Six years ago I was kayaking a river solo in March (yes I know this is not recommended but I’m not you). If you know anything about whitewater kayaking, the early spring and late fall are ideal times because the water table is high. The water temperature was about 42 degrees with a light snowfall and I had planned a familiar route that was just over 3 miles. Kayaking to my stop point, I would change out some gear and run back to retrieve my truck.
About 500 yards down river I entered a bottleneck when I miscalculated a rough spot and was tossed. A series of additional mistakes made sure I went head first into the drink. I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped head first into 42 degree water but it sucks. It literally takes your breath away. Unable to right the boat or breath, I bailed and scurried like a wet rat towards a rocky ledge. On the rock I was out of the water but on an island. The embankment was a twenty foot swim away and my truck was parked 500 yards upstream.
I tell you all of this because it was a surreal moment that I recall with clarity. I have 4 good stories of nearly drowning: 3 in a kayak and 2 in water of similar temperature. Although I do not perceive this as “nearly drowning,” I clearly recall the initial feeling of hitting that water, the moment panic set in, the desperation of pulling my body (and my boat) onto a rock and the decisiveness of standing there precariously weighing my options.
Every day I’m confronted with people who struggle with their desire for rewards and their fear of risk. People want to be more powerful, more capable, lose weight, increase health, fight off disease, look better or just feel good. We want the rewards but we fail to understand the commitment. It is easy for people to attain a small taste of success.
Person #1: weighs 278lbs works out for 5 months and loses 50lbs.
Person #2 has been training for 8 months and can back squat his body weight.
Person #3 works up to a 100lb deadlift.
Person #4 learns how to perform an Olympic clean.
Each example demonstrates outstanding improvement. Now consider this:
Person #1 remains at 225lbs for the next 6 months.
Person #2 has only added 5lbs to his back squat in the next 5 months.
Person #3 has been at a 100lb deadlift for a year.
Person #4 cannot move past the bar when performing a clean.
Although this is not a great deal of information I can tell you these people show up every day, appear to try hard and desperately want to improve. Or do they? Are they really desperate?
Desperation is a funny thing. We say things like “I’m starving,” but are we really? Have we ever really been desperate enough to attain a goal? Desperation drives us to reveal our intent and our intent is either to find an escape or confront the task. Unfortunately this is not something we can synthesize. This is a primal response to a particular stimulus that increases exponentially as we improve. What elicits one person to consistently improve over a year while another stagnates? It is that individual’s intent to confront the fear of challenge each time they grip that barbell. Everyone, and I mean everyone, feels this pressure. The person who is intent on improving will allow fear to excite the neuromuscular system without letting anxiety creep in. They will find motivation, not despair, in desperation.
This is important to understand for those who have worked hard, demonstrated some improvement but struggle to progress. It’s easy to say “no fear,” but that is not helping the individual who’s struggling to produce the necessary skills to get under a barbell. Imagine if you are a novice who is inundated with the successes of others while being told “no fear!” Clearly you will perceive your feelings of fear as inadequate and out of place. You will struggle to balance hiding your emotions with your desire to perform. This will not work.
Ask any sports psychologist if the top athletes have ever felt: desperation to perform, or nervous anticipation prior to a training session. Consider how many times an experienced athlete has failed a lift or been sandwiched by a barbell only to go back and attempt the lift again, and again, and again…
Perfection is inspiring but failure is motivating.
I did not deliberate on that rocky ledge very long. It was an easy swim and a quick run to the warmth of my truck. There were no witnesses, no one to judge me. Once I made my decision to resolve my situation calm set in. Before giving it any more thought I got back in the boat and slipped off the rock.
My intent to get back in the water is no different than my intent to generate more force as the weight increases or my intent to get back under the bar after a failed lift. We all struggle with the same emotional spectrum. Our intent, whether is achieving goals or demonstrating force, is a conscious effort that only we can make.