A person’s relationship to adversity generally falls into three areas:
1: Avoid it and stay comfortable;
2: Endure it but dislike it; and
3: Embrace it and seek it.
In general, from the beginning of the athlete or top performer’s career in to the time an athlete or top performer in any field tries to jump levels to reach the pinnacle of what they do, they tend to make the transition from 1 to 3. Is it easy? Certainly not. Is it comfortable? Definitely not. Is it possible? Absolutely.
These examples show up in both the expected and unexpected. I suspect that you’re far more likely to succeed if you embrace the third principle as a way of life (within reason, of course. Recovery is crucial in this process too).
Examples in Training
Between his first and second Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling, John Smith limited his budget to $1000/month while he was training. This supposedly kept things very simple and removed distractions as he simply couldn’t afford to travel or go out on weekends. I suspect his bank account started growing at a fast pace too, given endorsement deals that he inevitably would’ve been getting at the time.
Wrestling’s legend among legends Dan Gable would try to exhaust himself in practice to the extent where he’d collapse or get very close to it. One time during a training session, one of his competitors from another country watched him during a training session and asked his coach, “does this man have a mental problem?” This ultimately paid off in 1972 when he won the Olympics without surrendering a single point despite tearing a ligament in his knee.
As a world class chess player, Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, and first BJJ blackbelt under Marcelo Garcia, Josh Waitzkin has seemingly mastered the art of learning. As a kid, he would play chess in the older divisions against kids and adults, ultimately achieving the title of grandmaster in his very early teens and setting a record for youngest chess grandmaster at the time. In martial arts and combat sports, he predicted his opponent’s dirty tricks and actually had his training partner try all sorts of dirty tricks in order to get used to it and know how to counter them. This included eye pokes and crotch shots among others. By the time he competed, the dirty tricks didn’t faze him anymore.
World class obstacle course racer Amelia Boone runs in terrible weather conditions. In fact, the weather one day was so bad that local police supposedly offered to escort her out of the storm.
Examples in Competition
Kyle Snyder, USA wrestling’s legend in the making, doesn’t shy away from big matches. The year he won his first world championship in freestyle, he needed to defeat returning Olympic champion Jake Varner to make the team, and he did so. The following collegiate season which led up his first Olympic gold medal, he moved up a weight class and challenged a seemingly unbeatable opponent to win his first collegiate national title. During whole time, he competed in international tournaments against some of the toughest opponents in the world. He lost to two tough international competitors that year, but ended up delivering a gold medal performance when the stakes were highest.
David Taylor was excited for the opportunity to compete against the best in his breakout performance at the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup in Iran at 86kg, and faced some of the best opponents in the world along the way, including two past Olympic champions and two former world medalists. He went undefeated at the World Cup that year due to his relentless offense.
So Why Does This Matter?
Avoiding adversity and staying comfortable is giving into immediate gratification at the expense of your growth.
Enduring adversity but disliking it is the next step and is naturally uncomfortable. As human beings, our brains are hardwired to avoid potential threats. That being said, current day threats aren’t nearly as lethal and dangerous as cavemen times. Is a sabertooth tiger really going to attack you at the grocery store?
Seeking adversity is the hardest and most mentally (and physically) taxing, but leads to the most possibility for future growth.
What’s your relationship to adversity?