How to develop Olympic-style grit

Note: I wrote this blog in partnership with my friends at SVI, home of Forging Grit co-author Mike Thompson. It first appeared earlier this week on SVI’s Develop Everybody blog.

Athletes from around the world walked proudly behind their country’s flag as they entered Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. They all brought unique stories of how talent, hard work and perseverance brought them to one of the biggest stages in all of sports.

That’s what the world wants – great stories. And that’s what the media provides.

The Olympic Games are filled with amazingly talented athletes, but the coverage always veers beyond the winners who ultimately find their way to the three-tiered podium to receive their medals. The media comb the Games for “human interest” stories that provide fans some deeper insight into the athletes – their personalities, their passions, and, perhaps most of all, their grit.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to make it to the Olympics without grit. In Forging Grit, co-author Mike Thompson and I define this quality as “a passion for getting something done and the fortitude to see it through even when obstacles seem overwhelming.”

The Olympics are filled with “grit” stories. You’ll find them in the unheralded athletes competing in sports you only hear about during the Olympics (handball, badminton, equestrian dressage …). And you’ll find them in headliners competing in the popular events – stars like Usain Bolt in track, the American cast of NBA stars in basketball, swimmer Michael Phelps, and gymnast Gabby Douglas.

Me and Mr. Bolt (I'm on the right)
Me and Mr. Bolt (I’m on the right)

Earlier this year, I met and interviewed Usain Bolt in Kingston, Jamaica, and I can tell you this: He has grit. Yes, he fits the mold of the laid-back Jamaican. And, yes, he is immensely talented. But he’s also overcome some tremendous odds to become the fastest human on the planet. He comes from a remote mountain village. At 6-foot-5, he is considered too tall to be a world-class sprinter. He has a curved spine. And he’s dealt with a variety of injuries.

Bolt’s passion for winning motivates him to put in the hard work it takes to overcome injuries and compete at the highest level. Training isn’t fun. And it’s especially hard to stay at the top, where bright lights and fame make the “good” and even bigger enemy of the “great.” Grit drives Bolt to push toward more world-records and more Olympic medals.

So whether they are young first-timers at the Olympics like 15-year-old American table tennis player Kanak Jha, or older and more seasoned like 41-year-old, seven-time Olympic gymnast Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, all of these athletes needed grit to make their way to Rio.

But no group entering the stadium that first night had overcome more challenges on their journey to Brazil than the 10 athletes who walked in behind the banner of … well … grit.

Officially, they walked behind the Olympic flag, because these athletes had no country to represent. They all are refugees, several plucked from camps with very little background in competitive sports. They were provided the opportunity of a lifetime, given the resources to train and qualified based on merit.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said earlier this year. “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis…These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

These athletes haven’t just overcome training challenges. They’ve overcome life challenges. Yiech Pur Biel arrived alone at a refugee camp after fleeing from South Sudan when he was just nine. James Nyang Chiengjiek escaped an attempt to kidnapping him into a military unit. Rose Nathike Lokonyen was 7 when a rival tribe attacked her village; as she fled, she came across the dead bodies of her grandparents. Yusra Mardini, a swimmer from war-torn Syria, reached Europe by way of inflatable boats that carried refugees across the Aegean Sea.

Most of us never face the types of challenges those men and women have faced – or even the types of challenges most of the other Olympians have faced. But we do face challenges. Every day. In our families. In our work. In our communities. In life.

Grit isn’t just for elite athletes. We all need it. It helps us deal with pain, heartbreak, and setbacks. It motivates us to push onward despite injury or disease. It gets us through a difficult marriage. It helps us deal with a child who has lost his way. It provides us with a sense of calm and peace during an intense dispute in our community. It allows us to endure recessions, layoffs, mergers, and that new boss who seems determined to make our life a living hell.

Grit doesn’t guarantee us a place on the medal stand. But it does provide a way forward toward our goals no matter the obstacles we face.

Want your team to forge more grit?

Check out these medal-worthy specials for getting your hands on Forging Grit resources:

For more behind-the-scenes action on Usain Bolt, check out these links:

  • Behind the Scenes with Usain Bolt, Part I
  • Behind the Scenes with Usain Bolt, Part II
  • Behind the Scenes with Usain Bolt, Part III