “At every practice I would try to beat myself. If my coach gave me 10 100s one day and asked me to hold 1:15, then the next day he gave me 10 100s, I’d try to hold 1:14.”

The author also quotes Katie Ledecky’s coach about a video of her dad talking to her on film about her first race: “How was it?” She goes, ‘Great!’ A few seconds later she adds, ‘That was hard!’ And she’s beaming, a smile from ear to ear.”

Duckworth cites the optimism test of psychologist Marty Seligman, her grad school adviser: “Next, coaches asked each swimmer to swim in his or her best event and then deliberately told each swimmer they’d swum just a little slower than was actually the case. Given the opportunity to repeat their events, optimists did at least as well as their first event, but pessimists performed substantially worse.”

The last paragraph of the afterword provides a concise summation: “It’s often said that the last mile is the longest. Grit keeps you on the path.”


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