Tough as Nails

Walter Rosenblum D-Day
Walter Rosenblum D-Day

It does not have anything to do with gender, race, or even how physically strong you are. Most people confuse strength with toughness. Toughness is a state of mind. It is a process by which you tell yourself that yielding is not an option. That failure is out of the question. And no matter what happens you will accomplish the task at hand.

As a World War II U.S. Army combat photographer, Walter Rosenblum landed in Normandy on D-Day morning. There, he joined the anti-tank battalion that drove through France, Germany and Austria; he took the first motion picture footage of the Dachau concentration camp. Rosenblum was one of the most decorated WWII photographers, receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, five battle stars, a Purple Heart and a Presidential Unit Citation.  The Simon Weisenthal Center has honored him as a liberator of Dachau in WWII. No, he was not charging a machine gun nest or throwing himself on a grenade. Rosenblum’s weapon was a camera. Tough is something that is not visible at a glance. It is evidence of what was accomplished after the fact.

I grew up as a smaller than average child. Toughness is something that I had to develop quickly. I had to prove my ability to be tougher than anyone else. I could not intimidate anyone with my size or strength. It was my sheer tenacity. I had many physical altercations with other boys and lost a good deal of the time, but one thing was for sure, the other guy knew he had been in a fight. I always think back to a particular day when I lost one of these fights and walked home bleeding and whimpering. My father was in the hospital with kidney stones, so my mom told me get on the phone and talk to my grandfather. I’ve blogged about him before. Now, understand that this man was also small for his size, but he fought in General Patton’s armored division in World War II for four year, seeing heavy combat action in many places like Kasserine Pass, Casino, and Anzio Beach. I loved and respected him very much.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Pa Pa.” I sniffed and tried to steady my voice.

“Hey, little man, what is wrong?”

I told him the story of the fight and how I was tired of being picked on and how I hated my school and how I was so much smaller than the other . . .

“Hey.” He cut me off.

“Sir?”

“Put the phone down and go to your room and get your rules of fighting. I want to you to read something to me.”

“I don’t understand, Pa Pa.” Sniff

The was a pause on the line. “Just go get it.”

“I don’t have a book about rules of fighting.” Sniff 

“Do you know why? Because there’s not one. Now, let me explain something. When you’re in a fight, you do anything you can to win. Bite. Kick. Punch. Gouge the eyes. Or pick up something from the ground and use it. Understand?”

I did. I still do. It is not just about physical. It is life. How many times a man is knocked down and keeps getting up? I always believed that there was something deep inside of me that would rather die than quit. The mental aspect of tough is what sets CEO’s, athletes, survivors of horrific events, and others apart from the rest of the pack. When looking for exact, textbook definition of the word toughness, I found one that referenced what it means in materials science and metallurgy, toughness is the ability of a material to absorb energy and plastically deform without fracturing. I think of that in all aspects of life. Absorption of what sucks to continue moving forward without breaking. The human body can take so much more than the mind wants you to believe that it can.

How do you handle stress? Can you force your mind to think through a cloud of panic? Telling yourself that this is what you have to do in a certain situation will push you to do things and act in a situation instead of reacting to a situation. Knowing that events or pain or discomfort will eventually pass helps a person achieve or persevere far beyond more than he ever thought possible. For example, most people have no idea about the difference between being injured and hurt. When you are injured, you are physically disabled to the point where you cannot continue to perform a task. Most champions, combat veterans, and winners in general perform with discomfort and pain, many times in severe pain. It is the pain that pushes them further, to dig deeper than ever before.

Is it possible to train mental and physical toughness? Yes, it is never too late, but you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. In an article “You May be Strong . . . but are You Tough?” by Khaled Allen, there are various ways to train:

  • Allow small discomforts in life and learn to tolerate them.
  • Start an internal monologue of what you will and won’t do.
  • Weigh the importance of inconvenience against the gains.
  • Exposure to elements of cold with minimal clothing, in small increments and build up . . . your body will learn how to regulate heat better over the long term
  • Limit your rests between workouts or exercises (be careful about over training though).
  • Eat well. Rest well.
  • Nasal breathing during workouts.
  • Train in all weather conditions.

Whining is the initial response of being outside of your comfort zone.  Training the body and mind to accept what is uncomfortable will bring multiple benefits in life. Walther Rosenblum and R.Z. Brooks knew this. We should learn from tough individuals and prepare ourselves to withstand what our mind tells us is too much.

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