Elite running coach and performance guru Steve Magness talks about how to be more resilient, in a healthy way.
As a kid, Steve Magness — a performance guru focused on how to be more resilient — used to run until he threw up: “That was my thing,” he recalls. Apparently this model of toughness and enduring pain worked well for him. So well, in fact, that in high school he managed to break records. But several years later, when he was trying to break the four-minute barrier while running at the University of Houston, his strategy didn’t work out the way he hoped. Trying to get over an uncomfortable feeling in his neck, Steve Magness collapsed. He had contracted a disease that caused his vocal cords to fail, reflexively shutting down (and making breathing difficult) at the first sign of stress. He couldn’t make the pain just go away anymore.
“I had to relax, keep my breath , neck, and mind steady and in control, all at the exact moment when the discomfort and self-doubt were at their peak,” he writes in his new book, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience. Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness . “In many ways, this book started the moment I broke down. A search for what it means to be tough, to understand how to control an inner world that often spirals out of control.”
That was almost 15 years ago, and in the time since, Steve Magness has become not only a successful running coach, but an expert on human performance, working with everyone from NASA to Nike to co-authoring the 2017 book Peak Performance with Brad Stulberg.
What makes his new book unique—and especially helpful—is that it threads the needle between the outdated “if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work” perspective and the more contemporary model of self-care, which can easily lean toward lazy self-indulgence. The author explores a different and more productive way of dealing with pain, one that neither advocates going through it directly nor trying to escape from it altogether. It could be the discomfort of trying to run faster, or putting up with another hour of work, or simply using the phone less.
Whatever pain you’re trying to endure, here Steve Magness lays out the lessons he’s learned on how to be more resilient and productive.
Also Read: Best ways to adopt a positive inner attitude
What was your model of resilience in childhood?
“My role model came entirely from sports. I tried and played just about every possible sport: baseball, soccer, basketball, even street hockey in some capacity in the central South. When you go through that, especially in Texas in the ’80s and ’90s, they put a particular style of resilience on you : ‘Keep your head down and do whatever you can to get out of the pain.’”
“I remember the coaches telling me not to show emotion. You didn’t give the competitor any clue that something might be wrong. Regardless of the chaos inside, you did not show that you had doubts or insecurities. But in the end there are competitions in which you go deeper, you look for that extra push, and it just isn’t there. ‘The shot backfires’. As I got better as a runner, I realized that if I wanted to be good, if I wanted to figure out how to navigate all this discomfort, I’d have to have more tools in my toolbox, because ‘dig down, go until you can’t. ‘, that fails. I needed to learn how to be more resilient to get to the other side of the pain.”
What are some of those other tools?
“One of them is learning to sit with the pain, instead of putting pressure on it. So you don’t give it power. Since our brains are designed to protect us, he says, ‘Oh, you’re going to hold out, that must mean we’re in danger, so I’m going to up the ante so you’ll listen to me.’ Another strategy is to use your attention to create a space that allows you to deal with [whatever comes up]. World-class athletes are experts at this, they can get close to a problem or walk away completely. They can flip the switch, put their heads down, and become Michael Jordan in the clutch. At the same time, world-class marathoners have to run for two hours, so they go offline for a while until it really matters, and then they flip the switch.”
Are there any athletes that you think are really good at this?
“Sarah Hall, who set the American half marathon record not too long ago, is an absolute pro at this. In the marathon, you go through difficult times. Once you hit the losing streak, your brain tries to convince you that it’s the end and there’s no hope. Sarah is very good at changing her perspective and getting out of that spiral. For example, when she broke the record for the half marathon, that was her goal, but she realized that by being so focused on that time, she was starting to turn into something negative. What did she do to change the scenery? Instead of focusing on the time, she says, ‘Okay, forget the clock, forget the time, forget the midterms, I’m not going to pay attention to that. I’m going to focus on the feeling of what I want to feel right now in this race. What are my arms supposed to do? What are my legs supposed to feel? How does it feel to compete against these other women?’ It’s a simple tactic, but change your focus to rid your brain of what was a motivator but has now become a burden.”
Which conception of resilience is better?
“It is to create a space to be able to navigate. When we go through challenging things, it’s almost like the wind is pressing down on us and we feel like we have to react. We feel some anxiety and then our immediate reaction is: ‘Get me out of this situation. Escape, escape, escape’. Resilience is creating the space so that you don’t make that easy decision, but you can think about how to get through this productively.”
How do you know how to make the right decision regarding pain?
“You will not know if it is the right decision or not. At that point, you want to make sure it’s a wise decision, which means it’s not something you just cling to. It is something you consciously choose. For example, if you talk to world-class climbers who climb Everest, they will tell you that the hard decision is not deciding to push to the top. That is easy. That’s what every part of your body forces you to do. The hard decision is knowing that I am almost at the top, but I have to stop, pause and think if I have enough energy to not only get to the top, but also to go down the mountain. That’s what we are looking for”.
What are some of the techniques that you think are effective for training this muscle?
“In our modern world, [good practice] is anything that has to do with the phone. We all have those moments when we have the urge to look at the phone, and that urge is an opportunity to train that mental muscle, instead of giving in to it. Learn to hold that urge for a while. You can develop these skills almost anytime. To some clients, who don’t like meditation, I ask: can you concentrate on the task at hand? Can you go for a walk without listening to a podcast or music or whatever? Can you be alone with your thoughts?
“I also ask the clients I work with, ‘What makes you uncomfortable? What gives you a little anxiety?’ For some, that is getting up and speaking in front of others. For others, it may be walking in and talking to people in the cafeteria, rather than going through the drive-thru. People have anxiety about all kinds of things. Anytime you see that slight anxiety in your life, it’s an opportunity to train that mental muscle [it’s basically constant training on how to be more resilient ].”
How do you train your customers to accept criticism?
“We make it fatal, because it is painful. Hurts! Our brain interprets it as a physical threat, whenever we are criticized or whatever. This has two faces. If you are in a leadership position, how do you create an environment where people feel safe and secure from criticism? I don’t mean security in the sense of ‘everything is fine’, but in the sense that you can be in an uncomfortable place and know that it is not going to be the end of the world. Then the other part, for employees — and for leaders as well — is how do you get used to it.”
“It’s no different than pain or physical discomfort. If you haven’t exercised for a long time , when you do your first workout that alarm bell rings 10 times sooner. We live in a culture and a society where we don’t get to experience that very often. We have to lower the alarm. You have to have small moments of criticism to create tolerance for it. Athletes do very well. It is part of the culture. After a match, the film is reviewed. It is in a safe environment. It still stings and hurts, but it’s done in a way that’s like, ‘Hey, this is just part of it. I try to learn from this, so that next time it doesn’t happen and we can win’, and it becomes part of the expectation”.
What are some ways to view threats as challenges to being able to do that?
“First of all, we tend to think of threats and challenges as opposite each other on the spectrum. The reality is that we can experience both at the same time. It can be both a threat and a challenge. The goal is for it to be a 51% challenge. People think: ‘I have to eliminate the threat and see it as a great positive challenge’, but it is not like that. Much of the literature shows that it is the balance of opportunity for growth, versus fear of loss. The more we give our brain evidence that this is an opportunity for growth, the more likely we are to see it as a challenge. Even if we lose or fail, what growth can come from this?
Is it possible to model our healthiest paradigm of resilience and still be the best in the world?
“The first thing I would say to that is that performance is really complex. Bobby Knight and Michael Jordan won championships, but that doesn’t mean that everything they do is good and contributes to their victory. I’m just guessing, but what it means is that maybe 80% of what they do actually works. However, there are still a lot of things that they do that probably gets in the way, or limits them from being maybe even better. You can be the best in the world in many ways, and you might not want to be the best in the world if you need all-consuming competitiveness like Jordan’s. Nothing happens. You can make that decision.”
“But there are also a number of athletes, coaches, executives, who have done it differently and have been decent human beings, like John Wooden. Often what we do is look at Jordan, Bobby Knight, Steve Jobs, and we tend to think that’s the way, because they were hyper-successful. What history and science show is that this is not the only way. You can be a decent human being and be the best in the world in any field. I would say that oftentimes being a decent human being allows you to not only maybe conquer whatever little aspect of the world you have, but also to do it in a way that takes others and lifts them up with you.”
How can we balance our ambitions with the knowledge of our limits and capabilities?
“Here, the best example in history is Abraham Lincoln. He was hyperrealistic, almost tragic in the here and now. He was always worried about what happened in war and if you had the right general, and he thought it was doom in the here and now. But he was incredibly hopeful for the future. In the mid-19th century, he’s sitting here thinking there could be a world without slavery, which was an incredibly hopeful thought.”
“Along the way, I would give speeches saying that once we get over this scourge of war, everything will be fine, essentially. There is this incredible hope, and almost, some might argue, anticipation for the future. I am not telling people not to have big dreams and goals. Keep them at a distance as motivators and north stars to tell you, hey, this is possible, this is what I aspire to. But in the here and now, in the present, you have to be realistic. What am I capable of? Where am I in my company? That combination or balance is probably the best when we look at performance.”