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Why “Toughness” Isn’t What You Think

After reading about thirteen Iowa football players being hospitalized with symptoms of rhabdomylosis and kidney problems, I started thinking more about some of the intense training I have been through as an athlete in my life, particularly in the off-season or pre-season.  (Btw, Iowa Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle is highly regarded in our industry, though if the rumors are correct about what they were doing, it’s a little concerning) Now that I am in the business of making athletes better rather than “tougher” I think my perspective has changed dramatically.  I constantly worry about pushing kids beyond the brink of what is safe and productive, because there’s little to be gained over that ledge. Athletics are often stuck in a “that’s how we’ve always done it” mindset, passed from generation to generation without a real clear rationale for why that particular practice has value.  I understand that athletes need to be mentally “tough,” and theoretically pushing them to the edge and seeing who comes through is one way to achieve that.  But for most sports, toughness has nothing to do with total and utter exhaustion.  I played baseball all the way through college and, with the exception of a few legged-out triples, don’t even remember once being out of breath.  Yet I have probably suffered through hundreds of hours of torturous conditioning, many in the hot summer Florida heat.  And you know what? The best players I ever played with were some of the worst in these situations.  The sport doesn’t demand that you can handle twelve quarter-mile intervals without throwing up.  I spent a lot of time making myself a great distance runner every summer, which undoubtedly made me a worse baseball player. In his book, The New Toughness Training For Sports, Jim Loehr explains that “toughness” is not about being able to withstand the rigors of endless, grueling conditioning.  Toughness in sports is more about having the ability to remain mentally adaptive and flexible in a constantly changing environment.  Brett Favre has a reputation as being physically tough and playing through injuries, but what has plagued him throughout his career?  Big mistakes and the inability to make adjustments.  He lacks the “toughness” to change and adapt to what’s in front of him.  He gets lost in the moment.  Sure, I might take him in a shin-kicking contest, but I’ll take Peyton or Brady when the opposing team changes and forces a reaction. I’m not downplaying the ability to withstand pain and persevere.  I love clients and athletes that finish what they started, it’s an admirable quality.  And there is certainly a time and a place to train for that.  But I debate the efficacy of using extreme conditioning in sports where it’s not necessary, especially when implemented by coaches with little to no knowledge of training methodology or the ability to recognize the signs of an athlete who’s had enough.  If a major Division 1 Football program staffed by multiple experience Strength Coaches can’t maintain order, how does one high school baseball or football coach have the knowhow to keep players safe?  And how much time is being devoted to this?  Recently some local players we train spent literally a quarter of their tryout time running.  That’s a lot of wasted time to see how much a player “wants it.”  And from a performance and speed development standpoint, it’s totally counterproductive.  Sprinting mechanics break down, power generation is lost, fast-twitch muscle fibers fatigue and migrate towards more efficient but less explosive endurance fibers. As I said earlier, I’m all for hard work and grinding out everything you can get out of your body.  I’ve been to the edge quite a few times and I think there are some positive mental benefits to doing so.  But I don’t think that’s the type of “toughness” I want in my athletes.  I wouldn’t call any near-collapse conditioning experience a “heightened state of awareness” or one of “relaxed focus,” common goals of sports psychologists for competitive glory.  Take golf as another example.  Toughness in golf is related to the ability to handle internal, not external, pressure.  Every golfer “wants it” every time they take the tee.  The one’s who win consistently adapt and react better to bad bounces, shots, or breaks.  They wouldn’t likely be the one’s surviving 20 sprint repeats. The other pervasive problem with all of this is our YouTube culture.  In fitness everyone wants to see the toughest, the hardest, and the most badass exercises and performances.  What they don’t see is the fact that they know nothing about who is performing the exercise and their abilities, injuries, or rationale for doing so.  We love trendy words (the 300 workout, Crossfit, p90x, Insanity) but we fail to realize that by using a paint-by-numbers kit we rarely draw a pretty picture.  The sad thing is that in a time where we are supposed to be celebrating the individual we concede to a one-size-fits all approach to working out and conditioning.