Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Terrorism vs Learned Helplessness

The events in Boston have me thinking more about “learned helplessness” and how we do or don’t respond to difficult and sometimes tragic events.   I want to give you two examples from the world of sports about how to respond.  In contrast to the bullying techniques used by some coaches and authority figures, the legendary football coaches Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither took another approach.  These men coached at segregated colleges in the U.S. South and developed an incredible number of outstanding players who were also outstanding people.   At some level they experienced a sort of daily slow-motion terrorism as a result of institutionalized racism with an implicit threat of violence against those who spoke out.  Here is what Robinson said reflecting late in life.


“When I first started coaching, my state dictated to me where I had to go, when I played and who I played. I hold no grudges and I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. You can’t unring a bell. I played as long as I could play, whenever I could play and as hard as I could play. How else can you judge me, except for what I accomplish?”


The clip below is from Frank Shorter last week.  Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon a few days after the terrorist attack on the Olympics and he was at Boston when the bombs went off.  The horror he describes is palpable, but the important part of his reflections come later in the interview when he discusses how he was able to focus amid the chaos in Munich.


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Do What You Can

Robinson, Gaither, and Shorter remind us all that life is ultimately about how we respond in situations that we don’t control and that the best choice is to be proactive.


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