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The Paradox of Hurt, Pain, Agony and Why it Pays to Go to the Extreme

Having just won an Olympic gold medal,
Michael Phelps hardly looks winded

Back when I was in high school I was on the swimming team. At that time, the godfather in the world of swimming was Doc Counsilman, head coach of the Indiana University swim team. During his tenure there, his teams won six national titles and 23 Big Ten titles. Sixty of his swimmers, including Mark Spitz and John Kinsella, competed in the Olympics.

Counsilman wrote the book The Science of Swimming, which for many years was considered the bible of the sport. In that book he wrote about the “hurt, pain, agony” continuum.

Mediocre swimmers (like yours truly) would push themselves to the point where it hurt. Really good swimmers would push themselves through the hurt to the point of real pain. But the great swimmers – the ones who competed on a global stage – pushed every practice to the point of agony.

Look at the picture of Michael Phelps above milliseconds after having raced another Olympic gold medal. Does that look to you like a man in agony?

I think of this as Doc’s Paradox. The more willing you are to conquer resistance and push yourself through the hurt and the pain during your preparation, the more easily you will hit it out of the park when the time comes for performance.

This doesn’t just apply in sports. The best speakers spend hours in preparation for a short presentation.

The best salespeople go the extra mile for their customers, even when it is difficult and inconvenient.

In healthcare, the best caregivers give up a chunk of television time at home to devote themselves to learning the latest in the art and science of their chosen profession.

If you want to make something look easy, you must devote yourself to doing what’s hard. If you’re willing to pay the price, it will be worth it. Michael Phelps certainly thought it was.

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