Life has a way of throwing challenges at us whether we choose them or not. When you choose certain challenges and take it upon yourself to endure them with all you’ve got, you are training yourself to have the mindset resilience that will come in handy during hardships that you don’t get to choose. Matt Fitzgerald acquired this wisdom from a stellar career as an endurance runner. A lifelong endurance athlete, Matt draws these parallels between endurance sports and life and shares them to the world through his books and frequent speaking events. Join him as he sits down with Rodney Flowers for a chat about facing life’s challenges, developing coping skills and resilience, and building the drive to put up with more.
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The Mental Toughness To Go The Distance: Building Mindset Resilience With Matt Fitzgerald
I am excited about the show. We have an awesome gentleman in the studio with me by the name of Matt Fitzgerald. He is an endurance sports author, coach, and nutritionist. His many books include Running the Dream, 80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It? I can’t wait to talk to this man. Matt’s writing has also appeared in numerous magazines and on many popular websites. He is the co-founder and co-head coach of 80/20 Endurance and the creator of the Diet Quality Score smartphone app. We’re going to talk about that and how you can get it. As a lifelong endurance athlete, he speaks frequently at events throughout the United States and internationally. Mr. Matt Fitzgerald, welcome to the show.
It’s an honor to be with you.
You are an endurance runner. I want to know what type of events and what type of runs you do. Give me a little bit about what you do as an endurance runner.
I was one of those kids who couldn’t hit a pitch or kick a ball straight. Anything that required coordination, I was no good at as a kid, but I never got tired when I ran around. That expression, “My sport is your sport’s punishment,” running is not the most fun sport but I did have a bit of a knack for it and I developed a passion for it. I started running when I was eleven. My dad was running marathons back then so it did seem normal, not crazy. I’m still running. I’m close to 50 marathons, ultramarathons which are even farther, and triathlons too, those swim, bike, and run races. It’s in the blood now.
What is your mindset like in the middle of a marathon? Your body is screaming at you to stop and you don’t because you have to finish and you want to finish. How do you muster up the will to keep going when everything inside you wants to stop?
That’s the thing I love about endurance sports. The mental side of every sport is huge but in endurance sports when you get out there, it’s exactly like how you described it. You’re suffering but the finish line isn’t there yet, and you want it. You’ve worked hard to get to that place. You don’t want to give up and you won’t be able to live with yourself if you do give up. You’ve got to come up with something. When I was a runner in high school, my mental game was weak. That was what held me back. I was one of the better runners in my state. I grew up in New Hampshire and I never fulfilled my potential because I could be tied for first place running down the homestretch and across the race, and I could feel that the guy next to me wanted more than I did.
I wasn’t necessarily better or faster or fitter but he wanted it more. I ended up quitting, getting away from running and getting back into it. When I got back into it, I had this monkey on my back that I had to get off. I wanted to change how I saw myself as a man by not backing down and those tough moments. I’m living proof that you don’t have to be born with that mindset to attain it. You have to be intentional about it and you have to view it as a project. It’s like, “I am going to get better at this.” God bless the people who were born with a strong mental game, but you can work on it. It’s not one skill, but if you keep chipping away, you learn coping skills that will get you through those tough moments and you feel good about yourself when you make progress in that journey.
I love the idea of coping skills. What do you say to someone who’s reading this now and is like, “I can never run a marathon. That’s not going to happen. I’m not even going to try, practice, or develop any coping skills because I know I cannot do that?” What do you say to that?
You’re talking about my wife. The great thing about it is nobody has to run a marathon but that’s it. It starts with wanting to. There are lots of bad reasons to run a marathon. It’s like because your friend talks you into it, but you don’t want to or even goals of losing weight are not strong motivators. It has to be something personal. You have to have a why. That’s what happens. You get 18 to 20 miles into a marathon and you start to struggle. It happens every time. I’ve run close to 50 marathons and it never fails. You get deep into it and you’re like, “Why am I here?” You have to have an answer to that question and a good answer.
If you have one and your reason for being out there is connected to your deepest values that we’ll see through to the end, I’m not a parent so I don’t have kids but I’ve heard from people who are parents and are runners, they want to set an example of strength and resilience for their kids. Also, when every other reason vanishes and smokes in those moments, that’s the one. I want to be able to look my kids in the eye after I cross that finish line and say, “Daddy and mommy did it and you can too.” That’s one example. If your reason for being out there is tied or woven into the fabric of the person you want to be and that’s not the only coping skill, but that’s foundational, you have to have that why question answered.
From researching you and learning about you, you believe that life is a marathon. How do you use your coping skills out on the field or during your running events to deal with or have endurance when it comes to situations in life?
I wrote a book called Life is a Marathon and it’s about my journey as a runner, but it’s also about my journey through life. I know something about your story. I’m reading your book. I’ve never been through anything like that but if you live long enough, everybody goes through something hard. For me, my wife has bipolar disorder and we’ve been together for a few years when she was diagnosed. That threw both of our lives sideways. There was a whole decade when we struggled together. There was a lot of 911 calls and a lot of hospitalizations.You don’t have to be born with a strong mindset to attain it. You can work on it by being intentional. Click To Tweet
At the start of that, I was not the person I needed to be to survive, let alone be the husband my wife needed to be to get us through to the other side of that. My running helped me. It’s like a miniaturized version of life when you go through the struggles in a race or even a tough workout and you’ve only got one mind. It’s not like you would flip a switch when you start running and you’re a different person. Whatever coping skills you have, as you suggested on the racecourse, are the same ones you’re going to have off of it. I did toughen up.
I became more resilient by trying to get that monkey off my back as an athlete so I use it to bootstrap my way toward being the person I need to be for Nataki, my wife. A good example is early on after she was first diagnosed, I would be pretty quick to hit the panic button when I saw she was sliding into more of a manic phase. I would be like, “The house is on fire.” I might even know what to do, but I wouldn’t do it because I was frazzled and now I’m much slower to reach for that panic button. It’s not that I don’t feel the stress of what’s going on, but I’m more centered. I’m able to slow my mind down be like, “You know what’s going on here. It’s not fun but let’s do what we got to do.” There was a real transformation there.
Isn’t that the same thing when you’re on the racecourse? You’re feeling the pain and the burn. Your mind early on, when you were immature, as a runner, can’t handle it. It’s like, “Put the fire out. Stop running. This is too much.” It’s like me in the gym. When I’m feeling that burn, I want to stop but I’m able to overcome that chaos if you will of the mind and say, “This burn is good. We’ve got 2 or 3 more, or maybe we got five more.” It’s the calming of the mind that allows you to go forward and it’s the controlling of the mind and the speaking back to the mind because the mind is sending that survival signal to stop this hurt. You’re going to damage yourself. This is too much.
When you can speak back to it and be like, “You can go a little bit further. You’re not going to die. It’s going to be okay,” that’s a skillset that you develop. Another thing you had mentioned is the person that you want to be and want it to be for your wife. That’s important because a lot of times we look at things that we may want to do in life. Maybe it’s running. I want to run 50 marathons but it stops there. We don’t think about the person you have to be in order to run 50 marathons. That’s that next step. That’s the next level of thinking. I can do anything. We can do anything. If you want to run 50 marathons, you’re living proof that that can be done. The next person can do it too but it’s deciding to be the type of person that can run 50 marathons. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
You can run for any reason you want. It can be weight loss or it can be a social thing but for me, I like that inner journey because the opportunity is there. You can allow that journey to change you as a person and you have to have a vision. Usually, it starts off as you see who you don’t want to be, but you see what you don’t like about who you are now. I remember when I was in high school, I didn’t start a race. I did not show up to the starting line because I was afraid and a lot of people are afraid of the pressure of winning. I was expected to win by that point in my running career, but it wasn’t that that got to me, it was the pain. I was called to the starting line of a 2-mile track race and hid in the woods.
That was the longest bus ride home imaginable. Two hours felt like two years and because I hated myself. I told myself, “You’re a coward. You can’t hide from the fact.” Who hides in the woods? All the other boys showed up and raced. They got hurt and took their medicine but I didn’t. I did not like seeing myself that way. I was immature enough to make that decision but I was also mature enough to say, “We’re not stopping here.” You see what you don’t like about yourself and you can flip that around and turn it into the start of a vision of who you do want to be and it’s all hard work to get there.
What do you get out of putting your body and your mind through this process over and over again? There’s got to be something that you’re getting out of it to get you to continue to do it. I know what it is but I want to hear from you and allow you to tell the audience. What is that thing?
This is tough to translate for people who haven’t had these experiences, but maybe everyone has their parallel to it. You hear runners and other endurance athletes describe it as purifying. From the outside, it looks like masochism. It’s like, “You like pain.” No, we don’t but it’s the mastery of pain that is purifying. When you face it, and you get to the other side of it, you feel washed clean. A little bit of it is permanent. My dad was a Navy SEAL back in Vietnam. He went through all the training and the hell they’ve got to do. The washout rate is incredible and it’s pretty hard even to get selected to start and you have to be special to finish. That stays with you forever but at the same time, you can’t necessarily coast from there. It’s the same thing for me with the races I do. I feel great like I’m high for the rest of the day.
It doesn’t even have to be my best race. If I finished and I know I gave it everything I had, that is all the satisfaction I need. That high, a part of it is permanent but it also goes away and you need another fix. That’s why I keep coming back. The thing is something about it has to change. You would think, “Another marathon? What are you getting out of that? You’ve already done 45 or whatever.” I find ways for the journey to always take me to new places. On the surface, it might look the same but I’m going places I’ve never gone before and I make sure of it. Age will force that because I don’t even have the same body I used to have. Who knows? I might switch to golf at some point, but at this point, I’m still getting something fresh out of it each time.
You’re putting challenges on yourself. It’s not that you’ve done 49 marathons. It’s within those, each and every one, there’s a specific challenge that you levy upon yourself to overcome in that race, making the running of the marathon in and of itself unique to some level of mastery, resilience, and success that you’re still yet attempting to accomplish in all of your accomplishments. I love that because that’s symbolic to life. I was on a podcast interviewing someone and life is like that. It’s a series of challenges in different shades. It could be running a marathon, getting a spinal cord injury, car accident, bipolar disorder, or a number of things. The responsibility and the privilege that we all have are to figure out how to overcome them using the inner tools and strengths that we have as individuals. That’s part of being human.
We develop these things over time. If you look at a baby, I said this before, they don’t come out walking. They can’t move at all and they go through a series of failing to learn how to walk before they can walk but if you take that challenge away for them, they will never ever learn how to walk or feed themselves. If you took all those little things away from the baby that is seemingly a struggle, they are necessary.
Life is going to put those situations upon us by default, but if we have that mindset to seek out challenges in an effort to strengthen those skills, even at an early age, those coping skills. Imagine if we were taught coping skills at an early age, in-depth, coping skills. I believe that resilience, in my mind, is a skillset and it’s something that can be learned. You alluded to that when we started. Expound on it, because I don’t think everybody believes that some people feel you are either resilient, or you’re not and I don’t believe that. Resilience is a skill that can be learned.Mastery of pain is purifying. Click To Tweet
I’m living proof of that. I like to be realistic with people. We’re not all born the same, even if you look at physical gifts. Some people are born to paint. My wife has a beautiful singing voice. I would love to be able to sing but I can’t do it. You’ve got what you’ve got. One of the fun parts of my job is I get to sit down and talk to some of the greatest athletes on earth and you see that a lot of them are born with something special and that’s great, but it’s not the end of the story. You can be born without all that and acquire it. That’s me. That is truly my story and to me, all it takes is one example of someone who found, earned, and worked it, or chosen it whatever you want to say. That takes away the excuse from everyone else. That’s one example. That’s the first thing.
You have to believe it’s possible for you. If you can’t be talked out of the idea that resilience is something you either have or you don’t, you’ll never get it if you weren’t born with it. You have to believe it’s possible. That’s one of the things I love about your story is, it didn’t matter what the doctors told you. You couldn’t have said that you knew you would walk again, I don’t think, you chose to believe it was possible. No one could tell you for sure that it was impossible. Without that, you were going to hold on to that little mustard seed of a belief that, “I don’t know if it is impossible until I’m exhausted .” You were literally willing to die trying and that’s what it took. Ultimately, it turned out it was possible and you had to find out by giving it everything you’ve had. There’s another great example.
That is a great example because you won’t know unless you turn that switch on. You have to practice resilience and you have to seek the impossible sometimes or the other side. I’m not even going to say the impossible but the other side of the obstacle, you have to seek that. It may be seemingly impossible to get to the other side to the point that you don’t even want to seek it. You don’t want to climb that mountain, because I’m never going to get over that. Even if you have talent, you mentioned the guys that you had the opportunity to work with and maybe they do have something special.
Without resilience, you still can’t maximize that special thing that they have. You look at all of the great athletes like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Troy Aikman. The list goes on and on and all these athletes that were great, they had tremendous talent, godlike talent, but they still need resilience. If you take resilience and mindset away, I’m not sure they’re that great. They’re good. I’m not going to say that they’re great. There’s a level of cultivation.
Everyone has a lane, everyone has something special, and that’s what makes us all equal. I may not be a runner or singer but there’s something about me that’s different and unique. It’s up to me to cultivate that and along the way, there’s going to be some challenges, blockages, and things that challenge me in the cultivation of whatever it is that I have, I’m trying to bring forward and I’m after. Also, it’s whether you’re good at something, or you’re not good at something. It could be something that you like to do, maybe a hobby that you like to do like hiking. Maybe it’s something that challenges you and your hiking ability. Mindset resilience is the key to it all and it’s the most underdeveloped skillset that human beings have, in my opinion. It’s a fundamental skill that we should be teaching at an elementary age. Coping skills and resilience is the lifeline of success because you have talent. Take a look around it. Every talented person is successful because there are 4 or 5 other ones that are as talented, but don’t have the resilience.
You made me think of someone I wrote about in How Bad Do You Want It? He was a professional cyclist from Australia named Cadel Evans and he is one of these people who were like the chosen one. Cycling and endurance sports are huge in Australia. He got started early in mountain biking when it was a new sport. It got to the Olympics in 2000 for the first time and this kid as soon as he got on the bike, he won everything. He got all opportunities and was hooked up at a famous institution called the Australian Institute of Sport there. He had the best coaches and equipment. They put them through all the physiological testing and he destroyed the best numbers that have ever been put up in these tests. It’s like this guy is destined to win the Tour de France someday.
He became a champion mountain biker, switched to the roads, and went to the Tour de France. He’s young. He’s got it all and he loses. That’s okay. It’s his first time. He’s young so he’s got another chance. He comes back the next year and he loses. He comes back again the next year and loses. All of a sudden, it’s like, “I’m not so young anymore and people are starting to look at me a little differently.” It’s like, “What’s wrong with this guy? What is he missing?” What he was missing was resilience. What ended up happening with him is that he got fed up.
There’s a psychologist who has this term, Sweet Disgust. When you get angry, you’ve got to be careful with it but it can be good fuel for an athlete. The talent, desire, and discipline were there, but there was one thing missing and what he needed was to lose. He needed to lose to the point where he was angry and fed up because then he’d been through something. He was gifted that it was almost a liability because everything came easy to him. It wasn’t until it got hard that he couldn’t take that last step to the mountain top. That’s when he acquired resilience and in his seventh try, he won the Tour de France. No one had ever lost that many times and gone on to win.
What is the psychology behind anger? Let’s dive into that a little bit. How does that fuel a person or sabotage?
We know about anger. For a reason, we need it. You couldn’t survive without the capacity to feel anger but it can be toxic as well. When you see champion athletes, a lot of them compete angry. There’s the whole famous concept of bulletin board material or like, “Tell me I can’t. Please tell me I can’t.” It’s that whole, “I will show you” mentality. For example, research is showing that anger increases pain tolerance. I would love to be a psychologist in another life. They get some subjects and they do something to make them angry and they zap them with something.
When they’re angry, they can tolerate higher levels of pain. You can see how that could be channeled into the performance but it’s one of those things. It’s a powerful emotion and if your anger owns you, forget about it. It’s game over. That’s not going to enhance performance at all. Not everyone needs to get into that place but some do. If you learn how to channel it, it’s a natural emotion. Everyone’s going to feel angry sometimes. If you learn how to own your anger and use it productively, it can help you.
That is possible with every emotion. I bring this up because there’s a natural reaction to challenges, obstacles, adversity, or pain that everyone has and most people don’t like it. That emotion that builds up because of the change, challenge, or whatever it is, is useful. I love that because I can harness it and that’s a skill that has to be learned. For some people, that comes naturally. They turn into the Incredible Hulk at the drop of a dime but when we can channel those emotions in the right direction, it’s okay to be upset. I don’t mind getting upset. It’s what you’re going to do with that energy. That’s good energy. Don’t waste it on lashing out or doing something that’s not useful or not of service to you. Use it to take action in a positive direction. I feel that when you’re racing, someone’s next to you and they’re challenging you, taunting you, or something like that.Luck is great, but you can't count on it every day. You’ve got to be strong. Click To Tweet
I’ve seen this YouTube video about Michael Jordan and it was cool. Michael Jordan would talk trash to his opponents before the game and the analyst will say it wasn’t for them. It wasn’t to get them off their game or anything like that but he will talk trash to them so he will hold himself accountable. You can’t say you’re going to destroy somebody and not do it on the court. They’re going to talk about it. It was both ways. There were guys that would challenge Mike. When Mike was having an off game and they would say something to him, he hasn’t scored anything or any points all game but when someone says something to him, he’s in the zone and unstoppable. That’s a trigger so it’s understanding those trigger points.
There’s a book out called Relentless by Tim Grover. I don’t know if you read that book but Tim Grover talks about this. He talks about how when he’s training his guys. He pushes them to the point where they get angry, and they get into the zone and he does that deliberately not to see them get into the zone, but to know what triggers puts them in the zone. It’s not for him, it’s for them so now they know immediately where to go when they’re off having a bad game or they’re not on their game and they need to get in a mental capacity where they can reach peak performance. They know how to put themselves in that state.
Anger is not the only trigger. We should emphasize that. To drive home that point, I’ll give you another example. Look at the formula that athletes like Muhammad Ali used. Why did he talk so big? Why did he go out and boast about what he was going to do? Was it because he had an ego the size of the universe? No. He wanted to put pressure on himself. He wanted to broadcast exactly what he was going to do because when he got in that ring, he was going to look like a fool if he didn’t do it and he knew that. He was casting his mind ahead. He’s not in the ring yet. He’s at a press conference hyping up the fight but he knows that what he says now is going to be remembered by the Muhammad Ali who’s going inside the ring.
He would get to that moment and he would remember, “You said you’re going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. You said that the fight wouldn’t get pass round five,” or whatever. He felt he had to do it. I’m a huge Muhammad Ali fan so I do the same thing in my own little way. I put stuff out there because I write books and I coach. People pay attention to what I do. I use social media or whatever to share my goals, put them out there, and make them public so if I fail, I fail publicly, because it hurts twice as much.
It is pressure but I don’t do it to put pressure on myself, I do it because I will perform better. If I don’t crack, I will perform better because I’ve put that pressure on myself. Muhammad Ali, there’s only one of him. I’m not trying to be him. I’m trying to learn from him. Why did he do what he did? There was a method to his madness and we can all take something away from people who have that next level of mental game. That’s another example of a little pressure on yourself.
It’s funny because we’re dealing with COVID, a lot of social injustice, and all of these things and yet I feel that this is game time. This feels like the fourth quarter. The game is on the line. We have to show up and we have to perform. This is where stars are made. This is where leaders are born. This is the time. The time is now. I gathered and I knew this before then, but even more so now that change, challenge, pressure, stress to some degree, it brings out the best of us, but yet we want to avoid it. No one wants to go through things. No one wants to feel the pressure.
They have this, “Don’t stress yourself too much.” Tim Grover said it best. He says, “All BS.” You’ve got to read that book if you haven’t read that book because you look at stress in a totally different light. There is bad stress, the stress that you caused upon yourself that’s unnecessary, but he’s talking about the pressure of the challenge and being able to not crack. That’s the mental toughness and the fortitude to stand in there when it’s hot. You can feel the heat, but you have to stay calm. Know what it is that you’re supposed to do. Make sure that you’re prepared and perform as a result of being in that space. Without the pressure environment, you wouldn’t go to certain spaces that you’re going to go to in that situation because there’s not enough pressure there to cause you to go to that space.
When that pressure shows up, it’s a calling and a stage that’s set for you to become or experience a better version of you, but you’ve got to step up to it. It may be uncomfortable for a while but when you are feeling that discomfort, you’re still in that space where growth, change, betterment, progress, new knowledge, creativity, innovation, whatever you want to call it. All of those things are available and ready for you and what you choose is necessary to bring forward in order to get to the other side or defuse that pressure situation.
My mindset and perception towards it are different. I know it hurts and uncomfortable but as an athlete or star athlete, this is what they thrive on. This is what they look for. In the final seconds of the game, “I want the ball. Give me the ball. Let’s make this happen.” I feel like that’s a great feeling and realizing that we have that opportunity. That’s what it is for me. It’s more of an opportunity than a setback or something negative. I can’t even think of the term for it now.
Exactly. It’s an opportunity.
I collect mantras, little phrases that serve as lifelines to me when I’m in the cauldron, in a competition. You’re talking to yourself. There’s one voice here on this side of your head and one voice on the other side. One of the favorites that I go to again and again is, “You’ve been here before.” When you’re in it, you’re reaching for the panic button because it hurts. It’s a full-blown psychological crisis. You’re in a crisis state. It’s like, “This sucks and I want it to end but the finish line is so far away.” I’ll remind myself, “This is nothing new. You’ve done this before. You’ve been here. You’ve been to exactly the situation before and it came out fine so do it again.” You are making the connection between sports and life. The distinction is there are challenges we choose and there are challenges we don’t choose.If it's almost impossible, it's still possible. Click To Tweet
Who’s going to deal with the challenges in life that you don’t choose? Is it someone who routinely chooses challenges or someone who routinely avoids challenges? That’s what you’re doing. You can enjoy the sport and do it because you enjoy it but you’re also training yourself to be able to handle challenges because you can’t avoid them all. Look what’s going on in the world now. I’m putting the finishing touches on a book called The Comeback Quotient. It’s all about comeback. That’s why when you reach out to me, I’m like, “Yes.” In the introduction of that book, I’m trying to make the point that sports are a metaphor for life. When I started writing this book, this was before all this madness happened and I’m like, “Do you see what I’m talking about?” I’m not glad that all this stuff happened but it’s a case in point. The whole world now in America especially needs to come back from our terrible year. None of us could escape it. I got COVID-19. It knocked me out.
Are you serious?
Yes. It knocked me out for a month. My wife is African-American so both of these things hit not close to home. They’re right inside my home. I don’t care who you are. I could talk to any one of my neighbors and they could tell a story about how 2020 has been for them. You can’t escape every challenge in life so you’ve got to be prepared. It doesn’t have to be running marathons but one way or another, if you choose challenges, you train your mind to be able to handle the challenges that life throws your way. You want that. You can’t be lucky to have a happy life. You have to be strong too. Luck is great, but you can’t count on it every day. You’ve got to be strong.
In your book, The Comeback Quotient, have you identified how athletes or people who deliberately seek out challenges respond to situations like this versus those who don’t? Are there some stats that you could share with us?
If you define comebacks broadly, there are a million different flavors of a comeback. These have nothing in common on the surface. You see a lot of sports psychologists talk about things like resilience but that can be squishy. It’s quality. I was looking at something more like, is there a common process? What are the actual steps? I know the comebacks look different on the surface but are they all, below the surface, doing the same thing? What I found is that they are and for me, I also coach a lot of athletes so I see this too. The three steps are accepting, embracing, and addressing reality.
Reality is harsh. I see this in your story too, because you talk a lot about reality. A lot of people who had exactly happen to them, what happened to you, they would still be in a wheelchair. It would be because they couldn’t even take that first step of accepting what had happened to them. If you deny it, you’re not going to have to admit, “I’m paralyzed.” There are people who don’t even get that far. It’s either denial or panic is a form of denial, where you curl into a ball and you’re like, “No. This isn’t happening.” You have to first admit, “Alright. This is real.”
The next step is to embrace the reality and say, “Just because this is my current reality doesn’t mean it’s my permanent reality.” The last step is you die trying to change reality. You put everything you’ve got. It’s like, “This is the way it is. I don’t want it to be this way and now I’m going to make a better reality.” I like the whole metaphor of turning lemons into lemonade. First, you have to admit, “These are lemons.” If you deny it, you’re not getting anywhere, then you have to make the choice of, “I’m going to do something with these lemons. I’m going to make lemonade,” and you have to make the lemonade. That’s where all these athletes are when they make these astonishing comebacks. How did they do it? That’s what they’re doing.
Where does awareness come in? Sometimes people don’t feel they can change that reality. That’s an important factor. Especially with something like spinal cord injury where there’s not a lot of medical advances, cures, or procedures that they could do to correct it so now you feel hopeless. I know a lot of people that are dealing with life especially in COVID-19 and even in this social injustice situation that are like, “There’s no hope.” We’ve been seeking social justice for a long time. A lot of people have died in seemingly no hope around that. There are a lot of people that lost their jobs and a lot of businesses that have gone under in the wake of COVID-19. One may think, “There’s nothing. I can’t shake the reality because reality has been shaping me.” What is your response to that?
You have to be comfortable with uncertainty. To get back again to your example, until you know it’s impossible, you have to believe it’s possible. Maybe some things are impossible. Maybe you can’t jump off a building and fly by believing you can. When something looks doubtful or almost impossible that’s good enough for them. They’ll assume it’s impossible but the people who get out of the wheelchair when it looks almost impossible are the ones who say, and I like that line from Dumb and Dumber, “You’re saying there’s a chance?” even though they told you it’s one in a million. That’s the attitude. If it’s one in a million, that’s one. They don’t see the 999,999. They’re looking at the one. It’s like, “I’m going to be the one.” You have to have that mentality. Everyone can get there. Some people maybe are a little more pessimistic or they don’t or even lack self-confidence, self-belief can factor into that. You can get there if you understand it conceptually like, “If it’s almost impossible, it’s still possible.”
I mentioned that in the book as well. I don’t know if you read that part where I talk about having to give yourself the opportunity of possibility and that’s what I mean by that. Even if it’s a small shot, it was me trying and giving myself that opportunity because if I don’t try, it’s not possible. It doesn’t matter what the doctor said. The doctor could say, “Yes, it’s possible but there’s still going to be a lot of work behind. You’ve got to make this happen. I can’t give you a pill and heal your spinal cord. Even if I did, there’s still some retraining. Your body has gone through trauma. You’ve got to work that out. There’s a lot that you’re going to have to do physically in order to bring this back and it’s highly unlikely that you will, but it’s possible.”
Even if he told me that and I didn’t put forth that effort, it’s not possible for me because I’m not willing to put the work in and that’s relevant. A lot of the situations we face now even in COVID and even for a lot of people that lost their jobs and feeling grief and all of that, I know it’s hard, difficult, it sucks and uncomfortable but to bounce back from this is possible. To try is to give yourself that opportunity to do so. To go and curl up in a ball, you’re taking away your opportunity for it to be possible for you.
There was another thing I did in my journey, and I still do it now. When I am in a situation where I feel I have lost based on social standards, that’s a loss. When you lose a game by social standards, that’s a loss. If you didn’t score enough points with their regulation by everyone’s definition, that’s a loss. For me, if that happens, the talk to myself is, “That’s only a temporary.” Defeat is always only temporary. It’s temporary until the next opportunity for me to succeed. As soon as I give myself that opportunity, I start experiencing success, even at the micro-level at that point defeat is over.The story isn’t over yet. Turn the page. There's another chapter and in that chapter, you win. Click To Tweet
If I’m still dwelling on it, it’s my fault. I’m still feeling a loss from something that happened in the past and I have experienced success. I’m not giving myself credit for it because I’m still dwelling on the loss. I’m feeling the experience of losing instead of experiencing what it would feel like to win or to have success, even at the micro-level, because a win is a win. It’s important that we recognize our successes so that we can build upon them and that feeling of success is contagious. The more you start feeling that and letting that get down into your core, the more you want it. The more you start craving for it, it gets to answer your values where winning is a core value and experiencing successes of value. It becomes habitual. Your behavior, activity, and the things that you do like your rituals and structures that you set up for yourself become in line with that value to win. Your success is a whole lot more in life and you can see success.
You start recognizing successes even in the smallest thing. You don’t have to go out with a marathon to experience success. You can experience success in your meal planning, reading ten pages a day, waking up on time, or showing up on time. There are many opportunities for us to experience success and give ourselves credit for it but as soon as defeat comes, it seems it destroys everything. It’s like, “I’m a failure.” We define ourselves by those little times of defeat, but the defeat, in my mind, is only temporary in my life. I’ll make it short. It’s micro. I don’t dwell in that space long at all.
I agree with everything you say. I have a slightly different perspective on exactly the same insights. For me, I like the idea that you are the author of your own story. If you experience defeat or failure, add another chapter to your story. You could be building up to some moment where you want to succeed, and it doesn’t turn out the way you thought. People might be looking at you and saying, “It didn’t end well.” The story is not over yet. I’m going to add another chapter and now this is a cliffhanger, an exciting setback on the way to an ultimate victory. You see athletes do that all the time. They don’t deny that they fail or lose. They’re like, “The story isn’t over yet. Turn the page. There’s another chapter and in that chapter, I win.”
How can people connect with you, Matt, if they want to learn more about you, work with you, etc.? How can they find you?
Matt, how do you deal with barriers at times? I know you sometimes have mental blocks or just barriers to performance or any type when you’re not on your game or you’re not having that mental toughness is not showing up for you. Even in a race where you’re feeling like, “I don’t feel like I’m there,” how do you deal with that?
I always try to emulate the athletes who do it well. I’m on this big reality kick these days because of this Comeback book I’m working on. I look at it squarely. I did an ultramarathon a few weeks before I got sick. It was brutal. It was 62 miles long and I didn’t finish and there aren’t many races that I didn’t finish. I was angry with myself and this is one of those things that I hyped up. A lot of people knew I was going to be doing this. It was the farthest race I’d ever attempted and I failed. I ended up writing about it and sharing what went on and why I failed. It was because I didn’t want it bad enough. My heart wasn’t in it. Speaking of challenges, the ones you don’t choose, my mom has Alzheimer’s disease, and my wife and I took a shot at bringing her into our home and caring for her.
While I was training for this ultramarathon, my wife and I were caring for my mother who has dementia and it was hugely stressful. It was a big challenge. There’s lots of research showing that you only have so much emotional energy to put into whatever and that often if you’re putting a lot of emotional energy into something, let’s face it, nothing matters more than our mothers. Much of my emotional energy was going into that I didn’t show up at that start line with a full tank. I was fit, but when I got to that moment, where it was a real gut check, I didn’t have what was usually there and it caught me off guard. I admitted it because you learn from it. It’s okay. Life goes on.
Two weeks later, I ran the Atlanta Marathon and crushed it in part because I was fueled by what I’d taken away from that experience of failure. Barriers are a drag, but I’ve hit many barriers by this point. I see the value in them it’s like, “How can I use this?” I hit this barrier for a reason. This barrier can turn into a springboard to the next success if I choose to use it in that way. That’s how I deal with it.
Matt, how can people bounce back from adversity, dominate challenges, and consistently win the game of life?
We’ve talked a lot of a lot about the ingredients and one I feel like the little hole I want to plug is to give yourself permission to do it your way. I feel like I’ve said a lot about emulating people who have already become resilient and that’s great. It’s valuable. You talked about the need for developing coping skills and resilience early and you need to know how it’s done in order to learn how to do it. There’s also room for doing it your way because we’re all unique. We don’t necessarily all have the same formula and if we get locked into the idea, it’s like, “I’ve got to be Muhammad Ali or else I’ll never be resilient.” No, you don’t. Muhammad Ali is Muhammad Ali and you’re you. You can learn something from him but give yourself permission to find your own way. We all have unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses or limitations, let’s say. It’s okay to learn how it’s done but also keeps space to find your own recipe.
Matt Fitzgerald, thank you for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with your races. Good luck with your books.
Thanks for the time and platform, Rodney.
Thank you. There you have it, another successful episode. Give yourself permission to do it your way. That is profound and such sage advice. It’s like a carpenter with a toolbox. The carpenter goes to the toolbox, pulls out the tools, builds a house and he builds it his way. He gives you the tools and the know-how. You have the opportunity to go pull out those tools and build the house that you want to live. In this case, build the life that you want to live. That’s all important and profound. We can do it our way. You can do it your way and I’m looking forward to what you build. Until next time. Peace and love.
- Running the Dream
- 80/20 Running
- How Bad Do You Want It?
- 80/20 Endurance
- Diet Quality Score
- Life is a Marathon
- Cadel Evans
- The Comeback Quotient.
- 80/20 Endurance – Facebook
About Matt Fitzgerald
Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance sports author, coach, and nutritionist. His many books include Running the Dream, 80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It? Matt’s writing has also appeared in numerous magazines and on many popular websites. He is the cofounder and co-head coach of 80/20 Endurance and the creator of the Diet Quality Score smartphone app. A lifelong endurance athlete, he speaks frequently at events throughout the United States and internationally.
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