True Grit: Helping Boys Find the Fortitude for Success

0-9 to 10-0. It was a turnaround for the ages – one which saw a dismal and frustrating football season in 2012 transform into a magical, record-setting one in 2013. Saint Stanislaus had never seen such a remarkable Cinderella story in its 160-year history. The mystery of how such a feat was accomplished became a major source of speculation among students, faculty and parents alike. This year’s results were all the more extraordinary in that our undefeated team was essentially comprised of the same core group of young men who suffered through last season’s ego-thumping.

So what was the difference between total failure and resounding victory? It certainly had something to do with an extra year of experience and the long hours in the weight room, along with our boys’ complete commitment to the school’s and the coaches’ philosophy of focusing on character first. Yet, for those who witnessed the weekly thrilling performances, for the fans who cheered as the Football Rock-A-Chaws battled and managed miraculous comebacks time after time, it was clear that there was another, less quantifiable quality behind it all.

When I asked the coach about this attribute that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, the source of their success, he used a word that summed it up perfectly: our boys had grit. Until recently, grit was a word that conjured memories of John Wayne wielding a rifle and single-handedly taming the Wild West. But lately, educators and researchers have begun to take notice of this important, if elusive, quality. In fact, one psychology professor, Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, has made a name for herself by figuring out what this word means and even how to identify it. She defines it as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” Ms. Duckworth boldly claims that this character trait is the best predictor of success. Even more surprising is her argument that, in fact, “grit is usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.”

In a fascinating validation of her research, Angela Duckworth’s Lab at UPenn developed a survey that ranks people on the “Grit Scale” and administered it to incoming West Point cadets. The hope was to predict which of the new cadets would be able to make it through the brutal summer initiation at the U.S. Military Academy. While West Point’s own evaluation – which takes into account SAT scores, class rank, leadership, and physical aptitude – wasn’t able to predict retention, Ms. Duckworth’s test was remarkably accurate.

Inevitably, we had to know: how gritty are our boys? Our teachers and coaches have long stressed the importance of delayed gratification, a rare and critical quality in our on-demand society and a major factor in one’s ability to be gritty. Our boys are also aware of our school’s gritty culture, forged out of an incredible history of survival through hurricanes, fires, the Civil War, yellow fever and the Great Depression. So it was no surprise that, when our boys took Duckworth’s Grit Survey (which anyone can take at), they scored a 4.18 out of a possible 5, which is better than almost 90% of those who have taken the test. The next challenge for our football team will not be how to overcome adversity and failure, but how to handle their current successes. That too will likely require hard work, dedication, and, of course, grit.

Written by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath grew up in New York City, but has long been a southerner at heart, spending summers in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, before making New Orleans his home while attending Tulane University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in French and Master’s in English. He started teaching English and French at Saint Stanislaus in 2003, while also coaching swimming and tennis. He entered the administration at Saint Stanislaus in 2008 and stepped into the role of principal in 2011. He has also earned a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the University of Southern Mississippi.

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