When I was coming of age in the sport back in the 1990s, I was fortunate to have very good mentors. Four, in particular — John Medinger, Tim Twietmeyer, Ann Trason, and Tommy Nielsen — all took me under their collective wings and fed me with knowledge and wisdom. When I was preparing for my first 100-mile race in 2000 after eight years of running shorter distances, all four of these great guides gave me more or less the same simple and poignant advice for 100-mile success: “Control the controllables.”
I thought back to this memorable advice while reading Steve Magness’s fantastic new book, “Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.” In the book, Magness outlines an entirely new perspective on how toughness is built, which rebuts some of the most prevalent traditional views of toughness building. Citing examples from athletics, business, education, and the military, Magness suggests that toughness is not built out of a “sink or swim” approach, but rather through deliberative training, thoughtful nurture, and a flexible culture.
In what is to me the most compelling section of the book as it relates to long-distance running, Magness describes the distinction between learned helplessness and learned hopefulness. With direct scientific data, he explains that when people don’t have control over their fate or opportunities to choose, they become apathetic and are inclined to give up.
Using the phrase “give-up-itis,” he suggests that the tendency to quit is something akin to a disease that we must fight to defeat, perhaps even inoculate ourselves to. And, Magness suggests that the best way to do this is by giving people control, the ability to make choices, and the ability to be autonomous.
To me, this has tremendous relevance to ultrarunning. I have seen “give-up-itis” live and in person in many of the 100-mile races I have attended in recent years. Often, for no particular physical reason, I have seen runners just quit. Perhaps this has been because of a lack of control, choice, and autonomy. I am not sure, but Magness certainly got me thinking.
In one of the most striking sections of the book, Magness talks about “flipping the script.” He interviewed a college cross-country coach who told him the story of one of his athletes who was experiencing one of the most acute cases of performance anxiety he had ever seen. This particular athlete had so much anxiety that she threw up seconds before the start of her races all season long. Finally, at the last race of the season, the coach had an idea. He approached his athlete and said, “We need to schedule your time to throw up.”
She looked at him dumbfounded but said, “Ok, two minutes before the start.”
The coach approached her two minutes before the start and said, “Ok, time to throw up.”
“I don’t need to,” the athlete replied, and proceeded to have her best race of the year.
By flipping the script and giving his athlete control, he solved her problem and her performance improved.
Magness proves time and again that toughness is something that is both born and made, and “Do Hard Things” provides a wonderful road map for parents, coaches, teachers, and athletes in thinking about real toughness, how to develop it, and ultimately how to harness it.
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Call for Comments
- Do you agree with some of Magness’s routes to toughness?
- How have you purposely cultivated your own toughness?