by Haley Perlus, PhD
Author’s note: When you read this article, in addition to enhancing the performances of the athletes you coach, relate the information to your personal performance and success in sport, health, and business.
There’s a fabulous video being shared online right now about a high school girl, named Kayla Montgomery, who is an award-winning long distance runner even though she’s battling Multiple Sclerosis. MS is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts information between the brain and body. It’s basically your body’s immune system attacking it’s own nerve cells. MS symptoms include fatigue, gait difficulties, numbness, and muscle spasms – not exactly helpful for a runner.
The video circling the web is of Kayla Montgomery running – running and winning! Even more impressive, during the state championships, Kayla falls during the race, gets back up, and continues to pass all of her opponents to win the race. I also want to point out that, at the finish line of every race, Kayla falls into her coach’s arms in such agony and fear because she can’t feel her body. You see, Kayla’s body needs to be at cool temperatures in order for her to feel her limbs. When she runs, similar to you and me, her body temperature increases leaving her numb.
Looking at Kayla’s entire story thus far, there are so many inspiring and energizing mental toughness moments to focus on. I could focus on her ability to take control of her MS instead of it taking control over her life. I could talk about the truly wonderful relationship she has with her coach. I could concentrate on her fall during the state champs and discuss why it is important to always get up and keeping moving forward. These all target mental toughness. What I have chosen to focus on for this column is something else Kayla demonstrates – something that every high achiever has figured out.
In its simplest explanation, when it comes to motivation, people either aim to seek pleasure or avoid pain. One inevitably takes precedence over the other. However, after researching high achievers in both sport and business, pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. High achievers have figured out that you can’t have ultimate pleasure without enduring some pain. Pain is any physical, emotional and/or psychological struggle. It can be anything from muscle soreness to performance frustration. For Kayla Montgomery, her struggle is the numbness she experiences every time she runs. To win her long distance races, she literally runs towards physical numbness to the point where she can no longer feel her body starting at her toes all the way to her waist. Then, when the race is finally over, since she can’t come to a coordinated stop, she needs her coach to catch her. At this moment, she is helpless. She goes through even more discomfort while she waits in fearful anticipation for somebody to place ice all over her body in an effort to bring back her physical sensations.
What makes Kayla mentally tough is that she embraces the intense discomfort of numbness in order to win her races and literally outrun the disease. When asked why she takes on the struggle and discomfort of running, Kayla says it’s the cost of competing and she’s willing to pay it. Running makes her feel happy, normal and whole. When she’s running, she feels like she’s battling the disease. “As long as I’m running, everything is fine.”
To realize your true potential, there will be struggle along the way. You’ve got to be okay with moving towards it and then surpassing it to realize your ultimate success. Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge is quoted in Steven Kotler’s new book, The Rise of the Superman. She says, “Once danger becomes its own reward, risk moves from a threat to be avoided to a challenge to be risen toward. An entirely new relationship with fear begins to develop. When risk is a challenge, fear becomes a compass – literally pointing people in the direction they need to go next. You have to learn this lesson. To really achieve anything you have to be able to tolerate and enjoy risk. It has to become a challenge you look forward to. In all fields, to make exceptional discoveries you need risk – you’re just never going to have a breakthrough without it.”
This quote introduces two words: fear and challenge. Remember this:
Fear makes us retreat;
Challenge makes us defeat
What I propose is following in the footsteps of Kayla Montgomery and turn your fears (including insecurities and threats) into challenges. Whatever obstacle you are facing, focus on one aspect that can become your challenge to overcome. For example, the box jump is used in many conditioning programs to develop explosive power, but is often feared because of the cuts and bruises it leaves if the athlete fails to perform the movement correctly. To help the athletes you coach turn their fear of the box jump into a challenge, instruct them to focus on extending their hips while they jump in an effort to get the necessary height for landing on the box. Directing their attention to technique distracts them away from any fear and enhances their performance.
I’d like to leave you with one more quote from Kayla Montgomery. She said, “…if I’m not able to run at some point down the road, then at least I can look back and know that, when I could, I gave it my all.” Effort is the only thing we 100 percent control. Know that you’re probably going to experience some struggle, but also know that, when you exert every ounce of effort to conquering your challenges, you’ll be exactly where you need to be in order to give yourself the best shot at peak performance and the most awesome experience you can have.