grit

This is a story about one of my biggest lessons as a coach. The year I learned to choose grit over talent…

Nearly 10 years ago at tryouts for my dance team, there was a young incoming freshman just trying to keep up with the crowd. She had some basic dance training, and danced with power, but struggled with the technical skills required to make the team. Lucky for her, our tryout process lasts a couple of weeks so I was able to watch her grow. And I’m so glad I had that time, or I would have made one of the worst decision of my coaching career and not even known it.

During the tryout clinics, I watched her go over to the current seniors and ask for help when they were demonstrating a technical skill she had never seen before. Then she worked on it on her own. She asked for feedback from anyone who would watch, and quietly worked alone on the side of the gym. 

Grit shines through…

The next week during the tryout clinic, I watched as she tried to learn the tryout material. She was a pretty fast learner, and actually demonstrated great memory for the routine, even if she couldn’t execute it very well. Most importantly, I observed this incredible level of work ethic all week. She just kept fighting. Many of the seniors even made a point to come up to me and tell me how she had asked for help outside of tryouts, how dedicated she was, and that they really liked her.

As you can imagine, by the end of the week when it came time for tryouts, my heart was pulling for her. I really wanted her to make the team, just because I had grown to like her so much, but I honestly didn’t have a lot of faith that her dance scores would be enough.

Sure enough, on the day of tryouts, she was one of the lowest scores of the day, but not the worst by any means. She was on the cusp of making the junior varsity team but technically didn’t have the scores to make it. My tryout process includes judges because I appreciate the outside opinion, but ultimately my staff and I make the choice together. So when it came time to make a final decision, my JV coach looked at me and said, “What do you think? Do we take a chance?” 

I turned it back on her and said, “What do you think? You’re the one who would primarily be teaching her.” My JV coach confirmed exactly how I felt. She wanted her on the team because anyone who worked that hard would be a pleasure to coach.

So she made the team.

Is grit enough for varsity?

Fast forward two years, she was a star member of the JV team and made huge improvements in her skills. But she was still on the weaker side compared to other varsity dancers. When it came time for tryouts going into her junior year, we had another decision to make. Do we take a chance and move her up?  We knew her work ethic, persistence, and drive would mean she would continue to grow. So we took another chance on her and moved her to varsity as a junior.

Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.

Once again, she proved how consistent hard work beats talent. She continued with the same level of grit we had seen since the summer after her 8th grade year. When there was a skill she couldn’t do she asked for feedback. She kept practicing and drilled it until she could do it. She also continued to excel with counts and memorization. This meant quickly became our go-to dancer when we couldn’t remember how a section was cleaned or the team was fighting over how it was taught. 

From barely on the team to Varsity Captain

Another year past, and it was time for tryouts moving into her senior year. By now she was in mid-range of the team skill-wise, but not struggling. She’d probably never be the front and center competition dancer, but she was in the front in many other scenarios and was an incredibly strong and valuable member of the team. Her persistence and work ethic was unmatched, she was kind to everyone, and she always kept the team positive and motivated. So I wasn’t surprised when she decided to tryout to be a senior captain.

How do you choose your captains?

On my team, there is a whole process that I follow (which you can read more about here). A big part of the selection process is driven by the personality and example the leader will set for the team.

Think about the criteria that are important to you. Do you want the talented dancer who can choreograph and teach? Or do you want the hardest worker? Does your team vote on the captain? Or maybe it’s just always the seniors by default without much thought to it. 

However, you chose, I encourage you to prioritize one personality trait over everything else.

Grit

Choose Grit over talent… ALWAYS

Before you pick the “naturally talented” dancer, I urge you to pick the dancer with the most grit. The dancer with a passion for dance who has unrivaled persistence and determination. That leader will be the one to inspire and push your team to new heights.

So if you’ve ever struggled to make the decision about who should be your next captain, there is one simple solution: Choose grit over talent.

Grit

Grit means continued passion and persistence. You want a leader who pushes the team from behind, not just someone who stands up front with pretty kicks and flawless turns. Dancers with grit give more effort, so when they are working on a skill, they work harder. That also means they make more progress and give up less.

So, when your team is trying a difficult cardio workout or set a goal to perform your pom routine full out twice for the first time, you want a leader with grit. That leader will give it 100% effort without being asked. That leader will encourage the rest of the team to rise to the occasion. Where a naturally talented dancer might look prettier doing it, she may not have the same drive. Then it’s easy for other dancers to look at that technical leader and say, “Well she’s going 60% so I can too.” 

But when your leader has grit and gives every drill and every time through the routine 100% effort, everyone around her will rise up. 

As you’ve probably gathered by now, it’s my personal coaching preference to choose a captain who has grit over talent. And that little freshman who barely made the team? She became one of the best leaders I have had in over a decade. Hands down.

Why do you need grit over talent?

  • Grit means effort
    • A gritty dancer will fight when it’s hard
    • Grit means they enjoy the effort and won’t want to slack off or take laziness from their teammates
    • Talent, especially natural talent, means they may be less likely to work hard because they’ve always been good
    • Naturally talented dancers haven’t had to take a lot of criticism before. If their talent gets questioned they often shy away from a challenge and may crumble under pressure
    • Talent without grit leads to shaky confidence. While grit helps a less talented dancer perform consistently with great confidence
    • Grit instills confidence in others. So if you have a leader with grit, you will see a confidence boost in the whole team

Talented dancers might also have grit

All this isn’t to say a naturally talented dancer who is stunning to watch makes a bad captain. In fact, some of them may have a lot of grit themselves and that’s why they are so good in the first place. Really, the best of both worlds is to have a captain with both stunning talent and grit to preserver and never quit. Or if that doesn’t exist in one person, you have one captain with grit and another who is stronger at the technical skills who can lead through demonstration, offering feedback, choreography, and inspiration.

If you are thinking about your leaders for the upcoming season and you’re not sure who to pick, choose GRIT. If you want the best leader for your team, choose the leader who pushes himself without being asked. The dancer who models the type of behavior you want the whole team to have. Not necessarily the dancer who models the skills you want everyone to have. 

If you have a leader who encourages grit in the whole team, then they are inspiring others to give more of their own effort. And when everyone works harder, everyone’s skills improve.

Lead from the Back Row

choose grit

That wonderful freshman who we almost cut before she had a chance, turned into an incredible leader. While she competed her senior year mostly in the middle and back row, she was so full of fight and effort that the team rallied around her and showed her great compassion and admiration as she kept growing. The team needed her strength, relied on her for motivation, and fully trusted her as a leader. 

I’m so glad I chose the gritty dancer. It changed our team forever. I am so grateful to her for her ability to inspire those around her, just by being her disciplined, kindhearted self.

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Dance Team Captains Audiobook

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Download the audiobook, "Dance Team Captains: From Ineffective Beginner to Commanding Leader." This audiobook covers three parts of developing the best leadership for your team 1) selecting captains 2) defining roles and responsibilities 3) mentoring throughout the year

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