Swimmer Katie Ledecky doesn’t just win. She crushes the competition. She crushes her own records. She destroys world records.

Everyone asks, “How does she do it?” She has nearly perfect form with an imperfect body for swimming. She has great coaching, but the secret sauce is grit.

The world-class athletes I have worked with all have slightly different approaches to success. Some truly do pace themselves and only peak at the right times. Others seem to glide effortlessly in their sport with an elegance and style that raises them above their peers and they incredibly, efficiently excel. Many of the best have gotten to the top by putting in longer hours and getting to that 10,000 hour number so commonly mentioned as the threshold to superior performances.

Without grit, it’s possible to win — but not to crush the competition.

Grit is what makes an athlete push as hard during the last hour of practice as in the first hour. Grit is coming to practice sessions with a focus and determination to push harder than ever before. Grit doesn’t give in.

Ledecky’s goal is not just to win, but to swim faster than anyone ever has — and possibly ever will. Winning is just not enough. It took pushing harder than she ever had before, every single day, to get to that level. Who else in the world would do that? And why would they? The answer among Olympians: no one.

At the end of the day, among great athletes, grit is a common denominator. Superiority in anything almost always involves sacrifice. Sacrifice of time, distractions and pleasure are required to rise above your challengers — who want the prize as much as you do. And grit is what permits the sacrifice to continue, even when the goal is far away.

Grit is personal. Grit is inside. Grit cannot really be taught. But what can be taught is selflessness. When Michael Phelps got out the pool after the 4×100 relay, his comment was not about how great it was to win, but about how determined he was to bring the gold home to the U.S. He realized that yet another gold medal for himself had little significance. And he learned that lesson late in his career.

Ask yourself what your own motivation is. If you don’t have one, think it through with the best coaches you can find. Without an overarching purpose, it is tough to win.

Why? Because sacrifice for yourself has little leverage. Only you (and possibly your friends and family) care. When the goal is shared and the sacrifice distributed, the team effect pushes you. The sacrifices seem less painful, and the ambition more lofty.

The real message? Grit comes a lot easier when the goal is bigger than the athlete. What is your goal?

Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.

Dr. Kevin R. Stone
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Dr. Kevin R. Stone

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