The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 09, 2022 1:00 am

The power of persistence

In life as in football, gritty performance eventually prevails

Mandy Drakeford

On New Year's Eve, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats football team's historic season ended in a 27-6 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff.

In the weeks leading up to the playoff game, Bearcats fans throughout the country believed the 13-0 team – the only undefeated college football team in the country – would “shock the world” and defeat the Crimson Tide. After all, Cincinnati, a dark horse, had become the first non-“Group of Five” school to be selected to the four-team College Football Playoff since it began in 2014.

Most non-Bearcats fans doubted the team's ability to compete with the six-time national champions. ESPN reporters dubbed the game as a “David and Goliath” matchup. But alas, David didn't slay Goliath to advance to the coveted national championship, adding another disappointment to Bearcats football fans' list over the years.

In 2020, even after beating a top 10 team and holding a no-loss record, the College Football Playoff ranked the Bearcats No. 6, leaving them out of the top four. After a remarkable two-year run, in which the Bearcats won 22 of its past 23 games (prior to the Cotton Bowl), the team had much to prove to its critics but failed in its playoff attempt.

During the postgame news conference, disappointment strained coach Luke Fickell's face. Yet, in the face of defeat, the head coach echoed a message of perseverance, growth and consistency, ingredients for what experts consider grit.

When asked how this loss would propel the team in the future, Fickell responded:

“Just because you worked so hard, you have to recognize the things that aren't guaranteed to you. In order to be a top-10 program, which is what we strive to be, there's got to be consistency. Consistency year to year as a program, consistency on the football field, consistency in everything that we do. We won't rest. We won't relax until we get to that point.”

While the Bearcats weren't successful in making it to a national championship, the underdogs continue to demonstrate a significant level of grit as they persistently chase a title despite any losses or setbacks. And they never let their failure or critics define their identity.

According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work, the definition of “grit” is to have stamina and perseverance – to stick with a passion, day in and day out, not just for a week or a month, but for years.

Duckworth says, “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.”

As an adjunct instructor at the University of Cincinnati and University of Oregon, I've witnessed students who might not be the smartest (by traditional standards) in the class succeed with persistence when faced with failure. Duckworth's research indicates that grit is a better predictor of long-term success than IQ.

During one of my first semesters of teaching, one student earned failing grades on her first few assignments in my public relations writing course, a required class to earn a degree in PR. She attended my office hours, and I learned she was a first-generation college student with a passion for storytelling, currently interning for a popular musician.

Like Duckworth recommends, she uncompromisingly pursued her desire to work in entertainment PR while knowing she had so much to learn. She asked to meet with me each week and we reviewed each word of her assignments. She ended up passing the course, never letting failure define her future or her identity. After graduating with a degree in public relations, she secured a job in the competitive entertainment industry.

As we enter a new year and look at the goals we've set, what will it take to be successful? How can we develop more grit to keep going in the face of hardship or failure? How can we encourage others not to give up?

In 2022, I'm focused on Duckworth's recommendations for increasing grit by:

• Relentlessly pursuing my passions.

• Recognizing mistakes are part of the process.

• Searching for meaning in all that I do.

• Believing in change and growth.

At the end of 2022, I'm hopeful not only for a Bearcats victory in the national championship but for an increased sense of unyielding courage when faced with difficulty.

Mandy Drakeford is program officer for the AWS Foundation.

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