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Steve Magness is an expert on performance and the author of the new book – Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness. He’s also the coauthor of the book Peak Performance.

His writing has appeared in Outside, Runner’s World, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health, and several other publications. His expertise on elite sport and performance has also appeared in The New York Times, Business Insider, ESPN The Magazine and more. 

Steve has served as an executive coach and served as a consultant on mental skills development for professional sports teams.

He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston and a graduate degree from George Mason University. He also ran a 4:01 mile in high school, the 6th fastest high school mile in US history at the time.

In this week’s podcast, Sonya and Steve talk toughness, persistence, self talk and more.

“What real toughness is about is it’s about getting to some sort of decision that I’d say is thoughtful or wise. Meaning, we’re not going to know if it’s the right decision in the moment of stress or anxiety, but we want to be able to have a process where we can kind of navigate through it so hopefully the decision makes sense. So, to me, instead of putting your head down and grinding through things, it’s how do I create this space to navigate whatever the tough experience is, and then hopefully take wise action off the end of it.”

– Steve Magness

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Key Takeaways

  • Real toughness
  • Persistence 
  • Self talk
  • Tuning into the pain
  • Leadership styles 
  • Clutch state vs. flow state
  • Toughness to Rest
  • Expectation
  • Vulnerability




Sonya Looney: Welcome to the show, Steve.

Steve Magness: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

Sonya: We get to talk about one of my very favorite topics today, mental toughness. And your new book, Do Hard Things, was so well written, and I feel like it was conclusive. It had all the things that we needed to know about mental toughness.

Steve: Well, I really appreciate that. You know, you try to write it that way, but truth be told, when you’re in the writing process, you’re kind of stuck in the details and you never know how it will be received, so it’s just wonderful hearing that, you know, I got the boxes right and delivered the message I wanted to deliver.

Sonya: So how did you go about organizing this idea?

Steve: So that’s a great question. And the honest truth is it was very messy. And what often happens is I start off with an idea and I’m like, oh yeah, this makes sense. I’m going to organize it in this way, in this direction, and I’ll create an outline, and then that inevitably, at some point blows up in my face and doesn’t make any sense. So I have to reformulate, retry all these things. And you just go through a bunch of iterations until you either get so tired and sick of it that you just say, hey, this is how I’m organizing it, or you find something that makes a lot of sense. So the writing process is actually the simpler process to me. The outlining and figuring out how to structure it is the much more difficult process. And honestly, it’s just kind of me alone at a whiteboard or notebook and just playing around with a bunch of different ideas, getting sick of it, going back into my research and notes and seeing if I’m missing something and then getting so frustrated that I go on a run or a walk and hope that something pops into my head until I get something that feels right.

Sonya: So with your book, you turned the conventional idea of what mental toughness is, or what we’ve previously thought mental toughness is on its head a little bit. Can you go into more detail on that?

Steve: Yeah, absolutely. So conventionally, what we tend to think of as toughness is this idea of, well, I just play through the pain, I put my head down, I grind through whatever adversity I face. How do you do that? You kind of ignore your doubts, your feelings, the emotions that are screaming at you to stop. You just kind of push them all away. And that might work occasionally, but what the research and the practice of the best athletes, executives, people who go through very difficult things, shows us is that that often fails more often than it succeeds. And that what real toughness is about. Is it’s about getting to some sort of decision that I’d say is thoughtful or wise, meaning we’re not going to know if we get the right decision in that moment of stress or anxiety, but we want to be able to have a process where we can kind of navigate through it so that hopefully the decision makes sense. So to me, instead of putting your head down and grinding through things, it’s how do I create the space to navigate whatever the tough experience is and then hopefully take wise action off the end of it.

Sonya: How do you define wise action?

Steve: So to me, it’s something it’s one of these… I struggled with this a lot because it’s kind of this nebulous concept of like, well, what does it mean to be wise? And at first I centered on the right decision. Well, I realized that the right decision depended on the result often. And you don’t know the result or where it’s leading when you’re in the moment. So that didn’t feel right. So for me, I settled on kind of this wise action or thoughtful action because it’s not necessarily that when we’re tough, we’re going to make the right choice all the time, but we want in that moment to be able to at least like know where we’re going and have thought a little bit through the different paths that we can go. And my whole point is to kind of get us away from the natural instinct to default towards what I call the easy decision, which is often the one that alleviates the feelings and emotions or the negative thoughts quickest, but often isn’t the thing that leads to maybe the ideal outcome over the long haul.

Sonya: You mentioned just a few minutes ago knowing when to grind it out versus accepting difficult feelings or instead of ignoring pain or ignoring doubt. But then it also seems like you have to be able to grind it out in some circumstances and hold those feelings at the same time.

Steve: Yeah, and you know what this book really gets at is the nuance of it. And I know we hate wrestling with nuance nowadays, but that’s what makes difficult or tough decisions so important is that they really require you to have to be thoughtful on it and to wrestle with that nuance. And the example I like to give to kind of get this clear for people is sometimes quitting is the wrong thing to do and sometimes it’s the exact right and tough thing to do. Meaning like, sometimes we equate toughness to persistence, but sometimes persistence gets in the way. So the example I like to use here is if you’re a climber and you see the peak of the mountain and it’s right there and you’re like, I’m 150 meters from it, like I can see the peak. That’s my goal. That’s everything I’ve been striving for for the last year plus to get to this point. But if at that same moment you can’t wrestle with the idea, huh, do I have the energy to make it all the way up to the top and then come all the way back down? Because it’s not just meeting the goal, it’s completing the entire task that matters and staying alive doing it. So you have to kind of wrestle with these contrasting pulls, the pull for safety and security and self awareness of understanding what you truly have left in the tank energy wise, versus the pull to accomplish that goal, to get that feel good hit of being on the peak and summit. And in our own lives, we all have that contrasting pool with our goals, our pursuits, all of that good stuff. And what we’re trying to do is, again, kind of wrestle with it and have that awareness to say, all right, what’s the right path in this moment? Given the circumstances, given where I am, given what I’m going through, and given the talent or my abilities to accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish.

Sonya: The ability to zoom out whenever you are wanting to be so focused and when you have the drive and the ability to go after the thing, even though you might not be thinking about the big picture consequences. Like the mountain climber, the consequence might be death or the consequence for somebody else might be that maybe it ends the path that they’re on because they went too much, too far, into this one thing. And in your book, I love how you talk about a coping strategy, about going broad or narrow and zooming in or out. And I first had heard of that on Andrew Huberman’s podcast but I loved how you applied that to mental toughness. Can you talk more about that?

Steve: Yeah, sure. So stress causes us to narrow. It’s like a very constricting emotion and constricting biology behind it and it causes us to narrow for good reasons. Like think of it evolutionarily. If we’re stressed because we see a lion, like, it focuses our attention only on the lion and the threat that is there. So how do we overcome this? Well, we’re going to be very attuned to it. In our modern world, what it often does is it causes us to focus on and get narrow on the thing causing the stress. So we amplify those feelings and emotions. The stressful event or experience is all that we can think about. We ruminate on it, right? Well, of course we do because it’s a stressful experience so our body is trying to solve it. But what happens is that narrowness often gets in the way. So it prevents us from seeing the big picture, from seeing potential other paths or solutions to this problem. It prevents us from turning on kind of our cognitive logical brain so that maybe we can think through this instead of just taking the immediate action or defaulting towards escaping or fight or flight. So what you have to do is you have to be able to zoom out and there’s a number of different ways you can do this, right? You can do this from an attention point of view, literally shifting your focus. So, again, I said stress causes us to narrow where our attention literally narrows on the thing that is stressful. So if we adopt like a soft gaze or a broad view or, for example, I always wear glasses. If I take my glasses off and can’t see details whatsoever, it almost like wrestles and pulls my brain out of that narrow mode and says, oh, okay, we’re paying attention to the periphery. We must not be as stressed, so take those levels down. We can do that in a number of different ways as well as, like, even what we think about. So if your mental imagery or your self talk is about, if you shift it to things that create perspective, such as my good friend Phoebe Wright told me this wonderful story when she was standing on the starting line of the Olympic trials and about to compete before she started the race, what went through her head or self talk was like, oh, wait a minute, yeah, I’m really stressed. But Phoebe, remember, this is track and field. No one really gives a crap about track and field. And it’s not put down track, but it’s true whether she ran well or failed, sure, a couple of dozen people might be upset, but the people who actually matter, her friends, her family, those who love and support her, like if she won or she got last, they’re still going to be here. So it zooms you out and puts you in a proper perspective of this thing that I’m doing there. This pursuit I’m taking on isn’t this life or death, like the stress makes me feel.

Sonya: I’m smiling because in some of my mountain bike races I’ve done, I felt that feeling even in the race, like, oh, this isn’t going the way that I want. And you become self obsessed thinking about all these different things, and then you perform even worse because of it. And I imagine myself as this tiny little dot on the planet. And I just said, look, there’s a billion things going on right now in the world. Nobody cares about this stupid little bike race in this corner of Africa or wherever. So the power to zoom out and to say this isn’t that big of a deal is helpful, but then you also have to hold the space for, well, to me this is a big deal. And there’s that nuance piece again.

Steve: Exactly. I think what your listeners are getting is it really is about the nuance. And it’s like this balance between caring and letting go. And an athlete I used to work with who is phenomenal, Sarah Hall put this brilliantly not too long ago in the sense that for a while she cared so much that her entire identity was kind of wrapped around the success of her running races or not. If she ran well, then her self worth went up. If she didn’t, it went down. And after she set the, I think it was, American record in the half marathon, she had this beautiful quote that said essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, but I had to let go of that and realize that this thing that I saw as caring was actually getting in my way. Now, that’s an example of finding that balance and saying, hey, I’m too far on this end of caring too much and wrapping myself in it. Other times you’re going to find yourself on the opposite end where maybe you don’t quite care enough. And often those aren’t things that we need to be tough in but aren’t like the things that we quite enjoy doing and we have to think about, okay, why is this maybe more important than I’m giving it credence for? So, for example, I don’t know, simple things like you’re in the midst of a pandemic if you’re part of a team, maybe taking extra care to stay away from some people leading into races or wash your hands or whatever have you. That might be stuff that you kind of give effort to but you don’t really focus much on. But now it’s got more importance. So you got to care about it more because it could be the difference between someone getting to a starting line and not so figuring out how to turn that dial up.

Sonya: We’re getting to, number one, awareness of thoughts because you might not even be aware that this is happening. And then, number two, the emotional regulation piece of being able to actually deal with it in the intense moment.

Steve: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think those two points are at the heart of the book is like A) awareness is huge, which is in order to deal with the thing, you have to kind of know what the thing is and identify it. And actually there’s some wonderful research that shows like if you name and label things, even your self talk, if you name and label it, it allows you to deal with it much better. So I’ve had athletes who tell me in the midst of races they’ll be like, oh yeah, that’s crazy Steve self talk. Because it’s like, of course I don’t want to quit and find a hole to step in. But those are the thoughts that are popping into my mind. So what do I do? I label it as something that is like yep, I’m saying that but it doesn’t have a lot of meaning and purpose because it’s like this voice over here that I don’t need to necessarily pay attention to or listen to. And I know that sounds a little bit wild, but if you look at the psychology of our inner voices and our self talk, a lot of it is voices that are what they call spontaneous that arise. And the current theory is that they kind of arise out of our subconscious to let us know that something is important that we should pay attention to. So the self talk of, hey, find a hold to step in arises because you’re probably in the middle of something very painful and it’s probably in the middle of the race, so you’re not sure if you can make it to the end. So that voice arises because your brain is like, well, I don’t know if we’re going to make it. We might run out of fuel and that might put us in a dangerous place. So pop this voice into our head that is negative, so that like Steve, captain Steve, whoever is aware of it.

Sonya: Yes. I like how you named it a different name. There’s been lots of times I’ve fantasized about stabbing holes in my tires or getting lost. And I think that a lot of people think that people at the top level don’t have those thoughts. But really, every single race, at least for me, I want to quit, no matter what. Even if I’m winning the race, I want to quit the race; this is horrible. I want to quit. And it’s paying attention to that thought and be like, yeah, that’s there, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to quit or that I have to quit has been really helpful.

Steve: Exactly. And there’s this wonderful story from the Boston Marathon when Des Linden won, and I think it was like six, seven miles into the race, she turns to her fellow American, Shalane Flanagan, and says, I’m feeling horrible. I’m going to drop out of this race. I’m just going to keep going and help you out. And what happens? She keeps going, helps Shalane out, but eventually starts to feel better and eventually wins it. And I think that’s, again, this wonderful example of even the best of the best have these thoughts of, hey, I’m going to drop out. And even the best of the best have to use some sort of strategy, even if Des planned on dropping out, well, what happened? She turned her attention to I’m going to forget about me and stop wallowing and I don’t feel good, and just put my focus, changed my focus, to helping someone else out. And lo and behold, that allowed her to get to a space where eventually she came out of it and felt better. So it’s a wonderful example, again, of sometimes what we have to do is shift our focus and in that case, maybe zooming out means shifting your motivation and your goal from achieving this personal thing to how do I help others? And that often brings you up to perform at the best of your ability.

Sonya: And this brings us back to what we talked about in the very beginning of knowing when to quit versus not to quit. And again, it’s hard to tell somebody, here’s the blueprint of when you should quit, but there are tools that you can try, just like what you described, of zooming out, focusing on something that’s not yourself, possibly not ruminating on how bad you feel in order to start making other decisions and that might change the way energy is coming to you.

Steve: Yeah, exactly. And I think really is… it is figuring out the way I like to think about it is we need a diverse array of tools to pull out of our tool kit because we never know what’s going to work well. An athlete that I used to coach, Brian Barraza, put it to me this way, he’s a finalist in the Olympic trials for the steeplechase. And he said, I need as many tools as I can because half the time they’re going to fail and I don’t know what’s going to work in this situation. So you’ve got to spend your time, practices and races developing some of these tools, which is, as we talked about, a lot of it is around, okay, how do I zoom out and create perspective? Other tools are like, well, sometimes I’m going to need to grit down and bear it, as I said. But other times I’m going to need to accept that this is how I feel. Kind of like the Des Linden example, well, I don’t feel good right now. Well, I’m just going to accept it and shift my focus to another direction. And the more tools you can have, the better you are. And that’s also why I advise people if we’re talking about endurance sport is don’t just think of your training sessions as physical preparation, but see some of them as mental preparation. Which means sometimes not all the time, but sometimes in practice you’re going to want to let your mind go to a bad place and then see if you can figure out how to work your way through it. What do I mean by that is like, hey, if you’re feeling off and your legs aren’t good, just focus on that. Almost amplify it, almost like wallow in it for a bit and then try and pull yourself out using all these different tools. Because I think far too often what happens is we avoid those kind of mental places and try and make practice perfect. Well, then we never kind of see what works and develop those skills so that we can apply it on race day.

Sonya: I think the reason why people love endurance sports so much is that you get a master class almost every single time you go out the door and it makes you better everywhere else in your life because you experience these extreme highs, these extreme lows, and then you figure out the type of person that you want to be in order to overcome those things.

Steve: Yeah, exactly. This is why I love endurance sport. I’m biased, but I think it does that wonderful thing, which is it puts you in these places where you’re going to be at your highest highs and your lowest lows. You might break down, you might cry, you’re going to be vulnerable. And I think that’s also why it often creates these friendships that are often transcending or deep or lifelong because we get to see each other at our realest moment. Like we’re not carrying around a facade. We are kind of losing our minds when we have a flat tire or crash or like drop out of race. And that’s just the reality of it. But I think at the same time, like, that prepares us and gives us the skill set for life. Because how many times in life are you actually going to be put in situations where you’re almost like stripped down to your rawest and have to deal with it? And the other part of it is endurance forces us to spend a lot of time alone in our head and it’s just us navigating it. And again, in so many other aspects of life, we never have to experience that because we can always pick up our phone, distract ourselves, and as we’re standing in line at the airport waiting, we don’t have to deal with boredom because we’ve got the easiest solution. Well, when you’re out on a run or out on a bike ride, you kind of have to deal with it and there’s no way out. So that’s why I think endurance, again, I’m biased, but this is why I think everyone should practice some sort of endurance thing in their life.

Sonya: I want to talk a little bit about tuning into the pain. That’s something that you wrote about in the book.

Steve: So I think when we look at tuning into the pain, what it is, is you have to almost understand the nuance of it. And the only way you do that is if you turn your focus and attention to it. So as an endurance athlete, you know this, your listeners know this, but we didn’t always know this, which is there are different levels and kinds of pain or fatigue. And this is the lesson you had to learn very early on, which is early on in our careers, maybe we felt like something that felt painful or a little bit off and our mind jumps to like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to quit, I must be injured, this isn’t normal. And the reality is it was just like, oh, this is a little pain and fatigue from working out. Other times we push too hard and we thought, oh, I’ve got to push through the pain. And we pushed right through pain that was saying stop because you’re about to be injured. And we ended up injured. So distinguishing the nuance of the pain that you can work through versus the pain that means injury is on the horizon when we should actually stop is a skill. So understanding the different levels and nuance of pain is super important. That means kind of getting comfortable exploring it. That means understanding the pain that means maybe muscle fatigue versus I’m running low on sugar, or for me, pain that means, hey, I can work through this, versus pain that means like, hey, I’m going on a run in Houston, Texas and I might be dehydrated like crazy so I should listen to this and not try and make it another mile without drinking water or what have you. So understanding that nuance is incredibly important.

Sonya: I think it’s hard sometimes to pull yourself out of that. And also I feel like our culture celebrates when people make bad decisions about pushing through pain. And I used to make some really stupid decisions back in the day of pushing through pain and I don’t even want to list them out because I don’t want to give people any ideas that they should do that. But part of it, I think, comes from insecurity of saying, I have to do this. I don’t have the confidence to say that I’m not going to start this race or I need to drop out of this race and they need to try to prove something and that chip on your shoulder. So it’s really hard whenever you have that chip on your shoulder and then people are celebrating when you do push through that pain.

Steve: It is, exactly. And I think so much of these things come from insecurity and that’s normal. Like we’re human, so we’re all going to be insecure to a degree. I think it’s really trying to develop that quiet, internal confidence of, well, this is the best decision for me in this moment or not. And if you’re listening and you’re maybe coaching or leading athletes, this is what you reward. And incentivize also does this right. If you look down on, let’s say, quitting or listening to your body, for example, then of course athletes are going to say, oh, Coach doesn’t like it when we say, hey, I’m a little tired or like this hurts a lot. So they’re just not going to say it. They’re going to say, hey, I’m going to push through stuff again. Maybe not reward is the right word, but if you are open and listening to it and saying, hey, we’ve got an open communication system. If you walk up to me and say, hey, Steve, I am just not feeling it today. I’m worried about X, Y and Z. We’re going to have a conversation to see is this something you should train through or is this something that we should listen to. And I’m not going to berate you for being “weak” or not pushing it through. So a lot of it is, I think, the environment and creating that environment where evaluating some of this stuff is acceptable and normal.

Sonya: So I have a two year old and a baby right now. You probably heard the baby crying in the background. It takes mental toughness to not go in that direction and wonder what’s happening. But you talked about authoritative versus authoritarian parenting, but also coaching. And we always hear the stories of the coach screaming. My husband played college basketball and the coach was this guy that just screamed and got red in the face. And then you talk about other ways to coach that are going to be inspiring people to perform not out of fear, but from more of an intrinsic motivation. And I thought that was a really great thing to read in your book.

Steve: Yeah, I loved researching and writing that, especially looking into the parenting research, because I didn’t think that was going to come out or come through when I first got into it. But essentially what it is, I mean, it’s pretty simple and it’s common sense, but it’s something that is still done so often as we think, oh, well, what’s the best way to coach or lead? We often default towards this power control model that is based on kind of this authoritarian I’m going to… it’s my way or the highway, I’m going to yell and scream at you. But when do we perform our best? Do you do it when you’re out of a place of pure fear, where you’re scared if you don’t win, you’re going to get punished or what have you? The vast majority of people don’t. Like we perform our best when we’re relaxed to a degree, when we’re excited about the race, when we’re playing out of a place of joy and wanting to instead of having to. And I think if we just think about that, of course the authoritarian style doesn’t work. But what the research shows is pretty simple is they plot as you headed towards, they plot what’s called demandingness, which is that high expectations and demands are incredibly high versus responsiveness. With authoritarian style coaches or leaders or parents, you have a high demandingness. So they yell and scream and have power and control and it’s my way or the highway, I’m in charge, et cetera. But they have low levels of responsiveness, which is, I’m not going to pay attention to your needs, I’m not going to fulfill them, I’m not going to offer you that care and support. And in practically all aspects, especially in parenting, it’s fascinating, it leads to kids who aren’t as disciplined, which goes against, I think, everything that authoritarian parents want. They’re doing it out of discipline, right? Leads to less discipline. Why? Because the kid learns like, oh, I have to essentially fake it while this parent is around, but then I’ve got to figure out ways how to get around it when they’re not. It also fails in discipline because you never learn emotional control, because you’re never put in a situation where you can express or navigate those emotions because you’re told like, oh crap, if I start crying, I’m going to get yelled at. So you don’t explore them. You don’t figure out what they mean or how to deal with them. So it’s just kind of bad all the way around. But it’s not being permissive and saying, oh, I’m going to allow you to do everything you want. It’s having some expectations and combining it with a high level of responsiveness and care. And if you find that Goldilock zone, which is often hard to do, but if you find that, like the outcomes are better. Performance are better. And you find people who develop that intrinsic love or joy or motivation which we know sustains us over the long haul.

Sonya: Something that, as you’re talking, came up that I thought was interesting is that we were talking about sort of an extrinsic thing of people getting feedback from a parent or a coach or a leader. But sometimes their own self talk has this authoritarian, people are mean to themselves or they’re hammering away versus having more of a compassionate conversation with yourself that can inspire you to be better. And some people are really afraid to have that level of compassion because they think they’re going to perform worse if they’re not mean to themselves.

Steve: Yeah, it’s a really tricky thing because again, societally we’ve kind of ingrained like you kind of have to be a jerk to yourself to get the most out of yourself. But again, the research and the practice tends to show that there’s very few people who can survive on like, I’m going to function out of fear and control. Maybe a Michael Jordan, for example, who is famous for creating these stories in his head that everyone is against him and out to get him and negative and that’s what fueled him. Very few people can function, perform and be like happy, decent human beings while in that spot. Compassion doesn’t mean you’re quote unquote, weak or soft. It means that you’re realistic and understanding the reality of the human kind of condition that you face, that we all face. And if you have compassion towards yourself, then you can figure out how to navigate and explore and find your way out on the other side. Often when we’re hard on ourselves, what happens is we ingrain the message that this experience is a negative one, which puts us in an avoidance mindset. When we’re in a compassionate phase to ourselves, what often happens is we get instead of avoidance, we approach the thing, we try and figure it out. We try and see, okay, what can I learn and take away from us? Instead of like, oh, this is a negative thing, I’m going to avoid it altogether.

Sonya: Something that you and Brad Stulberg wrote about in your book Peak Performance many years ago, which I still refer back to that book because I think it was so well done, was flow state and clutch state. And that was the very first time I ever actually heard of that. And it seems now everybody’s talking about flow and that type of research. So I first learned about it from you guys. And in your book you talk about clutch versus flow state and the choosing versus the experience. I thought that was really interesting, the way that you put that in that way in the book. Can you talk about that?

Steve: Yeah, exactly. So it’s fascinating new research and as you said there, flow has been out for a while, but flow is like being in the zone. It’s when that performance just comes to us. And what research shows is that it’s almost like we put ourselves in that place and then we let it happen. It’s those races where everything just feels like, again, we’re flowing along and we can do no wrong. And it often almost feels like we’re a little bit detached and it just has come naturally. It’s the races we finish up and we’re like, oh man, I think I could have exerted more. That was a little bit effortless even though I knew I was tired and fatigued and all that good stuff. And often we seek those states out, which is important, but you’re not always going to be able to get in a flow state. And what research shows is there’s another state of performance that allows us to perform at our best as well. And that’s what researchers call a clutch state. Now, we all know what coming through in the clutch means. It means pressure is high and all of that good stuff. And what often happens is when pressure is high, it’s hard to get in a flow state because flow state is like this perfect goldilocks zone of kind of high pressure but not overwhelming. And clutch state, the other thing that is really different and important to it is it requires a conscious decision as you’re saying, hey, I’m going to make the decision to put forth effort to do this thing, to come through. And again, it also requires a little bit different goals instead of kind of open-ended goals. And it requires more focused goals of I need to do this in this amount of time in order to win this game, or what have you. And I love this kind of contrast here between almost flow and clutch at both ends because what it gets at is no matter the situation you’re in, there is a state where you can perform well. You’ve just kind of matched your internal environment with that external. And when you do that, good things can happen.

Sonya: Something that just popped in my mind was that you’re talking about a focus goal versus more of an open ended goal. And in coaching, a lot of times it’s don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the process. But when you’re in a clutch state, it seems like you have to be focused on a specific outcome, like scoring a certain number of points in a certain period of time.

Steve: Yeah. And again, this is why I love the nuance that we keep coming back to you. I’m a big proponent of focusing on the process and not the outcome. But every once in a while there are specific situations where if you focus on the outcome, it gives you this big boost and this focusing effect. And again, the research shows clutch states almost require that. Why? Well, think of it, I don’t know, maybe you’re in the middle of a race and let’s say you’re running a marathon and you get to 5K to go and you look up at the clock and you’re just like, I’ve been focusing on the process, I’ve been focusing on the process. But then you look up and you say, oh my gosh, if I run this last 5K in whatever, 18 minutes, I’m going to PR and reach my goal and qualify for whatever, Boston or the Olympic trials, whatever your goal was. Well, that’s going to give you this jolt of, for a lot of us, positive adrenaline that’s going to push us forward. And I think that’s…A great example, actually, years ago I had a lady who was trying to make the Olympic qualifying standard and she was so nervous about hitting the time that I just said don’t look at the clock at all. Like don’t look at the clock, just focus on racing and let the time come. Well, she did that to a T, but I’m looking at and it was a 5000 meters race, the laps are going down, we’re in the last mile, we’re 1200 to go, we’re 800 go. And I’m like, oh my gosh, this is going to be close. But she’s got to close hard. And finally I think with 600 to go, I yelled out like, look at the clock. And she looks at the clock and sees like, oh my gosh, if I run this time I can make the Olympic qualifying standard. And she made it by less than a second and had a massive kick in this jolt of energy to do so every once in a while. Again, it’s that nuance like process is great, but sometimes those outcomes can give us that energy and that experience and put us in that clutch state where we’re going to amplify and enhance our performance.

Sonya: I’m kind of getting this visual of what you’re talking about. Process is this big circle and then the clutch or the little outcome goals are like little bubbles within the circle that can kind of be floating around if the opportunity presents itself.

Steve: Exactly. That’s a great way to put it is that most of the time it’s like the process is the big thing. It’s focus on that, focus on that. But don’t discount entirely the other side of it because in small moments, again, that might be the extra energy or extra juice that gets you through the difficult thing. So we can’t again say, oh, always process over outcomes. Every once in a while we’re going to need that thing, and that thing might be able to help you do something that you didn’t think was possible.

Sonya: I also am thinking about that story you just told and the amount of mental toughness it must have taken that person to not look at the clock while they’re out racing. I always struggle with that. If someone said, don’t look at the clock, but the clock is right there, that must have been really hard for her.

Steve: Yeah, it was. But I think she knew on the flip side of how almost limiting it is, because the way I like to think of it is, is something helping you along the way or is it like getting in the way? And in endurance sport, we’re all kind of familiar in this is if you look down at your watch, is that feedback, or your monitor, is that feedback helping you? Or does it come with this tinge of anxiety that says, I’m not running as fast, you’re biking as fast, or my mile per hour is slower, or my split is slower. If your mind constantly goes that direction, then it’s getting in the way. And you need to figure out how to either take the watch off or ignore it or not pay attention to it or whatever have you. If it’s helpful, then by all means use it. If you’re looking down at your watch and you say, okay, this is great. I’m controlled. I’m executing my race plan and it’s helping you, then by all means go for it. So it’s really can that this is the theme of the podcast, it’s like that nuance and that self awareness to understand, is this supporting my goals or is this taking away from it?

Sonya: I’m going to talk about peak performance again, because if people haven’t picked up that book, I still want them to. But in that book, a mantra is have the courage to rest. And that has been a mantra that I’ve taken with me because I actually need that mantra myself. And it takes mental toughness to rest. It takes courage and confidence to rest. So taking the lens of some of these tools in the book as it relates to resting and pulling back whenever you need to pull back, can you say how mental toughness relates to rest?

Steve: Well, again, it comes down to insecurity, right? Why can we not rest? Because of insecurity. We think, oh my gosh, if I’m not working, if I’m not out here getting another workout in, I’m falling behind. So in the book, I had this chapter on confidence where I tell this story of actually the last American to hold the world record in the marathon, Buddy Edelen and his coach kind of reprimands him because he did a workout a couple of days leading into a big race, and he said, essentially I forget the quote exactly, but this is a manifestation of insecurity. There’s a time to rest, not halfway rest. And I think that gets to what you’re talking about there, is that it takes toughness to rest. So whenever you’re struggling with that, again, what’s your goal? To take that wise, thoughtful action. And yes, if I rested all the time, is that the wise action? No, because I’m never going to get better. But if I rest appropriately to support the work that I’ve done or take a recovery day to support and allow me to adapt and grow, is that the wise action? Absolutely. So it’s kind of reframing things and stop seeing the work only as the benefit, but seeing rest and recovery as a benefit as well as the time to adapt and grow when you need it. So it’s again, getting rid of that or maybe turning the volume down on that insecurity, reframing it in a positive lens and then having kind of the courage or toughness to be able to follow through on that.

Sonya: I also think asking yourself, why am I doing more? Is it because I saw a competitor’s Strava and they’re doing 20 hours of training this week, so I need to do 20 hours of training this week? Or so and so did this process, this is how they got successful, therefore, I need to replicate this exact process when that actually might not be the best thing for you?

Steve: Yeah. You know, I think in today’s world, whether it’s Strava or social media, often times we let the external influence, our kind of own internal guide, and that’s where it gets in the way. So I think that’s a great question to ask is where is this coming from? And I also think the other part of that is like, don’t get lost on Strava or social media stuck in comparison mode. I’m not putting down all of it. I mean, I use that stuff. But if you constantly find yourself comparing to your competitors or people who did this many mile repeats through this long run or this long ride or this workout, then it’s probably a sign that you need to get off Strava or social media for a while or follow different people who don’t invoke that kind of feeling or angst around it. So again, it’s like how do I check in, have the self awareness to see is this something that is supporting my endeavor in pursuit or is this something that is causing insecurity and getting in the way?

Sonya: How do you help the athletes that you work with who aren’t comfortable being vulnerable and honest with themselves and taking responsibility? Because all of the things that we’re talking about assume that people are comfortable or at least okay with being vulnerable and taking responsibility for their successes and their failures and their challenges.

Steve: Yes. So I think a lot of it is like creating the space and the environment for it. You can’t force vulnerability. You can’t say, hey, be vulnerable right now. Tell me all your worst moments or what was going through that. That’s not going to work. Like, it’s not. Where our egos are protective, our brains are self-protective. We don’t want to be embarrassed. We don’t want to feel like we’re not the greatest person in the world. So you have to just kind of acknowledge that. So instead, again, I try and create that expectation or that I should say the space for it. What do we mean by create the space for it? Well, a space where they know that they can be vulnerable without repercussions, without, like, being completely judged on their endeavors. And then I think the other thing that is really important is model it.  The research, again, shows very clearly, we think that we have to establish trust and then we can be vulnerable. The research actually shows we have to be vulnerable, which then signals to the person we’re talking to, oh, they’re being vulnerable, so I can trust them, so I’m going to be vulnerable back. And that reciprocation creates trust. So for me, if you’re in a position of leadership or coaching or a model for your athletes, it’s, okay, I need to model this. Which means I need to show the reality of the struggles that maybe even I face on a day to day and the reality of the difficulty of the sport and all the baggage and carnage that it often brings with it and uncertainty around performing. Because again, I think especially with new people, they look up to people who have had some success and they think, oh my gosh, that person must never struggle. It’s like we talked about earlier, those elite athletes must never think about quitting. Well, tell them stories about how you thought about quitting and make it real and vivid, because it is real and vivid. And if you do that again, you’re going to slowly break down those barriers and create the space for some honest conversations.

Sonya: The tone is definitely set at the top, and it takes courage and vulnerability of those people at the top to be honest and not pretend that they didn’t train for… I didn’t do any work for this event, or, oh, that was easy, or just, that’s so false, it’s so performative. And I think that it makes everybody better. And it even gives the person who is the one out there trying to perform, it gives them more space to be themselves whenever they can screw up, and then people are still inspired because of that not the thinking that, oh, this person isn’t as good as I thought they were.

Steve: And you nailed it right there. It’s really a space to be themselves. And that’s what we’re trying to create, is like ditching the facade, not having to put on your perfect Instagram life and like, having a space where you can be you and your full kind of weird, quirky self. And I think, again, endurance sport tends to do this better than other places because we tend to accept that that’s kind of normal because you got to be a little bit crazy to maybe do the things that we do. And that’s fine. I’m a little nuts as well. So I think, again, creating that environment where it’s okay, we accept it and as you said, it often comes from the top down is, are you modeling that yourself? Are you being yourself and honest with those that you lead? And if you do so, often, it will reciprocate and follow.

Sonya: And again, the fact that you can be yourself gives you permission to continue being yourself and you don’t feel like your identity or your self worth is at risk or is going to be threatened just by showing who you really are.

Steve: Exactly. And I think this is one of the most important things as a coach is, especially in vulnerable moments, like after a tough race or a tough loss, like, are you making it better or worse? Are you allowing them to say, like, yeah, I care a lot and this sucks, but I’m not going to wallow in it, I’m not going to beat them down, or are you not? And I think that’s that important place. I almost think we have it as like these sensitive moments, especially after losses or tough races, where it’s like, well, if I say the wrong thing this could ingrain like a negative emotional state where they’re then going to protect themselves after a loss and try and justify or defend or I can create this environment where they can still be who they are even though they went through this moment that might be a little embarrassing or they might not feel good about. But I can still allow them to kind of like feel the feelings they feel and process it in a productive manner so that we can kind of grow from it. And I think going back to that old school model is the exact opposite thing or the exact wrong thing that you can do in that moment is often yell, scream, and beat them down. Because what does that do? It tells you that don’t be real, especially in your vulnerable moments, like don’t be who you are. And that again, backfires over the long haul.

Sonya: Well, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Where can people find this book and find your podcast and all the great things that you’re putting out in the world?

Steve: Yeah, I appreciate it. I love this conversation. It’s very easy to talk to you, so I appreciate that. You can find Do Hard Things wherever you buy books. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, everywhere. And then you can find me all on social media @SteveMagness and then my newsletter, podcast, all that good stuff at

Sonya: Everyone should subscribe to that newsletter and podcasts. Those are things that I regularly read and listen to. And it’s really helpful for me, and I know that everybody listening will enjoy it, too.

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