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Persistence: The bridge between Failure and Success

When you think of the most strenuous training, pushing the body and the mind beyond what seems possible, one group comes immediately to mind: The United States Navy SEALS. A retired SEAL and Admiral of the Navy, William H. McRaven, gave a speech about the hardships of the strenuous training all SEALs must go through. He spoke about how even though they recruit only the strongest soldiers, very few make it entirely through SEAL training. “Every day during training, you were challenged with multiple physical events. Long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics, something designed to test your mettle. Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell – a brass bell that hangs in the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit – all you have to do to quit – is ring the bell. Ring the bell, and you no longer have to wake up at five o’clock. Ring the bell, and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT, and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. All you have to do to ring the bell to get out. If you want to change the world, don’t ever, ever ring the bell.” (utaustintexas, 2014)

Almost all of the candidates invited are physically capable of completing every one of the tasks involved with training. However, according to the United States Navy, approximately 80% of potential candidates fail to complete the full SEAL training each and every year. The difference between those who succeed and those who fail must come down to mental toughness. Those who fail see the hours and hours of physical strain as a punishment have mentally framed the training as suffering. With this type of mindset, as the days go on and the body breaks down, the bell becomes more and more desirable — a way for the anguish and discomfort to finally end. Those who triumph tend to have a completely different mindset when it comes to the strenuous training. They see the obstacles as opportunities for growth and as a way to improve themselves. This mental framing is a skill that not many people have mastered. Those who have implemented this sports psychology technique have a considerable advantage over their competition.

A possible explanation for so few people being skilled at the sports psychology technique known as “mental framing” is that a lot of people simply do not know what it entails. Mental framing is how we perceive stimuli and how those stimuli are interpreted by our minds. When it comes to sport, this is often used when perceiving failure. After an interception, how does a quarterback frame that failure? Does he cling to that memory, letting what happened in the past affect his present and future? Or does he let that failure go, and move on to the next play, growing from his mistake? Even the most successful of athletes fail consistently. Dweck (2016) describes the problem most people make with mental framing after a failure “failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure).” Perceiving yourself as a failure with a fixed mindset will contribute to decreased belief in oneself and inevitably lead to decreased sports performance.

Related to mental framing, another sports psychology/performance psychology problem that people often find themselves in is an irrational fear of failure. They may be so scared to fail that they never take a risk. Reframing failure as a stepping stone to success is crucial for performance on and off the field. Cannon and Edmondson (2005) state that failure must be viewed not as a problematic aberration that should never occur, but rather as an inevitable aspect of operating in a complex and changing world. In addition, leaders within organizations or teams must instill an environment in which others are willing to expand their curiosity and become comfortable expressing ideas that may challenge the group norms. By encouraging others to push themselves to expand their horizons, members of the organization will be much more willing to challenge the norms and make breakthroughs that otherwise may not have been possible. This does not mean that leaders should encourage mistakes, but rather accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of human nature and encourage learning from them.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, attempting to run a marathon, or you’re recovering from an injury to get back to your sport, know that there will be setbacks along the journey. There will be instances where you question why exactly you are doing this every day. Why are you pushing your mind and body, when it would be much easier to sit on the couch and watch TV. Even people with extensive sport psychology training can have days where they consider giving up. It is at these times where you must remember the story of the bamboo farmer.

There was a Chinese farmer that was the first in his small village to try growing bamboo. He lived with his two sons and desperately wanted them to live better lives than he did. He wanted them to be able to move out of the village, get an education, and not have to work their bodies as hard as he had over his lifetime. Since it was such a small village, there was no information about farming bamboo, but bamboo was incredibly valuable so the farmer decided to try it anyway. He sold all his other crops and farming materials and put his entire focus on growing the bamboo. His neighbors constantly mocked him, telling him what a horrible decision he was making and how this would ruin his life and the lives of his sons. However, the farmer persisted, and he planted the bamboo seeds. Every day he awoke at 6:00 am, before the intense sun could absorb the liquid, and he watered the bamboo seeds. For a year he continued day after day after day. After a year of continually watering he saw nothing. Since he yielded no crops, when it came time to pay his bills, he had no money to do so. He had to take a sizable loan. His neighbors laughed at his misfortune, reminding him that “they told him so”. But the farmer persisted. For another year he continued to wake up and water the bamboo. And, for another year, nothing. More debt, more mocking. But, the farmer was driven to give his sons opportunities he never dreamed of.

A third year went by and still nothing. The farmer looked at the ground and all he saw was dirt. Not even a sign of growth. Even more debt, and even more mocking. His neighbors pleaded with him to give up, saying that he was ruining his children’s lives. They told him that if he didn’t start making money soon, he would lose his house. But still, the bamboo farmer persisted. Then, about 10 months into the fourth year, everything changed. One morning the farmer came out to water the soil and found all his bamboo had grown to four feet high overnight. The farmer was overjoyed with the progress but was not satisfied. He remained diligent and continued to water his plants. Over the next six weeks, the bamboo shot up 90 feet. The farmer became the wealthiest man in the village and was able to send his sons to school and give them a much better life.

Persistence. Persistence is what kept the farmer from ringing the bell. Persistence kept the farmer going even when everyone was mocking him, and telling him to quit. A lot of people in the farmer’s position would have given up after not seeing any growth in the first year. More would have given up after the second and third year. It takes a truly steadfast individual to continue in the face of such adversity. When faced with a challenge, we must be able to delay gratification. Think about the bamboo farmer again, day after day continuing to water the bamboo. Do you think this was time wasted, or that the water was meaningless? Of course not! While there were no tangible, viewable results there was still growth occurring beneath the soil. Every time the seeds got watered the roots grew a little more. With every passing day, they became bigger and grew deeper. After four years they were finally ready to support the rapid growth that was soon to come. Without the tireless effort from the farmer, the roots would never have grown broad and deep enough to support the fully grown bamboo. Similarly, in life, we will never see the end results if we are not willing to put in the work necessary.

Jim Afremow (2014) defines mental toughness as “the ability to remain positive and proactive in the most adverse of circumstances” (p. 49). He also goes on to describe how mental toughness is built on doing the hard things over and over again, even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you are sore and feel like no progress is being made towards your goal, to keep driving. Imagine yourself training for a marathon, and you cannot seem to push yourself past the 20-mile mark. You try and try to push past 20 miles and gain the endurance needed for the final 6 miles but you simply cannot. Your body and your mind aren’t in the proper condition yet but think back to the bamboo. Each time you run 15 or 18 miles, think of it as just growing your roots, building your foundation. Sure, the tangible results haven’t shown themselves yet, but through enduring the pain, you have a much greater chance of achieving your goals. Eventually, when your foundation is strong enough, you will push through that barrier and complete that marathon you so desperately want to accomplish.

Utilizing sport psychology techniques and changing your frame of mind can do wonders for self-confidence and increasing your will to persevere. Sure, you may fail to reach the 20 miles you wanted to during your training, but rather than looking at that as a failure, look at it as an opportunity for growth. It was the great Michael Jordan, widely considered to be the best basketball player of all time, who said about failure, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in life. And that is why I succeed” (Blodget, 2011). He understood that part of success was enduring failure and persisting anyway. It is important to realize the difference between failure and giving up. According to Boyd, Baudier, & Stromie (2015) acquiring skills to reframe failing as potential moments to grow and cultivate solutions is crucial when it comes to overcoming obstacles. Failure, with the right mindset, allows for a chance at success; giving up does not. Think about the Navy SEAL example from earlier. I am willing to bet that every single SEAL that completed the training failed at one task throughout the grueling training. They missed a time milestone, or couldn’t do as many push-ups as they wanted. In other words, they failed. But, they did not give up. They did not ring the bell. They used their failures, learned from their mistakes, and corrected them the next day. Having the proper mindset will help you greatly when faced with adversity.

Motivation is a popular topic in the world, as owners and managers desperately want to know how to properly motivate their employees in order to get the most production out of them. Parents want to motivate their kids to continually push themselves to be their best. Coaches want to push their athletes to bring out their peak sports performance. A lot of you have most likely heard the phrase “what’s your why” and how finding something that motivates you can be helpful when overcoming adversity. The bamboo farmer’s “why” was clear: to get his children out of poverty and into a new life. Like the Navy SEAL, he wanted to change the world in his own way. He had a strong motivating force that got him out of bed to water the plants, even when progress could not be seen. Finding something that keeps you motivated is so important when it comes to reaching your goals. So before your next practice, or rehabilitation session really think about what is motivating you. What is the reason you are going to give your full effort?

Before your next performance, really think about what is driving you to succeed. Once you find your motivator, one that you know will push you through the tough times, you are one big step closer to achieving your goals. When adversity hits, remember the bamboo farmer. Remember how he was ridiculed when success didn’t come immediately. Remember how he pushed through years of no tangible results for his actions, only to see the rewards down the line. Think about the SEALS, who run mile after mile in the most torturous conditions imaginable, and how their mindset pushes them through the pain.

Remember, when it comes to achieving your goals, or changing your mindset, don’t ever ring the bell.

References

Afremow, J. A. (2014). The champions mind: How great athletes think, train, and thrive. New York, NY: Rodale.

Blodget, H. (2011, November 03). Check Out This Awesome Michael Jordan Quote About Success… [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/michael-jordan-success-2011-11

Boyd, D. E., Baudier, J., & Stromie, T. (2015). Flipping the Mindset: Reframing Fear and Failure to Catalyze Development. To Improve the Academy,34(1-2), 1-19. doi:10.1002/tia2.20028

Cannon, M. D., & Edmondson, A. C. (2005). Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail (Intelligently). Long Range Planning,38(3), 299-319. doi:10.1016/j.lrp.2005.04.005

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Navy, & SWCC Scout Team. (2015, June 15). FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BEING A SEAL. [Online forum comment] Retrieved from https://www.sealswcc.com/navy-seal-frequently-asked-questions-faq.html

utaustintexas. (2014, May 23rd). Admiral McRaven Addresses the University of Texas at Austin Class of 2014. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaQZFhrW0fU.

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