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Reversing the Flag, Facing Forward, and Removing Exit Options – The Ancient Art Of Building Grit



by Claire Nana
September 2017


When Sun Tzu famously faced his soldiers with the river at their backs at the Battle of Boju, the message was simple: If they had no choice but to fight, they would fight harder. By removing the option to surrender, Sun Tzu not only won the battle, but uncovered a core psychological principle that governs many of our decisions – and the thoughts we have about them – today.

When It’s Mine, It’s Worth More

What those in behavioral economics call the Endowment Effect, is something we have likely all experienced. That is, that once we own something, we tend to value it more – especially when we can’t return it. In his fascinating book, Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes what he calls our unique ability to synthesize happiness, in essence, making the most of the hand we are dealt, or in this case, the one we own. Gilbert cites numerous studies where participants report higher levels of enjoyment from a gift they received but were unable to return than from a similar gift they received but we told they could exchange for a different one. Gilbert’s point, like that of social psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch & Richard Thaler – who found that once participants were given a mug and then offered the chance to sell it or trade it for an equally valued alternative, the amount they required as compensation for the mug was approximately twice as high as the amount they were willing to pay to acquire the mug – is that ownership matters, but removing the option of relinquishing ownership might matter even more.

An Epic Run

Taking away his soldiers’ ability to surrender was a fundamental part of Sun Tzu’s strategy, but it is also what most likely propelled Pheidippides, the Greek foot soldier, to run from Athens to Sparta in an astounding day and a half. As the history written by Herodotus captures, foot soldiers were highly specialized soldiers who had been selected for the most important missions, and those that required the greatest strength and fortitude. Much like modern day Special Forces operators, foot soldiers had cut their teeth on adversity, sharpening their skills through enduring tremendous challenges. When the story of Pheidippides passed through the hands of Jon Foden, a British Royal Air Force officer, it seemed almost unbelievable. How could a human possibly cover a distance of near 150 miles in less than 36 hours? Determined to see if it was possible, Foden and four other officers decided to try for themselves and undertook the route from Athens to Sparta. When Foden successfully arrived at Sparta in under 36 hours (three others arrived a short time later), not just did they prove that Pheidippides historic run was possible, but they also laid the grounds for what is now known as the modern day Spartathlon. Being held every year in the last week of September, Spartathlon now draws runners from around the globe, all vying for a chance to kiss the feet of the statue of Leonidas that signifies the race’s finish.

There is Only Forward

This year, when the seventeen Americans line up at the start of the Spartathlon, their flags will be reversed (when viewed from the right side, the stars will be on the right side and the stripes will be on the left side, so is to make the flag look reversed). Working with three of the American team’s sponsors, Boco Gear, Compression Print, and MintPrints, Andrei Nana, who manages the team, helped design a uniform (Raul Engle designed the Team logo) that would not just honor the military tradition of reversing the flag when heading into battle, but also inspire the team, as it does soldiers. Much like Sun Tzu’s soldiers with their backs to the river, a flag that faces backward (with the stars on the right and the stripes on the left) and blows behind signifies running toward the opponent, and charging bravely toward the battle. A flag facing forward (when viewed from the right), on the other hand, appears as if the wind is blowing from behind, or one is retreating. Positioning the flag forward, while it is the way it most commonly appears, is a reminder to a soldier, and a runner, that retreat is possible. Had Sun Tzu positioned ships on the shores on the river behind his soldiers, his strategy would have been useless, because it is only when surrender becomes impossible that we fight harder. Facing adversity, removing the option to retreat, getting knocked down, and getting back up don’t just teach us to fight harder, they also build grit. Angela Duckworth, the psychologist most associated with the term, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, describes grit as the ability to persevere long enough to overcome the obstacles or challenges that lie in the way of accomplishment. In Duckworth’s model, it is only through exposure to obstacles and challenges that grit reveals itself. By watching her subjects respond to adversity, Duckworth found something interesting – adversity makes gritty people more gritty. Much like the arduous runs Phiedippides likely endured, the perils that soldiers in battle face every day, or the tremendous challenge taken by the 400 runners who will gather at the Acropolis for the start of this years’ Spartathlon, it is through our experience with adversity that the true measure of our strengths are revealed – and only when we face forward, and run bravely into battle, with the flag flying spectacularly behind us.

Our thanks go out to Boco Gear, Compression Print, and Mint Prints for their sponsorship and support of this years’ U.S. Spartathlon Team. Boco Gear is the new leader in performance gear for endurance athletes. They offer stylish, technical headgear and accessories for brands, teams, and events. Fully customized with wicking fabrications and technical innovation, their gear is designed and tested by top athletes. Compression Print provides runners an innovative way to keep track of their race – with their split times, or race trajectory printed right on their compression sleeves. Offering endless ideas from inspirational quotes to club or event logos, distance between check points, course cutoffs, or mile or kilometer pacing, Compression Print sleeves set the standard for ultra running compression gear. Mint Prints uses an in-house production team to create hassle free print, design and digital service




For more info regarding the U.S. Spartathlon Team, please visit www.spartathlon.us or connect with the Team through facebook ( www.facebook.com/spartathlon.us)  and twitter (@spartathlon_us).







Claire Dorotik-Nana frequently writes for Professional Development Resources, International Sport Science Association, and Zur Institute. She is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards, and pens the popular blog, “Leveraging Adversity” on Psychcentral.