John Naber won four swimming gold medals at the ’76 Olympic Games in Montreal, each in world-record time. He said something in an interview once that sticks with me to this day.

John Naber, deep in the Pain Zone

A reporter asked Naber, “What’s the difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer?”

Here’s how Naber answered (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

The thing about competitive swimming is that the instant you hit the water, you enter the Pain Zone. Your heart is hammering, your lungs are on fire, your muscles are straining to their maximum. It’s hell.

The difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer is that the great swimmer has the capacity to go a little bit deeper into the Pain Zone … and to stay there a little bit longer.

I’m just now finishing a novel—filling the blank pages on the climactic chapters—and I am deep into the Pain Zone. Resistance is kicking my ass. I think of John Naber every day.

Gloria Steinem once said

I don’t like to write. I like to have written.

It helps me a lot to remind myself first that there is a Pain Zone, and second, that it’s universal. Every one of us hits that wall. Every one feels our lungs burning, our heart about to explode out of our chest. Every one of us wants to quit. Every one wants to back off, just a little, so this damn struggle will stop hurting so much.

I keep thinking back to John Naber.

The difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer is that the great swimmer finds a way to go a little bit deeper into the Pain Zone … and to stay there a little bit longer.

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49 Comments

  1. Graham Glover on October 17, 2018 at 6:37 am

    When I’m doing fashion photography, there’s a Pain Zone too. It’s behind the camera, in planning, in post processing, and in product production.

  2. JL Allderdice on October 17, 2018 at 7:22 am

    “The public does not realize, perhaps, the amount of work that goes into one painting before I begin to set it down on canvas. In my last picture, I spent two months–fourteen hours a day, including Sundays–sketching, making notes, rejecting ideas.” Grant Wood

    • Adam Schwartz on October 27, 2021 at 9:08 am

      Thanks. I added that one to my inspiration file.

  3. Susn Setteducato on October 17, 2018 at 7:24 am

    I, too, am revising the final 30 pp of my novel, and I feel like someone is squeezing my lungs. Thank you for this post, Steven. Knowing the Pain Zone is there and that the Resistance is real makes all the difference for me.

  4. Joe Jansen on October 17, 2018 at 7:37 am

    “I’m just now finishing… Resistance is kicking…”

    You’re always encouraging people here in this space. To reciprocate… In a documentary we can find on Amazon Prime, Damian Lewis narrates. In the film’s opening, he says of Major Dick Winters (“Band of Brothers”):

    “During decisive moments in battle, Richard D. Winters would often say two simple words to the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division.

    “Hang tough.”

  5. Rachel Goldstein on October 17, 2018 at 8:03 am

    Thank you for this post. I’m a wannabe author and I spend a lot of time telling myself that I don’t have what it takes – the imagination, the fire, the people-savvy. This post tells me that maybe I have what everyone has – Resistance.

    • Michael on October 18, 2018 at 7:53 am

      Rachel, read The Art of war and then Turning Pro. In that order. If you don’t get it after those 2 books, well …….They are a life changer.

    • Anne Pellicciotto on October 28, 2021 at 6:52 pm

      I so identify with this both figuratively and litererally. But there is good pain that comes from kicking some ass…and bad pain that comes from the body/mind kicking your ass. How can I transform the latter into the former? My chronic scoliosis back pain that is limiting my life into some kind of gold medal win? I know, I know, get my rage onto the page. I am trying, I am angry, it is frothing out of my pen, the injustice of this kind of ailment that makes it hard for me to sit at the desk, physically, and write. But it is just another form of Resistence, right? And I am gonna beat it.

  6. Marvin Ginsberg on October 17, 2018 at 9:21 am

    I am completing a book of stories and I feel like there are walls all around me as close as my skin.
    I can’t seem to move forward now.

  7. Brian S Nelson on October 17, 2018 at 9:31 am

    In our event, participants scale and descend 1628 steps in a stadium built in 1906. WAY before OSHA. These are not your present day steps of 5 inch rise and one meter run…these are steep and high. Everyone is a mouth breather. It sucks. A lot. It hurts. A lot. “We are exercising our ‘I don’t quit muscle’ on the stairs” I’d say to my Soldiers years ago. We have to exercise that muscle every day.

    There is great freedom in knowing we are entering pain of our own free will.
    bsn

  8. Jay Cadmus on October 17, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Dipped my toe into the water. Not near reaching “the pain zone. ” Planning for writing my next project comes to shuffling papers and thoughts. I hope my efforts will find me that “…zone.” Then – at least – I will know that I’ve given my best. Thanks for your time while you work on your next published novel.

  9. Lindsey Kesel on October 17, 2018 at 10:55 am

    Mental ways through the Pain Zone? Your personal endurance strategies? 😉

  10. Akaur on October 17, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Ha… what a wonderful gift. This message came at the right time. I have been thinking of starting a writing practice (again). I have been contemplating about the inevitable time of unease that will show up during my writing and voiding writing to void that time. But you shared wise words and I will take these and march on.

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  11. Martha Shoemaker on October 17, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    Writing was not the hard part for me. Sitting down to write was. But the feeling of accomplishment in having finished my book supersedes all the pain of persevering.

  12. Eleanor F.J. Gamarsh on October 17, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    This Pain Zone you have written about has me thinking about how I have difficulty getting into deeper emotions about my brain injury accident. I’ve been trying to write a memoir of my survival and recovering journey. Too often what I write sounds like s report of how I felt or of what happened to me. I believe I’m not consciously Resisting. digging deeper. I simply don’t know how without another voice to trigger my memory and emotions.. So Resistance is present against writing more without expressing emotions. The pain zone I need to get into may be hell but I believe it would be worth the emotional opening for my healing, and for making my memoir a book another survivor or their loved ones would want to read. I would appreciate some feed-back on what I’ve written.

  13. Tine Wiggens on October 18, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Hang in there Steve, you’re a warrior! You’re doing fantastic!!

  14. Julie Murphy on October 19, 2018 at 6:57 am

    Pain’s a tricky motivator, right? With a high threshold for pain we can stay in the ring longer to win; or, that same tolerance can keep us from getting out of the gutter sooner when we’re losing.

    Our relationship with pain really can determine both trajectory and destiny. Really good insights and food for thought, Steve. Thanks.

  15. Tuseet Jha on October 20, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    This absolutely makes sense! I am currently in the same zone and havent found the courage yet to dig deeper. Reading this might actually be the trigger point! thank you.

  16. Debbie L. Kasman on October 28, 2018 at 7:10 am

    For anyone who wants to explore the idea of pain and performance further, Alex Hutchinson wrote a book called Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. It was recently featured in the Next Big Idea Club curated by Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink.

  17. Oludascribe on November 3, 2018 at 4:41 am

    This is a paradigm shift . A contrast to what we hear about passion “if you do what you love …….”

    Thanks Steven.

  18. Ann on May 20, 2021 at 11:30 am

    To be honest, his phrase about pain sounds scary. It’s like a panic attack. It is very important to find a suitable remedy that can calm you down. I found it here https://dailycbd.com/en/best-cbd/

  19. Peter Brockwell on October 27, 2021 at 3:32 am

    Great post from the Guru. Personally I find that the Pain Zone is emotional rather than technical or exhausting. Of course it is those also, but mainly it’s an overwhelm of despair which I have to be careful not to allow to migrate into distress, which is paralysing. Right now I’m a little overwhelmed with trying to find a house to purchase, amongst juggling work, and care of an elderly parent, and there’s very little time for looking after myself, let alone writing, I”m ashamed to admit. It’s controlling ones emotions. I like to remind myself of Gates of Fire, the idea of the Spartans refusing to succumb to what they called ‘possession’. And surely that’s what despair is, a powerful and complex feeling that is a liar, that has the character of almost a living personality in how it possesses you.
    P

    • Jackie on October 28, 2021 at 5:31 am

      Keep going Peter. There is another side to the circumstances bogging you down. Keep moving and you’ll see resolution.

  20. Regina Holt on October 27, 2021 at 8:26 am

    “Swing for the seats!”

    Musicians get a huge kick out of hearing their fans sing their songs back to them….

  21. Kate Stanton on October 27, 2021 at 8:28 am

    I like this. A Pain Zone that is not only universal, but inevitable in the world of creating something new. Like an Olympic athlete, how can we train our minds to push through the pain? Digging deeper hurts. The lies deep inside my wound won’t heal properly unless I get out all the infection though. I want to stay a little longer in that zone without the need to self-destruct. I visualize the day I am not a self-saboteur. Lovely things to ponder this week…

  22. Doug on October 27, 2021 at 8:32 am

    I like this.
    No technical jargon or terminologies.
    Yet the words are coined into your memory or subconsciousness.
    I instantly translated it to share in my WhatsApp group, a study group largely focusing on Steve’s principles.

  23. Adam Schwartz on October 27, 2021 at 9:15 am

    I understand swim coaches sometimes set up an empty trash can on the pool deck before a practice. It’s for the swimmers who exercise so intensely that they have to vomit. Fitness guru Pavel Tsatsouline’s highest praise for an exercise is, “It’s a puker.”

    • Brian Nelson on October 27, 2021 at 10:57 am

      Adam,
      In the early days of CrossFit, they used to sell a t-shirt ‘Mr Pukey’. I’ve hurled doing a CrossFit WOD.

      I worked as the Officer Recruiter for a bit in my Army career. In that effort, I’d work with our Officer Candidate School (OCS). We had a large number of candidates fail the PT test one morning–mostly the 2 mile run.

      My answer was, “If you failed the run, and didn’t hurl when finishing–then you didn’t run hard enough.” I’d then smoke the f-bomb out of them…until a couple of dudes puked. Thus ended the lesson…
      bsn

  24. Elspeth on October 27, 2021 at 10:14 am

    Steven you are the greatest encourager and I love and appreciate your emails.

  25. Ben on October 27, 2021 at 10:18 am

    “It’s not who’s the best – it’s who can take the most pain.” Steve Prefontaine

    I also recall reading something about him said by a coach for those who competed with him, to the effect: “He will take you into the pain zone where not many are willing (or able) to go.”

  26. Bing on October 27, 2021 at 10:25 am

    I watched a documentary on Bruce Jenner who trained 10 hours a day to win the Gold metal,
    He said very simply,” I am not afraid of pain”. I was shocked when he said that. He was focused
    on only on thing, winning the god metal and he knew he could do it if he trained harder than anyone else.

  27. Bing on October 27, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I meant gold metal

  28. Nick Sherman on October 27, 2021 at 10:33 am

    Pain is not your enemy, it is your call to greatness.

    I hate to be that one guy that quotes Rollins, but it’s true, and it hurts so good.

    Go read “The Iron” and then go get some.

  29. AK on October 27, 2021 at 10:50 am

    That quote is from Dorothy Parker, not Gloria Steinem

  30. Steven Pressfield on October 27, 2021 at 10:53 am

    Trying to leave a comment …

  31. Jesse on October 27, 2021 at 11:01 am

    Thank you for this. I’m running into resistance that borders on the supernatural. This is exactly what I needed to read to make it across the finish line. Thank you!

  32. Brian Nelson on October 27, 2021 at 11:08 am

    I love to read this blog first thing Wednesday mornings. Part of my healthier routine. I looked this AM to see 20 comments at 0630 PST. Damn! This must be a hot post! Wait a minute…did someone post as me?!?! Oh…retread.

    Read the post, then went to the Y to have a Pickleball deathmatch. (those two words do not really fit together, and my 25 year old self would totally roll his eyes! PICKLEBALL!?! REALLY!?!?! Does that require a skirt?)

    Ever since our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, I’ve been on a current events bender. Listening to podcasts that are critical of the admin, independent news outlets…all of it just feeds my discontent. So, I decided to go back to a water fast of current events. I opted to listen to a podcast I’ve never listened to–Baron Bishop’s Word on Fire sermons.

    How’s this for serendipity of messages: His sermon was about praying to God and asking for power and honor..but asking from selfish/ego perspective. He mentions how John and James asked Jesus that they wanted to be on his right and his left when he came to power. Bishop Baron responds (it is a much longer podcast and explanation than my summary–but this is his point) that when Christ came to his honor and power–he was on a cross with a crown of thorns. Who was to his left and right? A couple of thugs, suffering the same pain. Made me think.
    bsn

  33. Gene C on October 27, 2021 at 11:45 am

    As a small child, I grew up in a German refugee camp. The horrors included sexual abuse, losing my mother,constant malnutrition and the overwhelming fear the Russians would find us and send us back for extermination. When we moved to America, the monsters followed. But I faced them by choosing never to return, rarely sharing my past. Now I am writing a novel utilizing that past. It is a story I HAVE to tell, a tale that hopefully others may follow. But the resistance awakes breathing heavily inside me every day. Dealing with it is the only way greater truths may follow.

    • Kate Stanton on October 27, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      You’re incredibly brave for sharing your story! I guarantee it will give courage to others reading it.

    • Brian Nelson on October 27, 2021 at 12:59 pm

      Echoing Kate. Get after it. We need it.
      bsn

  34. Frank Gugino on October 27, 2021 at 12:09 pm

    “No Pain, No Gain.”
    Jimmy Connors

  35. Tom Vandel on October 27, 2021 at 6:02 pm

    I finished my debut novel a year ago and it was a struggle to the end. But I made it just by repeating…”This is good, this is good, this is good…” and you talk yourself into it and believe it to continue. It takes persuasion and patience.

  36. Joe Tye on October 27, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    I’m certain that Naber would have read the book The Science of Swimming by coaching great Doc Councilman. He described the Hurt-Pain-Agony continuum. Mediocre swimmers (like I was) rarely moved beyond hurt into pain and did not stay long when they did. Great swimmers endured agony for hours each day.

  37. Una Pett on October 27, 2021 at 11:46 pm

    Someone suggested to me recently the line “This is the part where…” — to use when challenging situations come up. “This is the part where I enter the Pain Zone & I think it’ll last forever … but it’s just a sign that … etcetera.” I find it a great way to gain perspective on those particularly challenging stages when the brain says Quit.

  38. Humberto on October 28, 2021 at 5:17 am

    El dolor es inevitable, tratar de evitar el dolor causa mas dolor.

  39. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 30, 2021 at 3:46 am

    Thank you dear Steve, thank you all,

    there is only one way and that is the way of pain.

  40. Jurgen Strack on November 1, 2021 at 3:32 am

    Yes, Tolis.
    No pain, no gain.

  41. Estelle Johnson on November 11, 2021 at 2:22 pm

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