This question from our teacher drew a few grim smiles and a grunt or two from the audience. I was in my early morning spin class, along with the familiar cohort of die-hard early morning exercisers, all pedaling madly to nowhere in a dark room with loud music pounding away in the background.
Normally, I don’t listen much to instructor banter, but this question got me thinking. I know it was meant as a joke - the presumption being that “fun” was not at all synonymous with our experience at that moment. And I bought into the sarcasm. The actual experience was not fun…but at the same time, I was aware that it was something very compelling, even interesting to me.
How we perceive challenges, in my view, is worth unpacking as we explore ways to make our own high-performance challenges less painful and build grit. We will focus on physical challenges but know that the strategies discussed here can easily apply to other kinds of challenge I was not always as willing to lean into challenge. What I was willing to do was to figure out how to put myself in the position to do the things I really wanted to do, which turns out is not the same thing as doing them.
When I found out, back in the early 1980’s, that there was a field called sport psychology, I was dead set on the idea of becoming one. I wrote, via my trusty typewriter (!), to every program and person I found that was in some way related to this field. Sent out letters, waited for responses, wrote some more and waited some more. Sure enough, after several months, I had located a few programs, applied, and eventually got myself admitted to the University of Illinois. Tick.
Then the cold, hard reality of graduate school hit me. Who was I to think I would survive advanced education? I became almost paralysed with anxiety, was sure I would fail, and almost talked myself into quitting. I did not think I could do the work.
The coping strategy I stumbled upon was brutal but effective. I got up very early each morning and went for a run. Running is funny in that it’s easy to do—one step after another—but then hard as you keep doing it over and over—and it was often both a mental and physical battle to finish.
But afterward, two things happened. 1. Turns out endorphins are a thing—those post-exercise feel-good neurochemicals that kick in after significant physical efforts. I always finished feeling great. 2. I literally thought to myself, “surely nothing grad school can throw at me will hurt more than that!” And I was right.
The problem was that, as I got fitter, endorphins became harder to come by with the same effort. I had to run farther for the same positive effects It also turned out that I was a sucker for a challenge independent of the feel-good effect. By the end of my first year of graduate school, I had signed up for and run my first marathon, which jump-started decades of regular running challenges, in part to remind me what challenge really felt like.
Along the way, I became a student of my own mind under duress. I learned that what I thought about a challenge was more predictive of my ability to weather the challenge than the challenge itself. As a sport psychologist, I was “let into” the minds of average to elite athletes and coaches and saw how they did it. And as a mindfulness meditation student and instructor, I have learned still more. Here’s what I know about how we can get better at “efforting.”
Cut the Challenge Down to Size (But No Further)
Rather than the enemy being the spin bike, the big presentation, or that important exam, the enemy of effort very often is us. For example, as soon as I hear someone telling me how much they “hate” some particular workout or effort, I know there’s a problem. Don’t waste your effort energy in this way. Because that’s what it is - use of your finite emotional resources on something that does not care if you hate it or not. This reminds me of something Mark Twain reportedly said:
Holding onto hate is like taking poison but hoping someone else will die.
The workout just is. Hating it hurts only you. Even as it seems to feel good in the moment to express it. Instead, spend your finite resources focusing on what you need to do to physically and mentally prepare for and execute the workout. That is, can you imagine what the efforts will be, and then devise strategies to meet them? Have you accurately imagined the discomfort/pain? Predicting the obvious is far better than being blind-sided by it.
On the other hand, we do ourselves no favours trying to minimise or deny the likely impact of a tough physical challenge. Classic sport psychology research put athletes faced with a challenge into two groups. The first group was to simply psych themselves up, telling themselves things like, “I got this!” or “Keep trying!” The second group was instructed to combine positive with productive self-talk, with instructions such as, “Keep those legs moving like pistons!” Or “Breathe deep and push!” Turns out that positivity alone is not as effective as when it is paired with instruction about what to do.
Soothe the Brain with Non-Reactivity
This strategy is a counter-intuitive one, but stay with me. Our brains are hard-wired to detect threat. It is in large part what helped us to survive as a species. Moreover, our brains are great at creating habit patterns - strengthening the neural networks of thought we use most often, so we don’t even have to think about things as much. Handy in some cases, but not always.
The reality is that physical challenge almost inevitably includes some pain. Not only does the brain hate pain, but it will bias toward habit formation that nips pain in the bud. Every athlete on the planet, if they want to get good at their endeavour of choice, has to learn to override the brain’s tendency to scream “stop!” at the first sign of pain.
Cultivating the skill of non-reactivity is a superpower when it comes to pain. This side-steps the futility of pretending pain doesn’t exist by doing the opposite. As pain is perceived, first, just calmly notice it as accurately as possible. Literally, what does it feel like and where in the body do you feel it?
Here, we are employing the same technique to pain as we did to the workout itself. Rather than wasting precious mental resources focusing on how much we dislike the pain, fear the pain, or wish the pain would go away, we just let pain be. Recognize that when we give into judgments about the pain, our evolutionary instinct for survival just won out over our intellectual understanding that the pain of hard effort will not kill us (unless of course we have an underlying medical weakness, but that’s another story).
Getting back to spin class, as my breathing rate goes up and my legs start to feel the effects of high-intensity effort, I have learned, paradoxically, to get calmer and quieter in my head. Less self-talk, more simply noticing. I can almost hear my brain begging me to stop, telling me that I can’t do this, warning me that something bad will happen [I have noticed the brain never makes good on these threats, of course :)]. And it is in the mental space that comes from this interested introspection that I have discovered that, actually, I can work way harder than my brain was warning against. Is it easy? No way. Is it tolerable? Yes, and getting more so all the time, which allows me to push harder.
So while I’d be lying if I said I’m having fun, per se, my hard efforts have gone from brutal to interesting. If you want to learn more about how to bring these skills into your life, I can help.
Love to hear what you think!
In case you missed my main message :), high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want while doing less damage to yourself or your people. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org