Sally Jenkins: Getting a degree in the school of true grit and hardwood

Between watching those wavy-limbed Kentucky kids get pushed in the chest by Notre Dame, the misfits of Michigan State grind their way to the Final Four over Louisville, and the ever-dauntless Tennessee Lady Vols overcome a 17-point deficit with just six minutes left to beat Gonzaga and reach the women’s regional finals, you might have experienced an insight that deserves exploring.

Call it an instinct, or awareness that something manifestly important happens in the NCAA tournament. It’s not just entertainment or contrivance. Sure, the ill-gotten gains and academic swindles can make the NCAA seem like a perfect demonstration of man’s ruin. Still, it’s worth it.

What’s on display is more than bread or circuses, more than indulgence, and maybe even worth the $10 billion CBS and Turner Sports pay for the television rights. It’s not just the frantic action over the pale flatlands, the thundering reversals up and down the bleached boards by athletes of such wildly divergent shapes and sizes, from the Wildcats’ 6-foot-11 human ladder Karl-Anthony Towns to the Spartans’ undersized Travis Trice. It’s not even the fact that John Calipari, with his hedge-funder salary and shelf of hair, and Tom Izzo, with that sideways crack in his face he calls a smile, are demonstrably great teachers.

If you detect something profound in the NCAA tournament, there is no need to apologize, because you are right, according to renowned neurobiologist Angela Lee Duckworth. A MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” recipient who has her own research lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth studies traits that predict achievement, and her special focus is on the quality known as “grit.” It’s not just a descriptive term the way Duckworth understands and employs it.

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“Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” Duckworth writes.

She has developed a measurement for it by studying a range of achievers from West Point cadets, to National Spelling Bee winners, to the Seattle Seahawks, and is at work on a book about it. Her work shows that it’s a more important factor in success than talent, IQ or privilege.

In 2013, Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll saw a Tedtalk by Duckworth, who is a Harvard- and Oxford-educated psychologist, and became fascinated. They began a series of conversations that helped Carroll refine what the Seahawks look for in players. Early in her research career, Duckworth developed a questionnaire to turn grit into a metric: by scoring the answers to a dozen queries, she rated people on a scale of 1 to 5. (I got a 4.3).

What Duckworth didn’t know was whether grit could be taught as well as measured. Carroll assured her that it could be: Coaches do it all the time. He offered up the Seahawks as a kind of laboratory for her. Duckworth will be visiting them in May.

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Duckworth is deeply interested in how to teach grit, because she did a stint as a public school math teacher in New York. At the heart of it is the ability to respond to failure or adversity, rather than give up.

“There are a lot of fragile gifted and talented kids who don’t know how to fail,” Duckworth told Educational Leadership in a 2013 interview. “They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it.”

Contrary to popular perception, basic abilities and intelligence are not fixed traits. Duckworth’s fellow researcher Carol Dweck of Stanford University has shown that people with a “growth mind-set,” who explore their brain plasticity, succeed more. Duckworth, using Dweck’s work, is developing interventions to teach students what’s known as “deliberate practice” along with growth mind-set. Researchers define “deliberate practice” as the determination to not just work hard, but to work at the things you are least good at.

“Grit enables you to be in an uncomfortable place for a good part of your day and get up the next day and do it all over again,” Duckworth has said.

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Coaches and athletes already know all this; they are “paragons of grit,” Duckworth says. They simply don’t explain it in scientific terms. But NCAA schools would do well to articulate it, because if there is an underlying illness that leads to academic fraud, it’s the false idea that athletes are uninspired students who can’t learn and who have no value other than financial. In fact, no set of students on campus is better equipped with grit, growth mind-sets, and the habits of deliberate practice.

Every team on display in the NCAAs this week showed hallmarks of grit. The 5-foot-10 Trice worked four years in the face of physical shortcomings and repeated failure to become a star point guard. Every talented right-hander in the tournament was born with a weak left hand, but has worked to make them equal. Michigan State’s 27-11 record included eight games in overtime. The Spartans seem impervious to setbacks, or psychological insecurity. Just listen to Izzo’s account of his paint-peeling roar in the locker room when his team trailed Louisville.

“I asked them if they’d become pretty boys,” Izzo said. “I asked them if the stage was too big for them.”

Last summer, Izzo appeared at an ESPN symposium on NCAA academic issues. Rather than spout vague pieties, Izzo, whose players have graduated at an 81 percent rate over his career, argued that coaches are far more insightful teachers than they are given credit for. “I am an educator; my degree’s in education,” Izzo said. “… I’m a professor in my own right too; I’m a teacher in my own right too.” The perception that athletes skate, and that what coaches teach is irrelevant “helps widen the gap between academics and athletics, and to be honest it disappoints me thoroughly.”

Look at the NCAA tournament through the lens of Duckworth’s work. The Tennessee women, the last class of Pat Summitt-recruited players, faced a double-digit deficit with less than five minutes to go and their senior leader Isabelle Harrison on the sideline because of a torn ACL – and refused to quit. Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison decided to forgo the 2014 NBA draft “to trust us with their careers and come back,” Calipari said.

In a single-elimination format, every success and failure gets amplified. Players 18 to 20 years old perform before massive shouting audiences highly committed to the result, alternately dealing out praise and blame. At an age when most people haven’t learned the consequences of their choices and actions, these students sweat, bleed, weep, and hug before a national television audience, without any do-overs.

You know what you could call that? An education.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at