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How to Adjust When Perseverance Doesn’t Lead to Success

At a young age, we’re taught that perseverance and hard work lead to success. And we all have seen the success-through-struggle stories of professional athletes who faced great adversity but persevered, eventually making their way to the world’s greatest sport stages. But what about all the other athletes who kept persevering without ever realizing their goals?

Maybe your young athlete has been struggling for a few seasons. Should they keep pushing? Or throw in the towel. The answer we’ve been indoctrinated into believing is that they should keep pushing, defying the odds and learning lessons along the way. That’s perseverance, right?

Actually, board-certified family physician and TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, explains that the way we talk about perseverance could use a reset. Here, we’re talking about how to re-adjust when persevering towards a particular goal doesn’t seem to be leading to success for your athlete—and what to do instead.

Remember narratives of perseverance favor success

The problem with perseverance, says Gilboa, is that we talk about it constantly, but never explain how to do it. “In every inspirational lecture, keynote, podcast, and church service, everybody talks about persevering. They tell you about people who persevere against all odds. They tell you the story of Thomas Edison and the 9,000 light bulbs that didn’t work. They tell you about authors who sent manuscripts to hundreds of agents before they got a call back about their now-bestselling book. But the examples are all of people who did something really, really hard, and eventually, their hard work paid off. But is that the only story worth telling? We never talk about people who persevered, pivoted, and found a different type of success, but that’s what happens for most people and what we really need to learn from.”

Redefining perseverance

When we’re young, we’re told, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But that isn’t exactly the way Gilboa wants you to think about perseverance—after all, there’s a reason that as adults, we’re reminded of the oft-quoted saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. “Perseverance is about trying again but also changing something if what you were doing wasn’t working,” she says. “It’s not doing the exact same thing over and over and hoping for different results.” True perseverance is making thoughtful, focused changes to your practice and stepping back to assess the results of the change.

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