I Can’t Vs. I Can If: Attitude is Everything

I Can’t Vs. I Can If: Attitude is Everything

I launched jakeshell.com back in 2015 with the goal of sharing with the world the life lessons I strive to instill in our women here at Liberty. While the site has evolved and morphed a bit since then to include swim camps, clinics, lessons, books, etc...the core goal still remains: spread valuable content that improves the lives of those who read. Indirectly, the lives of athletes the world over whose coaches visit the site.

Today, I return to those roots with a life lesson that was and is a core principle of the founding of our swimming & diving program here at Liberty, a building block if you will that allowed us to achieve much early success and create a Culture of Excellence that will allow for continued success now and in the future. This is a life lesson so valuable that this “rule” is a part of our team policy manual, and since our founding I’ve shared it every year, with every team, with the expectation that our women implement this “rule” into their athletic, academic, and personal lives, certainly during their time here at Liberty, and out into life after Liberty as well. In regards to life lessons, few are more valuable, few provide more return on investment, and few lead to a greater quality of life. 

Sidenote: A brief history - I started our swimming & diving program here at Liberty from scratch in 2009, coming from Penn State University after serving there for three years as the sprint coach. One of the benefits of starting a program from nothing is that a coach can set the culture up front, and build it the way he or she sees fit. This rule was one I implemented from the start; it was and is instrumental in building the unique culture we now have. 

While the “rule” is simple, in theory, the mindset shift required to implement said rule is often times challenging, and I am not immune to the fact that I have not been successful in nurturing this mind change in 100% of the women that called @LUSwimDive home over the past eight years. But I push on, as coaches do, for we know that we can make an impact in the lives of those we coach, however large or small. We do not let our failure to motivate mind change in some keep us from reaching those where mindset change is possible. We focus on the positives, it is what coaches do. 

The rule:  

  • The word can’t does not exist in our vocabulary.

The mindset shift is one from:  

  • I can’t


  • I CAN IF

Wow. And with this simple mindset shift and perhaps channeling your inner Kevin Garnett, anything is possible. You can’t? You can if....then fill in the blank, or multiple blanks. The brain is the world’s most powerful supercomputer (for now), and it works wonders when programmed to think in such ways. We can’t go to Mars. We could if... We can’t win this championship. We can win if... I can’t do that one thing. I can do it if... And the rest, as they say, is history. 

I can if leads to myriad thoughts and questions, and allows the brain to shift into idea generation and challenge solving mode (I do not believe in problems, only challenges to overcome), a state in which flow is possible and possibilities are limitless. The road is often long and winding, and while it can get confusing at times, there is more often than not light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Too often in sport and in life, we stop at I can’t, and we fail to explore the adjacent possible of we can if. It is in this adjacent possible that breakthroughs occur, though it takes the mindset shift to access this creative potential. 

Again, the brain, and specifically the subconscious mind, is extremely powerful. The truth is out there, as Mulder would say, and if allowed to enter the realm of the adjacent possible through the mindset shift of I can if, the brain can often solve even the most daunting of challenges. 

I can’t is finite. It is final. There is nothing after I can’t and there can be nothing after I can’t. Done. Zip. Zero. I can’t is a death sentence of sorts, like Joe Jackson’s glove, the place where great ideas, breakthroughs, and achievements go to die. To the contrary, I can if invites a plethora of potentials, and it is here that high achievers in all facets of life earn their success. 

To illustrate, let me use a real-world example referenced above from my personal/professional life - the founding and building of our swimming & diving program here at Liberty. When hired in 2009, I quickly set out to achieve the objectives defined by the athletic department, in no particular order: 

  • Build a winning program in our conference, doing so with integrity and adhering to the mission of Liberty University

  • Achieve academic success

  • Provide a high-quality student-athlete experience

  • Qualify and compete at the NCAA Championship Meet, and various USA Swimming National Championship meets including US Summer/Winter Nationals, the US Open, and Olympic Trials

The challenges (among many others): 

  • Starting a new program from scratch

  • Our facility consisted of a 6-lane, 25-yard pool, with 6.5-foot lanes

Upon my hiring I had two mindset belief options:  

  1. I can’t build a program that achieves the above objectives and consistently sends student-athletes to the aforementioned meets. A new program can’t attract those types of athletes and the facility will not allow the type of training environment necessary to achieve that level of success.

  2. I can build this program and we can achieve these objectives if...

It is simple, and obvious, sure, but the mindset shift is everything. How often do we gloss over this powerful concept in the little things that affect our day to day? The I can if led to two statements, in no particular order of importance: 

 I can if:

  1. I train athletes to swim fast and achieve NCAA/US National/US Open/Olympic Trials qualifying times

  2. I recruit talented athletes with the potential to achieve these qualifying times and swim fast

These two statements then led to myriad thoughts and questions, and it is here that the magic happened. Again, when allowed to challenge solve and explore the adjacent possible, success is nearly inevitable. To further illustrate, before writing this article I spent an hour mind-mapping the process I went through all those years ago. I didn’t have a mind-mapping app back then, so most of the heavy cognitive lifting was performed in my head. This mind map is a re-creation of that process. Looking back on the founding, my memory may not be 100% accurate, but nonetheless, this mind map is a great visual of what can happen when the brain is programmed, and allowed, if you will, to think in this way.

For those interested, the app is called MindNode 4, and on the iPad Pro it is an invaluable tool for creating a visual representation of complex (or simple) thought processes. Again, I only spent an hour on this mind map, and I could have gone much longer. I will add to this map in coming days, for it is still valuable today as I look into the future and think about where we are going and how to get there.

The simple choice of “I can if” generated some 35 questions, and from these questions came the future success of our program.  

Looking back at my thought process...from memory...circa 2009.

As one can see, the left side “I can’t” mentality contained nothing after, as again, there can be nothing after such a finite statement. The right side - you get the picture, and I’ll have some fun with this one over the coming days as I expand the map further.  

I can’t vs. I can if...a powerful concept, indeed. How can we apply this mind change to various challenges in our lives? In what areas can you apply this concept, starting today? Whether in your personal, professional, athletic, academic, or spiritual life, surely there are myriad opportunities to implement, and you can start today, you can start with today’s read. Coaches, teachers, business leaders, etc.. perhaps you implement a similar “rule” into your organizations, classrooms, and teams. What adjacent possibilities might your people discover with this mindset shift? 

Have fun exploring the options, and remember, there is nothing after I can’t...life happens after the belief of I CAN IF...  

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