When Someone Tells You, “You can’t”

Pop quiz:

1. What do you do when someone sets limitations on you?

Limitation examples:

1) That you are too young

2) That you are too slow

3) That you are too talkative


a) tell them they’re a jerk

b) walk away

c) prove them wrong

What was your answer? A? B? C? How about all of the above?! People share what they think. That is not the issue. The issue is when a person, specifically a coach, enforces his way of thinking which suppresses dreams. A good coach will say, “the sky’s the limit.” And in pole vaulting this could not be more true. So I will stick with it. When a Nordic coach tell you this, it must be true, because in skiing you almost never leave the ground. My high school pole vault coach has three rules in this order 1) be safe 2) have fun 3) jump high. I realize my high school coaches never doubted my abilities. However, this coach had different goals that lead to the comments below.  Now back to the pop quiz, how to respond in general. Before we dive into this mess, we begin with the quoted dialogue which inspired this blog and hopefully will inspire athletes to keep going big even if they’re small.

Me in dialogue: “I hope to be jumping 12 or 13 feet in pole vault this next year.”

him: “To be honest girls your size (mind you I am 5’2″ and 1/4, 116 lbs) don’t jump higher than 11 feet.”

Now for the attack response:

Response 1: tell them they’re a jerk

In many cases a snarky response such as “Jerk” (especially if you are two feet shorter than the 7 foot man) is probably not the wisest approach. You know what they say, “fuel on the fire feeds the flames.” No, name calling is not my first response. My first thought is RUDE. Second thought is HE DOUBTS ME. Third thought is PROVE HIM WRONG!

**Side note in this lecture; This does not exempt someone from actually being a jerk. For the sake of respect to ones elders, it is often wisest to scratch off the decision to name call your elders and think again… *cough* *cough* jerk.**

Oh, wait did you hear that? I was just saying that maybe walking away is the best option. Here is how walking away works and what it does not mean.

Walking away does not give a “choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender (Ronald Reagan surrender speech).”

Yeah, I am I gearing up for battle. This is what happens if we simply walk away. It gives the attacker the victory. “If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand—the ultimatum (R.R speech).”

My response after the offense: “Sir, with all due respect, I am up for the challenge. For one you said most girls don’t jump over 11 at 5 foot 2. That doesn’t mean all girls. Second, most girls can’t do 24 pull-ups. Now would you please repeat what you said about my size?”

What he said to me was a challenge. It was an insulting challenge. When someone says you can’t, they are saying you won’t.

At home my parents taught me to do the things that were asked of me, but not just to do those things but to do those things with excellence.

One day my mother told me to set the table. I told her, “I can’t.” This might seem like a ridiculous response, but for a nine year old it seemed quite a legitimate response with my busy play life.

She looked at me. It was one of those cold, hard, stares that made you want to crawl under the rug (every mother knows how to do it).

“If you say you can’t, you are saying you won’t. Pick up the plates and set the table please.”

When someone says you can’t, they are challenging you. You can’t means you won’t.

On the other hand, when a person comes along and says, “you can,” you had better believe it. It takes a special person to come alongside you at a barrier and lift you over mentally and physically. A coach who can’t do that shouldn’t be coaching.

One more tangent before we go back to the lecture hall. What happens when you put two or more boys together? Some people like my Dad says during the teen years one boy is half a BRAIN and two boys is no BRAIN at all! It is for this very truth that when they are faced with a challenge, they don’t refuse a challenge even if they die trying.”

I grew up surrounded by brothers…well half surrounded in the line up and fully surrounded in the daily adventures of growing up Bassette. I have an older sister directly above me, but the next four older ones were all boys: brother 1, 2, 3 and 4. The next two below me were younger brothers who mimicked big brothers: little brothers 5, and 6 and a younger sister who was not yet old enough to be the guinea pig of my wonderful brothers’ experiments.

One summer evening (I promise I’ll get back to my point…eventually, brother 3 said to brother 4, “do you want to ride down the hill on bikes with me?”

“Sure…” confident response I know, but what better way to pass a summer’s evening flying down the second largest sledding hill in town, also known as my backyard.

I watched with curious anticipation dressed in my blueberry frock. I followed them. Why not?

Back in the house mother stands at the counter washing dishes. One boy goes by the window, then number two. Yep. Typical evening at the house.

Brother number 4 sees me sitting on my bleachers–a large pine stump perfect for observing the sites with my stumpy body, “Kathryn, you try! It’s a blast.”

“Okay! Which bike should I use?”

Brother 3 says, “here use brother number six’s bike.” I should mention he was 4 years old at the time. Do the math of the size of the bike…

“What do I have to do?”

“Just hike up the hill, hop on, and ride down.”

“Oh. I don’t think Mom would like that.”

“You’re just a sissy. You can’t do it.”

Now do you see where I am going??? You probably know what I am going to do under a brother’s influence (or how about that coaches comment?).

With both hands on baby brother’s bike and my dress held in my hands to keep it from catching, I stomped my way up the steep hill, chin tucked to my chest, lip protruding and legs pumping like pistons.

Brother 4 followed to give guidance.

“Alright now all you need to do is get on.”

I looked over the precipice and thought about handing the bike back. I sat on the seat and looked at my death. It wasn’t that I could not. It was that I would not say no.

For some startling moments I teetered on the edge. Brother number 4 pressed his hand into my back. “Go now!” Whether he pushed me or I went on my own free will, I found myself flying.

This was my first flying experience. And trust me I flew! The thing about flying on a bike is much different than flying from 12 feet in the air into two feet of squishy UCS foam. The brakes stopped working. Baby brother’s six inch diameter tire hit a stump, and I sailed past the kitchen window, landed in a blackberry patch, ripped my dress, and lay dazed on the ground as my brothers clapped and applauded doubled over in stunned laughter. I stood up, bowed, then bee lined for the house  and to the bath tub clutching my dress.

“Prove him wrong.”

What happened that day was a challenge accepted. It began with I can’t and ended with I did. Not all challenges end with a spill in the blackberry patch. Many times you look down and realize you have just cleared a bar that someone, maybe even you told yourself you couldn’t clear.

In my mother’s case, saying, “I can’t” to her was straight disobedience.

In my brother’s case, saying, “I can’t” to them was being a sissy.

In my most recent case, saying, “I can’t” confirmed that coach’s disbelief.

But more than that, saying, “I can’t” means I won’t. And simply by not doing, I am accepting failure.

By trying one cannot fail. What is more, by trying one’s best Ravi Zacharias says, “If you know your God who made you, you will want to be the best you can be, whatever that is, because that you can always be. Number one you will never always be.”

Soldier, pick your weapon. A good warrior is armed with all weapons. The best warrior knows how to kill quickly.

Vaulter, pick your pole. A good vaulter has a range of poles. The best vaulter knows how to use them best.

Friend, pick your response. A wise person can respond in a variety of ways. The wisest person will choose the one most effective for the situation.

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