Strong vs. Tough

As I went through my Harlequin notes, I came across a phrase I wrote down – strong vs. tough. I didn’t really know the difference between the two, so I went to consult my good old friend Google. I got some good descriptions, but the one that gave me the most clarity was from a website aimed at men – Art of Manliness. It served me well in that it gave me a good understanding of the difference, lots of insights into myself and my competitive side, and also some questions on my spiritual side. I made a fleeting comment last week that had I done the awakening before I stopped competing in cycling, I would probably still be competing but with a fresh view of how I approach it. After reading this article, I also now know why I find some sense of pleasure in pushing my body beyond what my mind feel realistic or capable.

The article called You may be strong, but are you tough? is aimed at giving men a different way to approach physical strength training. Strength can be explained as someone who specialises in a specific skill or area, i.e. power lifters are strong at lifting weight in their specific sport, cyclists are strong in cycling, runners are strong in running. Toughness is someone’s ability to push through challenging situations. E.g. a power lifter who has an injury, can decide to push the pain to the back of their mind and still push through the pain and still compete. A cyclist who pushes through the pain to be over the line first, or is willing to cycle despite bad weather and conditions, a runner who has blisters and decides to still run and finish. Toughness can not go without some form of strength, but you don’t need to be strong to be tough. And being strong doesn’t automatically imply that you are tough. Toughness is your willingness to feel the discomfort, sometimes even extraordinary pain and push through it anyway. The article further goes into ways of becoming more tough and a certain method of fitness currently out there that works more on your “toughness” muscle than only making you strong. This is all body though, something I am very good at, and this is not why the article caught my attention.

What if some of us are strong in life, and others of us are tough? I have a feeling though that we are all born to be tough, and in a very real sense we all have some toughness in us, whether we choose it or not. Think about it, life is a series of events, good and bad (if you look at life that way), or in my words hard and easy, and we face these on a daily basis. Sometimes we allow the event to beat us, sometimes we beat the event and come out of it stronger, but what makes us strong is that we were tough enough to face the pain and go through it anyway. The article states that just having a strong mind won’t enable us to endure toughness – we need to condition our mind and body for toughness. The mind is affirmations, seeing the positive in life, not allowing what other people think of us to be the filters we apply to our lives. The body is training to become stronger, but also practicing doing things that are uncomfortable, like sticking to an inconvenient diet for a while, not having a car, choosing to only breathe through your nose while you are training to force your body to train on less oxygen it is used to, training at altitude. Here is the difference in physical training and life to me – in physical training, I am in complete control (or mostly anyway) of when and where I put myself in these uncomfortable situations. Life doesn’t always let us choose, it throws the curveballs anyway, whether we think we are ready for them or not. But what if we could occasionally practice being uncomfortable in life to be better equipped to deal with the curveballs? Is this at all possible? Things that come up in my mind is that I could go out of my way to connect with people on a different level, which would make me even better at building connections. Or I could make a phone call every single day to start overcoming my fear of talking to people over the phone. But these are all things I can do to get better at what I believe will bring me huge value in my life. How do I become uncomfortable to prepare me for things like someone rejecting you, life stepping in? To be quite honest I cannot even think what the various curveballs in life are, maybe that is exactly it. We don’t know, we cannot predict it, so then how do we prepare ourselves for it? I don’t know if it is possible to consciously place yourself in uncomfortable life situations to practice. I do know that I can learn tools to deal with life, as I have to date, and then roll with the punches. All I can practice is using the tools…

Or actually, that’s just it. Up to recently I have seen “life” as hard and sometimes unfair, but that is what I believed it to be. It isn’t hard or unfair, it just is. Like our current situation – Leon’s dad had a heart attack, and is currently in for heart surgery. That was a curveball, which threw life upside down. We left Tuesday evening to drive through the night to come to PE, and we’re now sitting waiting for him while he is having heart surgery. Even Cassidy leaving us – that was a curveball. But I could see and can see the good in both these events. Currently, I have the consolidation time I have been looking for and probably desperately need to consolidate not only what I have learned in the last couple of weeks, but since Harlequin in May. I also needed some time to practice my newfound mindfulness techniques and was worried that the mad rush of deadlines and work and what I believe my company expects from me would get in the way, and that I would forget to practice it, now I can practice it every day. I am also very fortunate to be an observer of seeing how Leon’s relationship with his dad is shifting, so there is something for him here too, and it is beautiful to see it! So maybe it is not that things are too tough for us to handle, maybe it is just that we are scared of change, and we need to trust more that we are equipped to deal with the change.

The article spoke about mindful training. In a gym it is very easy not to be mindful of your training programme – you listen to music while you are training, see other buff people and the mind chatter comes in the way, friends talking, weights being dropped, people waiting for you to finish on the bench. I was fascinated that the word mindful came up in an article about making yourself more of a man. Most probably 90% of the readers will read this article and not really understand the profoundness of this statement. Mindfulness is my new spiritual practice. It has made me feel like a child, and even though I have only been practicing it for a couple of days, I can see the absolute value and necessity of it. Mindfulness (in my opinion, this is not from research) is good for a couple of things – shutting down the constant mind chattering wondering what other people think about you, seeing the simple pleasures and treasures in life, experiencing joy from moment to moment, living in the now and forgetting about yesterday and tomorrow, it has brought me calm, and when I feel my energy disappearing it is a very quick and handy tool to call on the cosmos to refuel my energy. By energy I don’t mean my ability to move or function, I mean energy on a much deeper level. Steve taught us last week that mindfulness is an active meditation technique. I don’t have to try and sit quiet for 15 minutes a day to quiet my mind. I can be mindful of three bites of food and I’ll get the same benefit. Practicing to be mindful is another meditation technique for me to add to my list, yay! I often speak about how I absolutely love swimming, I love the feeling when you get it right and you feel like you glide through the water. I also find it a good grounding sport for when I am going through something hard. Because you have to focus on your technique and doing it right, it is much easier to quieten your mind. The same counts for rock-climbing. When you are trying to figure out the most efficient way to get to the next grip and push through the absolute agony your muscles may be experiencing, there is no space to be wondering about the work lying ahead or the fight you had a couple of hours ago with someone. Further than that, studies have shown that athletes who can go into a competitive difficult situation and remain calm and focus on what needs to be done to excel have much lower brainwave activity than those who start panicking. And lower brainwaves = meditation. Drumroll, penny drop – my love for pushing my body past the restrictions my mind places on it has always been to get past my body and transcend my training all the way through to my soul. I have always believed that there is something spiritual about a really hard training session (those 15 minute max effort ones specially), and finally now I know that there is.

The dimension of my life that I am the strongest in, is my body. There is no better feeling in the world when you have pushed yourself so hard that you thought you may pass out, or being the one who went out training in gushing winds, and knowing that not many people would push that hard. I have often questioned myself why I do it, what value am I getting out of it. Today, I have the answer. Because pushing past this pain, past this challenging situations takes a different mindset, and if embraced openly and without the mind getting in the way, can transcend you to a spiritual place. So essentially it isn’t that it needs a different mindset, it needs no mindset! I now remember really tough training sessions when I finished and for a moment or two felt as though I was no longer even present in my body, but somewhere else. I have always disconnected what we do in sport with what we experience when we meditate or our hearts are deeply touched. Today I understand that this separation has always been my mind. There is no separation, doing a sport can be as much a spiritual experience as being a master meditator. And for me, it is the best way I know how to achieve that experience, truly experience it.

I stopped competing not because my physical body couldn’t do it, I stopped because I was tired of fighting with my mind to be the best. If you ask me today I would tell you that I am tired of waking up before 4 in the mornings to train and tired of giving up my whole weekend to train. Am I tired of it, probably, for now. But where I’m sitting now a couple things are at play. Firstly, my body has been the vehicle for many years to perform extreme physical activities. I am VERY much in tune with my body. I know when I’m going to get sick, I know what certain food groups do to it, I know when I am getting a cold and when I’m getting flu, I know when I am pushing my body past its limits and I know when it is just putting in a lot of effort but not going all the way. My body has given me lots of successes, I have been in the top 10 veteran cyclists for a good 3 years, won some races, taken podium on many other races, had a six pack, had a ripped back. My body is absolutely amazing in its capabilities. But not until last week have I given it the honour and respect it deserves. I have beaten it up, over and over and over, not only physically, but more importantly mentally. When I come second in a race I beat it up for not coming first. When I come first I beat it up by finding a reason why I came first, like that the major competitors didn’t pitch on the day. My poor body has probably finally turned around and said you know what, you can’t appreciate me, I’m not going to do this anymore. Secondly, I have allowed my mind to get into the way more and more. Unfortunately this a problem all us humans have, especially our Western culture. We spend almost every single day in our mind. The mind is awesome and powerful, but it is in a joint venture with our body, soul and subconscious. We cannot give it all the work, although it is a bit of a control freak and will gladly take over all the responsibility. But, it gets in the way. Only when you ask your mind to step aside will the body and the soul and the subconscious step in and show you what you are capable of. I now get it. Finally I’m in a space where I have learned how to give the mind enough to chew on to then step aside and let the rest come into play. The trick here is to remind myself every day to keep doing it. Fastest technique to do it for me right now – mindfulness. With this new found information, at some point I will definitely go back to competing in cycling, but I am consciously making a decision to hold back so I can work on some business ventures first and get them off the ground, and also to start laying the foundations for these new tools before I take on competing again. I decide to focus my attention on the soul and subconscious for a while and being aware of how they integrate into my sport.

There is one more tool this site touches on to be tough – flexibility. Our body is not that different from our personal lives. When we aren’t flexible in our lives, we will break. Flexibility is good for being able to recover quickly, perform better, and just general feel good. So it is for life too. If we are flexible, we will recover quicker from the hard times because we will let go our points of view easier to possibly achieve other unexpected results. We will also perform better, because we will open ourselves up to new opportunities. Just general feel good, does it not feel better to decide to let your point of view go and see a smile on someone’s face rather than forcing your own point of view? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should just give everything up and let things go whichever way. But sometimes when you feel stuck, let something go and experiment, you may be surprised at what you find!

Something that came up for me in reading this article is that I’m definitely more a tough type person than a strong person. I don’t think I am a strong communicator, or strong in my spiritual connection to the cosmos, or perform any of the tools I have learned exceptionally well, but hell I can take on many things and push through even on the days when I feel like I’m going to collapse. I often think to myself I am not capable of doing something, but instantly the thought is replaced with yes you can, get up one more time. I have the talent of attracting big lessons in my life, but I also know today that it is my toughness and my ability to endure that enables me to do this. I have a feeling that something really good is going to come of this, very soon, and this feeling is enough to get me to stand up again tomorrow and do it all again.


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