I both run and swim year round. In the last year or so I’ve put a lot more emphasis on running, and felt the corresponding motivation for that activity. Back in April, after a week off from illness, I irritated my achilles tendon on the first (allegedly ‘easy’) run back. It didn’t get much worse over the next few weeks of more moderate running, but it didn’t get better either and I knew I shouldn’t risk increasing my training load. Finally, I took this last month off from running and shifted emphasis back to swimming while doing specific therapeutic and strengthening exercises for the lower body. Today, I went out on, what for me is a short 8 mile (12.8 km) run, and I felt the kind of discomfort in my body and some resistance in my mind that only a couple months ago I might have felt only after twice that distance. It goes for running and for swimming – we’ve got to keep that performance system maintained with regular training or we lose ground fast. But I know this process well, and am ready to gradually build up my fitness and motivation again.
Coincidentally – or providentially – while on this run I was listening to Rich Roll’s podcast interview with Ross Edgley, the guy who recently completed an epic swim of 1,792 miles over 157 days around Great Britain without touching ground.
One of his comments caught my attention. He told of his Royal Marine buddy saying to him, “You’re an athlete. Athletes train to perform at their best when they feel their best. We’re royal marines. We train to perform at our best when we feel the worst.” Ouch.
The Purpose Of Sport Challenges
What’s the purpose of sport? Do we use sport to avoid dealing with real life or use it to help us get stronger and more skillful for dealing with it? There is a lot of useful traits we can develop in our sport life that can transfer over and help us in daily life. But they may not transfer automatically. There are plenty of athletes, elite and ordinary, that demonstrate one kind of person on the court or field (or in the pool) and another among their family members or fellow citizens.
The big psychological gap between them is that the hardships we face in sport are, for the most part, things we have voluntarily chosen to deal with. The experience of voluntary hardships are different in many ways than hardships that are imposed upon us by the tragedies of life and impersonal randomness of nature. I can easily imagine that the subjective experience of a human starving on a run across the USA is quite different than the subjective experience of a human starving in a forced-labor concentration camp. Facing the opposition of a fierce competitor feels quite different than facing the opposition of a bitter marriage partner.
However, when we pick up a goal that requires us to go outside our current comfort zone and then set things up so that we have a deadline and feel some external pressure to get going on serious work toward that goal then we start to simulate some of that challenge we feel with involuntary hardships. – we might voluntarily enter into a great challenge, but once far into it, we feel we’re stuck and have to dig deeper to get through this or lose something we value.
What challenge should we take on? There is always someone out there doing something tougher, more bad-ass than you and I are. It can be fun but it can also be intimidating to listen to stories of people doing things so far beyond what we could see ourselves doing. But we could look for inspiration among people who are doing a bit more than we are to find an idea for the next challenge that can take us out of our current familiar (comfort) zone. If normal life is not presenting enough hardships of its own, then taking up a new one in sport might be a good addition to our life-preparation plan. But, then again, life might have delivered some tough situations you have to face these days, and you don’t feel the need to add more artificial ones. There are extreme (for you or me) parenting challenges, loss or a loved one, health challenges, marriage challenges, social injustice, environmental injustice, financial crises, business troubles, legal conficts – things that really wear the mind and heart down. We need strength and skill to deal with these too. Sometimes our sport becomes the rest, the recovery time from dealing with real life challenges.
Hardship Is My Opportunity
My most cherished Stoic idea I phrase like this, “Hardship is my opportunity to demonstrate character.” The greater the hardship, the more it has been imposed upon me, the worse I am feeling, the more important it is that I demonstrate the character, the virtue, the person I see myself to be. I do believe we see more truly who we really are by how we behave when things are their worst than by how we behave when things are easy and pleasant.
In our sport life, we can identify the ways we are practicing good habits, good character when we have to work through things we don’t feel like doing, but know we should. It can help to add some external pressure:
Sign up for an event that will require you to raise your training to a new level.
Tell others what you are doing and why so they expect you to be doing it.
Join or form a group of people who train together so they expect you to show up.
Become a coach so that you feel compelled to model what you teach.
Hang out with people who are doing the things you want to be capable of doing.