Can you actually measure grit – the ability to persevere no matter the obstacle?

Christina Chai Chang, one of the undergraduates on Dr. Paul Silvia’s research team, has seen that you can. Electrodes are attached. The physiology is studied. “The little blips in the heart rate go up and down … it’s different on each person,” she says.

Her soccer teammates have gotten a close-up look as well. Before transferring to UNCG, Christina had torn her left labrum and needed two hip surgeries. As a Spartan, she dislocated her hip and needed a third surgery. This time, she developed a blood clot in her leg – and was rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism.

“I came very close to not being here today,” she says. That was fall 2011.

The doctors thought her playing days were over. “I said, ‘No, I know I can do it. I’m going to play again.’ ”

She fought her way back into shape. When she couldn’t train with her lower body, she’d focus on her upper, working with a strength coach and trainer. Push-ups. Planks. Sit-ups.

“I had tremendous support here,” she says of her team. “I think that was a big part of why I kept pushing so hard, because they all believed in me.”

She did well in her classes and continued working on the cutting-edge psychology research. She rested. She ate right. She built her stamina. She longed to get into a game. She hadn’t played for real in two years.

In the last minutes of the final game of the 2012 season, Coach Steve Nugent surprised her. “Put your jersey on. You’re going in,” he called out.

“It was so emotional. I cried,” she says. Teammates cheered her on. Her mom was on hand to experience it. A midfielder, she even got a shot on goal.

“I thought that was the last time I was ever going to be able to watch her play,” her coach explains.

But there’s this thing called grit.

She resolved, “I’m not leaving my senior year without stepping at least a minute out on the field.”

This fall, she’s a captain. At the first exhibition game, looking out at the field, she tried to conceal her emotions. “I tried to keep it a little secret from my team. … I had a complete meltdown. All that emotion that comes in, it hit me … to know you’ve overcome so many obstacles.”

She has played in nearly every game so far this season.

She’ll graduate in December with a major in psychology and a minor in Spanish. She plans to intern in human resources, and then as a graduate student she wants to focus on industrial organizational psychology.

“I really like working in group settings with people. I like being able to analyze situations.” She has learned a lot on the soccer field in addition to the classroom and lab, she says, and can take that into the workplace to help increase the profitability of a company.

She reflects on all the setbacks and the rehab. “I had to push through it – because I wanted to be where I am right now.”

Right now, she’s beside her teammates, in the thick of things, as they strive for another great season.

The team hosts three home matches to end the regular season, Oct. 25-30. Admission is free.  See schedule here.

Learn more about the research on grit in the Fall 2013 UNCG Magazine, pp. 30-33.

Story by Mike Harris, University Relations
Photography by Chris English, University Relations