True Grit

Determination. Heart. Resilience. Grit. Call it what you want, but the will to succeed, to keep trying when everything seems to be working against you, is a defining characteristic of successful people. We hear this so often it has become a cliché—but it also happens to be true. 

Baseball is life

In the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs, the San Francisco Giants did something no team had ever done before. After losing the first two games in a best-of-five playoff series at home, they won three consecutive games on the opponent’s field to win the series.  They did the same thing to win the league championship before going on to win the World Series.  The Giants dealt with adversity all year—losing key players to injury, ineffectiveness and suspension—but fought through every setback.  Some sports writers said that dealing with the disappointments they faced earlier in the year made them stronger and prepared them to accomplish what seemed impossible.*

So here’s the "sports is life" cliché: the first year of college may be like the Giants’ playoff experience.  Your student may have faced real disappointments so far this year.  He or she may have seen their first “C” or "D" grade ever.  They may have received an assignment back with so much red ink from their teacher’s comments and corrections that they thought a paramedic should be called.  They may have failed a test.  They might think everyone around them is smarter than they are and that they cannot possibly keep up.  Study strategies that worked in high school may not work now.  They may have done so well in high school that any negative feedback is a shock.  If this pattern continues they may doubt their abilities, get discouraged, and stop trying.  Mid-terms can be an especially difficult time if this pattern occurs in multiple classes.

Two keys: Persisting and adapting

Fortunately, there is hope and help available.  One key factor in dealing with setbacks here, as in other facets of life, is simple persistence. When the Giants lost the first two games of the playoff series at home, most people assumed they would lose the series—but they never gave up.  They battled, hustled on every play, and did a lot of small things that added up to eventual success.  Studies with first-year students show that those who are successful persist when things become difficult.  They don’t give up. 

However, these studies also show that the most successful freshmen learn to adapt as well as to persist.  Many who are less successful continue working hard when things get difficult, but keep doing things that have not worked well, such as using ineffective study techniques.  When the Giants lost a key pitcher early in the year, the manager had to ask other players to fill his role.  Similarly, students who struggle academically in their first year often need to change the way they read and study.  For example, many freshmen don’t know how to read carefully.  It doesn’t mean they are dumb or lazy—careful reading is just not intuitive and is not generally taught or expected in high school.  Teachers and advisors can help students learn this skill.  Studying by simply highlighting passages in a textbook is not good enough.  Outlining material, re-writing lecture notes, and attending study groups are much more effective approaches to learning course material.  Spacing out study sessions (rather than cramming at the last minute), talking with teachers or TAs about tests and assignments, and connecting concepts across classes may be new ideas to your students but they can be very effective strategies. And starting a paper at 2 am the night before it is due is not likely to be as effective as writing multiple drafts, getting feedback from peers or instructors, and thinking deeply about the subject matter.

No one does it alone: Support systems

A strong support system also helps develop grit.  Many professional athletic teams rely on individual superstars to succeed.  The 2012 Giants had a few star players, but more importantly they had a strong team culture.  They encouraged and trusted each other.  They played for each other.  Freshmen who are the most successful at BYU have strong support from parents, other family members, friends, and roommates.  Students who deal less effectively with adversity are much less likely to say they have strong support.

Bottom line: Any student admitted to BYU can succeed.  But it can be very difficult.  Students must learn how to learn—perhaps unlearning bad habits and developing better ones—persist through difficulty and make changes when needed.  There are many resources here for students who want help.  If your student is struggling, encourage them to speak with their First-year mentor, a teaching assistant or an instructor. They will be delighted to help.

* The Giants won the World Series again with similarly improbable heroics in 2014. 

 Steve Wygant earned his PhD in Psychology from BYU in 1993.  He taught Psychology at Fort Hays State University, Eastern Oregon University and BYU before joining the office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis at BYU in 1998.  He enjoys time with his family, photography and a good jazz band.