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The Workaround Effect

By Erik Bies DPT, MS


To say your mind is your most valuable asset is an understatement. The workaround effect is just another example of how powerful the human brain is. While reading the book How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald, I was introduced to the term for the first time. I have witnessed examples of the workaround effect for a long time, but giving the phenomenon a descriptive term generates more awareness and appreciation for it.  Why should you care? Well, when one understands it, one can acknowledge and marvel at witnessing it. Perhaps one can even exploit it in his/her own life to be more creative, more focused, and achieve aspirations that seem impossible.

The term workaround effect is not a term in behavioral science literature to my knowledge. Fitzgerald primarily uses it in the description of sports performance. He defines it as “when the body loses the ability to achieve a desired level of performance in the accustomed way, the brain responds by seeking out new ways to get the same level of performance out of the body, ways the athlete might never have discovered otherwise.” It is a compensation that enables a person to perform a task that they otherwise could not. He states that it comes in “many flavors,” but is essentially an example of neuroplasticity. (video describing neuroplasticity). Fitzgerald most poignantly describes this through a description of a rugby player who loses an arm in an accident. He goes on to describe how “Willie Stewart was inarguably a better rugby player with one arm than he had been with two.” Willie then goes on to prove himself as an endurance athlete after the accident. It’s a cool story about overcoming loss.

The workaround effect fits with other positive descriptors of character and traits like mental toughness, grit, heart, resilience, willpower, et cetera. It’s not to say you have to suffer dismemberment like Willie to experience the workaround effect. I think the workaround effect has a place in all aspects of life, not just the physical and biomechanical one.

I can think of many workaround effect examples. One that stands out at the time I am writing this blog post is the story of a college cross-country and track teammate of mine who was injured the better part of 3 years. Flip is a classic example of an engine that was more powerful than his chassis. Matthew “Flip” Busche’s ability to run up mountains was unmatched during the captain-led annual cross-country training camp Colorado. As a spectator of his muscling running style on the track, my legs would burn empathetically. Though he did not make it look easy, when he did compete in the steeplechase or 10,000m, he would grind other runners down physically and mentally through a tactic of gradual pressure increases just as he appeared maxed out. It was a testament to his cardiovascular talent, pain tolerance, and mental toughness. Unfortunately, he did not get many chances to show this talent in collegiate competition. Rather, he would spend countless hours on his road bike to make up for missed time running. Late in college, road biking just became part of how he trained to stay healthy for the track. The short story is that Matthew Busche went on to be a professional cyclist (still is), two-time winner of the National Road Race Championships, and competitor in the Tour de France. Though it is not something that can be proven, I am convinced that his early injury struggles sharpened his mental capabilities and desire to win. His willingness to better himself on the bike to win on the 400-meter racetrack and cross-country course is just an example of the workaround effect. When a person wants something bad enough, he or she will find a way in spite of the obstacles.

Matthew Busche

I am not saying everyone will go on to be a professional athlete or should want to. But one thing I hope readers recognize is that if you or someone you know wants something bad enough, the option to workaround obstacles in the pursuit of a goal exists. If one chooses to regularly endure a little controlled discomfort versus seeking only luxury and the easy way, great things can happen.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford


If you need more inspiration:

How Bad Do You Want It? By Matt Fitzgerald

Matthew Busche’s Blog