Posted On:
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Toughness is in the Decision

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A close-up of a younger child smiling and looking to the right wearing a gray hat and a white and gray striped shirt curling his biceps and making a “muscles” pose - one of the quintessential postures associated with toughness.

It’s Coach Tip Tuesday again!

Being on-site for this year’s IRONMAN Maryland gave me a first-row glimpse at what it took for the athletes I coached to finish a race of this magnitude.  This week’s tip is inspired by what I saw unfold on Saturday.

I’ve written before about how I think it’s important to ask the question “What is tough?” In that post, I proposed one version of toughness. This week, I want to propose another.

I really do feel that we - as a collective society - have a misunderstanding at best and a distorted view at worst of what toughness actually is.  Toughness is NOT pushing through everything at all costs.  It is not your team coach hollering at you.  Rather, toughness is giving oneself the space to execute a choice, despite experiencing something that is distressing that causes increasing adversity, stress, fatigue, and pressure.  Put simply: Toughness is in the decision.

On Saturday, I watched many, many athletes face extreme adversity. I watched two of the athletes I personally coach, Scott Heintzelman and Lisa Crockford, experience VERY extreme adversity. I watched them each experience it, process it, and then make a very intentional, deliberate choice to persist and do what they knew needed to be done to see their goal through to the finish.

Scott crashed his bicycle at Mile 60 of the bike course, sustaining some pretty gnarly injuries in the process.  Cleared by paramedics to continue in the race, Scott made the brave and intentional choice to get back on his bike and proceed onward in the race.  He experienced periods of self-doubt, but he processed through them and decided that he was going to finish what he started.  The greatest example of toughness that he displayed on Saturday was in that choice - to choose to put the adversity he had encountered on the shelf and move beyond it.

Lisa was up against time cutoffs pretty much as soon as she began the marathon portion of IRONMAN Maryland. If she chose to relax even for two minutes, it would have gotten her pulled from the course and her IRONMAN dream would have slipped from her grasp for the FOURTH time. Learning that she was so close to cutoffs could have very well made her so stressed that she caved under the pressure. Instead, Lisa made the decision to choose to take that information and use it as fuel for her fire to help propel her forward to that IRONMAN finish line.

Both Scott and Lisa embodied what toughness really is by giving themselves the space and time to make a decision that ultimately resulted in them finishing IRONMAN Maryland. Sometimes, however, toughness isn’t the decision to persist. Sometimes, toughness is the decision to quit. I’ve had several athletes make this choice in their own training and racing, but a good recent example is when Team USA gymnast Simone Biles demonstrated this kind of toughness at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo when she withdrew from competition. Most of the pressure on her - from the world media, her fans, and even her fellow competitors - was to continue; she gave herself the space to make the tough decision to withdraw.

A tough person is constantly learning and growing, and this process of growth is probably why toughness has become synonymous with strength.  However, an important milestone in maturity is knowing that sometimes we need to abandon something, and that doing so doesn’t make us weak.  Rather, executing this hard decision makes us stronger, makes us tougher.

It’s so important to acknowledge that some days the strong choice might actually be to quit.  On other days, the strong choice might be to persist and keep going.  The truth of the matter is that either decision pathway builds toughness, so long as we execute that decision with space and thoughtfulness.

I’ve been on a bit of a mindfulness kick lately, but I think it’s extremely important to explore all of the ways that mindfulness - defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” and “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations” - can be a tremendous asset in our lives as athletes. And, as I always say, what we learn in sport translates over quite nicely to our “normal,” everyday lives. Being aware and embracing that a choice lies in front of you and that toughness is in that decision is mindfulness in full force.

As you confront hard choices in your training (and in your lives), give yourself the space to weigh your options, and make the best decision for you. Know that true toughness lies in that honest decision-making process, and that if you make the honest, right choice, that is what makes you truly tough. :)

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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