“Surrender to the cheese” as an idea has been percolating some time for me, and I’m looking forward to unpacking it with you today, first in its component parts, and then how they fit together. This week: we will chew on surrender. Next week: on the cheese.
In preparation for my forthcoming book, When Grit’s Not Enough, I interviewed a number of athletes and coaches on the topic of grit and how it works (or doesn’t) for them. I was fascinated in particular by the mindset of Scott Brennan, 3-time Olympian and Olympic Gold Medallist in rowing as he discussed grit and its close cousin, mental toughness (a phrase, it turns out, that we both are not fond of). Here’s what he had to say:
When it comes to mental toughness, tough means/is a combative word. Mental toughness is not Hollywood actor. It’s more/much more Buddhist monk.
If one person is wasting their energy fighting this shit/and it doesn’t even register as something to be considered in the other person, who do you think is better off? You’ve got a task to perform that’s already hard. It has technical demands, physical demands, it’s got mental demands. You have a finite amount of energy. Do you want to spend it fighting these judgments that you have made, “this is hard, so now I have to be tough, and to be tough, I have to fight this and deny this pain—is it pain? —I’m calling it pain and I have to fight it...”
Whereas the other person says, “this is causing some metabolic noise. I just need to focus on what actually matters.” Automatically, they are not wasting energy trying to negate something that they already understood. That if I want to do this task, this sensation [pain] is part of it. And why would I try to suppress something that is integral to what I am doing? Why am I wasting my energy—my finite energy—on something that actually cannot be removed from it? And this is what I don’t understand, it’s such a kind of pallid version of what tough should really be. You’re biting [on] something when the ultimate toughness is that it doesn’t even register. It may register, but it doesn’t draw a reaction out of you. I think that’s probably the key. And why would you fight the thing you are doing? You know it, why fight it? Crazy.
When I was 20, I was sitting on a bus coming home from university, I was reading something and had that realization that until you surrender, you can’t even start. If you are fighting, you are stuck in the mud. You’re going nowhere. You just need to understand that’s part of it, welcome that in, and off you go.
We are always fighting something that we can’t fight. Like we are all going to die. Look at people running from it. Why get afraid of this? You can fight it, but then you are not doing something else useful with the time you have. That’s not going away. If you want to step up in this sport, you want to put yourself into this situation, this is here with you. And you can never get away from that. Don’t waste your energy trying.
Two things from that set of quotes stand out for me (they are both highlighted above so you can see them in context):
1. Mental toughness is not Hollywood actor. It’s more/much more Buddhist monk. Whatever terminology you favour in the mental fitness space - grit, mental toughness, what have you, the impact of this statement is the same. Through sport, action movies, even giving birth for gosh sakes, whatever the case, we have seen the faces of people trying really hard to achieve some difficult goal: gritting their teeth, the veins in their neck standing out and, of course, we think this must be what their minds are doing. Efforting, exerting, punishing, driving.
Yet…let’s take it from someone who’d know, an Olympic gold medallist in one of the most physically demanding sports there is, who tells us that, actually, appearances can be deceiving. That yep, physical effort can make us look strained, but inside, if we are bringing our best mental game to our efforts, less is more. Being in touch with reality as it is, facing, without reactivity, the sensations of pain with an even keel and a sense of detached curiosity.
Pain is still pain, no doubt about it, but when we are able to strip away the stories our minds are telling—no, screaming—at us, we start to recognize the nuances for what they are. Strong sensations that never last forever, that ebb and flow. Pain does not kill us, but our minds, if left unchecked, so often convince us otherwise.
2. Until you surrender, you can’t even start. I won’t lie, I crushed a little on Scott as soon as I heard the word “surrender” come out of his mouth—so controversial but, coming from him being who he is, imbued with a gravitas I could never muster. So anti mental toughness! So the opposite of grit! So, well, passive! And yet, it encapsulates exactly the inevitable truth about reality. Until you first surrender to it in all its unvarnished glory, you’re in for a fight you just don’t need and certainly can’t win.
Consider the scenario of a team behind by 20 points in the final period. And the ways we have all seen various coaches and athletes respond. With dejection. With anger. With finger-pointing. All very understandable human responses to a situation so stacked against us. And yet…
It’s the coach, the athlete, the team that looks at the scoreboard and can most quickly absorb the unwelcome reality - surrender to it - that can start. Start picking up those who may have made the key mistakes, start energising for the effort ahead, and start strategising the how. And while there may well be lessons to be learned about what got us here—and how to avoid this situation in the future—now is not that time.
Equally, we have seen the true professionals look the impossible in the eye, get down to business, and pull off the seemingly impossible. Consider Australian tennis player Ash Barty’s recent win in the Australian Open, when she was down in the second set of her final match 1 game to 5. All while saddled with the fervent hopes of a country desperate for a home-grown champion after a 44-year drought. When asked, after she methodically closed the gap and won the second set in a tie-break, how she did it, Ash didn’t really bat an eye. Here’s a paraphrase of her response: It was a tough match, and I knew I had to take it up a notch and play more aggressively to overcome the deficit I was in. So that’s what I did. Understatement of the year. :)
Thinking back to my own recent journey of grief, acceptance, and a back injury that had plenty of pain stories to tell, I can now see how hard I fought against reality (Dad, don’t you dare die until I get back home to see you!), and how powerful it was when I was able to surrender to the realities of decline, injury, and even death. The phrase “powerful serenity” comes to mind. At the same time, the wisdom was so damned fleeting. It is a practice, this surrender stuff. A practice I invite you to try on in the interest of an easier life and more frictionless performance.
As always, I’m interested in what you think! And if you need help surrendering to realities in your own life, I can help.
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at email@example.com