The Role of Personality in Cycling Performance

Grit

Researchers seeking to further understand high achievement, and the traits of star performers, have come up with a novel assessment that, by name at least, seems a perfect measure for cycling—Grit!

Grit is defined as "perserverance and passion for long-term goals."

Tenacity, drive, and determination are related terms, with the key element being a long view towards goal attainment.

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Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, is acknowledged as the primary force behind the development of the Grit model. Her primary paper cited six different studies they conducted, each aimed at validating the idea of grit as a predictor of future success.

Duckworth and colleagues developed a self-report scale that attempts to determine individual levels of grit. To establish a viable level of validity the scale had to meet four essential criteria: evidence of psychometric soundness, face validity for adolescents and adults pursuing goals in a variety of domains (e.g. not just work or school), low likelihood of ceiling effects in high achieving populations and a precise fit with the construct of grit.

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Research Summary

The first study sought to validate the scale across an open spectrum of respondents and included questions that tapped into an individuals ability to sustain effort in the face of adversity (e.g. ""I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge," "I finish whatever I begin"), consistency of interest over time (e.g. "My interests change from year to year" or "I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete."). Items are rated on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all like me to 5 = very much like me.

Of particular note was the tendency for "grit" to become more ingrained as we age and with higher education levels. Older college graduates demonstrated a higher level of "grit" than younger or less educated ones.

Several of their other studies looked to explore the real world realities of the model. For example it was demonstrated that spelling bee participants who scored higher in grit survived longer in the competition. Grit also proved to be a valid predictor of first year success and retention at West Point Military Academy.

Of course all of this correlation and relevance has some counfounds, chief among them was that the model is built on self-report. For example the answer tracking of the questions on the test are fairly easy to extrapolate in context, which may lead people to answer "how they should"—the so-called social desirability effect.

The second confound is that respondents are asked to reflect on past actions, which are then extrapolated to future outcomes. Of course the fact that different respondents across different populations respond similarly. Finally, the research used select populations and didn't offer insight into a relationship to other predictors of success like self efficacy and locust of control.

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A Familiar Refrain?

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be that it tracks well with Malcolm Gladwell's writings on expertise (if it's not familiar, you have some reading to do!). Gladwell's summary noted that expertise is derived from continuous effort and focus—10,000 hours of it! Indeed, Ericsson and Charness (1994) concluded that in chess, sports, music,and the visual arts, over 10 years of daily "deliberate practice" set apart expert performers from less proficient peers and that 20 years of dedicated practice was an even more reliable predictor of world-class achievement.

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Summary

Performance is all too often ascribed to physical talents and physiological gifts alone. Certainly there are a vast array of psychological components that set the star rider apart as well. Into the mix steps the work of Angela Duckworth and the role of Grit. Grit is defined as perseverance and passion towards long term goals. Grit is a personality trait that has been shown to be a strong predictor of overall success. From spelling bees to West Point, individuals who score highly on the "grit scale" are more adept at the long game of deliberate practice that ultimately results in expertise and achievement.

References:
1. Duckworth, Petersen, et al "Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long Term Goals. Personality Process. 2007
2. "The Emotional Quarterback" -- Jonah Lehner, Wired Magazine Online April 6, 2011

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Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience.

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