Mental Notes

One of the challenges that people face when they start a new training program is the discomfort that comes from trying to do things they aren’t very good at.

I was reminded of this the other night. I was playing checkers with my five-year-old daughter. We were nearing the end of the game, and I was thankful—mostly because it was past her bedtime, and it’s only after both kids are in bed that my wife and I get the forty-minute window during which we may express complete thoughts to one another before she falls to sleep. And I like my wife.

But my daughter did not want it to be the end of the game because she wasn’t going to win.

“Can you move those men so I can jump them?” she asked.

I had already done that three times, and I wasn’t going to do it again.


“Can we trade sides and keep playing?”

I appreciated her creativity. Nonetheless, I gave her the answer she didn’t want.


She was clearly distressed. Which isn’t surprising.

Most people feel bad if they try something (like winning at checkers) and fail. Most people feel good if they try something and succeed. This is generally useful. The positive feelings that come with success motivate us toward further success. The negative feelings that come with failure push us to avoid failure. So far, so good.


But what happens with our feelings when we decide to do something—like physical training—specifically because it’s something we haven’t mastered? For a lot of people, all hell breaks loose.

Why? Because training to acquire a fitness level we don’t yet possess requires attempting things that, by design, we aren’t very good at yet. So, we may feel as if we are failing. A lot.

But it is important to understand that we are not failing. Rather, we are finding our current limits. Pushing ourselves and finding those limits is what reveals our starting point—the beginning of our path.  It then allows us to set reasonable, measurable goals and experience the satisfaction that comes with reaching them.

That’s why I didn’t trade sides with my daughter in the checker game.

“Here is what is about to happen,” I told her. “You’re not going to win this time, and you’re going to be okay. You have played very well. I am proud of you.”

I waited. It was one of those moments in parenting when maybe it’s about to be really cool, but maybe the kid is about to start screaming and confirm my fear that I’ve scarred her for life.

It turned out to be cool. She played out the game she knew she wouldn’t win. She came up against her current limits and tolerated the feelings that came along with that. She was okay. She wants to play again. And, most important, by doing what she did, she pushed back her limits.

 She reminded me that it works the same way for us as adults.

So this week, I’m going to make sure I do some stuff that I’m not very good at.

I hope you will, too.

About the Author-Jason Barnhart, M.D., DNBPAS

Dr. Barnhart is a psychiatrist and boxing coach in Boulder, Colorado.