Fitness: Olympics are a display of true grit

The Tokyo athletes embody persistence and passion to succeed.

The Montreal Gazette 4 minute read July 25, 2021

Over the course of the next few weeks, you’ll likely hear the word “grit” used countless times during Olympics commentary. An athlete who demonstrates an impressive level of physical and mental toughness when faced with extreme challenge or adversity is often referred to as “gritty” — a trait revered by sports pundits and fans alike.

But there’s another definition that goes beyond the athletic performances on display in Tokyo. According to Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, grit refers to the perseverance and passion needed to achieve lofty long-term goals.

To some extent, the Olympics is a showcase of grit, with most participants — regardless of the flag they compete under — finally realizing their long-held dream of making it to the world’s largest showcase of athletic talent. That persistence and passion to succeed — despite being cut from teams, losing funding, rehabbing chronic injuries and being forced to move away from friends and family to train — are the hallmarks of grit.

Duckworth created a test to measure grit and used it in the military and academia, determining that success in both can be linked to high levels of grit. There’s no doubt the trait is also highly valued by coaches, who understand the struggle of staying on track with long-term goals in a sporting culture that hands out more than its fair share of failure, disappointment and personal setbacks. Yet sports psychologists are still trying to nail down just how much grit contributes to a podium finish.

Several studies have examined the relationship between grit and athletic success, with most suggesting that elite athletes possess more grit than their counterparts playing at a less competitive level. A high level of grit was also associated with several personality traits considered important in handling the roller-coaster ride of successes and failures typical in high-level sport, including added resiliency against burnout, stress, negative emotions and anxiety. It’s also been linked to a greater sense of optimism, personal pride and self-confidence. In short, athletes who score high on the grit scale continue to believe in themselves and their ability to achieve their goals, despite the challenges they encounter along the way.

Athletes with grit don’t just have a tendency to excel in the psychological aspects associated with success in sport. A number of studies have reported that grittier athletes spend more time practising and developing their skills. They are the ones who stay later in the gym and put in extra hours on their own at home or at practice until they have mastered a skill or achieved a personal best. But perhaps the most notable aspect of grit is an athlete’s ability to work and train harder than their less gritty peers over an extended period of time — years rather than months — until they’ve achieved what they set out to do.

When it comes to examples of Canadian athletes who display grit, look no further than Evan Dunfee. Competing in the unsung sport of race walking, he is poised to win a medal in the 50 km distance, an event that demands training volumes of anywhere from 120 to 160 km a week, largely done alone and at the uncomfortable intensity experienced just before walking turns into running. Dunfee’s Olympic dream started at age nine, and he chose race walking as his passion at 10. Twenty years later, he’s at his second Olympics, as determined as ever to put a medal around his neck.

As for adversity, he knows it well. Five years ago in Rio, the podium was in his sight, but Dunfee was knocked off his stride by a fellow competitor in the drive to the finish line. He ended up fourth despite posting a personal best of three hours, 41 minutes and 38 seconds. Judges disqualified the athlete who bumped Dunfee, awarding the Canadian the bronze. But the decision was appealed and Dunfee’s dream of a medal died. The disappointment didn’t deter him from his dream. He’s put in the work and has arrived in Tokyo in top form, with the training, confidence and grit necessary to achieve his goal.

Dunfee is one of many Olympians who epitomize grit. The Tokyo Games will offer up many more examples of athletes who won’t rest until they reach the goal they set out to accomplish years, even decades, earlier. Most have one chance to realize their dream, as return visits to the Olympics aren’t guaranteed. But what is guaranteed is that grit doesn’t disappear once the goal has been reached. It transfers well to school, the workplace and the gym. So celebrate that trait in the athletes you see on your screen in the next two weeks. They are the definition of true grit.


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