The gritty reality
Lucy Pearson says what doesn't kill us may not make us stronger
At what point is it the more admirable thing to do, to acknowledge that you are not up to something or to clench your teeth and suffer in the name of grit?
In sport, it is often the case that we laud those who can withstand ‘hurt’ and who use it as a spur to great things. Hurt does not need to be physical; we have seen plenty of examples of those who take the hurt intended through language (name-calling/personal insults) to inspire great performances: ‘sledging’ in cricket will often see the ‘target’ hanker down and produce an outstanding performance. In such instances, we admire the grit of the individual; their ability to deal with adversity and turn it around. Grit is a quality much hyped in educational circles.
In recent weeks, considerable air time has been given to the batting form of Stuart Broad; until his most recent innings, there was a developing view that he was not the attacking player we have seen with the bat since he suffered a ball through the grille of his helmet in August 2014. Broad himself has said: “I have had nightmares about it. There have been times when I’ve felt the ball just about to hit my face in the middle of the night. It’s been tough.” Whilst the physical pain has passed, the psychological has remained. Broad admits: “I’m working with the sports psychologist to try to think about other things when I bat.”
I have always considered myself a pretty tough competitor, someone who could take the knocks, shake myself off and get on with it. I might have even said that these knocks have made me a better person or competitor. But one particular knock had a significant impact on me and changed my relationship to the game I love.
During the World Cup in 2005 I was having a cursory batting practice with Charlotte Edwards – an unusual and unlikely combination to say the least – Charlotte the most accomplished and prolific opening bat in the history of the (women’s) game, me…not so prolific and one to rarely trouble the scorers. If I scored a single run this would be greeted with cheers from my team-mates. Charlotte was not seeing the ball all that well and I had suggested that a few minutes in the nets with me would surely help her out. The coach was giving us throw downs; it was a relatively light-hearted session and I wasn’t wearing a helmet as it was not pace and bounce that I was facing.
Happily for England, Lottie found her middle and started to strike the ball with the timing and power for which she rightly has a world reputation; unhappily for me I did not spot the obvious health and safety hazard – a concrete block pinning the nets down against the wind. Lottie hit one particularly easy ball with perfect timing and, as we were rotating the strike, I set off. As I ran, I saw the ball coming up at me from the concrete block and instinct made me avert my head; rather than smashing my cheekbone and eye socket, the ball split my ear and knocked me to the ground.
I would like to say that I rolled with this particular punch and extolled the quality of grit, but when I returned to net practice a few days later in order to prove my readiness for the semi-final, my head had not recovered. I was not the same person in the nets and could not cope being there; I had to walk away from the practice and I was embarrassed and ashamed by my lack of resilience.
There is plenty written of grit and its importance for children as a quality; but sometimes I worry that we advocate it too strongly and do not give permission for children to feel less than perfect. Grit is not always a good thing; if you have that piece of grit in your eye do you bravely soldier on believing that suffering will make you stronger; or do you take some time out, deal with the issue so that you can move forward in a happier state? Sometimes the grittier thing to do is to acknowledge that you need help and you can’t cope on your own. Stuart Broad is working with a psychologist to help him get past his hurt.
There are those who can cope with hurt and they should be admired. Kate Walsh embodies this extraordinary resilience for me, playing as she did with a broken jaw in the London 2012 Olympics. I was at that game which saw her return, face mask and all, and I could not believe her commitment to the game. She did not flinch at any point, putting in some of the bravest tackles I have ever seen; it was inspiring. It would appear that Great Britain’s captain is one who can use pain to spur her on to even greater things.
Such bravery is not for us all; in education we must ensure that whilst we encourage resilience in young people, we do not teach them that asking for help and admitting that we are afraid or feel that we cannot cope is weakness. Often times it is admitting our fears and worries that is the grittiest thing to do.
Lucy Pearson is Head of Cheadle Hulme School.