As I have said before, and still believe, grit can be a game-changer that multiplies the effect of talent and effort in the pursuit of long-term, challenging goals. In a world where we have predictability, I could not agree more (while ruefully acknowledging my own inabilities to buckle down for any appreciable length of time on the work in front of me - this article, for example - ahh, but I digress). It’s just that now, predictability in the sense of how we all understood it, has gone out the window. Before the pandemic’s wholesale disruption to the world, the unpredictability we faced tended to be compartmentalized. Regional natural disasters, organisational changes, personal setbacks or disruptions, weather events. They would come, but sooner or later, they would go or at least dissipate in their intensity of effect—and usually did not hit us all at the same time. Compare that to the evolving, up-and-down, ever-changing reality that has been our 2020 and beyond. It’s a different ballgame entirely which requires us to re-jig how we manage our passions, efforts, and talents, and channel our grit if we are to continue to perform to our potential.
As human beings, we are evolutionarily biased toward stability and predictability. This kind of environment allows us to plan and prepare more effectively, capitalising on our executive functioning and superior thinking and decision-making skills, giving us a leg up on the competition. Moreover, it makes us comfortable and improves mental health. Pivoting to sport, teaching developmental athletes the basics of good advance planning, and the importance of confronting “what if” scenarios with good back-up or Plan B plans is the stuff of sport psychology 101.
When we are faced with uncertainty, on the other hand, our brains and minds go to another evolutionarily helpful habit - threat assessment. If we accept that evolution’s primary goal is survival of the species, this makes perfect sense. Those ancestors who learned to scan their environments and either run from or defend against threats—usually in the form of bigger, stronger predators—were those more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation than those who were less vigilant.
One could argue, however, that the brain and body processes that have allowed us to survive over the millennia may not be serving us as well today, when the threats we face are less immediately—or not at all actually—life-threatening. Yes, Covid is a life-threatening pandemic, but there are evidence-based steps we can all take to mitigate the risks for ourselves and others. No need, or even utility, in running away from or attacking…a virus. Yet, I have seen athletes and coaches alike, as the pandemic took hold, experiencing heightened levels of understandable anxiety brought on by future uncertainties. “When will it end?” “What if I lose my job?” “Will the Olympics go or not?”
While understandable, these tendencies are just not helpful. Threat assessment by its very nature is biased toward the worst-case outcome, and has kept innumerable generations of humans safe only when an escape strategy is viable. How exactly does one escape the threat of a pandemic?
So what can you do to counteract evolution’s impact on your brain and mind?
1. Override your “worst-case scenario” thinking tendency. We humans, as mentioned, have the unique-to-our-species cognitive ability to step back and think about our thinking. For every worst-case scenario, there are any number of other, less dire possibilities. You don’t even have to go all the way to the best case. Just knowing that the worst case is but a probability and not an absolute, can be helpful. For the coach worried about losing her job, this could mean gathering some evidence - talking with the high-performance director - to get an accurate picture of sport finances and plans for staff before miring herself worst-case conclusions. It can also be helpful to think back over your life, back to other times when you imagined the worst case…and do a forensic outcome analysis. For every worst-case eventuality you experienced in your life, how many times did things not go so poorly, or even came out positively?
2. Recognise and reduce your own unhelpful reactivity. Reactivity is that entirely human tendency to evaluate a situation based on the narrative or assumptions we hold about it. “How the @#$# can I train effectively when half of our team is in lockdown??” Getting angry or frustrated about how the pandemic has upended our lives is natural. But if you want to perform to your potential, not only is this kind of reaction unhelpful, but doing so can undercut your ability for resilience in that it saps your ability to bounce back. Let’s face it. Anger takes energy to maintain. Energy you need for other things, like getting on with what you can be doing.
Recognize the impact the stories you tell yourself about a situation have on you. Do they give you energy or do they sap it? If you find yourself clinging to your story because it’s justified, consider the idea that justified doesn’t mean helpful to you, your mental health, or your ability to keep going.
3. Augment your grit with a dose of reality. By this, I mean, reality in all its unvarnished glory, not the reality you think you deserve or is fair. Facing up to, and more importantly, learning to accept the situation as it stands is key to better performance. Jay Michaelson, a meditation teacher, wrote about this idea, titling his article, “Right Now, It’s Like This.” And so it is. Making the shift to being with reality as it is can seem simple, but is not necessarily easy. It’s about owning up to all the possibilities, desired or not, knowing that the future has yet to be written. And doing so with what I call an easy-going attitude. Athletes resist this at first, uneasy with the idea of “acceptance.” It sounds so passive! But it is in this clear-seeing that better decisions can be made. And where grit is augmented. Mike Candrea, the coach I spoke of in my last article, exemplified this ability - pivoting to the needs of the reality before him and THEN putting forth right performance effort.
I have been working with an Olympic hopeful who recently found out that she has a non-threatening medical condition that impacts her breathing. So while the issue itself is benign, the breathing discomfort has proven not to be. In what is going to sound like a paradox if ever you have heard one, through the course of our work together, she has used her grit to worked hard…to soften up. To lean in with more curiosity and less judgment. To witness the discomfort AS IT IS, not a result of the catastrophic stories she was telling herself. Breath at times is still harder to come by, but as she has untangled her actual symptoms from her reactive stories about the symptoms, this athlete has been able to resume training with increased ease, and a better focus on what she is working on and what she wants to be thinking about.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing more about what do to when grit’s not enough next time!
I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.