Football, Grit, & Group Hardship

This article analyzes one of the most important components to building unity and accountability in teams– group hardship.  

I have refined my understanding of this principle over my years as a college football player, and have noticed it as a common theme among the most successful organizations in my years analyzing businesses as a management consultant.

Anybody who has been a college athlete knows it is a grind.

Classes, practices, weightlifting sessions, film, study hall, and games fill up a calendar quickly.

There are times when so many things are going on, it is hard to stay motivated. In my experience the most successful athletic teams build “grit” or as Angela Duckworth defines it “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” In her book, Grit, Duckworth discusses many ways to build it, some of them include doing things you are interested in, practicing, a sense of meaning, and building hope. While most college athletic teams create such an environment, for me the foundation of developing grit was feeling extremely connected to my teammates.

I believe this happened through group hardship.  It also translates nicely into business.

Author Sebastian Junger discusses this idea beautifully in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging when he explains self determination theory, writing: “human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.”

He goes on to explain instances of great devastation or danger, like natural disasters or war zones, and their binding impacts on communities. His findings indicate that, as a species, we are wired to experience hardship among a group. It was the main vehicle for our ancestors survival.

This is why I was so motivated as a college football player.

It was hard physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I was not going through it alone. Every 15 hour day, including meetings, practices, study sessions, and games occurred with my teammates. Knowing I was not alone in this grind was extremely motivating and I am not sure I could have done it without the team’s support.

This is an important concept for any business leader to understand. We should not dilute hardship in our work. In his book, Junger writes that the world is becoming increasing individualistic. Forces like globalization and the rise of technology have accelerated this trend over the past 50 years.

Unlike our ancestors, we are not reliant on our group or tribe to survive. Unfortunately, 50 years of this concept of self reliance does not overwrite thousands of years of evolutionary code written in all of us. As humans, working together, specifically to overcome hardship, has been how we have succeeded and survived. Some believe this ability to work together has led to our species prominence. 

The bottom line is solving difficult problems with a group of people is a privilege.

As leaders, we must create an environment where our teams of can struggle together through difficulty. Like what happened with me and my football teammates, it will increase grit, accountability, discipline, and ultimately success.

I will leave you with a quote from what many believe to be Rome’s greatest emperor, Marcus Aurelius and basis of Ryan Holiday’s great book:  “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Facing obstacles as a team is a fantastic driver of results.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.