Current research states that the greatest determining factor of success later in life for children is not intelligence, social status, upbringing, athletic ability or financial background. Instead, it is an intangible quality: grit. Tenacity is the thing that will determine success more than anything else. What does that mean?
It is different to every single person. It is a quality that is also different in every situation. As an example, trying to run through a 20-foot thick wall with just your body would never be looked as having mental fortitude, it would be looked at as having a deficiency in brain capacity.
Grit is a quality that I attempt to foster in my athletes. I look at CrossFit and what we do on a daily basis as a microcosm of life. It is a challenge. When first presented with the challenge, you may think you can do it or that it doesn’t seem that bad. You are optimistic. But then you begin and you feel like someone has put the weight of the world on you and your body won’t respond. The weights feel glued to the ground and the reps seem impossible to finish and the clock ticks mockingly, whispering to you to just quit.
These feelings hit all of us during a workout. They are an unexpected punch in the face. To quote Lady Gaga’s song, Million Reasons:
You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go
You’re giving me a million reasons to quit the show…
You’re givin’ me a million reasons
Give me a million reasons
Givin’ me a million reasons
About a million reasons…
If I had a highway, I would run for the hills
If you could find a dry way, I’d forever be still
But you’re giving me a million reasons
Give me a million reasons
Givin’ me a million reasons
About a million reasons
I bow down to pray
I try to make the worse seem better
Lord, show me the way
To cut through all his worn-out leather
I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away
But baby, I just need one good one to stay…
There are a million reasons to stop – injuries (real or imaginary), not strong enough, never done this before, etc. I constantly ask my athletes to address their whys. For each person, his or her why is that one reason, that one reason to stay, that one reason to keep moving, that one reason to pick up the bar when resting is so much easier to do. You only need one why in a sea of a million why nots.
I love the story of Buster Douglas and his fight versus Mike Tyson. When he first started fighting, Tyson was a killer in the ring – a machine that seemed akin to Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. He could not be beat. He would be decked out in all black attire with laser focus – a machine set on destroying whatever was placed in his path.
Tyson won his first 19 professional fights by knockout, 12 of them in the first round. Think about that. He spent more time on those 12 fights getting his gloves on and off then he did in the ring with his opponents. At age 20, Tyson won his first heavyweight title, gained a second belt at 21, and became the first heavyweight boxer to simultaneously hold the WBA, WBC and IBF titles, and the only one to successively unify them. He successfully defended his title nine times. Tyson was that hypothetical 20-foot thick wall.
In comes Buster Douglas in 1990. No challenger had taken Tyson beyond the fifth round since 1987. Many thought it was just an easy tune-up for Tyson before a future mega-fight with undefeated Evander Holyfield, who had recently moved up to heavyweight from cruiserweight where he became the first boxer to be the undisputed champion of that weight class. Douglas was given so little chance of lasting against Tyson, let alone beating him, that nearly every betting parlor in Las Vegas refused to hold odds for the fight. The one casino that did, The Mirage, made Douglas a 42-to-1 underdog.
Tyson and his corner men agreed and believed this was just a tune-up. In fact, they did not bring an end-swell (a metal ring used to decrease swelling around a fighter’s eyes) or an ice pack to the fight. Later in the fight, they needed to use a latex glove filled with tap water to put on an increasingly swelling eye of Tyson’s.
This fight was full of a million reasons as to why Douglas should not, could not or would not win. However, no one knew that one why, the why he would win. This why, his why, was greater than all of the why nots. Before his mother died, she told the world that her son was going to beat Tyson. She died days before the fight. Douglas had a choice: Was he going let his dreams die with his mother or was he going to succeed? He was toe to toe with an unstoppable force. His why was greater. He overcame.
You may be thinking that this is a one-off example or that you cannot do such things. I will kindly remind you of the last Super Bowl, World Series, English Premier League Championship and NBA Championship.
- The Golden State Warriors held a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers…until they didn’t.
- The Cleveland Indians held a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs…until they didn’t.
- The Atlanta Falcons held a 25-point lead over the New England Patriots with 8:31 left in the third quarter…until they didn’t.
- Leicester City overcame 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Barclays Premier League.
In each one of those situations, the world counted them out. The world said they were done, but in each situation, their whys were greater. Their whys were more than all of the why nots. History is not there to just tell you what you cannot do, it is there to challenge you. It tests how badly you want something when faced with adversity and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty.
Every day is an opportunity to build up and develop this quality of mental strength. It is not something with which you are born. It is a quality that needs to be worked just like your muscles. If you quit when it is hard, you always will.
Every day when you come and you train, hold on a little longer, go a little longer without rest, and rest less. All you are trying to do is increase the amount of discomfort that you can tolerate. If you can tolerate just a little bit more every day, you will get better, you will succeed, and you will achieve what you set out to do and much more.