How to Develop Stoic Mental Toughness and Resilience: Interview With Coach Seth Haselhuhn

Perhaps the first important lesson any student of Stoicism learns is the importance of perception—there are objective events, and then there is our perception of them. As Marcus Aurelius famously wrote to himself: “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” It is all in our choice how we decide to see things, and learning this skill builds our mental toughness and resilience to anything that happens in our lives. This is why we asked mental performance coach Seth Haselhuhn, who has been a fan of the Stoics, to teach everyone in the Daily Stoic community the exact techniques he uses with his clients—ranging from professional athletes to combat specialists—to help them achieve peak performance.  

His background is impressive, and as you will see with our interview, Seth knows his stuff. He has 10 years’ experience teaching in higher education including six years of coaching in a nationally ranked junior college baseball program and two years of sport psychology consulting with NCAA Division I athletes. He holds a Ph.D. in Sport Pedagogy and Character Education, specializing in sport psychology, sociology, and moral reasoning. His educational background also includes a Master’s in Recreation and Sport Management, a Bachelor’s in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Enjoy our extensive interview with Seth below. He offers plenty of techniques you can start practicing today in your life to build your character and resilience. And don’t forget to follow Seth on Instagram.

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Your focus is on mental performance and you have worked with athletes and combat schools. Before we go into the nitty-gritty, why did you get into this line of work and what piqued your interest?

I got into working with athletes when I could no longer be one. I did the next closest thing and started coaching. I had a background in sport psychology, strength and conditioning. Both of my parents were high school teachers in a tiny town in Montana. My dad taught PE and coached wrestling and my Mom taught English and Spanish and coached Speech and Drama – in a town of 1,800 there wasn’t much escaping that influence.

I liked to play all the different sports but I was most interested in the construct and experience of it all. I learned most of my life lessons in the language of sport and always felt there was something larger to it than just winning trophies. I wanted to know what those things were.

There are two aspects of this which still pique my interest. The first is competition – specifically how people handle competition – it tells us a lot about who we are and what we can be. The other aspect is motivation. Motivation is a very simple concept we’re all familiar with until we get into the details of how it works. Peeling back the layers of “why” doesn’t have an end – only more to learn.

How do you personally define mental performance? And what specific skills do your clients seek to develop and how exactly do you help? Any specific tips you can give to our readers?

For me, mental performance assumes a few things. There’s often confusion when the terms “sport” or “performance” and “psychology” are meshed together. People tend to link psychology with subnormal function – there’s something “wrong” or “sick” that needs to be fixed, so they see a psychologist for treatment, which is all well and good – it’s just not the psychology I deal with. My focus is on thinking in competitive or performance related situations. Whether you’re playing in a game, giving a big speech, taking an important test, or any other thing that you list, that’s what I’m into.

Personally, mental performance is about being prepared, staying focused on the moment, and trying to predict the future. I’ve always struggled with time urgency and an illogical belief that if I’m good at things, they should be easy. I have a fascination with efficiency and practicality – both of which inevitably prompt frustration and then the cycle restarts itself. Therefore, I use visualization to prepare for what I’m about to do, use mental cues to be engaged in the present, and do my best to predict the outcomes of my potential actions based on what’s happening right now.

For the people I work with, the definitions get fuzzier because they are specific to their perspectives, which influence their goals, which determine their behavior. Most of our performances are measured in behaviors which we can observe but mental performance isn’t always as clear cut. Their mental performance will usually be positively correlated with their physical performance. The problem with that is we can still be “good” at things while we’re thinking about failing, struggling with confidence, motivation, and/or stress so despite being good, we don’t really know our potential. Therefore, your mental performance will likely be different than mine because we will have different perceptions and belief systems about effort, expectations and outcomes. Specificity is always key for me but there are some general guidelines which help everyone regardless of context.

Understand Effort – Expenditure of physical and/or mental power as means to an end. The amount of effort you have to expend has little to do with how “good” you are and more to do with how well you’re trained. The concepts of “easy”, “hard”, and “good” are relative to practice and preparation. Be someone who knows their ability is an outcome of effort and challenge. When you get to the next level of performance, you’ve arrived at the next level of effort. Those two things go hand in hand[1]. Get over needing things to be easy, or even fair, and if you want it – work at it. Remember that it’s not a transaction, it’s an investment.

Focus – To make this useable, I define it with three concepts. Attention is our ability to notice everything that’s going on around us, all of our sensory input. Focus is our ability to direct our attention to what is relevant and ignore what isn’t. Concentration is our ability to focus over time. Know what’s important, right now.

There’s an old story in the military about a guy who fell asleep on an airplane that caught fire after it landed. He woke up to people yelling “fire!” and jumped out of the airplane only to land immediately on the concrete. Someone asked him what he was doing, he said he heard the plane was on fire so he jumped out. When they pointed out he didn’t have a parachute on he replied, “one problem at a time.” Knowing what to focus on is just as important as being able to concentrate. Knowing what’s important helps us be efficient, balanced, and reduces chronic stress. Be where your feet are.

Set goals – Short term, long term, and what I refer to as “being[2]” goals. The goal setting process is really about the plan. Figure out whatever it is that you want, think about what you need to learn how to do to get it, make a plan for things that you can foresee being in the way, and then flex as needed until it’s done. Short term goals work well for short term things – if you are looking into a lifestyle change or a habit change, set up a series of short term goals that in total equal the desired change.

Being goals are about approaching things with the intention to win, to succeed, or to achieve. If you’re after something that you’re new at or where there are a lot of other people that are just better than you focus on using your past performances to determine success. If your competency is comparable to others in the field, then compete with them and use that to adjust your personal performance meter. Whatever you do, when you find yourself trying not to be noticed or avoiding work that’s challenging or difficult because you think it will only show how bad you are at it, change your brain. Nobody has time for that two days in a row. The embarrassment of losing or failing is so much better than the regret and disappointment of not trying and never knowing what you could have done.

Stop listening to yourself –  start talking to yourself – We control most of our thoughts except the most powerful ones, they’ve been automated. They became automated through practice or repetition. The negative ones will be hard to catch at first. When you catch one – argue it and replace it with the counter then practice thinking it – it’s easy. Positive is nice but constructive is better. You and I can stand on the tracks being as positive as we want about that train that’s coming but if we don’t take one step to the right or left, that train is going to kill us. It’s not just about being positive, think constructively – it helps us stay in approach mode and maintains our perspective.

Visualize – Everyone knows how to do this, we all do it almost constantly. When we do it on purpose and involve as many senses and emotions as possible it is as good as actually practicing. Think about the last time you were between awake and asleep – you started to dream then BAM! – your body jerked in reaction to your dream. Your brain – you – thought that was real.

Visualization is a powerful mental tool and a double-edged sword. Control is the kicker. Chances are good you’re going to see yourself fail. It’s okay – use “instant replay” and see it go the way you want it to, see yourself responding the way you want to, be ideal. Then repeat, high frequency, short duration. It’s not some mythical Jedi mind trick – it’s just making time to practice skills and situations, so you can handle them better.

It’ll probably do like this, you’ll visualize responding a certain way in situation at work, maybe someone is being an ass and you want to have the courage to stand up to them, so you visualize yourself doing it, what you’ll say, how nervous you’ll be, how good you’ll feel after, how you’ll live up to your identity and all that. Then the moment will come in the office and instead of just being uncomfortable, there will be a space – a space where you’ll have the option to do what you’ve been practicing. You might take it, you might not – but it’s there now and it wasn’t before.  It’s working – keep practicing.

What is an exercise you can give to our readers so they can develop mental toughness?

There are few parameters which we can definitively say, “this is mental toughness” or “this is not mental toughness”.  There needs to some context because it will look and feel different in different situations. It’s the most used and most misunderstood concept in sport. There are a lot of generalized definitions in the literature – most of them have to do with some comparison of yours and your opponent’s which makes it only valuable in a relative capacity. I think of it as something we do more than something we have.

Find Meaning – Reflect on and understand what it means to be “tough” in whatever it is you are doing. If we know what it means to be tough in context of what we’re doing, we have a goal to pursue and we can start action. The other important reason for meaning is that we all are a little different and so knowing what it is to be tough in a context, to me, really helps outline the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors I need to prepare.

Get Smart – Know your content, inside and out. In sport we call this “Sport IQ”, the better understanding we have of how the game works, the easier it is for us to understand what is happening and make decisions. It’s also important because focus seems to be a determining factor in mental toughness. We have to know what is important, what isn’t important, and when those things change. If we don’t know our content well enough to see what context we’re in, then it’s very difficult to create, maintain, and recreate focus.

Know Your Values – Take time to reflect on what is really important to you. Understanding our moral and social values makes a big difference in perspective. Knowing where we stand in terms of how we treat other people, what constitutes lying and cheating, and thinking about how we can prevent harm and do good provides us with a proactive mindset – we generally think of mental toughness as a response to some type of adverse conditions. Having a sound understanding of your moral values will help you navigate those situations before they become adverse.

Visualize – We know the Stoics advocated for negative visualization to prepare themselves for distasteful situations but also as a method of establishing value in the present. We now can confirm the process which makes visualization a very effective mental tool for training ourselves and other people. See yourself to navigate situations you’re anxious about, mentally put yourself in the moment as much as possible and rehearse handling it exactly the way you want to, whether you believe you can do it or not. The Little Train that Could was right – it’s really, really hard to outperform our self-image[3].

Understand Your Threats – Since we know how our brains work in regard to visualization, we also know that we don’t differentiate between threats, real or imagined. In my experience with athletes and Soldiers, we also don’t distinguish between the three sources of threats. Physical threats, bodily harm, injury, or death; Social threats, which put or status, rank, or acceptance at risk; and emotional threats, which put our self-image, esteem, and feelings at risk. Reflect on what’s really happening. Is this real, or imagined? What is at risk – physical, social, or emotional?  Then ask yourself, “Am I scared or am I hurt?”

Problem Solver vs. Answer Finder – It’s an attitude/mindset thing. We don’t do a very good job of teaching our kids to think anymore and with Google in everyone’s pocket, our addiction to answers is limiting our thinking power and as a result, our ability to manage ambiguity. An aspect of mental toughness has to do with our ability to make predictions and estimate consequences. Learning to, and valuing, problem solving process helps center us in the moment and prepare for the future.

Practice – Expect and invite some stress into your life. Toughness isn’t just about taking a beating or handling adversity. If we could isolate it from the rest of our world, it would be an imperviousness to adversity – that is, there wouldn’t be such a thing. Mental toughness is an action, it’s not something we are born with or without. The more we prepare and practice the better – tougher – we’ll be.

What was your first encounter with Stoicism and why did the philosophy resonate? Do you bring it up in your work with your clients? What key principles do you find are the most beneficial in your line of work that you share with clients?

I knew it before I knew of it. My parents’ most consistent reply to my problems was to work harder. The quotes I was using when I used to teach Stress Management class were all from Stoics. I guess the first “encounter” was Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, that’s the book where everything was linked together for me. I really enjoyed it and have now bought my next copy because every copy I’ve loaned has never came back.

Of course I bring it up, one of the things I dislike about the field of sport psychology is that there’s a lot of what I would call “gimmicks” being taught. They may or may not be suitable for teaching individual mental skills but for me teaching an isolated skill with no context is superficial and lacks substance for what athletes and Soldiers are preparing to do. For me the philosophy provides the substance, helps us put it in context, then teach practical and usable skills.

I don’t like the connotation “clients” invokes and I don’t think the Stoics would either. I view myself as a coach, teacher, or just a resource. I’ll play each of those roles almost every day, certainly every week. I’ll use my expertise and experience to do my best to choose the right role and let the people I try to serve determine the role they want to play. I know the relationship is more important than the strategy – once we get that right, the work starts to work. It hasn’t yet with a “client”.

Irvine’s Trichotomy of Control is the main one I use, I suppose – at least the one I end up talking about the most. I like because I deal with performance and feel that the trichotomy is first more logical and second more closely related to the training process for performance. If we’re bad at everything, as we all are when we begin to learn something – there’s a lot of things we can’t control. If we were to just set it down because we can’t control it then we become victims pretty quickly. Finding things we can’t control but can influence is the essence of learning anything.

Sport philosopher Warren Fraleigh’s wrote about this concept in his paper The Moving I. His concept of the twoness of the self, the inner intentioned self and the outer instrumental self is about gaining control over something that is, what he calls “necessitated.” We can be necessitated by things like gravity, which when we overcome by doing things like jumping on a trampoline, we experience freedom. He reasons that we also overcome our necessitations by increasing our fitness and motor skills and as we do these things our worlds change. Imagine returning a tennis serve from Andy Roddick or Serena Williams – it would happen so fast that we couldn’t really experience it. There’s some easy parallels to our lives there, we get so overwhelmed, so fast, that the only thing we ever experience is being overwhelmed.

Fraleigh reasons that the process of training ourselves to overcome the things that necessitate us provides us with an experience of freedom. Further, it tells him that part of our sense of being is modified by our individual will and that our personal identity is a product of our will to free ourselves. What that means, to Fraleigh – and I relate – is that when we look back on our previous self, we can only experience an “emotion of power” over the universe, because we are no longer controlled by outside sources. How cool is that?

For me, this is Stoicism. It’s like something that’s been organic to me since I can remember but could never really pinpoint and when I read it I get a sense of clarity and inspiration.

Who is your favorite Stoic? Or maybe a favorite Stoic quote?

I guess I’ve never thought of it like that. I always thought of it as the idea, the concept, or the philosophy and the individual “Stoics” were just the players trying to complete the game. There’s talk of a Stoic sage, but as per the accounts I’ve read, there hasn’t been one. I like that about philosophy, it’s not about a single human that anyone is trying to emulate, it’s about an idea that’s bigger than all of us. It provides a way of living without the politics that comes when people start competing to see who does it better. It’s like religion without the whole eternal life concept as the prize. If your eternal life was really at stake, seems to me that religion would do better than it has in my experience.  

The rewards in Stoicism are internal, living up to your standard under logical guidelines, which in total put the external outcomes in perspective. When rewards are external, motivations shift quickly and the rules start to bend. If life were a game, and it probably doesn’t meet Suit’s[4] definition – but it’s an interesting argument, consider it lived through gamesmanship or sportsmanship.

Gamesmanship is using the rules to gain an advantage over an opponent for the sole purpose of winning and sportsmanship is adhering to the purpose of the rules to achieve the goal of testing yourself. Gamesmanship is just about the outcome of the game, sportsmanship is about the outcome of the people playing it. Gamesmanship is attractive because of the “things” associated with winning: namely notoriety and social acceptance. Sportsmanship has a more Stoic attitude where the value of the win is primarily determined by how we accomplished it. Therefore, as per sportsmanship, the game is bigger than the players and as per gamesmanship, the players use the game to be bigger than something – which usually turns out to be empty.

I have always liked quotes, for whatever reason, I learned later that most of my favorites ended up being from those who practiced Stoicism. They are my favorite thing about Daily Stoic’s Instagram page. There are so many, I’m sure I’ll leave some out but here are a few that seem to stick.

People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them. – Epictetus

Probably the first one I really identified with. I was teaching Stress Management at a junior college. The interesting thing about that is the diversity of the class – there were 16 year old high school students getting ahead of academic work, 20 something year old students trying to get a degree under their belt, 50 something year old students starting new careers, and every other purpose and age in between. The first time I taught it was a night class – me and 30 women, most of which were at least 10 years older than me. I learned a lot about the views in which I took things.

I use Lazarus’ Cognitive Appraisal model of stress for almost everything because it makes sense to me and provides me with the several opportunities to train myself to think. Most of it is summed up in the quote. It reminds me of the difference between people – for the most part, the difference between can and can’t, excitement and anxiety, and flight or fight is our perceptions of the things, not the actual things.

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it. – Seneca

This resonates with me at the deepest levels. It’s actually the wallpaper on my phone. A good reminder to consider the value of all things. It gets deep in a hurry because it immediately forces us to consider the value of a life. If life is valuable, which is questionable, and the point – it’s clearly not because it lasted a long time; nor can it be valuable just because it lasted a short time. The relative worth of life is really difficult evaluation to make because there aren’t any constant variables to consider for comparison, there’s no science to it – it’s all art. These are the rabbit holes we need to venture down more often and in my opinion we don’t because we might not find anything, and then what?

We are often more frightened than hurt, and suffer more from imagination than reality. – Seneca

I like this simply because it’s true. Every job I’ve ever had, every interaction I’ve ever experienced, all of it supports to this as a fact of science, nature, religion, bullshit, all of it. It’s just plain true.

You hold a Ph.D. in Character Education. Can you tell us more about what your studies revolved around? The Stoics saw character development as one’s primary obligation, and we’d love to see how your experience can help our readers develop theirs.

We talked about understanding our values, primarily moral values, social values, and non-moral values. In the four years since, I’ve come to believe that we grow up learning it in one direction then spend adulthood practicing it in the other direction. As kids we are taught, or at least learn, how moral values direct social values and as a result we learn to manage non-moral values. Then we spend adulthood chasing non-moral values – seeing where we can sacrifice our social and moral values to get things we think we need.

I like the model of universal moral values of Justice, Beneficence, Honesty, Respect, and Responsibility. We tend to express them in the negative because it’s easier to work with. Honesty, for example would be “Don’t lie, cheat, or steal”. It just makes for easier decisions. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people who have worked in combat zones all over the world and believe that, regardless of ethnicity and religion, if you were to violate any of those values, people get pissed off.

Social values then are the metaphysical things we consider worthy in societies. Things like leadership, loyalty, work ethic, commitment, etc. All of these things are like character – they aren’t inherently “good” or “bad”, they need direction from our moral values. After all, you can still work really hard to be loyal to a leader who is an asshole.

Non-moral values are the other things we assign worth to – money, fame, power, cars, guns, houses, computers, etc. We value them because they somehow contribute to a “good” life. The Stoics considered the relative worth, or value, of these things as well. Most of them all tended to agree that non-moral things we value were “good” or “bad” based on why we valued them. We can’t understand why we value something if we don’t understand our own values and how we live them.

If our character is the way others think of who we are, then we need to understand how our actions reflect who we want to be. The best way to do that, is to make good decisions. Understanding how we live our moral principles gives value to the non-moral things. It’s very simple, but rather difficult.

Sidebar: There are so many directions to go here. Since I have two children in youth sport and deal with this argument a lot, it may seem relevant to your audience.

A common misconception is that participating in sport builds character. It’s not that there’s no truth in that statement, there is, but when it’s made the general intention behind that statement is to imply that by participating in sport, we are building positive character traits. That there is an inherent quality in sport and just by being there to participate favorable character will develop, which just isn’t true. At least no truer than playing piano, or dancing ballet, or learning to weave baskets under water.

Everything we do “builds” character. The socialization process is strong and often times, especially with young people, very subtle. There has been a significant organization movement in youth sport in the last 20 years which means that most kids who participate in sports today do so under the supervision of at least one adult. Most of those adults equate the purpose of playing sport with winning games, for a variety of intentions and motivations, some better than others.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with winning games, it’s the purpose of the game, we ought to strive to win the game. We should however do so in a manner consistent with the type of character we want to build. There’s tremendous opportunities for people to actually “do” character in sport. Sport philosopher Joseph Esposito wrote that the true genius of sport is that is provides us with a genuine experience of the possible without, from our real life’s standpoint, anything at stake. Sport is a fabricated reality, originally designed to test us – contest means “with test”. The “possible” Esposito refers to is the range of experiences and expressions we can experience as humans.

I believe we should teach people how to win. Winning is important. It’s not that we overvalue it, it’s that we don’t value it enough. If we want our children to develop character by participating in sport, we have to make the way we do sport reflect the characteristics we want them to develop, which proves to be much more difficult than just winning.

You are the author of the paper “Creating Consistent Hitters: A Growth Hitting System to Promote a Mastery Climate in Collegiate Baseball” Can you tell us more about it? How does one promote a ‘mastery climate’? Our readers would be curious to know how to promote such an environment in their own organizations.

I used to be junior college hitting coach. Before that I was a junior college hitter and could understand their perspective. Generally, there are two types of players who choose to play at the junior college level, players not good enough to get recruited to play at higher level schools and those who were so good, or at least had the potential to be so good that they could be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. In the Pacific Northwest, there were more DI level players than DI opportunities so at the junior college level, we were able to put together some pretty “talented” teams of players who were either happy to be there or frustrated that they weren’t one of the few recruited to the “big time” schools when their friends were. That’s a bit of a gross over-simplification of it, but you get the gist.

What was happening is that the players, who were motivated to prove someone wrong through the process of proving themselves to themselves, were using the wrong measuring stick to determine success. They were happy when they got beat on a pitch but managed to hit a 14 hopper through the infield for a base hit and crushed when they hit a difficult pitch on the screws but was caught on a line by the defense. In short, they were more concerned with displaying competence, through statistics, than displaying mastery, through performance. They didn’t have a way to measure mastery.

As coaches, we believed that consistency was an important part of performance. It provided a repeatable process with predictable results. If we could teach them to master their approach to hitting, then they could predict the results and the only result they could control was the quality of the contact they made with the pitch. We wanted them to be resilient, so we taught them their approach to hitting in a way that the quality of their contact could be attributed to a controllable factor in their approach.

We did this by using the quality of their contact as a reflection, or indicator, of how well they executed the approach. If they made a “3” contact, then their feedback was ‘repeat’ – they just tried to repeat the feel of their timing mechanism and swing mechanics. If it was a “2” or “1” contact then we taught them to attribute it to a swing mechanic or flaw in their approach. Once everyone was on the same page with the contact scale, then we focused them on the adjustments they needed to make.

When they were focused on the adjustments, their emotional affect steadied and their competitiveness increased – they always had an adjustment to make, they were never defeated, even though they got out. Their career, at least their perception of it was no longer “living and dying” on each swing. They were focused on mastery, not just what the box score said about their performance.

A motivational climate is to psychology as culture is to sociology. It’s the nature of the environment in which we live and work. Culture can be complicated – when I teach it I try to get people to understand it as specific meanings to general behaviors. We learn the meanings of behaviors through interacting with people in that culture. For example, asking a question is a general behavior. In the culture of a college classroom, asking a question can be a good thing, it shows you want to know, want to learn, and are invested in the discussion. It could also be a bad thing, it could show you’re not smart, are a slow learner, and are too lazy to follow the discussion – or a variety of other things.

To establish a mastery climate, direct your feedback to what you want people in your organization to value. I didn’t tell my students, and I don’t tell my own kids, that they are smart because they got the answer correct. I told them they are smart because they studied, tried different approaches, choose correct techniques, and didn’t quit because they were afraid, intimidated, or it was just plain hard. I set up assignments and projects that required effort and gave them limited directions and evaluated them on their ability to figure it out. They hated it, just like a junior college hitter hated it when I was reinforcing the out he just made on a line drive and reprimanding the hit he just got on a 14 hopper. The lesson wasn’t about getting it right this time, it was about learning to do it right. When we learn to do things right, we limit the number of possible outcomes until the only one left is success.

If we can’t outperform our self-image, then we need to build a self-image that is capable of doing what we need and want to do, whether “self” refers to an individual or a team. If we just tell people they are good, or smart, or whatever positive attribute is applicable, then they’ll believe it – until they fail. When they fail, they’ll have no other option other than they’re no longer good or smart. That is why Dweck calls the incremental implicit self-theory the “Growth Mindset”.

When we direct our feedback to people based on the things that create success more than the success itself, people start to value the processes that make success happen – that is mastery. Focusing on mastery isn’t about any individual performance, it’s about being good at being good. When we can do that our individual performances increase steadily, the quality of our work continuously improves, and we are better at handling the unexpected.

When a hitter masters his swing, he’s good enough to make contact. When he masters the timing of his swing, he’s good enough to hit. When he understands how to put both of those as a system, he knows the strike zone and the contact zone are the same space. He isn’t affected as much by who is pitching or what they are throwing because he’s mastered the system. He’s freed himself to compete.

For me, that’s what mastery, character, Stoicism, mental toughness, and mental performance does in all aspects of who we are, frees us to compete for whatever it is we are after.

[1] Read “Mindset” by Carol Dweck

[2] Google “Elliot 2×2 framework

[3] Read Lanny Bassham’s With Winning in Mind

[4] The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard Suits

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