Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: Maybe Fun and Grit Are Related…
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Slice of Life: Maybe Fun and Grit Are Related…


I love everything about running cross country…except the running.

 I overheard my son say this to one of our neighbors in reply to being asked if he was enjoying being on the high-school cross country team. He wasn’t joking.

I have been thinking a lot about his response. If he hadn’t said it, I would have never known. He happily packs his bag each night; he is joking with his teammates when I pick him up from practice; he is excited to go to team dinners every Friday night; and he sticks to his running plan on the weekends without complaint.

What makes him excited to be a part of something when he doesn’t like doing the activity itself?

What motivates him to stick with it even though it is difficult for him?

How does being a member of a team help him overcome the pain of learning how to run long and fast?

I cannot help but think about the students I meet who struggle with the content of the curriculum or have difficulty learning how to read or write. Can we make school something they love everything about… despite how hard they need to work? What lessons can I learn from my son’s experience with running?

I asked him why he loves it despite how difficult it has been to go from 0 miles a week to 35 miles a week in just two weeks. Here is what motivates him:

  • The team sent a message right away that they wanted him on the team. Everyone is an important member. Early in the season my son had to make a choice between running cross country and playing on a travel baseball team. We are new to high school and did not understand the commitment to a high school sport. When the team members discovered he might leave the team they immediately sent text messages telling him they were not going to lose him to baseball! He felt like a contributing member right from the start.
  • There is flexible grouping on the team. They begin the season talking about each person’s experience and pace. They then form running groups. These groups are not permanent and they often mix groups for short runs or relays. When they do long runs, they run with other runners who are similar so they can pace and push each other. The coach can help each group with what they need to learn and grow as runners.
  • The coach had each runner set a personal best goal at the beginning of the season. Although only seven runners score for the team in meets, the coach wants each runner to compete with himself to achieve his personal best.
  • The coach lets the co-captains lead the last half hour of practice. He warned parents that practice is supposed to end at 5:45, but it often goes past 6:00 because the boys are having so much fun together. He thinks it is important for them to let off steam, develop friendships and just be silly. I love seeing my son laughing as he comes out of the locker room each day. He is having fun being with his teammates at practice, on the bus, at meets and at weekly team dinners.

While these reasons seem simple, I think they are often missing in our schools. Our profession is talking so much about grit right now – a personality trait that has been linked to achievement. While many studies have shown that grit is an important factor for success and some may even argue more important than intelligence, no one has yet determined how we develop grit. “Which experiences do we give kids to get them in the direction of more grit and not less?” asks Duckworth, a leading researcher in grit and growth mindset. One of the goals of Duckworth’s current research is to figure this out. This project began in the fall of 2011 and is scheduled to wrap up in 2014. I look forward to hearing about the results of this research and hope to find factors such as fun, collaboration, membership and personal best to be on the list.

In the meantime, I am going to focus on my son’s words and remember that fun, membership and personal goals are truly motivating when faced with a challenge. What do you hope this research reveals? We would love to hear your perspective!



  • Avatar
    Michele Knott
    Posted at 10:02h, 16 September Reply

    I understand your son’s comment completely! That’s how I feel about running too! Of course, as an adult, I like the medals I get from races 🙂
    I felt strongly about this last year. I saw kids who were bored and teachers who were uninspired. One way I went about changing this was I had our first grade team add “Wild Reading” one day each week. I brought them a new book that had been recently published to read to the class. It had nothing to do with the curriculum. Sure, we could talk about some of the standards as we read it, but really it was just a fun read. Some popular book choices from last year were “Battle Bunny” and “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild”. That helped bring some of the fun back!

  • Avatar
    Posted at 21:07h, 16 September Reply

    You bring up so many important points in this post! And I think it’s entirely doable to make school the kind of experience that kids love – even though they are working hard, and the work is not easy.

  • Avatar
    Posted at 18:07h, 17 September Reply

    Your son’s coach has set up a wonderful learning environment. I believe that eventually your son will find joy in running itself too. I like the list of bullet points that describe what keeps your son going to training. “…fun, membership and personal goals are truly motivating when faced with a challenge” – I’ll keep this quote. I have certainly seen that in reading joy plays an important part. Especially for struggling readers.

  • Avatar
    Brad @dreambition
    Posted at 22:11h, 17 September Reply

    Running and other physical pursuits have a lot to teach us not only about Grit but also Flow. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman summarizes the Challenge:Skill ratio as “the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap”. As an educator this of course reminds me of the Zone of Proximal Development but I think it is closely related to Grit as well. It’s the joy of the work. It’s being ok with being uncomfortable…which can certainly be very hard for kids.

    I love your anecdote here and appreciate the post! Would love to chat more about Grit/Flow & Fun!

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