I’m 46 years old and still in pretty good shape. Granted, I’m no Speedo model, but as a former college athlete and professional performance coach, I have taken good care of my body. But at this age, nature does its thing. Any time I feel like I can’t quite do what I used to be able to do, I think about Vince Carter.
Vince Carter is the only NBA player to play in four different decades. Let that sink in for a moment. He was there in the 1990’s and he was there in 2020. He was a teammate of Dell Curry’s and played against his sons, Steph and Seth. When he finally retired he was 43 years old and played for 22 seasons… and absolute unicorn in professional sports.
In the summer of 2008 I had the great fortune to work the Vince Carter Nike Skills Academy in Orlando and spend some time with him. I was so impressed with how present he was throughout the camp, investing his time to connecting with young players and sending the elevator back down to the next wave of future NBA superstars.
One of things Vince preached heavily and emphasized daily – to the players and in our private conversations – was his commitment to his keeping his mind/body healthy and optimized. It was obvious even then that he understood the correlation between his daily habits, decisions, and behavior… and his longevity.
And while you may not have to maintain the same level of physical conditioning as a pro-athlete, the same is true in your life. Prioritizing adequate sleep, clean eating, and consistent workouts lays the foundation for your own emotional endurance and resilience. You have to make the time to fill your bucket now… so it won’t be empty later!
My friend and mentor, Rick Simmons, an executive coach and consultant extraordinaire, and founder of the groundbreaking telos institute, told me about an ultra-running event he had done several years ago in Cleveland. To my astonishment, he ran the same 1-mile loop over and over for 24 hours. Rick’s goal was to get to 100 laps. For those of you that weren’t math majors, that’s 100 miles!
At the end of each lap, the organizers on the sidelines would ask the runners what their goal was. Rick answered the question the exact same way lap after lap: 100 laps. But at some point in the race, he had what he described to me as an out of body experience. He was watching himself run, almost from above, and it occurred to him that the goal he set for himself had actually become a limitation! Once that clicked for him, the whole experience transformed. He realized his goal had become a limit. When they asked him about his goal at the next lap, he just yelled: “Do the best I can and feel good about it!” He said the words just emitted out of it, without thought. He realized that was the only goal he ever needed. And he continued to answer that way–all the way to the 24-hour mark. His final tally: 112 laps.
And while a race of this nature might not be your thing (which is certainly understandable!), a 24-hour ultra-endurance race is analogous to the race we’re all running… our lives. Do you have a predetermined limit that could ultimately be a ceiling? Or are you focused on doing your best and feeling great about it?
Emotional endurance and resilience isn’t built in one moment, it’s developed and cultivated over time. It’s about consistency. And thankfully, life provides us no shortage of opportunities to practice!
Every obstacle and every adversity you face will reveal opportunities. They may not be obvious at first—and you may have to look closely—but they are there. Coupling a difficult situation with a bad response just makes things exponentially worse. Having a system in place, in advance, to overcome it is the best way to tackle anything. And is absolutely the most effective way to strengthen your emotional endurance and resilience.
Here is the 3-step process I follow any time I’m faced with a major challenge:
- Give yourself permission to temporarily feel scared, disappointed, worried, irritable, or anxious. There is nothing wrong with these feelings. They are normal and natural. Sit with your emotions. Don’t try to suppress them.
- As your anxiety escalates and things feel overwhelming, take a moment to refocus your lens and regain poise. Become a spectator to your own emotions to reframe your mindset. Be present. React properly, in proportion to the challenge.
- Once you feel centered, determine what is the best response to the situation. Looking through a purely objective lens, what is your best option? What behavior will move you forward? What actions will improve your circumstances? Acknowledge that you don’t control what is going on, just your response. And hold yourself accountable.
If you want to strengthen your emotional endurance and develop impermeable resilience, you can’t bottle your emotions and keep things inside. If you hold in your emotions, suck up the pain, and just silently bear it, you will eventually break. Those who end up succeeding, who withstand setbacks and manage obstacles, are not putting on the appearance of toughness. They’re actually tough, which means they are open to being vulnerable.
Vulnerability and strength are intimately connected to each other and if you’re afraid of being vulnerable (either out of pride or out of fear), you are putting a ceiling on what you can achieve. And you won’t be able to endure through difficult phases. Those too afraid of getting hurt end up getting hurt the most. It’s time everyone—men especially—gave up the idea that vulnerable feelings make us weak. Real courage is about being open.
With only 4 seconds left in the 2012 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship game, DeMatha was down one with the ball at mid-court. If we scored, senior James Robinson would become the first player in WCAC history to win four consecutive championships, in a conference that ESPN continually ranks #1 in the nation. And though the circumstance was not ideal, I still liked our chances. James Robinson was, without question, the best leader I have ever coached. Not the best shooter, ball handler, or most athletic, (though he was great at all those things.) He was the best leader and, not coincidentally, a winner.
At that point James had already won more games—120—than any player in the history of DeMatha basketball. With four seconds left, Coach Jones called a time-out to calm the troops, strategize, and set up a play for James to take the last shot. It was a play that we had run successively dozens of times in practice. Just as scripted, we successfully inbounded the ball to James:
4 seconds left… he ripped it across his defender and drove toward the lane.
3 seconds left… he got a few feet past the free throw line and elevated to shoot.
2 seconds left… he shot the ball on balance and with perfect form.
1 second left…
The ball hit the front rim and fell short.
The horn sounded. Game over. We lost by 1. The other team’s fans stormed the court in celebration. James instantly collapsed, sobbing. He was inconsolable, and I could only imagine what the young man was feeling. Like he let his teammates down. Like he let his coaches down. Like he let DeMatha down.
After Coach Jones addressed the team for the final time that season, James, all 6’ 3” and 210 lbs. of him, sat on the court for two hours in tears. Now, I realize there are much bigger losses in life than losing a game. But you have to view the world through James’s lens. He was 18 years old. He had spent his entire life preparing for this moment and it wasn’t the ending he had dreamed about. His heart was heavy. I imagine he had a rough night.
Do you know what James did the next morning? He didn’t sulk. He didn’t hide. He didn’t make excuses. He arrived at the gym two hours before school started—the season is over, mind you—and reenacted that exact same play until he made it 100 times. He got closure and moved to the Next Play. James made the decision to not let that missed shot define him or cause him further unhappiness. That young man taught me a lesson about resilience that has stayed with me to this day. You will have hard times. You will face adversity, varying levels of challenges, and setbacks. It is inevitable. And your emotional endurance and resilience—and by extension, your sense of self and overall fulfillment —hinges on your ability to bounce back.