Old school General Managers and coaches commonly believe that teams need an element of grit, or “sandpaper,” in order to be successful. Sometimes teams add gritty players late in the season because the intangibles they bring to the table are thought to be particularly important when intensity ramps up during the playoffs. These types of moves are soundly criticized as being wrong-headed and outdated by many members of the hockey analytics community who are often skeptical of any talk from team executives or media regarding the value of intangibles. GMs who sacrifice skill to add grit are commonly portrayed as being dinosaurs, with the special dinosaur-designation of Barney awarded to anyone who thinks his team is one Steve Ott away from the Stanley Cup.
As is the case with other intangibles, I am generally unhappy with how the discussion is framed both by hockey executives and many members of the hockey analytics community. Hockey executives typically frame intangibles in general, and grit in particular, as important qualities that cannot be quantified. Instead of relying on measurement a type of informal “eye test” is applied that relies on word of mouth information and personal judgment rooted in experience. All of these issues are front and center in the following tweet:
"I had good reports from Kirk Muller. Grit. Sandpaper. He has a lot of intangibles that don't appear on the scoreboard." – Bergevin on Ott
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) March 1, 2017
For their part the hockey analytics community, which is typically better versed in data science than social science, too often accepts and repeats the argument that intangibles such as grit cannot be quantified and use this as a justification dismiss such factors from serious consideration. What is lost in pretty much all of the debates about grit in hockey is that there is a body of empirical research on grit. Although this research has taken place in other contexts (typically education) it can still provide valuable insights for team executives and hockey analysts.
My modest goal for this article is to summarize existing empirical research on grit and discuss how key insights from this work may apply to professional hockey. This summary will focus on three key questions: What is grit? What are the benefits of grit? And, what are the negatives of grit? As always, underlined words are hyperlinks to key academic sources that are discussed in this article.
What is Grit?
In the world of social research grit is most commonly defined as perseverance and passion for long term goals. Most current research into grit can be traced to the work of Angela Duckworth (psychology, University of Pennsylvania), who argues that grit “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” In a summary of her own work Duckworth notes that grit is closely associated with the personality trait “conscientiousness” and typically overlaps with the subdomain of “achievement motivation.” More recent work by Duckworth links grit with ability to maintain self-control and to delay self-gratification. The most commonly used measure of grit in academic research is the short 8 item version of the Grit Scale (Grit-S) which is a combination of items relating to interest and effort. When used in research grit is typically a mediator between ability or context and a given outcome. So two students coming from the same background may have entirely different outcomes due to differences in their respective levels of grit.
It is really important to point out that the version of grit studied by academics is much like the grittiness seen during the Boston Bruins’ 2013 Stanley Cup run when Greg Campbell gutted it out and refused to give up on the play after a slap shot broke his leg.
Conversely, the version of grit academics look at within the education system does not include knocking over the books of competitors during exams, hip checking other students into lockers, or punching them in the face at recess, so it is unlike the version of grit that was on display when Ott gave Zuccarello a cheap shot to try to get under his skin.
What is being researched in academia, and by extension what I am talking about in this article, is essentially the part of grit that deals with passion, commitment, tenacity, and perseverance without the sandpaper that is sometimes included in hockey-based definitions of grit. Those elements may be important in hockey but they are not captured in existing literature on grit.
There are two other issues with existing empirical measures of grit. The first is there is some overlap with existing psychosocial factors such as resilience, coping, and motivation. These are all important qualities, and resilience in particular has been shown as an important determinant of outcomes in many professions. However, conceptual clarity is a necessary component to empirical research because it is typically a good idea to know what it is that we are measuring. The fact that grit is a collection of assorted personality features has practical implications when trying to sort through how it impacts upon various outcomes. For example, if grit it shown to be linked with career longevity in the NHL some combination of resilience, coping, motivation is the key driver. But if only one factor, for example motivation, is important then we are probably better served measuring just that one without getting bogged down with other components of grit that add nothing to our analysis.
The second limitation is that the link between individual grit and team outcomes has not been mapped out. Critics of grit, the best of which is Ariana Gonzales Stokas, point out that discussions of grit tend to draw on cultural imagery such as that of the cowboy, and typically focus on isolated individuals displaying courage, enduring physical suffering, and having an uncomplaining personality, as they fight against the odds. While all of these qualities can be positive in a team environment to the best of my knowledge no one to date has explored the impact of grit upon teams or organizations. What is noted in the literature is that grit is a non-cognitive trait rather than a cognitive skill, and non-cognitive traits are typically favored by employers (i.e. employers and managers love people who work hard and are conscientious). However, the link between non cognitive traits and outcomes is typically complex because environmental factors (in the case of hockey these could be team quality, the coach’s system, how players are deployed, etc.) also come into play.
What are the benefits of grit?
The general argument made by Duckworth is that the most talented or naturally gifted in a given field are not always the ones that succeed. Instead, a large part of success and achieving long term goals can be attributed to working hard and not avoiding or ignoring less desirable tasks. For example, when people think of concert pianists they typically focus on how these individual are prodigies who are naturally gifted. However, although skill is clearly required a key part of being a successful pianist is a willingness to sit and practice for hours each day instead of watching television or hanging out with friends. Duckworth and her colleagues found, for example, that gritty children earned higher GPAs in school than their peers despite having lower SAT scores, and that grit was associated with success in spelling bees through a willingness to engage in deliberate practice (see below).
With respect to professional hockey this essentially means that players who are diligent and committed to long term goals by, for example, taking better care of their bodies through strict diets and exercise regimens or working hard during practices, will succeed at a higher rate than their skill level would suggest. Conversely, those who float by on skill while not working particularly hard are more likely to Dany Heatley themselves out of the league earlier than expected. In other words, moderately skilled and dedicated players can leapfrog over those with greater skill but who do not possess the same focus, or dedication to training, or perseverance after adversity. It is not a stretch to argue that measuring grit, which essentially helps to predict who is likely to over- or under-perform, could be valuable with respect to improving results at the draft table as well as helping to assess which players to trade or sign.
A second benefit of grit is that it can be used to help “level the playing field” for members of disadvantaged groups. Research into black collegians in the USA, where grit explained 24% of the variance in grades, shows that grit can be a key factor in overcoming systemic disadvantages. Other research on migrant students in Russian schools shows that although migrant children typically perform below average when compared with their Russian peers, those with high levels of grit were more likely to achieve successful outcomes. Both of these research studies correspond to more general research in American schools which clearly shows that grit is linked with positive outcomes for groups that typically have below average success rates do to negative structural factors such as poverty, racism, etc.
NHL players as a group are not particularly diverse. They are typically white, English speaking, and are most often born into North American families with a high enough income level to be able to afford to keep their kids in hockey until the point when they are either drafted by a professional league or move on to something else. Players from any other background have a fight a bit harder to get into the league and to stick when they arrive. There are two paths a team with a well-grounded understanding of grit can take, both of which are especially important in terms of increasing the chances that players from non-traditional groups will be successful in the face of continuing adversity (i.e., playing in a country that is far away from home, adapting to the game while learning a new language, etc.). The first is to use grit measures to try to select which player to draft or trade for. A higher value application would be to help to develop grit with the goal of lessening the chances of that high end players will wash out in the face of adversity. However, as will be discussed in the next section, teaching and/or fostering the development of grit is easier said than done.
What are the negatives of grit?
There are four main negatives associated with grit. The first and most important of these negatives is that no one has a really good handle on how to teach or even cultivate it. Existing research in education has emerged in a context where some children have not faired well within the existing education system. Changes to the education system are slow and educators often look for ways of increasing the impact of what they do on a day to day level. In this larger context grit became very attractive because it provided a potential route through the quagmire of larger social forces that effectively fettered a large number of students. In 2013 the US Department of Education released Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance which outlines how grit and tenacity can potentially be taught to, or fostered in, students to increase the likelihood that they achieve their goals. However, Wolters and Hussain correctly note that “conceptual understandings portray grit more broadly, and perseverance of effort in particular, as having stable trait-like qualities that reflect individuals’ genetic inheritance or develop over longer periods of time.” What this means is that the base elements grit, such as determination, perseverance, and dedication are very likely rooted in deep-seated dispositions that change very slowly if at all. If this is correct then it may be more prudent to weed out players with low grit than to try to cultivate it. The main issue here is a lack of research that empirically tests the degree to which grit can be learned and what this learning process should look like.
The second negative to grit is that valuing grit can easily lead to devaluing those who do not appear to be particularly gritty. The US Department of Education report mentioned above contains the following chilling warning about assigning too much weight to grit:
As grit becomes a more popular notion in education, there is a risk that poorly informed educators or parents could misuse the idea and introduce what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” — the tendency to overvalue personality-based explanations for observed behaviors and undervalue situational explanations. In other words, there is a risk that individuals could overattribute students’ poor performance to a lack of “grittiness” without considering that critical supports are lacking in the environment.
This warning could be translated into hockey terms, in which case it would read something along the lines of: while grit can help get you out bad situations on the ice it does not change the reasons why those bad spots occurred to begin with, such as being on a poor team, the coach implementing a flawed system, etc. In the worst case scenario a fundamental attribution error would lead a team to trade a good player because they believe that player is not gritty enough when a given lack of success was actually being driven by team level factors out of that player’s control. This is the type of error that can set a franchise back for years.
Grit’s third negative is that it is an inherently conservative force. In past articles such as NHL Teams as Complex Systems and Leadership I have made the case that analysis of psychosocial factors should extend beyond players and into team management and ownership. Grit is in the same category as coaches and GMs (and even owners) can be gritty individuals. The problem with this is that qualities such as perseverance, passion, and maintaining course while striving for long term goals can make individuals highly resistant to change. A recent example of this on the player level was Craig Anderson being asked in a media scrum about whether he is less likely to leave the crease to play the puck after a puck handling gaff led to a key goal against in a playoff game. Anderson, who is as gritty as they come (at least by the academic definition), refused to entertain the notion that he should modify his game. This type of stubborn resistance to change and adaptation is a recurrent theme amongst gritty individuals. Extending this same principle to management, there are too many examples to count of GMs or coaches sticking to failed or failing strategies and/or refusing to adapt to new ways of approaching the game. What appears from the outside as management doubling and tripling down on bad decisions could easily be attributed to people staying the course in the face of adversity, which is viewed as a good quality when it leads to success but not so good when there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is being sold.
The final negative, which stems from the previous point about how gritty individuals persevere when striving toward a set goal, is that gritty individuals are more prone to committing suicide. When people hit bad spots and think of harming themselves a lot of things may happen. Many talk themselves out of it, and some just can’t do it. However, people who are gritty are shown to be more likely to follow through because of their higher than normal level of determination as well as their goal-orientation. Anestis and Selby’s excellent article on grit and suicide contains the following passage which, I believe, illustrates how the role of the gritty player in the NHL is likely the perfect storm for increased suicide risk:
[There are] multiple avenues through which an acquired capability for suicidal behavior can be established, including [non suicidal self injury], physical fights, injuries from reckless behavior, and drug use, all of which have been linked to escaping upsetting emotional experiences.
Just to be clear, there is a very limited amount of research on grit to begin with and the study I cited in this section is the only one I know of that looks closely at the linkage between suicide and grit. However, this connection really does make sense. Knowing that gritty players are at higher than normal risk of suicide is the first step toward preventing it.
Teams do grit wrong. They typically view it as something that cannot be measured and that can only be assessed using experience and what can best be described as an intangibles eye test. To make matters worse, gritty GMs and coaches will be highly resistant to moving away from ways of thinking reflected in the tweet I cited earlier in this article. They will be far more likely to double and triple down on eyeballing grit, because they believe the team needs it, than to shift to evidence-based approaches that focus on data collection and empirical evidence.
Although there are some exceptions, a lot of what I see in hockey analytics (at least the social media version) does grit wrong. There is currently no empirical evidence on grit in hockey, but this is does not mean grit is not a factor. Grit is typically either a mediator or moderator within existing performance models which means that it is a huge mistake to make arguments that begin with “if grit was a factor it would show up in our numbers.” It would not.
When I laid out my plan of which psychosocial variables to go through grit did not initially make the cut. My reason for leaving it out had nothing to do with it being unimportant in hockey, because I think that it is. The main issue I have with grit is that I am not sure what to do with any information on grit that is collected. Lets say you are working for a team and that team asks you to collect data on grit because they believe it is important. You go in, collect the data, and you find certain players are more gritty than others but the team already knows that. Now what? You don’t have access to grit scores for players on other teams. You know from existing research that grit is relatively stable and cannot easily be taught. I collect data on psychosocial dynamics for a living and I write reports on my findings as a key part of that process, and I have no idea what value a report on grit scores on a hockey team could possible have beyond satisfying personal interest. My preferred approach would be to focus on individual components of grit, such as motivation or resilience, instead.