Monday, February 15, 2016

Endurance as a Transferable Skill

Is it just a hunch or is it in fact true that the virtues learned through participation in sport can translate into other areas of our lives? I started thinking about this again recently when I was listening to a podcast in which two of the hosts were contemplating whether a long-distance runner might somehow possess more "endurance" when it comes to suffering through torture at the hands of his captor. It's an extreme example no doubt - maybe not the best one for this argument as I imagine that someone who endures torture without completely breaking down has traits and habits of mind that can't be chalked up to the ability to run miles and miles - but the taxation of staying the course physically and mentally when both your body and mind beg you to stop is like any other learned skill. Some are naturally better at it than others, but anyone who practices at it can get better. And enduring pain, boredom, grief, or any other uncomfortable state of being is part of being human. So there are many opportunities to flex the skills of endurance.

Something endurance athletes learn is that the pain is a temporary condition. They know it's finite and they usually believe that once it's over, there is great reward. Or at least, there is the relief of having stopped doing something incredibly difficult. So, tapping into that memory of what it's like to grit your teeth and carry on because you know you'll come out on the other side, seems to be something that endurance athletes can access when facing challenges outside the athletic arena.

Another element of the endurance mindset that can translate is the ability to silence the thoughts that say "stop." Endurance athletes learn when the "stop" message is a true survival signal and when it's a false message, delivered by an instinct not unlike the one that makes some dogs cover their food bowl to protect it from other dogs even when they are the only dog in the house and will get fed like clockwork twice a day. Some deep-seeded instinct that long ago preserved life but is now just an amusing behavioral relic. I believe that endurance athletes learn to identify those signals as fakes. They learn to ignore them and develop that habit quickly, the habit of discarding the negative thought and moving on.

Finally, the lessons of endurance normally teach that there is benefit from the pain. Whether the benefit is getting faster or being able to go longer, weight control, stress relief, or the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult feat, the endurance mind knows that the pain is both temporary AND constructive. There is a tangible and positive effect from doing it.

So will that same virtue emerge in the work setting when the challenge is a difficult project or managing a personal conflict? It may. But perhaps it's more likely to translate when the endurance athlete cognitively connects the skill to the work setting. When the mind says "If I can (fill in the blank - run a  marathon, swim 2 miles in open water, etc.) I can deal with this difficult co-worker" then the connection has been made.

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