On the Field to Online: Why Your Student-Athlete Experience is the Biggest Cheat Code

My transition from soccer to writing and how grit has played its role.

It was my first time in Pittsburgh. The late-October wind, swift and crisp, pierced my skin as I calmly waited for the whistle to blow. The previous 100 minutes had been a grueling contest between two well-matched teams. We’d come back to tie it after being down for the bulk of regular time. All that separated us between glory and agony was ten draining minutes. As Carnegie Mellon stepped on the field in their all-black jerseys, I put myself in a lunge, elongating my left hip like an outstretched cat. I’d managed this injury throughout the season, but the physicality of the game was taking its toll. The whistle shrieked, and I began to hobble up the field, scanning my surroundings like an owl. My hip, screaming in pain, was drowned out by my adrenaline on the loudspeaker: “If there was ever a time to behave with grit, it is now.”

In our age of abundance, we are constantly bombarded with cheap dopamine in the form of likes, followers, Juul, fast food and porn. Our desires have never been more accessible and our inability to avert short-term comfort has left us with an unfillable void.

We’ve all fallen victim to this — I too, have chased these desires. Getting likes on my latest Instagram post makes me feel valued. Each additional follower yields a sense of importance. And a Double Shack burger on a Friday night is a mouthwatering delight.

We are aware of the long-term consequences instant gratification has on various aspects of our life: With likes, we place external validation over our own. With porn, our personal relationships are hindered. With food, we chase taste over health. Yet, we continue to choose the path of least resistance.

As I continue to build in public, I am reminded of the lessons that propelled me to thrive as a student-athlete. Through writing, phone calls and brainstorming sessions, I am constantly grappling with something that’s come naturally in athletics but not so otherwise. And with all that’s happened in 2020, no lesson has struck me more than embodying grit. 

Defining It 

“Grit”. What did you think of when you read that?

For me, it’s movies and athlete’s stories. Movies, for instance, like The Blind Side, The Pursuit of Happiness and Rudy are iconic examples of one’s ability to overcome adversity through sheer grit. Athlete’s documentaries like Notorious and The Dawn Wall depict star performers who are willing to stretch themselves farther than any human before them.

But, what exactly is grit?

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist of the University of Pennsylvania defines grit as “the perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals.”

Joe Clarke, head men’s soccer coach at Washington University in St. Louis defines grit as “Passion -- the love of the game, the love of competing — provides the energy to work every day to get better. Grit to me is the relentless, no quit work inspired by that passion.” 

These definitions have a lot of overlapping qualities. They both talk about having a passion — a deeply rooted emotion that acts as the catalyst to undertake a worthwhile journey. Like a fire without fuel, grit cannot exist without passion.

Both mention perseverance, consistency, and focus on the long game. Grit can and must prevail in the short-term, but your goal should be to consistently embody it in the long-run.

These definitions came from people in varying professions. One is a psychologist and author while the other is a soccer coach with thirty years of experience. Grit is not something just for athletes, businessmen, teachers or parents. It is something every one of us can embody but it’s a choice to consciously put in the effort to manifest it in your life. 

I am still learning to be gritty in my writing. You can read about grit and understand what it means but until you incorporate it into your daily routine, it will be impossible to demand yourself of it when you need it most. You must actively engage with it, permitting “the suck” to improve your tolerance to stress; only then, can you realize the true value of grit. 

I’ve selected three aspects of grit that’ve worked in tandem to yield results during my time as a student-athlete. Checking off each one will allow you to have a better understanding of what it is you’re willing to grind for. You do not need to be an athlete to understand these aspects. Each will be directly applicable to your unique pursuit. Use this as a guide to find where you want to embody grit. 

1. Fall helplessly in love with your “why’s”

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

I see too many people on Twitter and in their blogs who preach to “do what you love.” I think that’s a bullshit and privileged answer. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love soccer. The game is packed full of drama, strategy, skill, power, elegance and finesse. But the game itself was not the reason for my devotion to the sport. Like a kid running after the ice cream truck, what made me chase soccer were my “why’s”.

This love was encompassed by the friendships I made, the skills I gained and the doors that opened through the sport.

All of my roommates in college were former varsity soccer players. They continue to be my best friends and the people I most enjoy spending time with at school. I have made countless memories with them that aren’t appropriate for the public. Soccer brought them to me and soccer brought me to them.

I love my boys.

I’ve sharpened up my collaboration, coachability, time-management and leadership skills as the captain of a high-performing team. Having these abilities is necessary to be a competent member of a team — but excellence in these areas is achieved by loving the process to acquire them. 

I love what the game has taught me.

I would not be in college without soccer. The sport, aside from my above-average grades, is the sole reason for my admission to the university. I wouldn’t have met my best friends or gained those skills had I not kept playing.

I love the doors the sport has opened.

These “why’s” were the motivating factors behind perseverance, and soccer was the best vehicle to manifest them. There is a key difference between what you do and why you do what you do. Soccer was my what. And my why were the reasons mentioned. 

Take Will Smith’s 2006 heart throbber, “The Pursuit of Happiness”. Smith plays Chris Gardener, a dead-end salesman whose inability to sell his x-ray scanners led him to homelessness. Gardener, in a crippling marriage due to his financial instability must have his wife work double shifts. As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have a five-year-old son. Did Gardener love his work as a salesman? Did he love sleeping in a BART bathroom after eviction? Hell no. He had his “why” — a love so deep he willingly put himself through the wringer. He endured eviction, homelessness and unpaid internships all in the hopes of providing a better life for his son. He didn’t enjoy the work — but he loved seeing his son receive a proper education with a roof over his head. 

Tommy Caldwell climbing on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, California

These deep-rooted passions are what allows certain individuals to overcome seemingly impossible ventures. For instance, the documentary “The Dawn Wall”, tells the story of Tommy Caldwell, an elite climber who’s completed the most challenging climb in the world. Caldwell’s love for climbing forced him to fight through kidnaps, murder, and unthinkable human feats. Tommy puts it best when he says,

I've always loved the idea that passion breeds success. I now realize, much to my chagrin, that telling someone who doesn't feel the fire to simply follow his passion is a little like telling someone who doesn't have any legs to run to the fridge and get you a sandwich.

This passion is what drove my athletic career for twenty years. I loved the game for all the right reasons. It gave me my best friends, my fondest memories, and lessons that’ll stay with me forever. Twenty years from now, I will look back and smile for what this sport has given me. 

While I treasure what I’ve gained through the sport, they are only special because of the struggle. I didn’t play every game. I’ve gotten sidelined due to injury. I put in countless hours outside of practice and didn’t reap the rewards. Oftentimes the devil on my shoulder would whisper, “none of this is worth it.” But the angel on my opposite shoulder would ensure that it was, “we are better through the struggle.”

Whatever it is that you want to pursue — whether that’s sport, writing, community, coding or speaking — fortify a strong “why”. Fall in love with your “why’s” more than the vehicle. The vehicle will require you to suffer and experience hardship, but your “why’s” will encourage you to push through. 

2. Consistency 

Even when it comes to the things we love, many of us fail to stay consistent. Consistency is like climbing a mountain. On the way up, it’s exhausting. There are days we’d rather sleep in or have a drink with the boys. We tell ourselves:

  1. “Today is just not the day”

  2. “I’ve done this so many times, I don’t have to do it again”

Consistency is a new battle each day. Unlike Pokemon games, we don’t have the privilege to save our most recent position on the mountain. Similar to Groundhog Day, every morning, you go right back to the beginning. The mountain is something you must conquer every day. 

One could argue that consistently showing up to complete a task is the most challenging aspect of grit. Therefore, we must reframe our goals so that it’s easier to stay consistent.

Instead of focusing on completing a task, shift your focus to showing up to complete a task. For instance, you set aside time to work from 7 am - 8 am. Your only focus should be to sit at your desk at 7 am. Don’t think about any of the work you told yourself you’d do. Getting to your desk at 7 am is your only goal. 

We would have our Spring lifts in the morning from 8 am. For my first Spring season, my only goal was to be at the gym one minute before we began. On snowy February mornings in St. Louis, the comfort of my bed was like a magnet making it impossible for me to leave. But instead of focusing on the large task of completing the lift, I focused on showing up on time. After I, along with the rest of the team showed up, it was easier for me to get locked in on the lift for the day.

Once you do this consistently, you’ve put yourself in a position to roll down the mountain. Don’t aim for the finish line. Aim for each step you need to take and then the step after that. Don’t pursue a goal. Pursue the progression towards that goal. 

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet, at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” — Jacob Riis.

Consistency compounds. Use it to your advantage.

3. Pain as a Necessary Evil

Nitzsche famously said,

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”

but I prefer Kelly Clarkson’s 2011 banger “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Pain is necessary to embody grit. If you’ve lifted weights, you’ve heard of Ronnie Coleman. In one of my favorite quotes, he says,

“Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weight!”

It’s easy to look at bodybuilders or sprinters and believe their performance was gifted to them on a silver platter. Nobody wants to talk about the grueling hours, calloused hands, strict diet and mental strain they’ve endured for years. Going to this painful place every day is what separates champions from the rest of the pack. 

My coach summarized this idea perfectly in his email:

“What separates a champion is the champion wins every day.”

If one is to truly embody grit, they must go the hard route. We all want the easy way out. We want instant gratification - the nicotine buzz, sexual release and tasty food. We do this while not realizing that the real shortcut is to just do it (the hard things) ✔️.

As school is starting up, I’m conscious about getting the first few weeks off to a hot start. This means doing all my readings, completing assignments well in advance, and having plenty of time to review material. What happens when I take the shortcut? I’m scrambling for answers to my homework, I don’t understand the material and I end up cheating on quizzes and exams. Every day sucks a tiny bit, but embracing the daily suck is far better than a week of panic and non-stop cramming. 

Pain doesn’t mean you are killing yourself. But it does mean you are being consistently challenged. Look at people who’ve undergone fat-to-fit transformations. After getting their bodies fit, every other area of their life improves. Their relationships are better, their finances are stable and their diet is on point. People who fix their bodies realize that pain and consistency actually improve their lives, not hinder it. The same lessons learned through fitness are directly applied outside of the gym. 

As my coach said, “we can all train, but if it is easy it is a waste.” To Joe, thank you for making me do the hard things first. I learned it best from you. 

My label as a soccer player has faded away like the sun setting on a hill. But the experiences I’ve encountered as a student-athlete have set me up for life. 

As I veer off the highway of athletics and onto the freeway of writing, this is what I’ll tell myself:

  1. Make it difficult. You grow when you do hard things. Get uncomfortable as much as you can. You’ll be grateful to have done it.

  2. Be prolific. Write as much as you can. You will find yourself through the quantity in which you produce. Some of it will be terrible but some of it will be quite good. 

  3. Have a cadence. I know my biggest weakness is consistency, especially when it’s something I’m not good at. Do it every day - it will eventually get easier.

To all current & former college/pro athletes:

You are blessed to have been in organized sports. What you’ve done through sport will directly translate to every facet of your life. The next time you’re struggling through an article, new skill, or relationship, tackle it in the same way you would a workout or practice. How did you get through those moments? What within you forced yourself to get the job done? Think like the athlete you are and put knock those obstacles out. There is no one stopping you but yourself. 

Back in Pittsburgh, 30 seconds into double overtime, I found myself eyeing down my teammates 50 yards ahead of me. Our winger, strolling down the sideline as if there was nobody there, whipped in a darting cross hard on the ground. The opposite winger, sprinting like his life depended on it, reached for the ball with his left foot, guiding it towards the goal. A big hand from the opposing goalie kept it out...only to fall at our strikers’ foot. As he tapped in the ball to seal our victory, I let out an overwhelming sigh of relief. A minute earlier, we were between glory and pain. 30 seconds before, we gritted through the pain. And now, we were glorious through the pain.

Game. Set. Match.

If you’ve read the whole thing, big ups to you! Thank you.

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