Getting gritty.

The second season of American Grit is now on the air. The FOX-TV reality series debuted in the spring of 2016 and despite middling ratings, it was renewed for another season. The original premise had 16 competitors divided into teams of four, each team mentored by a military veteran, and vying against each other in a series of “evolutions” that tested the team members’ ability to work together to accomplish tasks that were physically and emotionally challenging. At the end of each episode, one member from each team that didn’t win that week’s evolution had to face off in the “circus,” one final test of determination that inevitably resulted in one of the three giving up and leaving the competition by ringing a bell, similar to what sailors do when they quit Navy SEAL training. At the end of Season 1, the two surviving competitors were Clare Painter, a professional ocean fisherman and horse trainer from Washington state, and Mark Bouquin, a lumberjack from upstate New York, each going home with a quarter of a million dollars. Painter and Bouquin were mentored on the show by former Army paratrooper Noah Galloway, who lost two limbs in combat in Iraq in December 2005.

The first season’s cast was a gung-ho bunch. Besides Galloway, the mentors were former Navy SEAL Rorke Denver, ex-Marine gunnery sergeant “Tee” Hanible, and former Army Ranger sniper Nick Irving. All but Hanible have written books about their military service. Denver, in particular, has some interesting things to say that go way beyond the standard military autobiography.

 

 

The contestants these veterans mentored were, with very few exceptions, a hard-charging group. Besides Painter and Bouquin, there was a former NFL receiver, an Olympic track medalist, a police officer (at 54, the oldest competitor in the field), a bodybuilder, a nurse, and more. As always is the case for these shows, there were some drama kings and queens, but those contestants didn’t last long. By and large the show was a tough competition that produced some memorable moments. So much so, in fact, that I decided to try out myself, once the second season was announced. Alas, I didn’t get past the second round of the audition process. When promotions began for the new season, it became clear why I didn’t get picked. This year, the show would be looking for people who’d never had “grit” at all, or who lost theirs somewhere along the way. The new season premiered on June 11th, and after watching the first two episodes, it would hard to pick a bigger bunch of whiners. None of the original four cadre are back, and I’m sure they’re glad about that.

The format of the show has been revamped and the evolutions have been watered down. Whereas the first season had competitors matched in grueling physical challenges, the biggest one so far in this season has been a quasi-obstacle course that involved things like drinking a smoothie made of alligator tail, stripping naked and having one’s head shaved. It’s questionable whether I’ll be watching any more episodes.

 

In the first season, the contestants often had to get down and dirty.

 

For Season 2, it’s not quite that tough.

 

The concept of the show is built around “grit.” Specifically, American-style grit. Well, what is grit, anyway?

 

What is “grit,” and do you have it?

The dictionary defines “grit” in two ways. One is the physical manifestation: “small, loose particles of stone or sand.” This kind of grit can be bothersome, especially after a day at the beach. The other definition is what we’re getting at: “courage and resolve; strength of character.”

Throughout our history, Americans have certainly displayed courage and resolve. The first inhabitants of what would become the United States, the peoples we today characterize as Native Americans, had to tame a continent teeming with wildlife that was often dangerous, deal with wild extremes of climate, and build very diverse societies that not only survived, but thrived. When the Europeans began to arrive, they encountered the same challenges, along with the extra challenge that the natives didn’t really care to give up what they had spent centuries building. Putting the moral questions of the European settlement aside, it cannot be doubted that both the natives and the newcomers had plenty of grit.

Every one of us faces challenges in our lives, every day. It can be said these challenges begin when we first learn how to walk. There’s a lot of stumbling and falling that goes on, and sometimes there’s pain, but we don’t give up. I’ve never seen an adult who is in a wheelchair because they just decided back at age 12 months or so that it was too hard to learn to walk in the first place.

The challenges keep coming. We have to learn how to read, how to do arithmetic, how to solve problems, how to get along and work with others. We learn how to take instruction, how to recover from failure, how to set goals and work toward them. By the time we’re in fourth or fifth grade, we’ve usually got the basics down, and then things get even tougher. Puberty comes calling and we have to learn how to deal with that in constructive ways, how to control and channel our physical urges. Team sports come along and many of us choose to participate, which involves stepping up our individual games in order to compete with and against our peers in real games of skill, always involving rather severe physical and psychological tests. When we are teenagers we have to learn how to drive a car, how to handle mind-altering substances properly, how to deal with the complex social structure of our high school years. On top of that we have to start planning for our future beyond high school. What type of further education do we want? How are we going to make a living? In adulthood, it gets tougher yet. Relationships, career choices, financial questions, parenthood. It never ends. Even in retirement, there’s the challenge of figuring out what to do next, and how to deal with the inevitable decline of our physical and perhaps even mental health.

 

Our very first steps are often taken with great joy…

 

…but it won’t be long until we face much greater challenges…

 

…and eventually they’ll come at us from all directions…

 

…until finally, if we’ve played our cards well and had some luck along the way, we can enjoy our last few years in relative peace and quiet. Maybe.

 

Yes, there’s no doubt about it, to get through life with any chance of success, we have to find our grit and rely on it, day after day. It’s hard, and many people check out early, always looking for the easier path to walk. There will always be hard-chargers and there will always be slackers.

 

For every one of these…

 

…we seem to have more than a few of these.

 

The science of grit.

Yes, there is some science behind this. An article in the July-August issue of Men’s Health magazine, just out this week, talks about how you can “tap your energy reserves and push on when other guys quit.” The article cites seven ways to “psych yourself out of failure,” such as “pre-fatiguing” the brain (timing your workout to come after a taxing day, for example, which helps to build mental resilience), and “applying A/V strategy” (on your high-intensity workout days, train to music videos). It sounds kind of hokey, but the article is worth reading, I think. It’s not on the website yet, so you will have to find the real magazine at your town bookstore.

It all boils down to one thing. According to Dr. Holden MacRae, professor of sports medicine at Pepperdine University,

the answer is simple. “What stops you is up here,” he says as he taps his head. “It’s all between the ears.”

The article cites examples of the athletic “end spurt,” when the athlete, at a critical moment of the competition, overcomes his exhaustion and makes one more heroic effort that often changes the outcome of the event. The best example of this I’ve ever seen, and it’s also pointed out in the article, is LeBron James and his incredible blocked shot in the final minutes of Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals.

 

With the game tied, James swooped in to stuff Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. Two minutes later, James and the Cavaliers were world champions.

 

Had Iguodala made that layup, his Warriors might very well have hung on to win the game and their second straight title. James had played superbly throughout the series, rallying Cleveland from a 3-1 deficit to force the decisive 7th game in Oakland. When the chips were down, James came through with one of the all-time greatest highlights, and it played a huge part in the Cavaliers winning the championship, their first ever. (This season, though, the Warriors didn’t have to worry about James making another great play; they won the series, four games to one, to regain the championship.)

James had tapped into his energy reserve, when by all rights it should’ve been used up by then. “Most of the time people don’t tap into this reserve,” MacRae says in the article. “We’re scared of the challenge. If you really want to understand top athletes, you have to study that reserve. You have to ask yourself: How do I tap into that? How do I hack my brain so I can perform at the highest level?”

LeBron James didn’t find his grit in that game; he’d been displaying it throughout his stellar career. But when his team needed him the most, he dug down deep and found more.

 

 

Finding our grit.

Everyone has grit, I think, but what we do with it is what counts. Much of it involves an attitude we learn from our parents and grandparents. My brothers and I were blessed with great examples of both. We learned early on that to survive and thrive we had to buckle down and do what needed to be done. Homework, basketball practice, household chores, they were all a part of my life as a youngster. This is not to say everything went smoothly, oh no. There were rough patches all the way through. As a young adult I cut the apron strings, as we all do, and then made some bonehead choices, and we all make those, too. Fortunately, things didn’t go too far off the rails and now I am able to contemplate an impending retirement that looks like it’ll be pretty close to the picture up above of that man and woman walking hand-in-hand on the beach. There are no guarantees, of course, but so far, things are looking good.

Over the years I have found that I have grit, a lot more than I thought I had, but not at first. As I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I made one big decision that I have always regretted: I did not choose to go into the military. I’m a firm believer that almost every young man and woman can benefit by serving a hitch, and while I’m not necessarily in favor of reviving the draft, I do think some form of mandatory national service, be it in uniform or as a civilian, would be a great benefit to our society. Rorke Denver, the former SEAL officer and American Grit cadre member, calls for just such a thing in his book, Worth Dying For: A Navy SEAL’s Call to a Nation. No less a person than John Cena, the pro wrestler and actor who hosts the TV show, calls Denver’s book “an inspiring MUST read” that “should be mandatory for anyone looking for the guidelines to becoming a better human being.”

 

You should read this book. In fact, every American should read it.

 

Another decision I made shortly thereafter is also one of those big regrets. When I matriculated to UW-Platteville in the fall of 1975, I declined a chance to play on the school’s basketball team. I was a pretty decent small-town high school player and quite probably would’ve made the Pioneer squad that season, and while I might not have been a superstar and certainly not NBA-worthy, I missed out on a lot by not playing. And why didn’t I? For the same reason I turned down the military: I was afraid of the challenge. I didn’t have much in the way of grit at that time in my life. And unlike challenges such as learning to play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language, joining the military or playing college sports can only be done at a certain time. You only get one shot at those things, and when it’s gone, that’s it.

So later on in life, I decided that I had to find my grit and use it to achieve something. I turned around a radio career that was faltering and parlayed that experience into a career of government service that has been quite satisfying, professionally and financially. I made the difficult decision to end one marriage that was not working and embark on another, which has worked very well indeed. And on an even more personal level, I decided to take on physical challenges that I’d shied away from when I was younger. I became a certified scuba diver and then earned black belts in two different martial arts disciplines, all after the age of 40. I developed a training regimen that includes martial arts, swimming, weight training and more that has, I think, put me in much better physical condition than your average 60-year-old, a regimen that I hope will help me hold off the ravages of old age for as long as possible.

And just this month, I subjected myself to what has been, for me, the ultimate test of grit: I hiked the Salkantay Trail of Peru.

 

The climax of the trek was Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city, which Sue and I explored on June 19, six months to the day after I had knee replacement surgery.

 

There will be much more coming up about the trek in a separate post I’ll be writing for Sue’s travel blog. Right now, I’ll just say that this trek, covering more than 40 miles over sometimes-dangerous trails, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I trained hard for it at two different gyms in Rice Lake and on the trails of northwest Wisconsin, but even with all that, there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing. But when those times came, I dug down deep, found my grit, and pushed on.

And that, in the end, is all any of us can do.

3 comments

  1. I’m glad you liked season 1 of American Grit. I noticed you pointed out the 54 year old guy. I can tell you like to write.We’re both the type of person that needs a challenge. I just retired and I’ve challenged myself to write a novel. Stay strong brother

    1. Thanks, Jim. I enjoyed your show last year. Too bad they got so far away from that format this year. Please stay in touch, I’ll be anxious to read your manuscript. Let me know if I can be of any help.

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