I recently presented the following 2 scenarios to a group of high-school athletes:
Scenario #1: You’re coming off a good week of practice and a great week of school. You woke this morning feeling great. During warm-ups, your coach praised your talent and efforts in front of everyone on the team. You feel no pressure today and everything feels “on” as your warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.
Scenario #2: You’re coming off a so-so week of practice. You woke up this morning feeling sluggish (and it’s raining outside). During warm-ups, your coach questioned your ability. Today, you’re playing a team you did poorly against last year. You don’t feel 100% as warm-up winds down and you get ready to perform.
“In which scenario can you have a good game?” I asked. One of the athletes, nailed the sentiment many were thinking with her response, “I’d like to think ‘both’ – but it sure helps to feel comfortable right before the race!”
Ah, comfort zones. We all have internal “comfort zones” that help us play at our best. These are like check-lists that help determine our comfort level. Take for instance the comfort zone of a cross-country runner I recently met:
- Nice weather
- Familiar course
- Everyone getting along on team/ No drama
- I feel energized in the morning and during warm-up
- Coach says something motivating to me before the race
When our checklist and our environment are in sync, in other words – everything is exactly the way we want it – we feel comfortable and ready to perform. But – what happens when reality (poor weather, challenging course, team drama, lack of energy, etc.) doesn’t match our comfort zone?
Most athletes struggle to stretch their comfort zones. When our comfort zone is too narrow, we’ll have a tough time adjusting to all of the things that are simply out of our control and our performance likely suffers. The key is to begin to recognize the limits of our comfort zone and stretch it as much as we can:
Anticipate the times when it’s uncomfortable. Each of us knows the “things” that stretch our comfort zones. It might be weather, or a certain opponent, a certain course. Identifying the things that make us uncomfortable is the first step in developing an effective response to the problem.
Choose an effective attitude. Worry and fear are often down-payments on a debt we might not owe. Too many athletes worry about what might happen – rather than taking the time to think about what they want to have happen with their performance. We have to choose to “see” ourselves performing well in a variety of situations, regardless of what is (or isn’t) happening around us.
Focus on your response. In other words, “what’s the plan?” What will you think or do to put yourself in a position to be effective? These actions will be dependent on the situation – but our “response”-ability will be determining factor in whether or not will perform well outside of our comfort zone.
Put your best foot forward. In the end, we have to experience the discomfort of these uncomfortable situations to know what response works best. This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) wait until the next race, game, or tournament. This kind of quality effort can be practiced each day in training sessions.