"This is it", I thought, "I'm dying".
I still remember it clearly, the feeling as my heart stopped beating for a couple of seconds before continuing at warp speed (270bpm+) for about 3-5 minutes.
Then, cardiac function just…
At this point an unbearable pressure built in my chest.
Finally, the pressure came to a peak, leading to one big pump of my heart. Then my heart rate returned to normal.
The most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me was soon to become what my heart beat was not: regular.
Every single time I played football, ran or jumped, it happened.
It terrified me.
At 14 years old, I was diagnosed with a heart condition.
The initial concern from doctors was it could be something known as Sudden Death Syndrome - yeah... not great.
Understandably, I was prevented from partaking in any physical exercise. But, for a 14 year old whose identity hung on my performance in sport, this was heart-breaking (pun intended).
I still remember standing on the side of my PE classes and observing my classmates running, playing, jumping.
I remember the frustration. I remember the hurt.
Most of all, I remember the fear.
Once, I caved into temptation and played football on a warm summer day with friends in the playground.
I’d been watching for what seemed like hours. Of course, it happened again.
When my heart went crazy at that point, I was sure I would die - just for the sake of kicking a ball around.
Just for the sake of being a child who wanted to act like every other child.
To cut a long story short, after a series of tests where I had dozens of wires stuck to my chest, and another where I saw my own heart beating on a screen (coolest thing EVER), it was considered unlikely that I had Sudden Death Syndrome.
Much more likely to be Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome - an unusual electrical wiring in my heart which meant I could expect this for the rest of my life. But, in almost every single case, it’s harmless.
I was now allowed to do whatever I wanted again.
The jubilation was soon replaced by something which should have been foreseeable: a subconscious fear of exertion. For years after, I would hold back. I remember running cross country and faking the onset of my crazy heart so that I didn't have to push.
Or, expose myself to the risk of failure. Sound familiar?
Over the years that followed, I had to teach myself first to tolerate intensity, then to embrace it. I had to learn to trust that it wasn't going to kill me.
What used to be a physical issue was now a mindset one. The thoughts, emotions and beliefs I chose to use prevented me from pushing hard. What was stopping me from fulfilling my athletic potential was my mindset, nothing more.
I just want to rephrase that in case it hasn't hit home enough:
OUR ABILITY TO PUSH INTO THE "DARK PLACE" AS AN ATHLETE IS RARELY IF EVER, A PHYSICAL ISSUE BUT A MENTAL ONE.
My years of trial and error lead me from:
Point A: Child who was terrified of physical exertion because he believed he may die from it
Point B: Teacher of mindset for functional athletes, CrossFit coach with over 10,000 hours of coaching under my belt, Royal Marines Commando… and seeker of intensity and discomfort.
There are a couple of takeaways from this story:
First, that your ability to embrace and endure discomfort is a mental limitation, not a physical one. In short, Intensity Tolerance is a learnable, earnable skill.
Secondly, that what initially appears to be a diversion could be the road you were looking for all along.
In the words of Ryan Holiday, "the obstacle is the way".