Grittier Girls in the Game? by Meghan Morgan

Last week I met with our research partners at Loyola University to talk about some of the evaluation results from last year. Among other things, one of the things we learned was that involvement in our programs increases girls’ grit. Even more telling, is that the longer girls are involved, the more their grit increases.

There’s a good chance you’re now wondering what exactly I’m talking about. What is grit?

In 2013 Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth researched the subject of grit and earned a MacArthur Genius Grant for her efforts. There’s a really good TED Talk where she explains the concept much better than I can, but in a nutshell, Duckworth showed that the number one determining factor for future success is not intelligence or innate talent, but grit, defined as demonstrating passion and perseverance toward a long-term goal.

The concept spread quickly, with schools exploring ways to make their kids grittier and parents looking for insight on how to raise kids with grit.

I was intrigued after our meeting at Loyola so I spent some time reading more about the subject and realized that the idea of grit and how to teach it really was a hot topic.

Last year, my son, then 2, attended a toddler activity at the local library centered on nursery rhymes. Since it was during the day, either his nanny or my Mom took him. Both of them experienced the same thing when the teacher of the class told them they shouldn’t use the phrase “good job” when he does something, but instead should tell him, “You did it!” She explained that “good job” teaches him to look for approval while “You did it!” praises him for the effort he put into the task.

Our nanny laughed about it and my Mom reacted as you would expect somebody who raised five kids and helped raise 12 grandkids would. My husband Jim and I laughed too. But we didn’t completely disregard it.

Shortly after hearing this advice, during a trip to the park, Jim tested out the theory. It was a new playground with some exciting features and more adventurous offerings than our usual park. As Patrick tried to cross one of the rope bridges, and finally reached the other end, Jim exclaimed, “You did it!”

“I actually think it worked,” Jim told me later. “He kept trying harder and harder things.”

Now I realize that the toddler class instructor was talking about grit. Now, will that one trip to the playground automatically make Patrick grittier? Probably not. But if we keep it front of mind and find ways to encourage him to work harder, it just may make a difference.

With that thought, it’s pretty easy for me to see how Girls in the Game programs build grit. Our programs are designed to serve girls year-round and over the long term. We know that leadership skills and confidence take time to develop and sustain and our programs do that for girls. I’ve seen it over and over during my time here.

There’s the fifth-grader who was hesitant to pick up a tennis racket the first time, assuming she’d be no good at it. She learned that nobody is good at it the first time and over the next few weeks, she got better and better. When that same girl first saw a lacrosse stick, she didn’t hesitate. It would take some time, but she’d get it.

Or the teen leader Jasmine, who reflected on her time at Girls in the Game. “Before I joined Girls in the Game, I was too shy to even speak publicly in front of other people, and I never would have taken on a leadership role,” she recalled. “But with Girls in the Game, I am not too shy to lead a group or a workshop. I have confidence when I’m in front of a group.”

Jasmine didn’t gain that confidence overnight. It came from trying nervously to command a group and reflecting with her teammates afterwards on what they could have done better. And trying harder the next time they stood in front of a crowd.

That’s grit. And I’m glad there’s a name for it and I’m glad that people are talking about it. It’s important. But it’s not new. We’ve known it works for 20 years.

Our work isn’t getting easier. Young girls today face the same barriers to success they always have, as well as new ones such as escalating violence in their communities. But Girls in the Game won’t give up. We’ll continue to fight for the voices of all girls until they have the strength and confidence they need to fight for themselves. After all, we’ve got grit too.


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