There Is Hard And There Is Smart, Each Has A Place
I was reminded today of some exceptionally hard men and their ability to adapt to remarkably difficult conditions and it brought back some questions about will and suffering and how one develops mental toughness, which is often the decisive factor in sport performance.
Louison Bobet won the TdF three times in a row but 1955 is oft heralded as his most astonishing victory, sitting solidly as it was, on a foundation of sheer stoicism and will power. He won stage 11 on the Mont Ventoux to move into second place after Ferdi Kubler made an early and optimistic attack, setting a "torrid pace" that eventually faltered, causing him to abandon the race. Bobet won after teammate Jean Malléjac collapsed (he was unconscious for 11 minutes before being revived). Interestingly it was on that stage Bobet feared his saddle sore had reopened. He gritted his teeth and kept the condition from his competitors but no one could help noticing that during the final time trial he was in too much pain to sit down and covered the entire 43 mile-long stage standing up! Following the 1955 season he underwent surgery to fix the saddle sores that resulted in a reported 150 stitches, making his TdF win all the more remarkable.
In the Psychological Training chapter of my book Extreme Alpinism I ask, where does this strong will and hardness come from? Hardness is earned by recognizing desires and goals and enduring what ever it takes to fulfill them. To do this the goal must be important enough to sustain you through the hard efforts and persistent training. A strong will comes from suffering successfully and being rewarded for it. I always pose the question: does a strong will come from years of multi-hour training runs or do those runs result from a dominating will? There is no right answer because all actions are connected to, directed by and a result of one’s will.
In 1981 Matveyev wrote, "Strong will is developed by overcoming difficulties. The difficulties have to be overcome systematically, not occasionally, and the increased degree of difficulty should not make them impossible to overcome. An athlete must be taught to carry out the training or competitive task. It must become a habit to always finish an assignment and to be dependable. An athlete must be convinced that there are no easy shortcuts to sports success, and as this success comes closer the degree of effort increases."
Thomas Kurz warns against allowing athletes to quit a training or competitive task because it, "Lets the athlete learn a lack of commitment that results in a habit of ceasing to struggle as soon as the level of difficulty increases." We form habits so quickly that very few instances of quitting without consequence are needed to form psychological barriers against digging in to continue despite pain in the future.
Mountain climbing was a tremendous teacher in this regard because I was often forced to overcome (what amounted to) trivial but effective mental barriers by the conditions or a developing situation on a climb. High-risk situations forced me to break bad habits in order to survive. If caught by storm on a hard, dangerous climb in the high mountains most climbers make a superhuman effort to live and often surpass their own acknowledged limitations in the process. By doing so live into a new self-image produced by that higher performance and this allows them to develop new expectations of themselves, and new habits. Actively seeking such situations – where the consequences of failure spur greater effort, make you shuck the chains of self-limitation – is a powerful tool of growth for those who are willing.
One of the finest examples of such overcoming occurred in 1961 when Walter Bonatti, Pierre Mazeaud and five other climbers were trying to make the first ascent of the Freney Pillar on the south face of Mont Blanc. Caught by a savage and exceptional storm within striking distance of the summit the team elected to sit it out, hoping for the weather to improve. When it didn't they were forced to descend but had expended such vast personal resources that four of them perished in the process. Later Mazeaud was asked why the youngest had died, and he replied,"The eldest are more resilient (Ce sont les plus vieux qui résistent le mieux!)". They died in the order of age, and arguably, experience. The older climbers had greater experience and more firmly entrenched habits, and more psychological resilience to rely upon.
Bonatti was known to undertake winter climbing practice in the Grigna (near Lecco) where he would self-impose a cold Saturday night bivouac and a climb a route the following day no matter the conditions. He constantly put himself in situations that tested and formed his remarkable abilities, making up-against-it performance a habit. Austrian climber Herman Buhl carried snowballs in his hands to develop both psychological and physical tolerance to the cold, and he climbed on his local crags all winter long, even in storm conditions.
We can replicate such practice in artificial circumstances, using social risk, which can be just as deadly to self-image as the prospect of the long fall. The mind and body are frighteningly adaptable; to both comfort and its opposite. A progressive cycle of stimulus and response can help the mind adapt to just about anything. Norris McWhirter, Roger Bannister's timekeeper for most of 1953 once described how Bannister's efforts on the inclined treadmill in the Oxford physiology lab prepared him mentally to break the four-minute mile barrier saying these sessions were so hard that, "anyone would break. You poured sweat, your spine turned to rubber, and driving up the incline there was the most extraordinary effect on your chin and knees meeting in front of you … Roger himself ran to breaking point on at least 11 different occasions. Compared to that, the 4-minute mile was like a day off." Effectively, Bannister prepared himself mentally so that - on the day - the level of effort required to run sub-4 was not psychologically insurmountable. He had already run 10x 400m in 59 seconds each with two minutes rest between intervals so it was not an illogical step to string four of them together.
A cycling acquaintance described to me how it often felt to do the 1000m TT on the track, "In efforts lasting 1:05 to 1:07 I definitely had the opportunity to see God when the legs started to load after 700 meters and I struggled to maintain my speed through the blinding pain: tunnel-vision and temporary deafness in the final 300 meters were good indications I was performing well." This is clearly a terrible experience but one he readily volunteered for - repeatedly - and retrospectively he admitted that, "this psychological conditioning to self-inflicted physical pain served me in later years during periods in road races when I was on the ragged edge and didn't have much left to give."
It's all training, or it can be if A), you are preparing for something and can tie the effort and pain to achieving that objective, and B), you have the wherewithal to learn the lessons such effort is broadcasting every time you dig deep enough to access that frequency. Circle back to Matveyev's declaration that you must confront these difficulties "systematically, not occasionally" and you will understand why difficult physical and mental challenges are imposed on trainees at Gym Jones with such alarming frequency.
Unfortunately, we are convinced by media and sales pitches and the talk of the ignorant that we can have access to the physical and mental tools necessary to succeed with relatively little investment and even less time. The truth is different and far less marketable so it's hush-hush because those who are willing to buy in to hard, disciplined work have already done it so they aren't susceptible to the "four-hour miracle" or the "cure in a bottle". Figuring out how to do what's hard and then putting that into practice can take years. Mark Allen lost six Ironman's before winning in 1989. He credits that win and the next four to finally having accepted that, to win, he would have to give what the race demanded and not stop ever-so-slightly short, giving only what he was prepared to give, which was good enough for two 2nd places, a 3rd, two 5th places and a DNF in his first six tries.
More demonstrative still is the mental negotiation he had to win during the run leg of the 1995 Ironman before he could finish first. Allen came off the bike 13 minutes behind the leader and over the course of the next 23 miles fought the subversive self-talk within that urged him to stop as he hunted Thomas Hellriegel. Allen had already won in Kona five times, he could easily have slowed up or dropped out altogether without affecting his position in the sport. That he continued, fighting from so far behind and won is one of the greatest triumphs of on-the-fly sport psychology I have ever heard about. Truly, the man knew how to suffer.
The time and energy it took for Allen to learn the lessons and do the training that allowed him to so thoroughly dominate Kona in that era isn't available to to most of us but we can learn from him and apply the concepts in accordance with the time we do have. In a post I wrote earlier this year I described how some athletes know how to hurt while others know how to suffer. In the gym context we use the term hurt to describe the outcome of a savagely hard but relatively short effort and the term suffer to describe what happens during and after a less intense but far longer lasting effort. Because we don't have the time to impose challenges that involve the latter we must often come up with tests that cause the former - whether the trainee has the temperament for it or not. We've decided that the fact of taking the test and doing it with some frequency has far greater benefits than creating fewer challenges that are more perfectly tuned to the player's temperament and ultimate objective. This approach appears to be working and we won't change it as long as our trainees continue growing physically and mentally tougher.