This piece originally appeared on my friend, Michael Kummer’s blog. He asked me for my thoughts on the mental aspects of how we train in the gym, which led to a more holistic exploration of training grit and perserverence. We can all find ourselves lost in moments between our self-imposed limitations and our actual potential. Throughout this mental tug-of-war, grit is the quality that bridges the gap between those two worlds. It stands with you to battle the voice that encourages giving up and the easy way out. Developing grit is a critical factor in your success as an athlete or with any of your endeavors outside the gym. You don’t need special equipment or trendy gym accoutrements. You can develop grit with consistent, mindful attention and an awareness of the world around you. As with many things, the answers reside in you.
Giving up – The Voice of Your Ancestors
Staring blankly forward across the dark gym floor, I felt the burning in my lungs and the lactic acid building up in my legs. My eyes quickly darted back to the display on the rowing machine that was slowly descending from 350 meters. With each stroke, I coaxed the remaining balance down roughly 10 meters, but time seemed to stand still. Negotiating the third 350 meter interval out of four, my body and my mind wanted to be elsewhere.
I’ve had this feeling before and often. Long past the point of no return and no closer to the end, the slow release of thoughts began to emerge from my subsconscious. You can stop here. You’ve already put in a hell of an effort. Nobody else is watching. Most people don’t walk into gyms let alone grind through rowing intervals at 95% effort. Come on, man. Take a break. Our minds were built to protect the bodies that serve them. The little voice that told our ancestors to seek shelter in caves rather than stand unprotected in open fields is the same voice that we hear today.
While we are no longer running from sabre-toothed tigers, our biological response remains relatively unchanged given a similar stimulus. With 150 meters remaining on my third interval, I found myself slightly panicked. My gaze scanned the perimeter of the gym almost seeking help to exit a situation that I had entered into of my own accord.
Years ago, during the CrossFit open, I recall sending an exhausted look to my coach that felt like a plea for mercy to deliver me from the torture. The descending couplet of thrusters and rowing triggered the panic reflex rooted deeply in my physiology that served my ancestors well as they avoided becoming dinner. If you truly push the boundaries of your fitness training, you will hear the echoes of your frightened ancestors, and you will seek the eject button from this threatening experience. This is normal. It’s called self-preservation, and it’s part of training, learning and growing. Managing this aspect of your personal development is equally important to eating right, sleeping enough, stretching and moving safely.
Is it possible to develop grit, tenacity and perseverance?
The answer is yes, and it requires focus and discipline. As with anything of consequence, it begins with you. I’ve been able to maintain a curious mind that enjoys rather undefined exploration. My research is a connected web of discovery that weaves through many writers and their wonderful creations, and it is often most comfortable in the world between disciplines. I am constantly learning about the power of the mind and the untapped ability of the body from the interdisciplinary science of E.O. Owen, the framework of learning from Josh Waitzken, the modern interpretation of Stoic philosophy from Ryan Holiday, the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti who believed that the answers are within you and not projected from a guru, the experiments of Tim Ferriss, the cold water exposure research of Wim Hof, the acknowledgement of ego from Steven Pressfield, the patience in the long game from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the commonalities in the methods of creative people from Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and the presence of the connected observation of Henry David Thoreau.
At first glance, their disciplines and works may not seem related at all. Through immersion and interdisciplinary thinking, the most clear and concise connections can emerge. Independently, these bright minds presented mind-blowing ideas, but it is ultimately up to me how that information is synthesized into malleable foundational knowledge and personal wisdom. Information is static. Knowledge is potential. Wisdom is empowering. Action is everything.
Combining the perspectives of a coach and athlete
My experience as a coach and athlete often blends two perspectives together into an active laboratory setting, but grit, tenacity and perseverance are skills with benefits that extend well beyond the gym. As an entrepreneur, I am tested everyday by market forces, competition, project delivery and creating, building and maintaining momentum. The writer in me wrestles with distractions and resisting the easy way out. When composing or producing music, I battle through the slog of ego-driven negative self-talk to move to a more productive place of pure creation. As a father, I work to stay present, amplify curiosity and cultivate patience. By training calm within chaos, benefits emerge in each facet of my world.
How to develop grit, tenacity and perseverance
Here are a few ways to implement a similar practice into your life:
Adversity comes in many forms that constantly weave in and out of our days. As a father of four, bedtime can be the ultimate test of will. From a pure mathematical perspective, my seven year old has performed the four-part ritual of teeth-brushing, bathroom, pajamas and get in the bed more than 2,500 times. While Robert Greene would argue that he is 25% closer to mastery, my observation indicates that each night still requires detailed project management and oversight. The wonderfully scattered and curious mind of a seven-year-old is a beautiful thing, but it turns bedtime into a nightly chaotic test of every ounce of patience in my soul.
If you don’t have kids, maybe you have a co-worker who’s inconsiderate pockets of self-promotion grind on your every nerve. Perhaps your neighbor’s dog releases a persistent barrage of high-pitched barking that seems to be triggered by your head landing on the cool surface of your pillow. Why couldn’t our daily activities become impromptu training grounds for resiliency? Staying calm within chaos is something that can be trained, and the tools are all around us. With the right perspective, these frustrating experiences can be growth opportunities.
Gratitude for Adversity
My commute can often be littered with harried energy, a sea of color emerging like a hazy suspension of red tide, glacial progress from point A to point B, and a rise of anxiety emerging from my core extending through my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. I recall one specific trip through the stew of morning traffic where the flow was slower than usual. In fact, it was stopped more than it was moving.
What could it be? With precious snippets of my 1,440 daily minutes slipping away, I began projecting the potential of a late arrival to a meeting with bounding frustration. The bottleneck slowly emerged as three scattered cars with wrinkled metal, cracked glass and the reflection of flashing lights. Fluid was pooling on the pavement from the cars as the paramedics sat one of the dazed passengers upright on the curb. As I drifted passed the scene, I followed two small feet from the opened ambulance door to another confused and worried driver attended to by the rescue team. My tense energy generated by artificial urgency immediately evaporated, and my attention went to the passengers, drivers and their families.
Sitting in traffic seemed trivial compared to their experience. Even if they weren’t seriously injured, their ecosystems were overloaded with additional unforeseen complexity. I was thankful for my simple experience sitting in traffic. You can take this same concept into the gym. If you think about it, just being able to walk in on your own two legs is pretty amazing.
Instead of generating negative self-talk about your progress, beating yourself up over your performance in a workout, or finding fault in someone else’s rise up the leaderboard, consider the fact that you are healthy and strong enough to even engage in such activities. What about people missing limbs, living with debilitating diseases or just starting the long road back from injury?
Our mindset is within our control, and gratitude through the empathy of different perspectives can help reign in the negative energy and even silence it before it spins out of control.
Moving With Natural Things
While attempting to control something uncontrollable is one of our ego’s favorite pastimes, it is also an exercise in futility and a tremendous waste of time. For most of us, cold weather is a consistent seasonal experience. Our immediate reaction to its arrival is to fiercely defend its invasion on our body. As we cross the threshold from our warm houses or cars into the bite of the cold air, we shrug our shoulders and clench our jaws as we would prepare to brace for impact with a boxer’s left hook.
Usually the experience lasts only a few minutes at most as we transition to our next pod of comfort. What if we acknowledged the cold but received it with a calm demeanor? Cold is going to still remain cold no matter our reaction to it. The next time you venture into the cold, be intentional about your response. Relax your jaw, loosen your shoulders and stay calm within the chaos. Each time you do it, your mind and body are building incremental resiliency.
You’ve just completed an exhausting conditioning workout at roughly 90% effort. The reward you’ve been chasing for the last twelve minutes is the cool gym floor on your back and the gentle rocking of your body in the attempt to regain your breath. Or maybe you’ve just landed on a rest interval in a challenging tabata, and you double over with your hands on your knees building the will to attack the next work interval. I began resting upright during these moments as an experiment in training grit, tenacity and perseverance.
While flopping on the ground or doubling over may increase my comfort slightly, I discovered that training doesn’t stop with the clock. Standing upright or walking slowly with intentional breath serves as a gentle reminder to my subconscious that I am resilient and not conquered by my situation. Similar to the cold exposure concept, little by little I am building a positive mindset in a chaotic situation.
One Word and A Smile
Sometimes we need a reminder of the powerful connection between our brain and our body. Former Navy Seal and author, Jocko Willink, uses one word to mentally prepare for adversity. Whenever his exasperated crew presented a seemingly impossible challenge, the first word in any of his responses was GOOD. Not only did it affirm and acknowledge the present state of affairs, it also delivered a positive starting point for the solution. I use Willink’s cue in the gym when approaching a heavy lift.
I say GOOD out loud to trigger a positive intentional effort. If you miss the opportunity to reign in negative thoughts early and your energy has spiraled to an expanding chaos with a conductor other than yourself, there can be a simple but effective reset. Smile ever so slightly. The muscles in your face and your subconscious are both wired to the same central processing unit in your skull. While it seems inconsequential or even silly, it works for me almost every time. You will resist the urge to smile. It is your ego perpetuating a fight or flight response. Stay the course and raise the corners of your mouth slightly.
If you have ever been in a CrossFit class that I’ve coached, you’ve probably heard me reference the power in cultivating your internal on-off switch. The best athletes in the world can transition from intense moments of exertion to quiet moments of rest in an instant. Just like getting proper sleep is critical to performance and overall health, training the ability to float between work and rest will yield superpowers that extend far outside the gym. It all starts with breath. Intentional breathing reduces the panic reflect, which is why meditation is so powerful. Whether you are in a rest interval of a metabolic conditioning challenge, or you are between meetings with a moment to pause, finding and cultivating a relationship with your on-off switch is a game-changer.
Am I immune to knee-jerk reactions, ego-driven decision-making, negative self-talk and losing my cool? Certainly not. Through continuous learning, thoughtful observation and experimentation, I’ve started to build some programming in the practice of maintaining calm within chaos. Grit, tenacity and perseverance can be developed, but quick fixes, shortcuts or easy buttons do not exist. Introducing tactics like these into your daily routine will take time. You are literally battling with 200,000 years of Homo Sapien genetics, so why would you expect change to happen overnight? Bad habits are formed everyday without conscious thought, while productive change takes commitment and discipline. Trying each one of these individually can be a great starting point, but holistic application of these strategies across all facets of your life are key to their long-term survival.