Post By: Jeff Ruser, M.A. | Tuesday, June 30, 2020

sport psychology performance STRESS grit

What do the highest achieving military members, spelling bee champions, students, and the best rock climber in the world all have in common? At first glance, you might think ‘intelligence!' or ‘natural ability,' and while those traits aren't necessarily incorrect, the true string connecting the dots between these performers and professionals is Grit. The psychological study of grit, pioneered by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, has not only birthed a formalized definition of what grit means, but has yielded findings that show that those with grit fair better in school regardless of intelligence, are better athletes, are better leaders, and so much more. According to Duckworth, grit is the combination of perseverance and passion towards a long-term goal. As a trait that people possess and can build upon, grit isn't necessarily revealed in small moments of effort in a competition or stressful moment, but more so uncovered over a long period of time in pursuit of a distant goal in the future. Grit isn't flashy, it isn't always Instagram worthy, and it might not always be pure joy – but it's a necessity for all those who aspire to be the best. Of the many people on this earth who possess grit, one in particular, named Alex Honnold, is set apart as a master of grit and likely the greatest climber the world has ever known.

At just 35 years of age, Honnold has cemented his legacy by completing multiple ‘free solo' climbs of some of the toughest mountains in the world. Free soloing is a type of climbing in which the climber is not attached to any ropes or security devices and is completing the climb totally dependent on their own perfection in order to survive. If you thought having the basketball with 5 seconds left and a game on the line was stressful, try to wrap your mind around aiming to achieve perfection simply to stay alive while hanging out 2,000 ft above the ground. Honnold has shocked the world by doing so multiple times! In the 2018 movie, Free Solo, viewers see the incredible nature of Honnold's free solo climb of El Capitan, one of the most revered climbing walls in the world that lives within California's Yosemite National Park. The documentary chronicles some of Honnold's upbringing, his preparation within the months leading up to his monumental climb, and the climb itself. What is sometimes unseen and undocumented in this movie is Honnold's grit that was revealed and grew over the span of a 20-year climbing career and 7 years specifically training to free solo El Capitan. In a TedTalk that Honnold gave he said, “Each year for the next 7 years I'd think, ‘This is the year I'm gonna solo El Cap.' And then I would drive in to Yosemite, look up at the wall and think, ‘No freaking way,'”Each year, he thought he would take his chances after preparing as much as he could, but he simply wasn't ready. 7 long years. That's 2,555 days and 61,320 hours spent with his eyes set on his long-term goal of climbing El Capitan.

Grit can be understood best by the two components of its definition: perseverance and passion. Perseverance can be defined as taking actions even in the face of difficulty and challenge. The sheer amount of time that Honnold took to prepare himself for this climb is a testament to his perseverance. While 7 years may pass by in our own lives with surprising pace – when we imagine the commitment it takes to stick with one endeavor, by and large, for that long, it is unfathomable. Thousands of hours were spent honing his craft and strength on climbing walls around the world. Passion, on the other hand, is born from emotional excitement and enthusiasm. This is the part that a good documentary can capture, of course, as Honnold's passion was palpable throughout the movie. Honnold experienced great highs of completing his first free solo away from El Cap, he enjoyed the climbing on his good days, and is able to tell his life story with great enthusiasm and clarity – passionately. However, when we zoom back out, combining passion and perseverance can be tough! To passionately, positively, and emotionally strive towards a very difficult goal of perseverance for 7 years was likely exhausting and debilitating at times, yet he kept on progressing by leveraging his grit. Towards the end of his preparation, Honnold said in his TedTalk, “But Eventually, I came to realize that I wanted to test myself against El Cap; it represented true mastery.” His grit was born from a desire to test himself, to improve, to focus on his craft and perfect it to the point of putting his own life on the line. When Alex Honnold got to the top of El Cap in a matter of a couple hours, having ascended 3,000 ft of the hardest climbing the world has to offer, his grit was shining bright.

Of course, not all of us are Alex Honnold. We are training, practicing, and perfecting our crafts, skills, and strengths in all different areas of life. So, what can we learn from Alex Honnold and grit? We might observe and learn that perseverance might take longer or be more grueling than we ever thought possible. We might find that our passion fades and our positive attitude and enthusiasm dim at times. Nonetheless, it is in the times when we can cultivate both passion and perseverance to use grit when we are most effective, our best selves, and able to go after the biggest goals we have set ahead for ourselves in our lives! The way grit manifests will be different for all of us. So, today take a moment to define your goal, write out what pursuing it passionately will look like for you, and write out what pursuing it with perseverance will look like for you. Then, go summit your own “El Cap” as you grow your grit.