In May of last year, before going to bed, Pete Carroll pulled up video of a TED talk. The woman giving the talk was Angela Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Carroll knew nothing about her at the time but the topic hooked him.
The next morning, Carroll told Ben Malcolmson, his assistant, to get in touch with Duckworth. Carroll regularly throws new projects at Malcolmson. Most don’t last longer than a week, but this was different. Malcolmson called Duckworth and explained he was from Pete Carroll’s office — usually an automatic in. Duckworth had never heard of Carroll.
Later that week, Carroll and Duckworth connected on the phone, and their conversations have helped define what the Seahawks are looking for in players.
What Duckworth and Carroll discussed is something she describes as one of the most significant predictors of success in humans; Carroll calls it “maybe the key ingredient” for players.
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What they talked about is grit.
ON THE NIGHT the Seahawks received their Super Bowl rings, the team threw a party in downtown Seattle. Usher performed a private concert. Players took pictures with their glimmering diamond rings.
Safety Earl Thomas was there, too, but after getting his ring, he left the party and headed to the Seahawks’ facility in Renton. He wanted to watch more film.
“I’m married to this game,” Thomas said by way of explanation. “You want to treat your wife right, and I treat her right to the fullest.”
Thomas long ago set his sights on being the best free safety ever, and he understands the cost of that pursuit.
“This is a lonely road,” he said. “I already made peace with it. I already took that challenge. Ain’t no turning back now.”
He spends hours each day scouring film for tiny details. He wears a mouthpiece at walk-throughs conducted without helmets or pads. He once slept on the locker-room floor in college so he wouldn’t miss an early-morning meeting again.
Thomas’ devotion to his goals is a prime example of what Angela Duckworth calls grit.
“Grit is having stamina,” she said during her TED talk, a broad series of talks and conferences aimed at creative or innovative ideas. “Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”
Duckworth became fascinated by grit while teaching math in New York City public schools. She noticed that her best students weren’t always her smartest ones. A few years later, she became a psychologist to find out why.
That led her down the rabbit hole chasing a broad question: Who is successful here and why? She traveled to West Point, to the national spelling bee and to classrooms across the country and tried to predict who would be successful.
“In all of those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success,” she said during her TED talk. “And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”
Carroll and the Seahawks are still looking for the same general qualities in players: competitiveness, resiliency, determination. Carroll has spouted those words for years, and they are not unique.
But grit is now a defined part of the Seahawks’ lexicon, and it is an important factor in their hunt for players. They now have a vocabulary for the values they’d always held. The Seahawks have even mined information from current players with grit to see what their backgrounds might tell them about future players.
But what prompted Carroll’s call to Duckworth in the first place was the way she ended her TED talk. Parents and teachers always ask her how they can build grit.
“The honest answer is, I don’t know,” she said. “What I do know is that talent doesn’t make you gritty.”
Carroll thought Duckworth left everyone hanging and told her as much. “I said, ‘Come and watch us. All we do is try to help people be great competitors,’ ” he said during a recent talk at USC. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and we’ve been teaching competitive for a long time and developing it, and watching story after story of people change.
“She just didn’t have our laboratory. She didn’t have the environment that we had to do it in.”
He then told the story of Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell.
“Let me give you a firsthand example,” he said.
DURING A LIGHT walk-through the day before a scrimmage this summer, Thomas tried to punch the ball free after tight end Rashaun Allen caught a pass. Instead, Thomas smacked Allen’s shoulder with a loud thud. Allen turned around and looked surprised because walk-throughs usually are contact-free.
“That’s the little detail, though,” Thomas said later that day. “This is not a walk-through. That’s how I really feel in the game. He walked back and was like, ‘Man, you punch hard.’ But I’m a competitor. Really and truly I know somewhere down in my family there is warrior blood. There’s gotta be. Because I’m a warrior, bro. They don’t make them like me.”
Thomas stands for everything the Seahawks want in a player. From high school to college to the pros, his coaches echo one another: Earl Thomas will do anything to get better because he cares so much about football.
“He is the most competitive, gritty guy you could ever imagine,” Carroll said. “He is never not on.”
Thomas considers the offseason his most important time of year. Last summer, he watched old games from his high school and college days to remind himself where he came from. “This league can kind of make you soft,” he said. “You forget your base, what got you here.”
He has focused his attention this offseason on the “fine details, the little bitty details.” He’s seeing if he’s taking correct angles, if he’s opening up his hips the right way, if his body language is good, if he’s flowing with the opponents’ offense.
Duckworth calls this “deliberate practice,” and it’s how experts separate themselves. The quantity of time needed to become an expert is obvious. But the quality of that practice is just as important.
Duckworth says experts train themselves in very specific, mindful ways. They force themselves into situations where they are confused or where they must operate on a cliff beyond their comfort level.
Deliberate practice also involves “repetitive mastery.” There’s a point at which the margin of progress becomes so small, so hard to see, that most people take it as a sign to stop. But experts carry on anyway. The payoff comes from doing that for a long time, even when the feedback and rewards aren’t obvious.
“People who are committed to deliberate practice,” Duckworth said, “will do whatever it takes to keep crawling up the learning curve.”
Thomas gets to the team’s facility at about 7:15 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 8:30 or 9 at night. During the season, he’ll stay as late as 10:30 p.m. if he hasn’t mastered the opposing offense.
“I’ve got to be confident,” he said. “When I walk out there, I want to be talking (smack). I want to just be feeling good. I want to be walking out there with a presence.”
On the first day of meetings, Seattle’s coaching staff implores young players to use Thomas as an example. “If you want to learn how to practice and prepare,” defensive backs coach Kris Richard tells them, “you’ve got a guy you can watch right here.”
One guy who listened was cornerback Byron Maxwell.
MAXWELL ALWAYS HAD the talent. He was big for a corner at 6 feet 1, and he had the qualities to play Seattle’s press coverage. But he struggled to stay healthy his first two seasons, and like most young players he didn’t grasp the details required to be a pro.
“He was just kind of going along with the flow in his first two years with us,” Carroll said.
And then something happened. He started watching the way Thomas practiced. He asked him questions. He cut out red meat from his diet and became leaner. Maxwell said he figured out who was important on the team and stuck to them.
“I’ve never seen anybody else like Earl,” Maxwell said last year. “It’s crazy how he gets like that every day. I’m not like that. I’m a playful guy. When I get out of whack, he’s always there. You need that.”
Duckworth, the Penn professor, isn’t a sports fan. But she thinks a good coach, a good manager, a good professor can create an atmosphere in which grit is not only expected but cultivated.
“My sense is that great coaches are able to create, to forge, a team or group identity that says, ‘This is the kind of person we want. This is what it means to be on this team,’ ” Duckworth said. “I’m not saying it takes somebody from the 1 percentile to the 99th percentile in grit. But does it move or shift the whole team balance a little bit? Does it incline individuals to demonstrate their best self? I think so.”
Carroll isn’t bashful about his staff’s ability to do that.
“I know we can,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for years.”
And one of the examples he points to, right away, is Maxwell.
Maxwell got his chance to play last season because of suspensions to cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. That forced him into a starting role opposite Richard Sherman, and the question was whether he would hold his own in a secondary otherwise filled with Pro Bowlers.
“And if you noticed in our run this season,” Carroll said, “Byron Maxwell played like an All-Pro, extraordinary football player through the finish of our season. He played as great competitors play, with true grit.”
EARLY IN THOMAS’ career, he tried so hard he pushed himself without fully understanding the why behind his decisions. Carroll called Thomas’ intensity then “almost unbridled.”
Of all the players Carroll has watched become grittier, Thomas is not one of them. “He was born with this makeup,” Carroll said.
But what has happened over the years is just as important, because Thomas and Sherman and Doug Baldwin will take on more prominent roles as they get older. Guys like Thomas must stand for the attitude and feel Carroll is trying to create so that what happened with Maxwell continues happening.
“We’ve watched Earl gain a sense of understanding and depth,” Carroll said. “He’s really gaining wisdom about himself and the challenges he’s up against and how to prepare in a way that it’s more of a strength rather than just a characteristic.
“You can see the crossover from competitor to grit.”
In the moments after the Super Bowl, after he answered questions in his uniform, Thomas stepped down from the podium and started to walk away. He had just reached the pinnacle of his sport at age 24. He had won a Super Bowl, been named to his third Pro Bowl and now, far from his upbringing in rural Texas, he let all of the investments he made in pursuit of his goals sink in.
He put his arms around his parents’ shoulders and slowly walked back to Seattle’s locker room. He was crying.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org