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Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong

Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong PDF

Author: Steve Magness

Publisher: HarperOne


Publish Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN-10: 006309861X

Pages: 320

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Hard-nosed. Gritty. Playing through pain. Stoic. Exhibiting emotional fortitude. Showing no signs of distress. Persevering. When college students were asked to describe what it meant to be tough, these words and phrases came to mind. Among 160 elite athletes, perseverance came out on top. For most of us, as we read these descriptors, a particular image arises. Perhaps it’s a football player popping his dislocated shoulder back into place and demanding to be put back into the game, or maybe it’s Craig MacTavish, who retired in 1997 as the last player in the NHL to play without a helmet. For others, the image might be a wounded military hero or a mother fighting through discomfort to care for her child. Chances are that visions of individuals overcoming adversity and some sort of pain or suffering lead the way. That’s how we traditionally view toughness: overcoming obstacles with a combination of perseverance, discipline, and stoicism. And if we’re honest, when the word toughness is mentioned, many of us picture a strong brute of a man.

In a coaching career that spanned five decades and three universities, Bobby Knight amassed an impressive résumé. He won more than nine hundred games, the third most all-time in college basketball; reached the Final Four five times; and took home three NCAA national championships. Of all his successes, his 1976 Indiana basketball team stands out. They won every game they played, sweeping through the NCAA tournament with a win over Michigan to seal the perfect season and Knight’s first national championship. In the decades since, no team has been able to match their record. Looking back years later, Knight described what set them apart: “That was a team that was almost impossible to beat, because of its toughness, its strength, its size.”

For a man who began his coaching career at West Point, toughness seemed easy to define: “Being able to overcome obstacles. You can’t feel sorry for yourself.” And for the most part, his teams lived up to the definition, playing disciplined, hard-nosed basketball. While the tendency in basketball is to focus on the glamorous, scoring, this team focused on the unglamorous, defense. They pioneered a pressing man-to-man defense that tested its players’ discipline, work ethic, and perseverance. And it worked.

There was just one problem. Not everyone was thriving. The man who led his players to such heights is known as much for his winning ways as for his tantrums and abusive antics. Bobby Knight’s success on the court is undeniable. His insistence on toughness being a critical factor in performance is similarly backed by both research and experience, but his methods to achieve it are questionable at best, and downright abusive at worst.

There were the tampons hanging from the lockers of players he thought were “soft.” There was the frequent cussing out of players and the accusation that he ordered managers to tape pictures of women’s genitalia in players’ rooms. There was the 1991 tape of one of his tirades: This is absolute fucking bullshit. Now I’ll fucking run your ass right into the ground. . . . I had to sit around for a fucking year with an 8–10 record in this fucking league, and I mean you will not put me in that fucking position again or you will goddamn pay for it like you can’t fucking believe.” And the time he brought a piece of toilet paper from the bathroom covered in shit to show his players what he thought of them. Then there was the physical abuse marked by the infamous video of Knight choking a player at practice. All in the name of creating Knight’s version of toughness.

“Soft.” Female genitalia. Questioning manhood. All actions that clue us in on Knight’s actual definition of toughness, one founded on showing no weakness, bulldozing through obstacles, and utilizing fear to establish authority and control. A version we would now call old-school in an attempt to place distance between such barbaric practices and the present. But it’s an idea that still dominates the playing fields and performance halls of our present. We have a fundamental misunderstanding of what toughness is. And it pervades far more than the basketball courts.

Tough Parenting

Very demanding. Cold and non-nurturing. Controlling. One-way communication. Using harsh punishment. No, we aren’t describing Bobby Knight’s coaching handbook, but one of the four main parenting styles.

In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind pioneered our understanding of parenting. Through research and observation, she discovered that parenting styles can be classified based on two factors: responsiveness and demandingness. Baumrind defined responsiveness as “the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned, supportive, and acquiescent to children’s special needs and demands.” In other words, how well do parents respond to and meet the needs of their children? After they lose a soccer match, do you greet your child with warmth and support? Or do you go straight into criticizing their play?

Demandingness, on the other hand, refers to “the claims parents make on children to become integrated into the family whole, by their maturity demands, supervision, disciplinary efforts and willingness to confront the child who disobeys.” In other words, how high are the parents’ expectations for their child, and how much control do they exert to regulate or influence their child?

Plotting these two characteristics, Baumrind found that most parents fell into three categories that lined up with Goldilocks’s search for the perfect bed. If a parent was low in demandingness and high in responsiveness, they were too soft, a permissive parent who would let their child get away with just about anything. If a parent was high in demandingness and low in responsiveness, they were too hard, an authoritarian who relied on harsh discipline, with little attention to the child’s needs.

Parents who use an authoritarian style don’t trust their children to make good decisions. The parent is in charge, and the child is to obey. Authoritarian parents rely on fear, threats, and punishment to ensure that their children make good choices. A typical refrain from an authoritarian parent might be, “You need to do (this) because I said so.” In one study of over one thousand parents, only 31 percent of authoritarian parents said that they should “love their child unconditionally.” When it comes to motivation, it’s about the sticks, not the carrots.

It’s easy to identify the authoritarian parent. Upon seeing their child miss a shot, they are the ones who jump straight to criticism. They are the parent who grounds their kid after every subpar test score, locking their child in their room to study without offering support for how to improve her grades besides a trite suggestion to “work harder.” The father who perceives his role is to “toughen up” their boys. Commanding them to suck it up, don’t cry, grow up, and never show fear. Even as views have shifted, many parents see harsh discipline as not only beneficial but the lack of it as a sign of the “softening” of America. In one study, 81 percent of Americans thought parents were too soft on their children. It’s not just coaches; many parents hold on to this idea that too much warmth or support is “weak.”

It’s not that punishment or expectations are bad things. It’s that, one, punishment or telling a child to simply “work harder” doesn’t always get results, and two, when the demandingness far outweighs providing support, we end up with an authoritarian parenting style. The “just right” Goldilocks fit occurs when expectations are high, but so is support. High demand accompanied by warmth and understanding. All parents find themselves somewhere on this continuum, and we shift up and down it based on the context. But it’s when there is an extreme mismatch between demand and support that problems arise.

While Baumrind’s work originally applied to parent and child, the same principles hold with how we treat one another. Somewhere along the way, we’ve become very confused about what actual toughness is. From coaching to parenting to leading in the workplace, we’ve taken the demanding part of the equation and forgotten the other side: warmth, care, and responsiveness to others’ needs.

To Be Callous

Callous: to harden, to make insensitive, to develop a thick skin. Look no further than the language often used with toughness. We proclaim teams and individuals as “soft,” in need of “hardening up,” and implore our teams to “show no signs of weakness.” We romanticize the Karate Kid narrative—after getting bullied at school, our hero grows stronger and comes back with a vengeance, teaching the bully a lesson. In youth sports, we send our kids to run laps or perform burpees not for some specific training adaptation, but to “toughen them up.” In the name of toughness, we rationalize the absurd. In Until It Hurts, Mark Hyman visited youth sport clubs across the country and found frequent throwing up after workouts, insult-laden tirades, and more. The justification parents provided for teaching eleven-year-olds to go until they puke? “The stern approach is necessary for children to get in touch with their inner lacrosse warrior.”

For too long, our definition of toughness revolved around a belief that the toughest individuals are ones who have thick skin, fear nothing, constrain any emotional reaction, and hide all signs of vulnerability. In other words, they are callous.

Compounding our confusion, we’ve resorted to tying toughness to masculinity and an ethos of machismo. The mentality to never show weakness, grind it out, play through the pain. Our vocabulary is telling. We tell our sons and daughters to “man up” or, in much cruder terms that are heard on playing fields across the country, “stop being a pussy.” Or as the famous line from the movie A League of Their Own summarized expectations in sport, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

Masculinity is so ingrained in our concept of toughness that if you ask a sampling of individuals about who represents a tough individual, a particular image dominates. More The Rock or Vin Diesel than a small female of similar prowess; brute strength with a large dash of confidence and bravado is how we like our toughest individuals. But as we’ll come to see, those who display external signs of machismo are often the “weakest.” And women, who research consistently shows quietly handle pain better than their male counterparts, might have had the correct definition of toughness all along—one based on reality, not false confidence and bluster.

Our definition of toughness in the broader world is broken. We’ve confused it with callousness and machismo, of being manly and stoic. The old model of toughness is represented in the Bobby Knight school of coaching, authoritarian parents, and the callous model of leading. It’s the myth of an “inner warrior,” one built on the misguided notion that at the heart of being tough is a type of callous demandingness. It’s a remnant of a time when military-style drill sergeants—and coaches and parents who thought they were—dictated our view of the concept. Toughness has been hijacked. We’ve prioritized external displays over true inner strength. And there are consequences.

The Downfall of a Callous View of Toughness

On May 29, 2018, the University of Maryland football team had ten 110-yard sprints for their conditioning workout. By number seven, nineteen-year-old Jordan McNair began to show signs of profound fatigue. According to reports, McNair was bending over at the waist and experiencing cramps. This wasn’t ordinary fatigue of a player deciding that he could no longer go on. McNair’s body was protesting, at its limit, and screaming for help. Instead of pulling the player from practice, coaches and athletic trainers alike goaded him, yelling to “get him the [expletive] up” and “drag his [expletive] across the field.” By the final sprint, video footage shows McNair surrounded by teammates, aiding him through the run’s final yards at a near-walking pace. After McNair complained of cramps, it took trainers 34 minutes to have him taken off the field and another 28 minutes to call 911. One hour and 28 minutes elapsed between his final sprint and when the ambulance took McNair to the hospital. McNair died in the hospital two weeks later from heatstroke, thanks in part to a horrid medical response but also to an inability to separate the idea of pushing through the pain and actual danger.

Increasingly over the past decade, we’ve seen a rash of player deaths and injuries partially from a misguided belief in developing toughness. Rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo for short) is a once-rare condition where damaged muscle products leak into the bloodstream, putting an unusual demand on the kidneys to process it all. In extreme cases, death can occur. A disease once primarily caused by infections or drug use has transformed into a somewhat common occurrence, thanks to a bevy of cases caused by extreme workouts. Endless push-ups, squats, burpees, and other exercises designed not to improve fitness, but to “test” their athletes. As professor of sports business at Ohio University B. David Ridpath described, the true notion of these workouts is not conditioning: “Taking a cue from a head coach with a desire to either toughen up the current players or weed out a few to open some scholarship slots, the strength coach often will ‘condition’ these players with a vengeance and a mandate to make them suffer.” While we may think we’ve come a long way in athletic performance, the extreme workout in the name of toughening up is alive and still causing harm.

While death may not occur in classrooms or homes from enacting an authoritarian approach to parenting or leading, research shows lasting psychological consequences. Authoritarian parenting leads to lower independence, more aggressive behavior, and a higher likelihood for substance abuse and risky behaviors. In sport, the controlling, demanding style also fails. On the athletic fields, it’s linked to lower grit and an increase in emotional exhaustion, burnout, and fear of failure.

Even in terms of discipline, the area that you would think a demanding style would be successful, it falls short. In one study of over 1,200 parents, authoritarian parenting was linked to a much higher rate of child misbehavior. It even fails in places where it seems a natural fit: the military. In the Israeli military, those who grew up in an authoritarian environment adapted to and coped with the challenges of military life much worse than their peers who grew up in a nurturing environment. The authoritarian style creates the appearance of discipline without actually fostering it.

Somewhat ironically, teaching, parenting, or coaching for this version of “toughness” creates fragile and dependent individuals. What does a child who was taught to follow the rules unquestioningly out of fear do when a parent isn’t there to dictate his behavior? What does an adult who was taught to rely on fear for motivation do when left to her own devices in the real world? What does a football player who learns to push himself only when a coach is screaming in his face do when it’s him alone on the field? The answer lies in how one young athlete responded when questioned about his experience with punishment in sport: “Coaches use exercise as punishment because they want you to become stronger. . . . It gets in your head and you start thinking, ‘I need to do better. I need to work harder because I don’t want to be punished.” This young man didn’t want to work harder because he wanted to get better, to win the game, or for some sort of internal reason. He wanted to avoid punishment. That’s the message we are sending.

Proclaiming the old-school model as the way to develop toughness is akin to declaring that the best way to teach swimming is to throw every kid into the deep end of the pool. For some, it would work, but for many, it would prove disastrous. There are better ways to ensure everyone learns the skills necessary to be truly tough.

Redefining Toughness

Here’s the problem: in trying to toughen through callousness, we’ve trained ourselves to respond to fear and power. The reason we push through discomfort is because we imagine someone is standing over us yelling, or that if we fail, we will face punishment. We’ve been conditioned to see the external as more important than the internal, and that putting on a facade of toughness (“I’m not afraid of anything!”) is more important than how we handle difficult times. Remove the fear, power, and control, and our “tough” individual is left without the necessary skills to navigate adversity. The old view of toughness gives him a hammer and expects him to bash his way through any problem. But truly being tough isn’t the same as being callous.

For far too long, we’ve confused toughness with something far more sinister. We’ve made the mistake of Bobby Knight and authoritarian parents: confusing the appearance of strength with possessing it, and confusing being callous with instilling discipline. And the truth is, it’s all fake.

Fake toughness is easy to identify. It’s Bobby Knight losing control and throwing tantrums in the name of “discipline.” It’s the appearance of power without substance behind it. It’s the idea that toughness is about fighting and ass-kicking. It’s the guy picking a fight at your local gym. The anonymous poster acting like a hard-ass on message boards. The bully at school. The executive who masks his insecurity by yelling at his subordinates. The strength coach who works her athletes so hard that they frequently get injured or sick. The person who hates the “other” because that’s a lot easier than facing their own pain and suffering. The parent who confuses demandingness for discipline. The coaches who mistake control for respect. And the vast majority of us who have mistaken external signs of strength for inner confidence and drive. We’ve fallen for a kind of fake toughness that is:

  • control- and power-driven,
  • developed through fear,
  • fueled by insecurity, and
  • based on appearance over substance.

Yet, we are in a new era, one in which the emerging science and psychology on overcoming challenges point to a radically different definition of toughness. Regardless of whether it’s on the sporting field, in the classroom, or in the boardroom, strength and resilience don’t come from blindly powering through adversity or pretending that punishing ourselves yields results. Instead, real toughness is experiencing discomfort or distress, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take thoughtful action. It’s maintaining a clear head to be able to make the appropriate decision. Toughness is navigating discomfort to make the best decision you can. And research shows that this model of toughness is more effective at getting results than the old one.

Real toughness is much harder than the fake kind. To understand what toughness is, we can look to another successful coach. One who allows his players to be who they are, celebrating “the way they see the world.” One who encourages meditation and yoga or shifts from a meeting to playing ring toss if players get heated. According to one star player, “He’s never negative, doesn’t scream. He finds a way to turn a mistake into a positive.”

Pete Carroll isn’t a saint; he’s a coach. After losing his job as an NFL head coach in the 1990s, Carroll stopped imitating what others did and followed his own path. It may sound like he’s an easygoing “player’s coach” who is “soft” on his team, but Carroll is one of only three coaches in history to win both an NCAA championship and a Super Bowl. He also believes in toughness.

Carroll wants players who come through when the game is on the line. But instead of relying solely on discipline, he believes toughness comes from somewhere much different: from an inner drive to keep them focused, from embracing challenges and bouncing back if things didn’t go their way, from perseverance and passion. Carroll doesn’t shy away from making his players do difficult things. He embraces it, with his “always compete” practices. But he recognizes it’s his job to give them the skills to handle adversity. “Teaching guys how to feel confident enough to believe in what they’ve been prepared to do and believing what they can do and they go out there and do it,” Carroll relayed to The Bleacher Report.

Carroll is trying to develop real toughness—a kind that replaces control with autonomy, appearance with substance, rigidly pushing forward with flexibility to adapt, motivation from fear with an inner drive, and insecurity with a quiet confidence. It’s time to move away from a model based on perceived strength, power, and whatever violent military metaphor of fighting we’d like to use. And lest you think Pete Carroll is merely an aberration, consider Don Shula, Bill Walsh, and Tony Dungy, among the most successful coaches in NFL history. In basketball, consider John Wooden, Dean Smith, Brad Stevens, or Mike D’Antoni, who in discussing his approach to player feedback told me, “We keep it positive here.” As Ken Reed, author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports, summarized, “For every Lombardi or Bobby Knight you give me, I can give you an equally successful—if not more successful—humanistic coach. . . . Despite the success of Wooden, Shula, Dungy, Stevens, and others, our society has conditioned us to think that autocratic coaches are better coaches; that they win more often. It’s a myth. But it’s a vicious cycle.”

Again, this isn’t just theory; it’s science-driven. In 2008, researchers out of Eastern Washington set out to explore the relationship between leadership style and the development of toughness. After conducting research on nearly two hundred basketball players and their coaches, they concluded, “The results of this study seem to suggest that the ‘keys’ to promoting mental toughness do not lie in this autocratic, authoritarian, or oppressive style. It appears to lie, paradoxically, with the coach’s ability to produce an environment, which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility, and service.”

Real toughness is about providing the tool set to handle adversity. It’s teaching. Fake toughness creates fragility, responding out of fear, suppressing what we feel, and attempting to press onward no matter the situation or demands. Real toughness pushes us to work with our body and mind instead of against them. To face the reality of the situation and what we can do about it, to use feedback as information to guide us, to accept the emotions and thoughts that come into play, and to develop a flexible array of ways to respond to a challenge. Toughness is having the space to make the right choice under discomfort.

Whether discomfort comes in the form of anxiety, fear, pain, uncertainty, or fatigue, navigating through it is what toughness is all about. Not bulldozing or pushing through, but navigating. Sometimes that means going through, around, under, or waiting until it passes. When we frame toughness as a decision to act under discomfort, it allows us to see that toughness is far more than merely having grit or grinding through. We can actively change how we appraise, experience, and respond to discomfort. Each step along the way requires a different skill set and approach. It requires many tools, not just a hammer.

The truth is, this model of toughness, of navigating discomfort instead of bulldozing, isn’t new. The military, often seen as the epitome of demanding, macho, extreme toughness, has actually been perfecting this other model of resilience for decades. Like the parents who went all in on being demanding, but forgot how to be responsive, we took the drill sergeant but forgot the training and support.

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