True Grit: Role Models of Resilience for Kids

By Brad Herzog, author of the Count On Me: Sports series

True Grit: Role Models of Resilience for KidsIn the five books that constitute my Count on Me: Sports series for Free Spirit Publishing, I celebrate five attributes—sportsmanship, teamwork, courage, perseverance, and generosity—by telling true stories that demonstrate each concept. Looking back on those 100 tales, I see one particular attribute that underlies most all of the others—resilience.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity” and claims that it “can be learned and developed in anyone.” That is, kids can be guided toward developing a certain bounce-backability. Essentially, grit can be taught. In fact, many of the approaches on APA’s list of ways to build resilience have dramatic, real-world examples from the pages of my books. They are stories that might linger in a child’s psyche until their retrieval serves a practical purpose. Here are some of the building blocks for developing resilience, along with some examples of grit, from the world of sports:

Make connections.
Relationships strengthen resilience. When nine-year-old budding lacrosse player Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with brain cancer, the Northwestern University women’s team made her an honorary Wildcat. A team looking for a spark discovered a girl looking for much the same thing. Northwestern went undefeated and won a national title; Jaclyn was in the thick of the celebration. She soon looked at a young patient in a hospital bed next to her and said to her dad, “We have to get her a team.” Now, the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation does just that for hundreds of kids with brain tumors.

Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
Melanie Clarke overcame chronic arthritis to compete as a world-class archer, winning the European Championships. But then Lyme disease permanently blinded her right eye (her aiming eye) and paralyzed her from the waist down. So, she simply taught herself to aim with her left eye and returned to competition in a wheelchair, winning gold at the World Disabled Archery Games—and later a bronze and silver at the Summer Paralympics. “It’s been a rocky road,” she said, “but every single minute has been worth it now.”

Accept that change is a part of living.
Alex Zanardi was a world-class Formula One racecar driver until a terrifying 2001 crash led to the amputation of both of his legs. But he prefers to describe his disability as “diverse ability.” He started using hand-operated controls to drive a car, and later he won four World Touring Car Championship races by using artificial legs and feet. Now he competes as a world-class handcycling marathoner, and he was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the 2012 Paralympics.

Move toward your goals.
Incremental achievements can propel you forward. After freshman college basketball player Cory Weissman survived a stroke, he spent five weeks in a rehabilitation center. On his third day of rehab, his mother led him to an eight-foot basket on an outdoor patio. With help, he rose from his wheelchair and weakly tossed some shots toward the hoop. “That’s what he needed, to see himself as himself,” she explained, and it became a daily ritual. By the time he was a senior, having regained most of his strength, he was sent in to shoot free throws in the year’s final contest. Swish.

Take decisive actions.
When 5-foot-2 Western Oregon University senior Sara Tucholsky hit the only home run of her softball career, it should have been cause for celebration. But as she rounded first base, her knee gave out. She couldn’t walk, and the umpires said it was against the rules for her teammates to help her around the bases. That’s when opposing first baseman Mallory Holtman stepped in. She and a teammate lifted Tucholsky and carried her around the bases, allowing her to gently touch one at a time—a lesson about acting on adverse situations rather than detaching from them.

Keep things in perspective.
After Oregon State University placekicker Alexis Serna missed three extra points in a one-point loss on national television, he received hate mail. But, he also received a letter from 12-year-old cancer patient Austan Pierce: “The most important thing is to get up again and do what you know you can do. If I can do it, so can you.” Claiming it “put life and football in perspective,” Serna returned to the field—and thrived. For the rest of his career, he honored his friend by writing “A” and “P” on his thumbs on game day, and he became the greatest kicker in school history.

These tales from the athletic fields offer powerful and easy-to-grasp examples, but there are lessons in grit to be found everywhere, of course. In fact, rule #1 of compelling writing—show, don’t tell—may also apply to the act of inspiring young people to overcome adversity. So stories of the efforts of remarkable role models can serve as guideposts on a road map that leads to resilience.

Author Brad HerzogBrad Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including articles for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons. Visit his website at

Brad is the author of the Count On Me: Sports series.

Count On Me: Sports Series

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