You Are Not Tough: An Observation or Two About Pain

Julio Jones played last week just days after having surgery to put a plate and pin into his hand. Last year defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick played in the season opener after being shot by a would-be robber the week prior. Greg McElroy lead the Crimson Tide to a victory in the National Championship game last January despite having two broken ribs.

As Todd often says in these situations "You are not tough."

But these incidents are unusual due to the circumstances that they occurred in, they ignore the fact that much of the squad must play through an immense degree of pain to function at the level required of an elite college football team. We hear when someone comes down with an injury and we notice the guys that are limping or favoring an arm when those high definition cameras pick them out for us but the fact is just about every player on the field must push themselves to withstand a degree of pain most of us can't even imagine. And do it every week of the season.

I thought about this reading a story on endurance athletes in the New York Times this week. The central question it asks is if the ability to withstand enormous amounts of pain an innate attribute of elite athletes or is it something one can learn? The answer, as you might expect, is not particularly clear cut.

Keep in mind, this is different than the observation elite athletes must have an innate resistance to injury. The fact is, to be able to compete at the highest level of any sport you must have a huge amount of skill as well as the ability to put in the vast amount of training needed to hone that to its finest degree.

This is a lesson I know quite well as I am a distance runner and the threshold for injury for me is, frustratingly, right at that point I need to do in order to train for my goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The key to my training effort then is to find ways to overcome that -- either by getting more out of less mileage or finding ways to belay that injury threshold enough to permit me to get the runs in.

Pain though. That's a different bastard entirely. 

Elite athletes -- be they football players or distance runners -- somehow are able to handle the pain and keep going at a level of effort that seems impossible to maintain to others. And even as you get faster and in better shape, the pain "never gets any easier." 

While there seems to be a certain amount of pain resistance that is innate but most elite athletes also strive to find ways to increase their ability to handle it. Mental familiarity with the situation, focus on the task at hand and just sheer guts all combine into every athlete's approach to the problem.

"Our hypothesis is that elite athletes are able to motivate themselves continuously and are able to run the gantlet between pushing too hard — and failing to finish — and underperforming," said Dr. Jeroen Swart, a sports medicine physician at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

Reading this story I thought a lot about my worst brush with real pain in an athletic competition and the lessons I learned from it. And they were almost exactly the approach to handling the pain the athletes quoted in the story advised. But what really struck me was how these observations were almost exactly word for word what you heard Coach Saban tell the Alabama players in the ESPN shows from the pre-season practices.

When we talk about Alabama's Fourth Quarter Program we think about how it's making the Crimson Tide players faster and stronger and better fit. But when Coach Cochran screams "HATE ME NOW! THANK ME LATER!" it isn't just because they won't be sucking wind as the clock winds down -- its because when the pain get really bad in the game, they will have already been there and know how to handle it.

For us regular humans pain tends to be an either/or kind of thing. Something hurts or it doesn't. Part of being an athlete is becoming a connoisseur of pain -- learning to know every little variation and increment of it to keep it under control and to understand that hairline difference between acute discomfort the realm of actual injury. It is a process of learning to live with pain and making it part of your regular world. But don't ever think that means it hurts any less.

So when you watch Alabama play next time, think about the level of pain the guys are going through out there and what it takes to have the mental fortitude to set it aside and compete on every play like Coach Saban demands. And then you can understand that it's really true -- you are not tough.

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