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Comfort Zone vs Danger Zone: How to Improve Safely

BY LYNDA LAHMAN “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours” is a quote from an old pop culture book, ‘Illusions’ by the late Richard Bach. I loved it when I was in college and still like it to this day. “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right,” a quote attributed to the writer Mark Twain, is often used to remind people that it’s your head that can get in the way of action.  I’ve brought these up with some of the athletes I work with when their desire, training, and ability are up to snuff and it’s only the mental side that’s holding them back.

But those same critical components can get missed when tossing out motivational quotes such as the ones above: desire, training, and ability. I once worked with a young equestrian who was afraid of moving to the next level of jumping. The difference in the heights of the jumps was a mere six inches, easily doable with both the horse she had and her natural abilities. She wanted to move up, so motivation wasn’t the issue. As we looked at it from all angles, what became clear was she lacked practice, a necessary step in gaining confidence. We reflected on how she had made the gains she had in the past, and she could see that as she worked with her horse in a safe, unpressured environment, she built trust in herself. It didn’t take long for her to make the six-inch leap from the practice ring to the competitive arena.

Another client, another situation: joining her family in the French Alps for a weeklong skiing vacation, truly a highlight of her year. Wanting to stay with everyone, she agreed to take the gondola to the highest point on the mountain, with spectacular views in all directions. The run back down the slopes included a double-black diamond section, something she had never attempted. With no other alternative, she bravely made her way over moguls, icy portions, and steep terrain to catch up to those waiting for her at the bottom. “Wasn’t that a blast!” they all greeted her with enthusiasm. “Actually, no,” she replied. “I’m proud I made it down without walking or falling, but I have zero interest in ever doing that again.”  While she had been afraid, she mustered enough composure to keep upright, but it hadn’t been fun. Why? She wasn’t interested in improving her skills; she went down the run because she wanted to be with her family. Had they opted to do the same portion again, she’d have refused, no matter how encouraging they might have been. The desire to improve her skiing to meet the challenge was missing.

I recently competed in a six-day long-distance motorcycling rally, a partnered event where I was matched with a woman I barely knew before we started. As we discussed riding styles, competitive levels, and other details, she informed me that she was legally blind in one eye, something I’d have never known had she not shared it. What became clear during our time together was she’s an amazing, accomplished rider, tough as nails, and as competitive as I am. What also became apparent was there were a few critical conditions where I had to take the lead; she was unable to do so. Nighttime, intense rain, and other low visibility situations reduced her perceptual vision. No matter how encouraging I might have been, her ability to function was reduced, and I had to take the lead so she could follow my taillights. She had the desire and the training, but her physical ability limited her actions.

To make the move from staying safe to encouraging growth occasionally requires a slight nudge. When my daughter was young she was afraid to jump off the diving board, yet I knew she possessed the ability to do so. Rather than constantly encouraging her to try, I merely offered to take her to her favorite ice cream store for a treat of her choosing whenever she jumped three times in succession. I had no vested interest in whether she ever went off the board; I was merely providing a known incentive because I knew she wanted to accomplish the feat but was hesitant, and I didn’t want her to do it just because she thought it would please me or her swimming instructor. Why not just one jump? Because I knew by the third one she’d have mastered her fear and moved on to having fun.  It may have cost me a banana split, but it was worth it to see her swell with pride when she bragged to her dad about how high the diving board was and how awesome it was to fly through the air.

Several athletes I know have felt pressured to do more than they were ready, willing, or able to accomplish at a given time. Even when encouragement is positive, uplifting, and based on a realistic assessment of ability, it often backfires.  The pressure becomes the focus rather than the action itself. Fear of disappointing others, of not keeping up with the group, of getting hurt; whatever it might be, it distracts from the ability to bring attention to what’s needed to be successful. Even if the task is completed, there is often little satisfaction in that fact because of the loss of personal agency in deciding to tackle it in the first place. There’s a fine line between one’s comfort zone and one’s danger zone, often referred to as the ‘growth zone.’ In my experience as both an athlete and a mental skills coach, it’s best to let the individual have as much control over the decision to push through the discomfort, fear, or mental blocks as possible. By doing so, they also get to claim the victory.

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