Handling Adversity: Not If, But When
Adversity is the reality of life, and yet, when it hits us, it challenges the full essence of who we are at the core. When I was looking back at older articles, I read this entry. It was during a time in my life that was so hard for my family, my mother, my wife, children, and me. We loved my father with all our souls. As you read about our time with him battling so hard, you will understand the faith and fear that we have. For me, as the only child and a son looking to be the best father I could, I drew so much strength from my hero, namely, how to take on a challenge. When I had my left hip replaced, I was terrified of the surgery. The morning of the operation, I wore the same coat my father wore into his surgery, the one that started his ultimate demise, and I carried (and still do today) the courage coin that he flew with in the Air Force. As I got out of my truck that morning, I said out loud, “Dad, I carry your strength, bravery, and courage into this. Let’s get after it.” It brought me so much strength in my adversity and fear.
We ultimately lost my father in this battle, but his lessons persist. This article is powerful for that reason.
Those that know me understand that the events in my life define my philosophy to sports and living. I am open and feel that giving a window into my life allows you to understand better where I am coming from and the influences that impact me. My family, playing history, professional training, and interactions provide great experiences for your learning and competitive pursuits. This week is no different.
As some of you may know, I wrote an article on Father’s Day that shared the positive influence my father has played in my life. What you may not have known is that he was in the hospital at the time of the article and has had a tough go of it. Over the past two years, he has spent about six months in the hospital, with about six weeks of that time in Intensive Care. He is still there as I write this. The good news is that we think he has pulled through again and will be fine, minus any complications. He is a strong, stubborn fighter.
He has battled an intestinal problem and has really hit the lows, but has also hit the highs. Twice, we were told that he was not likely to survive the surgery, 2 of the 5 operations, and that we are hour to hour. We have heard the response of “just make it to the next hour” enough that we get good at counting the hours. Just Wednesday, we were told to summon the family together and let the surgical team do their job, as all we were told was “pray he survives.” (I believe your faith is your personal walk, so I will not go any further on that in this article, and I respect your walk.) It is a tough position in which to be. Still, many go through it every day, and we watched numerous other families go through it in the ICU and Surgical Waiting areas in each hospitalization. Today, we feel strongly about his ability to, once again, have a near-full recovery.
"When you are competing, think about how you would approach it if it were your life. Would you throw a tantrum and sulk, or would you turn and face it?"
So Why Am I Sharing This?
Life and competition are littered with adversity. It is not “if,” but “when.” The question is how you handle it. I have no way to quantify or explain how or why my dad keeps fighting and surviving, but I am honored and pleased that he does. I have no way of understanding how or why my mom, my wife, and I keep digging deep to stand by his side and encourage him through it. All I have is some thoughts on adversity and how it relates to your sports, life, and professional pursuits.
Every year, I watch in amazement as the families and survivors walk in the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure. In times of great despair, sadness, and fear, there is a culture of celebration and unity that pulls together the greatness in us. At times of the most significant adversity, there is a thread that binds us all together, a strand of life that pulls us to greatness. They are not turning their backs to the adversity that has been dealt to them; instead, they are facing it head-on, saying, “You can hurt me, but you can’t kill me.” Your spirit cannot be broken.
A colleague of mine, someone I like to think of as a friend although we have only spoken a few times and met in person once, wrote a brilliant book about adversity and dealing with it called Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down. Jerry White, the author of the book, lost his leg when he was 19 in an unfortunate landmine accident in Israel, but went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work in worldwide landmine eradication. He walked alongside Princess Diana, addressed the United Nations, and sat alongside many children recovering from their tragedies. He was hit over the head with adversity, but instead turned and faced it. He truly inspires millions today, but he does it by embracing it and not running from it. As he says in the book, prepare to be knocked down and be more prepared to get back up.
One of my favorite books is “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. It recounts the unreal story of Louie Zamperini, a former Olympic miler before World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he entered the military as a bombing officer, leading dangerous and low percentage missions in the Pacific. Without telling you the guts of the story and the book, Zamperini was faced with unreal adversity several times during this service and his life. His view of impending adversity was the real, underlying story, as he never saw the challenges as the final chapter. Still, instead, he embraced the challenge because he prepared for it. He had a remarkable ability to reframe the situation and rise to meet the challenge. Read the book, and you will see what I mean.
So many times, players, coaches, and parents call me for consultation because their performance is suffering. The slump or adversity is viewed like it is a bad flu, that if something is done, I can take away the pain and suffering of the difficulty and help them “get over it.” Adversity in performance and life is not about getting over it, but instead getting through it. Gary Player was recently quoted as saying the best way to handle adversity is “to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” What a great quote. The phone call and request for a consultation with me often seems like the player is running from a swarm of bees, looking for the nearest pond to jump in and miss the painful stings. The uncomfortable feeling is so problematic that they are running from the real problem – trying to avoid adversity.
As I sit in the ICU waiting room and wait to see my father, I have watched so many different families, interpersonal dynamics, and coping strategies come through the waiting room. Those that seem to be the most adjusted also seem to be the ones that are standing nose to nose to adversity, saying “bring it on.” They are actively engaged in the suffering, the process, and the decisions. You have to be willing to stand nose to nose with the adversity in your performance and your life. Who will blink first? It is not about the outcome, but about your willingness to stand firm in front of the challenge.
When you are competing, think about how you would approach it if it were your life. Would you throw a tantrum and sulk, or would you turn and face it? If your coach is challenging you and making things hard on you, would you act differently if you were sitting in that ICU waiting room?
I recently joined a new gym and training facility because I was tired of the way that I was living. I knew that I did not want to keep living with a disregard for my long-term health, but I had resisted starting the program because I knew the work it was going to take. It was not a quick fix, but instead would take some pain, adversity, and fear within myself to reach my goals. The trainers at Iron Tribe Fitness keep pushing me to push through the adversity, reminding me to stop looking for the easy way out, and instead, they tell me to “Embrace the Suck.” Every night we look at the workout for the next day, hoping it will be easy. Fortunately, it is never easy. Instead, I have had to face the doubt in myself, learn to face adversity, and accept the fact that the sucking will continue because it is what is best for me. How do I know that? Because the effort it takes to embrace the suck is necessary for me to be the best that I can be.
What To Do When Facing Adversity
For each of you facing adversity in your life or your performance, I want you to stand nose to nose with it, face the fear that you have that the difficulty brings out in you, and see it as a challenge. Do not allow the adversity to bully you into decisions and actions that you regret. Much like a bully on the playground, once you stand up to the bully, they back down. Adversity is the same way. Some of the greatest advances in my life have come after adversity challenged the essence of who I was. It was more about the learning and perseverance than it was the outcome.
Pending any complications, my father will recover fully from this episode. What I have not shared was that his adversity ten years ago is what saved his life twice in the last two years. My father was a collegiate baseball player and retired military, as you know. His service in Vietnam was in C-130 aircraft, flying the Ho-Chi-Minh trail, as well as other areas with burning Agent Orange and other unknown chemicals. He was there to provide support to the ground troops. Ten years ago, he lost the feeling in his legs below his knees. Despite his very active life, his physical activity almost changed overnight. He was relegated to wearing braces on his legs, much like you used to see children with Polio wearing to walk. He did not stop, refusing to ride in an assisted device or wheelchair. He did not stop working, traveling, or living life. As much as it scared my mother, he never complained. While his walking was labored, he never asked for assistance, shuttles from the airport gate to gate, or help carrying his bag. He worked just like you and me.
When his original intestinal problem surfaced almost two years ago, he had a significant complication that resulted in a full-body septic shock and shut down. The surgical team had to go in and find out the cause, despite his blood pressure being so low, even though he was on medicine to get it above the 60/25 range. The medical team told me, my mother, and my wife to “go tell him what you need to as it is unlikely he will survive.” He did because the surgeon later told us that his heart was that of an 18-year-old marathon runner. You know why? Because he had been walking on his braces for the last eight years, with no assistance or help. He had turned the adversity into a strength, and it saved his life.
This past week, again, after we had to tell him what we needed to say to him because survival was a low probability, the reason he was able to survive again was because his heart was in such great shape. He was comfortable being uncomfortable and still is today. It is not about adversity. It is about living. He always says that there is someone else out there that has worse than me, so I don’t want your sympathy. He simply wants the opportunity to face the adversity and live.
Are you ready?