By Adam Nelson
I remember sitting at a bar in Estonia after a throws competition listening to two young American throwers complain about the lack of funding for throwers. They were convinced they would have to quit after graduation, to give up on their dream because there was no way they could train and work. At some point the two turned to me for some moral support. So I told them the truth. They were right. It will be too difficult for them to continue to train. They should quit now before a real challenge presents itself. Better to move on with your life never knowing how good you really could be at something before facing any real adversity. Opt for that life of What ifs.
Actually, it’s pretty shameful for kids so young to be so discouraged by the challenges that MAY lay on the road ahead. It wreaks of entitlement. Like a two year old throwing a tantrum, these two were effectively painting themselves as martyrs. “We’ve tried everything. Mommy, come help me.” As it turns out, the real issue was these kids feared life without the support of their athletic scholarships and their athletic department. The fear of the very known unknown was discomforting.
Athletes can’t thrive in stasis. They are dynamic, goal oriented, driven individuals who dare to dream big and bet the ranch. They may set guardrails, but they live on the borders. The borderlands are fraught with dangers, but those dangers are known. The risks are understood and the reward is deemed well worth the risk. It’s that danger where doubt creeps in that athletes test their mettle and prove themselves. We do it in a calculated progression so when the competition is upon us we have no fear of going into the far side of human capabilities. We embrace the uncomfortable. We are master’s of our emotional intelligence, EQ.
Master of EQ?I didn’t coin this phrase. I first read about EQ in an article by Travis Bradberry. As Bradberry describes it, your emoitional intelligence:
…affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results. Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills that pair up under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.
If you’re interested in reading about EQ, you can. Mr. Bradberry co-wrote a book on the subject. This model maps out where and how guardrails form and narrow over time. As you begin to assess yourself and others, you’ll probably find that the biggest limiting constraint is not physicality or IQ, but EQ. How do you deal with life in the borderlands? It doesn’t matter if your challenge is physical, social, or intellectual. The same rules apply and you may have a different emotional quotient depending on what type of challenge you’re facing.
For example, my freshman year in college I suffered numerous concussions playing football. The most significant of which left me with short-term amnesia and many long-term cognitive issues. Instead of opening up about it, I withdrew. I couldn’t perform well in school, because I simply couldn’t process the information. I was ashamed and, in hindsight, probably more than a little depressed, but mostly I was scared. My concussions coincided with the revelation that many football players were suffering from long-term brain damage resulting in symptoms of early-onset dementia. The stress of failing in school was magnified by the stress that I might not live to see (or at least remember) 40. It took me YEARS to regain the confidence I needed to expand my guardrails and live on the fringe in my academic world. Some of you may read that and say, why didn’t you go seek help? My guardrails were set so tight that I feared learning the truth almost as much as the reality I’d created for myself.
As my academic and social life fell apart. My athletics continued to excel as I found ways to channel my frustrations into motivations. I hit new personal bests in the weight room and on the track. I found that I could set big goals and achieve them through hard work over a long period of time. Sure, doubt crept in, but for some reason I was able to dismiss the doubts without being derailed. Success in sports gave me the blueprint I needed to achieve success outside of sports.
In 2006, 13 years after all the head trauma, I took another bold step to maseter my EQ in acts beyond athletics. I applied and enrolled to UVA’s Darden School of Business. I had to dedicate myself to HOURS of studying. When I arrived at school I was motivated by a fear of failure. Nothing about this was comfortable to me, and I could have easily walked away after my first quarter. But I didn’t. I doubled down knowing that at some point this new stressor would create personal growth. Through the long days, long nights, and countless hours of frustration, I remembered one of the greatest lessons from sports and applied it to my academics: Champions are made when no one is watching. This new experience was my new struggle and like every struggle, it too would end. All I needed to do was continue breaking down my personal boundaries until my current borderlands became well-inside my guardrails. Growth.
Finding Your Strong@40It’s not easy to reset your guardrails. Experience creates very real barriers. I’m not suggesting you take on something that makes you uncomfortable. I’m suggesting that you push your guardrails to the limit. Seek experiences that force you out on the edge (not literally), so you can continue to grow as you age. And if you do decide to let someone or something set your boundaries for you. Know that it’s okay. But also know and accept that you made the choice.