Using Recreational Hardship to Cultivate Resilience and Grit

By Jim Spengler, MTI Contributor

 

In 2013, I completed  the 48-hour GoRuck Selection endurance event. It was a formative experience, providing me with insights into my own mind and physicality. 

At the time, I thought the act of completing GoRuck Selection would be important. In time, however, it became trivial. Anything analogous that involves significant commitment such as, mountaineering, ultramarathons, or triathlon results in much of the same. 

More important I think, is utilizing difficult recreational pursuits to cultivate mental wisdom that we can carry beyond the event itself. Specifically, how much do we know about our own reservoirs of resilience and grit? And can bolstering these traits can empirically lead to a more fulfilled and purposeful life?

Grit is passion and perseverance towards long term goals. It entails working strenuously towards challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years, despite failures, adversity and plateaus in progress. Facing failure and adversity necessitates resilience (1). Resilience is an adaptive response to challenge and the ability to restore mental resources to respond to stressors (7, 8). Lack of resilience equates to inflexibility and unrealistic patterns of thinking. In other words, not “bouncing-back” to continue a sustained effort towards an outcome.

These traits are not just aphorisms. Objective measures indicate that grit and, inherently, resilience lead to elevated psychological well-being (8). Numerous studies show wide ranging benefits for those with higher self-reported levels of grit. For example, researchers examined the Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (Green Beret Selection). Traditionally, physical fitness and general intelligence are good indicators of success. However, when both fitness and intelligence variables were controlled, soldiers with higher grit had a 32 percent increased odds of being selected (4). Researchers also examined West Point cadet success. Grit measures predicted attrition across a cadet’s four years better than academic, military, and physical program scores (5). Cadets with higher grit scores had 62 percent higher odds of remaining at West Point long-term (6). 

Grit can predict workplace attrition as well. Sales workers who possessed high levels of the trait had a 40 percent higher chance of remaining in a job long term (6). 

Grit also shows impact across other life commitments. “Gritty” people have 17 percent higher odds of staying married. The chance of graduating high school increases 21 percent (6). Additionally, those with high resilience have a better perceived quality of life, lower depression and anxiety compared to low resilience individuals (10).

It has been shown that grit will increase as one travels through life (9). It is a given with age and accumulation of life experience. But, I think it is a reasonable extrapolation that physical challenges can serve to augment the increase sooner. Likewise, self-reported passion and growth mindset decreases with age (9). Using difficult recreational events one is passionate for, I think, helps blunt the declination. These difficult or “extreme” pursuits, while inherently risky, have psychological benefits ranging from evoking positive emotions to developing resilience and life coping skills (2). 

A 2019 study interviewed participants such as big wave surfers, long distance swimmers, ultra endurance white-water kayakers, mountaineers, and ultramarathoners. They attributed their successes partly to resilience through effortful, immersive performance despite risk.

To me, four common denominators stand out when choosing a physical challenge geared towards cultivating these traits. The justifications specific to GoRuck Selection are below.

  1. Long term training commitment: The event centers around endurance and rucking extremely long distances. However, interspersed are mini-events that demand high aptitudes of anaerobic fitness, strength, and power. Training to develop high levels of all was a one year commitment minimum. Training to accumulate a proper fitness base as a starting point was a longer commitment still.
  2. Failure is possible: Proper preparation was not a guarantee of success. There were no participation ribbons for the event. There were continuous time and performance standards. Organizers were actively trying and encouraging participants to quit. The historic pass rate is less than ten percent.  “Set-backs” were a purposeful variable during the event.
  3. Ultimately enjoyable experience underlaid by passion: I derived deep satisfaction from seeing what limits I could push against during training and the event. The combination of all the various fitness domains is fun to me. I’m not the greatest at any one of them, but when combined, I feel at my best. Training for the event involved being outdoors in a place I love, for long lengths of time.
  4. Mentally taxing: Walking under load for double digit hours with no distractions is an onerous task. There was no team, partner, or crowd cheering. There was no prize money or job on the other side. Intrinsic reward was the only motivating factor to sustain two days of continuous physical toil. The mind was the only resource to help reach the finish if the body remained able.

As proof of concept, after finishing, I experienced newfound vigor for areas in my life in which I felt stuck. I discovered a new “set-point” for physical and mental hardship. Rudderless persistence turned into purposeful, dogged initiatives. 

For example, I was floundering to leave an unfulfilling job. I wanted to pursue a firefighting career but, starting over, losing financial security, and gaining uncertainty all seemed too hard. But post-event, I turned towards the multi-year challenge of multiple department applications, interviews, tests, and rejections. I might not have otherwise without purposefully seeking a physical trial.

Finding a partner was also a similar experience. Short-unfulfilling relationships had been the norm. Instead, I directly confronted the long-term, hard work to determine my own values and who I want to share those with. I had been ignoring the persistent efforts required to be a good partner. I attribute the change in part to the mental clarity afforded by self-imposed hardship.

Nevertheless, most knowledge is perishable through accommodation and comfort. The memory of something like GoRuck Selection fades. And, by way of difficulty, it is not an event someone makes an annual habit of completing. Maintaining grit and resilience is akin to fitness. It requires continuous attention. I continue to find physical events, as my current stage of life allows, with the above paradigms in mind. The Bataan Memorial Death March, marathons, and BJJ training have all sufficed.

 Cultivating resilience and grit is relative to the individual and scaled to previous experience. There is always something bigger or more daunting.

Ultimately, life will send situations your way that require a resilient, gritty response. Purposeful recreational hardship is a path to meeting the challenge in the most prepared way possible.

Jim is a career firefighter for a department in the DC metropolitan area. Jim completed a M.S. in Exercise Science in 2013. 

 


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References

  1. Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analysis Synthesis of the Grit Literature. Crede, et, al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2017.
  2. An Exploratory Study of Extreme Sport Athletes’ Nature Interactions: From Well-Being to Pro-environmental Behavior. MacIntyre, et al. Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.
  3. The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 2013.
  4. Physical performance, demographic, psychological, and physiological predictors of success in the US Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection course. Farina, et al. Physiology and Behavior, 2019.
  5. Grit and Hardiness as Predictors of Performance Among West Point Cadets. Kelly, et al. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 2013.
  6. The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school, and marriage. Eskreis-Winkler, et al. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014.
  7. Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept. Ris. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2015.
  8. Moderating role of resilience in the relationship between grit and psychological well-being. Vinothkumar, et al. International Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry, 2015.
  9. Motivational Factors Are Varying across Age Groups and Gender. Sigmundsson, et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2022.
  10. Review of Grit and Resilience Literature within Health Profession Education. Stoffel, et al. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 2018.

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