Learning to Suffer Can Lead to Greater Things

Everyday Is Training Day

Learning to Suffer Can Lead to Greater Things

We often hear the phrase the game is 90% mental.  Name the sport; players, coaches and sports psychologists will all generally agree that mindset and mental state trump physical prowess on the field of play.  A player who possess a killer instinct, doesn’t choke under pressure, and can seemingly block out distractions will triumph over those who cannot regardless of any physical talent gap that may exist.  

But that’s game time.  What about daily mindset?  The mindset it takes to get to that elite level.  The mindset it takes to wade through the grind.  To persevere and endure setbacks.  To push beyond where most would quit.  One small piece of a very large and complex arena we know as sports psychology is the idea of suffering. 

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

Helen Keller

Endurance athletes, those who compete in marathons, triathlons or any other race over seemingly ludicrous distances, are notorious for their ability to suffer through extreme levels of physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.  One could argue the elite athletes are those who are able to endure the most suffering and continue performing where others would be deterred and simply stop.

It’s important to define suffering in this context.  By suffering I mean all of the trials and tribulations that come with pursuing a high level of skill or performance.  Yes, this is very much a subjective concept with a wide and varying degree of perceived influence on a person; Like a nurse asking for you to describe your level of pain on a scale of 1-10.  To each his own; your 5 and my 5 are likely very different.   Heck, even a person’s own perceived 5 one day may become a 3 the next as tolerance changes. 

One of my coaches and former World Shooto Champion, Erik Paulson, commonly would approach someone he felt was belly aching or unduly whining about how hard the training was that day and say “Two things will make you better…. Toughen…. Up!”   The first time I heard it I laughed.  As time passed, I appreciated a deeper meaning behind it.

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.

Friedrich Nietzche

Suffering through discomfort and suffering through real pain, though apples and oranges, are often mistaken as the same.  “Toughening up” is increasing your tolerance for discomfort….and some pain.  What we’re talking about here is enduring what we don’t like.  We’re not talking about ignoring real pain associated with injury; actual tissue, ligament, or bone damage.  More so a self-perceived suck; we simply don’t like what is happening and want to stop.  Getting up early, lactic acid burn so bad it makes you want to scream, breathing so heavy you feel like there isn’t enough oxygen on the planet to help you, avoiding a teammate because that person always gets the best of you. 

UFC athlete, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, reportedly suffered upwards of 100 broken bones, removal of half of his intestines, near amputation of a finger and was even stepped on by a bull.   Through all of that he has put together one of the most successful careers in the history of the sport.  A tolerance of suffering to say the least!

As a coach, it is paramount for me to recognize which one of these scenarios my student is currently or about to experience.  When to pull the person off the floor to prevent exasperating an injury versus when it’s time to give the suck it up buttercup you’re not going to die speech.  Prepping the battlefield, what us military guys call getting a lay of the land before jumping in blindly, can help with perceived levels of discomfort.  Informing students in advance of a hard training session has shown to help mentally brace for impact.  An awareness of pending discomfort has shown to increase the suffering envelope; the flipside is it also gives opportunity to completely avoid the situation all together.  

A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.

Steve Prefontaine

The moral of the story?  Successful people, while very talented and intelligent, tend to be better at finding ways to endure more discomfort than the average person.  Instead of avoiding, discomfort is accepted and even embraced as a necessary evil of getting better and advancement.  Successful people persevere and push through adversity rather than finding a way around it.  What most would view as an inconvenience, they see as a higher standard.  Circumventing discomfort creates a false perception of wellness and stymies growth.  Iron isn’t forged a room temperature, neither is a better version of yourself.

Everyday Is Training Day – Reap What You Sow