When it comes to determining the recipe of what makes a great athlete beyond genetics and character, I think of a saying from Jiu-Jitsu, "A black belt is just a white belt who never quit." This phrase brings me back to when I was 12 years old and wanted to quit football. My dad was sitting with me in the parking lot at the end of practice, telling me if I quit now, I will regret it forever. He also said that quitting is an easy outlet I will rely on heavily when times get tough. He said, "Son, you joined a team sport, and your teammates rely on you. If you quit, it reflects a selfish attitude, and you'll let your team down on top of it all."

As a young kid, this weighed heavily on me and made me think of being known as a quitter. I thought of the people I'd be letting down if I quit. I was a starter on both offense and defense, and if I quit, they would have to find multiple people to replace me. This idea of letting people down drove me to keep pursuing the goal of playing football I had when I started the season. 

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The truth is, I was an overweight kid who never really had to work hard, but when I signed up for football, that was the first real test of pushing my body. But since I was overweight, it made things that much harder. As soon as I tasted that pain, I wanted no more of it, which is why I am very thankful for that lesson my father instilled in me that day. 

That day set the bar for the rest of my life. I didn't want to let my father down, my coach, and most importantly, my team. Sure, some would say, why not be concerned about letting yourself down, but that was not the message I heard when my father talked to me. Instead, I heard it needs to be bigger than you; you need to have a bigger why because if you just do it for yourself, you will fail. Life is not a selfish endeavor, and that was a message I heard loud and clear. However, it didn't fully resonate with me until I entered the Marines Corps six years later.

Understanding Grit

What my dad instilled in me that day was perseverance and a commitment to long-term goals. Within the research, this is termed grit, and the head of grit research is Angela Duckworth. Angela wrote a tremendous book called Grit, which further explores this topic.

According to Professor Duckworth, grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals; it entails working strenuously towards challenges, maintaining effort and interest over the years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. This sounds like one of the main tenants we want to look at when determining the will to win. 

Getting started on something can be very easy because it is new, and we get that dopamine kick to make us want to pursue more. As beginners, we see significant progress, but once those adaptations fade, we must work harder to get even less significant results.

Once things get hard, just like football did for me, there becomes a desire to quit. We rationalize it with stuff like, "This is not fun anymore," "I could be spending my time doing something more productive," or, "This is ridiculous; why even bother." And then we inevitably quit. 

In reality, we are at a pivotal fork in the road, which can take us down the path less traveled. Sure, it will be harder, but the reward, in the end, will be much greater than the path of ease and comfort where we choose to stay in the status quo and be comfortable. 

Plus, choosing comfort can lead to real issues down the road. In Adam Grant's book Originals: How Non-Conformers Move the World, he recalls a study by Mike Housman on predicting job performance and commitment at work. They looked at employees who used Safari, the default web browser that comes with computers, compared to those who switched over to Chrome. They found that people who switched to Chrome were better performers on the job and, on average, stayed in those jobs 15 percent longer than Safari users. This showcases that the person who accepts the status quo and conforms to the norms (i.e., conforms to ease and comfort) doesn't persist in their jobs, nor do they tend to excel at them. How do you know if something better is out there if you never search for it?

Learn to Develop Your Grit

Remember, grit is defined as long-term perseverance, which is related to staying at a job for a long time or sticking with a task for a very long time to improve.

We also know that certain personality traits are linked to perseverance. For example, a study by Tett, Jackson, and Rothstein found that conscientiousness and job performance strongly correlate. 

Conscientious people are more thorough, careful, reliable, organized, industrious, and self-controlled. These qualities can lend themselves to becoming a high achiever in a job environment. However, that doesn't always correlate to being able to persist for a long time at a certain job. 

Most personality traits, like the ones mentioned above, can help lay a better foundation. However, the ability to persist must be developed to truly achieve greatness. This means just because you have a certain personality doesn't mean you can't become a grittier person. The ability to have self-control can help you start on a diet to reach your goals and stick with it for a good bit, but that won't drive you to adapt it to a lifestyle to transform your body completely. That requires grit, but even grit can be facilitated with the proper goals and motivations. 

"A black belt is just a white belt who never quit."


You may be asking, "How do we develop grit?" Thankfully, in Duckworth's research, she gives us clues on exactly how to do that. 

The first study looked at age and education as predictors of grit and found that post-college graduates were higher in grit. She also found that people who obtained their associates were higher in grit than those who received their bachelor's.

At first, we can see why a postgraduate degree can reflect high levels of grit because the typical postgraduate degree can take six to eight years to obtain, including the work they did to receive their bachelor's.

As a result, these people are driven to accomplish more and stick it out. The confounding result is that an associate's degree leads to a higher grit score. However, diving deeper into why that is, the research finds that associate degrees have a much higher drop-out rate than bachelor's degrees. So, the ones who can push past that initial desire to quit and move forward to finish their associate's degree show true signs of grit. 

Age is another predictor of grit score. The older you are, the grittier you become, and if you understand the reason behind that, you can understand how to start developing grit yourself. As you get older, you realize that if you had just stuck to things you tried when you were younger, you would be much further along. Unfortunately, I see so many people join the gym only to quit a month or two down the road. And most of the time, they regret not sticking with it because they know they're leaving results and progress on the table. 

Trying to transform your mental and emotional game is tough. But if you understand the value of just sticking with it and pushing through the plateaus, you will succeed. And you won't have to start over time and time again because you were seeking a novel stimulus when things get too hard. 

Hard Work Beats Talent

Something else that was uncovered in the grit research was that talent wasn't always a strong predictor of success. We have all seen this ourselves playing team sports; the most talented kid can be leaps and bounds better than the others, but if they lack the work ethic to keep pushing, they'll fall behind. I remember having some kids on my high school football team who didn't have to work hard to be the best. They went on to be recruited by the top 25 schools, where the talent gap closes dramatically fast. Most returned the following summer saying they didn't make the team, so they quit the sport altogether. 

As soon as they needed to push to work harder, they didn't have it in them because they had never looked for it. In contrast, we all know kids with decent talent and an insatiable work ethic. What happened to them? They thrived in college because they understood from a young age that you have to put in the work to get better, and they were not afraid of doing it because they'd gone there before. 

People who have not gone there before—to those dark places where pain waits for you to tell you to quit—don't know how to go there. And if they do, they don't know how to make it through. 

Comfort is the Enemy of Success

Much like the story above, you must get good at being uncomfortable. In Professor Duckworth's third study, they looked at this talent versus grit paradigm and found that students who scored higher in grit had higher GPAs. However, higher grit scores were associated with lower SAT scores. In a study by Moutafi, Furnham, and Paltiel, researchers suggested that conscientiousness and general intelligence were inversely correlated. Those less intelligent had to develop a greater work ethic to overcome their lack of natural talent in the intelligence space. They worked harder and were more determined than those more talented, just like in the football example above. 

Duckworths last study aimed to explore what type of people made it through the West Point Academy training and school as freshmen. These cadets must undergo a rigorous training regimen in the summer with a very high attrition rate, but they also have to maintain good GPAs for school. Therefore, they looked at self-control versus grit because self-control is a key quality of conscientiousness. They found that self-control was a better predictor of a cadet's GPA score. However, those who scored higher in grit (by one standard deviation above the norm) were 60% more likely to complete the rigorous training; this outperformed those with a standard deviation above the norm for self-control by 10%. 

In essence, there is a difference between the two in terms of the level of exertion that is required. With school work, it is one thing to study for an hour here and an hour there and not to get easily distracted by minor diversions like procrastination, parties, video games, etc. This is where self-control can reign supreme and be very important. But when you are pushed to the limit in situations where there is no escape except to quit, that is where grit shines. When there is no letting up, and you are being pushed physically, mentally, and emotionally, grit outperforms self-control. 

Duckworth states in her paper, "In our view, achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of intensity, direction, and duration of one's exertions toward a goal." By having grit, you can follow through with your desires, and the better your follow through, the higher you will climb the ranks. This follow-through and grit will allow you to succeed in the face of adversity and overcome the obstacles that will inevitably come your way when trying to pursue the highest level of achievement for yourself.

Grit and follow-through sound great, and I think we all start with the intention of being the best at something. However, we sometimes neglect to anticipate how hard it will be, and we don't have the tools to overcome any obstacles. 

It turns out that there are ways to overcome things that can stop us in our tracks.

Be Deliberate

Andres Ericsson is famous for his work on mastery. You may have heard that it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill; that's Ericsson's work at play. Ten thousand hours seems like a big goal for some, but based on my experience in athletics, this six to ten-year mark is really where mastery is developed as long as the work is deliberate and consistent. 

Deliberateness is the key to achieving mastery. There are so many instances I can think of where I began something new, like getting into Jiu-Jitsu. I would show up and keep working on the moves I already had in my toolbox. And while I did begin to master those, I found myself stuck. It was not until I started going to practice with a goal or intention of working on a new move or sweep that I became better. It forced me to practice that new move in various positions and scenarios, making me exponentially more dynamic. I was truly learning the skill of Jiu-Jitsu rather than a move or two here and there.

Deliberately practicing the moves expedited the learning process. The same can be said for running. How many people start running to get in shape but never actually become faster runners? That is because they are just there to run. Now, if they went out with the idea of, "I want to run a 21-minute 5k" or, "I want to shave 30 secs of my 5k run time," they improve through deliberate, intentional action. 

In Ericsson's paper titled Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance A General Overview, he states: 

"Significant improvements in performance were realized when subjects were given a task with a well-defined goal, motivated to improve, provided with feedback, and provided with ample opportunities for repetition and gradual refinements of their performance."

One thing to consider here is that when you are getting involved with any new activity, there are more chances to fail than you might anticipate. Some may view these failures as frustrating and eventually deem themselves inadequate for the activity. But the research shows that failure drives neural plasticity (i.e., adaptations in brain chemistry). Dr. Eric Knudsen, a researcher out of Stanford, has pioneered this research.

Dr. Knudsen and his team found that errors or failures in an endeavor force the brain to adapt, eventually helping to solve problems. The neurochemicals released when we make errors are epinephrine, which creates alertness. Acetylcholine produces focus, and dopamine, which is released when you start to correct the errors and begin to get better at the skill. When life gets tough (e.g., trying to learn a new skill), acetylcholine is released to help you focus. However, when repetitive mistakes are made, no amount of neurochemistry will help you stick it out; that's where grit and perseverance come in. 

Tying it Together

So, when you're getting frustrated with a new task, it behooves you to be patient and work through it positively (as hard as that may be). Because if you can do that, every small change or obstacle you overcome will help positively rewire your brain and bring you closer to mastery. 


  1. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087
  2. Grant, A. M. (2016). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. Penguin.
  3. TETT, R. P., JACKSON, D. N., & ROTHSTEIN, M. (2006). Personality measures as predictors of job performance: A meta-analytic review. Personnel Psychology, 44(4), 703-742. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.1991.tb00696.x
  4. Moutafi, J., Furnham, A., & Paltiel, L. (2005). Can personality factors predict intelligence? Personality and Individual Differences, 38(5), 1021-1033. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2004.06.023
  5. Anders Ericsson, K. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: A general overview. Academic Emergency Medicine, 15(11), 988-994. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00227.x
  6. Linkenhoker, B. A., & Knudsen, E. I. (2002). Incremental training increases the plasticity of the auditory space map in adult barn owls. Nature, 419(6904), 293-296. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01002(15) Bergan, J. F. (2005). Hunting increases adaptive auditory map plasticity in adult barn owls. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(42), 9816-9820. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.2533-05.2005

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Tony Montgomery lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He studied exercise science at Florida Atlantic University, received his Master's of Science in Exercise Science at the University of South Florida, and is currently pursuing his Doctorate of Philosophy in Health, Leisure, and Human Performance at Oklahoma State University. He owns Team Phoenix Performance (an online coaching company), Subject Zero Supplements, and Coaches Corner University (an online education platform). Tony competed in strongman and powerlifting, where he hit a 2,001-pound total in the 242-pound class with wraps. Now he competes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and endurance events. He also served four years in the United States Marine Corps with 2nd Recon Bn.

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