According to Zack DiGregorio, the challenge to success as a Penn athlete is the self-discipline to keep getting up when knocked down.

Credit: Griff Fitzsimmons

Ever since I started playing sports, almost every coach I’ve had has talked about resilience as if it was their big secret.

“I know this, but no one else does: you have to be tough and get up when you get knocked down.” It’s a common refrain — and it has become known as “grit.” Grit is exactly the subject of the work Penn psychology professor Angela Duckworth won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship for in 2013. She brought a new spin to the all-too-common discussion of toughness, resilience and the importance of talent.

This gospel preached about grit is very similar to an adage I’ve heard ever since I was playing Little League baseball, that I still think about and rely on to this day.

“There are only two things you can control: how hard you work and how much you care.” I attribute this quote to my father, who is probably thinking as he reads this that maybe he got Winklevoss-ed by Duckworth.

Duckworth defines grit as the confluence of passion and perseverance in the long term. And in the long term, I am talking about a sustained effort over the span of years to accomplish a specific goal.

This made sense to me, and it is not earth shattering news. We are all taught from a very young age that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” or some variation of the same sentiment. So if grit is what correlates most strongly to success, how do we improve or increase grit? We must either increase passion or improve perseverance, but how does one do that?

Passion, to me, is something that is constantly on your mind: You start thinking about life through the lens of this passion. You find yourself day dreaming about this one thing, bothering your friends by talking about this one thing, and this one thing very quickly consumes your life and way of thinking. Passion is not so much learned as it is found, and the only way to find it is to try different things and to push yourself outside your comfort zone, to use yet another cliche.

Perseverance in common parlance is “how many times you get back up after getting knocked down.” Every athlete, performer and student has heard this in millions of difference forms throughout their lives; especially in sports where people — myself in particular — are constantly getting literally knocked down. Perseverance is something that has been stressed to everyone forever, but the question remains how do you learn how to be perseverant?

I think the answer is to learn how to control one’s self. Call it discipline, call it self restraint, but whatever you call it, it is mastery over one’s emotions and mind. The key here is not self control in that you don’t get that penalty when the other player is running his mouth, but also the self control to do what you are supposed to do on every play.

I would know. I was the kid, all the way through high school, throwing his helmet or his bat after striking out. Then, next time up, wanting so badly to make up for it, I would swing harder, miss by more and the cycle would repeat. It wasn’t for lack of passion — I loved baseball and I wanted desperately to persevere and succeed in that game I loved, but I lacked the discipline over my own emotions and mind to do so.

Over time, it just became something I was conscious of; to the point where I know feel like I am as in control of myself as possible (except when professors upload documents sideways in Canvas). But it took practice: of taking the deep breath before every pitch, clearing my head before every drive on the football field, of taking inventory of my emotions before exams to see what needed to be quelled and what needed to be counterbalanced.

I felt extremely proud in making this observation... until going deeper into Duckworth’s most recent scholarship to see that self-control has been at the epicenter of it. Nevertheless, if grit is what leads to success, then maybe we give the speech about “getting knocked down” a little less, and the speech about introspection, and learning about your own emotions so that you can learn to control them when you do get knocked down, a little more.

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