Tough Lessons


Walt Schafer
Wat Schafer
In previous columns, I explored lessons about thriving under pressure from white water kayaking. Here I discuss several lessons from athletic training, drawing from my five decades of competitive running and from sports psychologist James Loehr.

Stress is not all bad or to be avoided. Rather, stress—arousal of mind and body in response to demands—can be a valuable inner resource to cope with emergencies, deal with adversity, meet deadlines, and reach peak performance. Even temporary distress—the side of stress bringing emotional and physical harm—can yield useful lessons. Of course, sustained, prolonged distress can erode mental and physical well-being.

What is needed in both athletics and life is what Loehr calls "toughness." He notes that a healthy muscle differs from an unhealthy one in remaining flexible when stressed, in being responsive to stimulation, in being strong with a high capacity to generate and expend energy, and in staying resilient, recovering quickly from stress. Muscles with these four attributes are "tough," meaning they perform at high levels under the pressure of competition.

Generally, an effective, high performing person displays flexibility under pressure while a less effective person displays inflexibility, easily extended beyond his or her range of coping, often breaking down or prematurely wearing out. High performing persons, like muscles, are responsive and sensitive to the unique demands of the situation, while underperformers tend to be insensitive and nonresponsive. Both toughened muscles and toughened persons are capable of generating great amounts of energy when needed. They are strong.

Finally, just as a well-trained muscle recovers quickly from adversity, so does a resilient individual bounce back after difficulty to move on with optimism to the next test.

Healthy muscles become more flexible, responsive, strong, and resilient through a process Leher calls "toughness training": progressive cycles of repeated exposure to more and more effort, each followed by rest and recovery. This principle applies equally to cardiac rehabilitation patients; to beginning walkers, joggers, swimmers, and bicyclists; and to world-class athletes.

Similarly, we become "tougher" in life not by avoiding challenge but by embracing it. Specifically, we become more flexible, responsive, strong, and resilient by repeatedly pushing our limits, recovering, doing it again, recovering—moving in an upward cycle of greater challenge, higher performance, and enhanced skill and confidence. This is toughness training.

By contrast, we want to avoid a "weakening cycle" which can occur from repeated or sustained exposure to excessive demands beyond one's skill or readiness, from inadequate rest and recovery, from insufficient stress due to inadequate challenge, or from excessive recovery.

Loehr states in his book, Toughness Training for Life (New York: Plume/Penguin, 1993, p. 35), "Maximum health, happiness, and productivity occur when:

• Sufficient physical and emotional toughness are acquired to effectively manage the stress in one's life.

• Balanced cycles of stress and recovery are consistently created in as many areas of life as possible.

A healthy, happy, productive life is filled with stimulation, punctuated by balanced recovery."

Walt Schafer


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