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My own thoughts--for me.
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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Mental Muscle 

I'm looking forward to seeing "Touching the Void," the story of two mountain climbers and their harrowing near-death experiences. I can't imagine bearing the pain that mountain climbers willingly bear. Hearing the publicity has put me in mind of a remark by Lance Armstrong about how his training is not the fun that people often think it must be, but is rather about learning to grapple with as much pain as possible. The amount of pain involved in Tour de France cycling, ice mountain climbing and many other sports at the highest competitive levels raises lots of interesting questions. One of them is the relation between physical and mental prowess.

I ride a racing bike as a hobby. I don't race, but I've worked at it a fair amount in the last few years, and I've gotten a lot faster and stronger (though still not in any real competitive kind of shape). Now Lance has a body made for that kind of biking, or so I've read. But suppose I had that same body. He has something else that I don't. I notice this when I work on hills. This can be painful, and at a certain point you can even feel your body give out. But that's pretty rare for me. The reason is that I don't push my body that hard. This idea of pushing one's body suggests a kind of strength that I don't hear much discussed or appreciated. When we push our bodies, that pushing comes from our minds. It is a mental pushing, and so if we are capable of pushing very hard this is a mental kind of strength. It is a kind of mental strength that people who have made themselves very strong, or physically very capable in any area, are very likely to have in large amounts. What kind of mental strength is this?

It's similar to the vague class of things we call "will power." But I'm particularly interested in the ability to make oneself continue a difficult and uncomfortable activity even as the difficulty and discomfort increases to extreme levels, even when you could stop and relieve the pain without any serious costs.

As an experiment, you might try a few push-ups. After some number of them, doing more will become quite difficult. Then if you continue they will become painful, or if pain is too strong a word, then very uncomfortable. This is as far as I would normally go before quitting and congratulating myself on a good effort. But the truth is I could still do some more (I'm not telling you which (smallish) number we're talking here). I know for a fact that if I had the mental strength to keep going I would soon reach a point where I could not physically lift myself again no matter how hard I might try. But--and here is a lack of a certain mental power on my part--I'm not sure I've ever gotten to that point. The sheer agony of push-ups at or near that point has always struck me as a perfectly good reason not to do more, and so I stop. Voluntarily. Not because I physically could not go on, but because I don't--or can't--push myself any further.

Now consider someone with my pretty average physical capacities and desire for athletic achievement, but with more of the mental strength it would take to keep doing push-ups even through that level of pain that has always led me to stop. Suppose we start out at, say, age 18, and then check back with each of us 10 years later. He will be much physically stronger than I am. People will look at his physical prowess as if it is the main difference between me and him, or between themselves and him. What they're missing is the mental prowess, the brand of will power, that led him not to stop the push-ups, pull-ups, etc. when it got painful. So start me with Lance's body, and I would not become a championship cyclist, even if this is something I very much want. The other big advantage Lance has would be more apparent: he has a ferociously strong mental power to push his body through pain that most of us would not be able--mentally, that is--to bear.

It is tempting to chalk this up to something we might call Lance's desire. So, we might think, if I wanted to be a winner as badly as he does then I would endure as much pain in order to achieve it. I'm not sure, but this doesn't sound right. I suspect there are plenty of cyclists who want just as badly as Lance does to win the Tour de France. They want it so badly it is impossible to believe that Lance's advantage is that he simply wants it even more. I think, instead, that he has this third thing in addition to his bodily endowments and the strength of his desire: the mental power to push his body harder than most others. There are many more factors than these few that go into being the champ. My point is this: Between the guys with the same body, same desire, same background and environment, some will still become better athletes by virtue of this mental power. Many of us with more or less normal healthy bodies, could, I believe, be seriously good athletes if we really wanted to, I mean better than the weekend warrior level, except for our lack of this certain mental capacity. Or, in a closely related point, no matter how hard we want it and how physically capable we are, given that we lack that mental power, we cannot become seriously good athletes. We lack the ability, but it is not a physical lack.

What's interesting to me here is not the banal point that great physical achievement has a large mental component. That's obvious from the planning, ingenuity, rapid flexible response, aesthetic sense, etc. that is so clearly a part of many physical skills. The interesting thing to me is that there is this thing that is so much like a kind of muscular strength, so integral to the development and employment of great muscular strength, but which is itself psychological.

It also doesn't matter here if, in some sense, the psychological is all really physical because the mind is, suppose, really the brain, or some such thing. Even if that's so, there are some physical abilities that are mainly mental and some that are not. For example, my arms will give out after too many pushups even if I push myself without limit. That's a mainly physical kind of strength, or in my case weakness. But there's this other kind which is not physical in that way: the mental power to make my arms keep pushing as hard as they are physically capable of pushing.

If I ride for 90 minutes on a moderately rolling, but largely flat route, my average speed will be under 20 miles per hour even if I push it. We let ourselves off the hook a little too easily when we hear that Lance has just averaged well over 20 miles an hour for 10 hours in 90 degree heat, riding much of the time up very steep mountain roads, and we marvel at his physical strength. Sure enough, by now, his physical strength is profound. But all along there has been something else, and it is still a large ingredient in each race, a strength that his not physical, and one that we--OK, I--lack. It is the ability to push my body through great pain closer toward its physical limits. I'm not just physically weaker than Lance, I'm mentally weaker too, and that might even be the primary difference, the more powerful explanation of why I couldn't, even if I dearly wanted to, come anywhere near his performance up a hot mountain road.

Finally, I can't believe there isn't some similar counterpart to this mental pushing power that enters into much intellectual achievement. Take two people with the same intelligence, or the same strictly intellectual ability defined over some very difficult and time-consuming cognitive task. And let them have an equal desire to solve it or to perform at the highest possible level. One might yet have a mental power that the other lacks, the power to push herself through great psychological discomfort to the full limits of her intellectual capacity. Just as some can push their bodies harder even given the same physical strength, some can push their minds harder even given the same intelligence. I wonder how much of great intellectual achievement is accounted for by that mental power that is not itself either intelligence or desire. Finally, since I suspect this power can be developed and cultivated in both its mental and physical versions, I wonder if training in in one realm enhances it in the other. Does the developed capacity to push your body through pain enhance your ability to push your mind through psychological discomfort?

This is getting difficult. Time to quit.

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