Breaking Comfort Zones – Requires Risk Taking & Practice

Coach Joe English is a long-time friend and coaching partner. We’ve done a long video series on many aspects of running and racing (I think they are worth the watch – but I am biased). I’ve always valued his intellect, humor and insightfulness. Two of his recent posts are personal and thought-provoking.

I wanted to build on one of those topics about facing risk and pushing our limits. Coach Joe knows about pushing limits and facing risk. He has represented the USA in the World Duathlon championships and the World Masters Track and Field Championships. He knows how to put it on the line.

What Joe is talking about in his article is called “Comfort Zones” in the sports psychology world. That is something I deal with regularly with athletes.

It is indeed about taking a risk and enduring discomfort. But taking that risk. Pushing limits – takes a certain mentality. This aspect of mental toughness is something that touches everyone in work or sports, at some level and touches everyone differently.

It is easy for coaches, teachers or parents to say “go for it” or “you can push more” or “you don’t know if you don’t try”. Unfortunately these urgings are non-instructive. Yes, your support, positive attitude and belief in the person enhances the chances that he or she will at least try to do “just one more” or press into that discomfort – like testing cold lake waters with your pinky toe.

But the experience is a fearful one for most. It is uncomfortable (mentally and physically) for sure. There is fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of experiencing pain/discomfort, fear of embarrassment, fear of peer reactions, and though less uncommon fear of success. Here are the basic steps to take if you really want to have break through performances.

Measure the risk-reward ratio. Make a list of pros & cons of what you are trying to accomplish. What is the worst that will happen? What is the best outcome that could happen? Now only in your mind is it worth it. It is one thing to talk about certain goals and quite another to take action on them. If it is worth it then you commit to doing something about it. That means you must do both physical and mental training to prepare you to do this.

Let’s also be clear about this. If you are satisfied with where you are (professionally or athletically) then the odds are against you that you will do what it takes to break through. If you do not like taking any risks in life and you want everything to be just about guaranteed success then stop now. There are no guarantees. Your comfort zone has indeed become where you are at home. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction in life are rare. If you got it – keep it. But also don’t pose that you want out of your comfort zones.

Know your enemy. Identify what you are afraid of. Be specific. then list why this fear holds power over you. Then reframe, rebut, counter your fears in every way you can think of. What would you tell someone else if they faced that fear? How would one of your role models approach it? Take the power away from the fear and give the power back to you. Start with logic and role models to begin to disarm the power that fear has over you.

Train yourself to break through. Break through performances are made in the months of physical and mental training leading up to that competition or challenge. Break throughs seem to happen in an instant – in that one competition. But the real work was done long before. If you are not willing to do the physical and mental training to break through – you won’t. It isn’t magic. It isn’t a rah-rah speech by a coach. It is the culmination of your preparation.

Feedback and no failure. Perhaps the biggest mental shift is beginning to see every performance in training or competing as data and feedback on where you are at a given time under given circumstances. A performance is just a performance. It’s data. No more no less. We are our own worst enemies when we interpret and then “value” that data as “good” or “bad”.  Break through goals point you in a direction. Your training is the process that lays the foundation. Breaking through will require you to keep heading in that direction; correcting your course as you learn (from data); and incrementally moving in that direction.

Face the fear and do it anyway. The myth is that brave people have no fear. The myth is that if you have some fearful emotions you cannot do something. Only in the doing of the very thing you fear will you overcome it. It’s simple: Don’t face it – never overcome it. It’s the safe approach – and it keeps you in your comfort zone.

Now, get going on breaking through. Commit. Act. Practice.

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