Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Learned Helplessness

Often, in the classroom and in the weightroom, I work with kids who just give up. They come to a question that is not immediately answerable, or the weight starts to get heavy and, instead of grinding through, they immediately stop and say "I can't do it."

"Success breeds success" is a saying we're all familiar with, but the flip side of this is "failure breeds failure". For those who cannot separate performance from outcome, repeated failure in the classroom or gym becomes internalized, eroding self-esteem and leading to a state of learned helplessness. This can carry over into other areas of life and become part of an individual's psychological make-up.

If you find yourself in a mental rut, here are some tips that may help you get out of it:

*Have a Dream
A dream is the passion that fuels long-term effort. Without a dream, most sustained work will be half-assed at best. If you don't have a dream, get one. Find inspiration whether it's a competition, a test, or a cause, and get after it.

*Separate Performance from Outcome
The most successful entrepreneurs and athletes separate performance from outcome. Tiger Woods does not cry when he misses a put, or shanks one into the drink. Michael Jordan does not start to second-guess his shot if he air-balls one - and they're not jumping up-and-down for every good shot either. We can't always control the outcome - even when we have our very best performances we may still fail and sub-par performances can be victorious. But, if we allow the outcome to control our future performances and practice, we may give up performing altogether. Learn to separate "the performance" from "the outcome". (Overachievement, John Eliot)

*Don't Train "To Failure"
In the gym, many successful bodybuilders "train to failure", meaning that they do repetitions until they cannot do another. As a short-term training stimulus, this is fine. As a long-term training plan, it's horrible. Even the advocates of this type of training suggest that you rotate in weeks of "less intense" training every month or so. Again, "success breeds success". If your philosophy is to "empty the tank" in every training session, you are going to be running on fumes very soon. "Leave something in the tank". Leave yourself some room for improvement in your next training session.

*Shoot with a Shotgun, Not a Laser
Olympic athletes need laser-like focus, especially when they are peaking for a competion. But, to have a laser-like focus without exceptional planning ('sights' if you will) could put you more than a few degrees off target. With a laser, a few degrees off might as well be a mile. A shotgun, on the other hand, is shorter range, but the spread makes it easier to hit the target. In gym-talk, this means diversifying your training. Vary your reps. Use dumbells instead of barbells once in a while, and vice-versa. Use a stop watch. Do circuits or complexes. Include some odd lifts. Train your weak points. It's ok to have all your eggs in one basket, but for God's sake, try to have more than one egg.

At the end of the day, or the set, remember that it is consistency that will reap you rewards long term. Stay in the game - we're rooting for you.

"Remember no man is a failure who has friends."
- Clarence, from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life"


Snizshizzle said...

Great post. I think the reason they say they "Can't do it" is because they are afraid of failure and by admitting defeat beforehand, they are excusing themselves from failure. This attitude pisses me off but because they fear failure, they can have the competitive drive forced out of them or "taught" to them.

Three Michael Jordan quotes:

"Success isn't something you chase. It's something you have to put forth the effort for constantly. Then maybe it'll come when you least expect it. Most people don't understand that."

"I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying."

"I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occassions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot . . . and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why . . . I succeed."

Boris said...

Thanks Shizzle. Michael Jordan is a great example.

I hope it's clear that if you're working with someone who is clinically depressed that involvement with a qualified medical professional is extremely important.

Franz Snideman said...

Fantastic post Boris. Couldn't agree more and the example of the bodybuilding to failure mentality is well said. Instinctively as a man you immediately think that training as hard as you can as often as you can is the ticket to big time success. And then you try it a couple of weeks, months and years and figure out that you hurt, your body is wrecked and you are going backwards.

Consistently doing things as well as you can and as FRESH as you can is what works!

Great quotes as well!

Solid and very thought provoking post!

Boris said...

Thanks Franz - great stuff. It always bears repeating the Pavel mantra that "Strength is a skill and a skill must be practiced".