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Comfort Zone vs. Danger Zone: Safe Ways to Advance

LYNDA LAHMAN’S WORK The phrase “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours” is taken from the late Richard Bach’s popular culture book “Illusions.” Even now, I still like it as much as I did in college. The famous quotation from author Mark Twain, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right,” is often used to remind people that sometimes your thoughts may come in the way of taking action. When an athlete’s drive, training, and talent are all on par and their mental side is the only thing holding them back, I’ve brought these points up with several of the athletes I deal with.

However, when using motivating quotations like the ones above, those same crucial elements—desire, training, and ability—can be overlooked. I used to work with a young rider who was terrified to go to the next jumping level. With the horse she possessed and her inherent ability, the six-inch height difference between the jumps was manageable. Motivation was not a problem for her since she wanted to advance.

Examining it from every perspective showed that she was lacking in practice, which is a prerequisite for building confidence. We spoke about how she had achieved her previous successes and she realized that she had developed self-confidence from working with her horse in a secure, stress-free setting. She made the six-inch transition from the practice ring to the competition arena in no time at all.

A different customer, a different circumstance: spending a week-long skiing holiday with her family in the French Alps, undoubtedly the top of her year. She consented to ride the gondola to the top of the mountain, where there are breathtaking views in every direction, since she wanted to remain with everyone. She had never tried the double-black diamond section on the run back down the slopes.

She had no choice but to boldly navigate icy patches, steep slopes, and moguls in order to reach the people who were waiting for her at the bottom. They all enthusiastically welcomed her, saying, “Wasn’t that a blast!” “No, actually,” she said. “I have no desire to ever walk or fall again, but I’m proud that I made it down without doing so.” Even though she was terrified, she managed to remain upright by maintaining her calm, but it wasn’t enjoyable. Why? She ran because she wanted to be with her family, not because she was interested in honing her talents. Regardless of how supportive they were, she would have declined if they had chosen to repeat the same section. She lacked the drive to become better at skiing in order to take up the task.

I recently participated in a partnered six-day long-distance motorcycle ride, paired with a lady I had hardly met before the tour began. She told me that she was legally blind in one eye, which I would not have realized if she hadn’t mentioned it, while we spoke about riding styles, competitive levels, and other specifics. During our time together, it became evident that she is a wonderful, skilled rider who is just as competitive as I am and tough as nails.

It also became clear that in a few crucial situations, I had to take the initiative since she was unable of doing so. Her perceptive eyesight was diminished by poor visibility conditions such as night and heavy rain. She was less able to function, no matter how encouraging I was, so I had to take the lead so she could follow my taillights. She was trained and motivated, but her physical limitations prevented her from acting.

Sometimes a little prodding is needed to make the transition from maintaining safety to promoting development. Though I knew she could leap from the diving board, my daughter was terrified to do so when she was younger. I didn’t keep pushing her to attempt; instead, I just promised to take her to her favorite ice cream shop for a reward each time she successfully leaped three times in a row.

I was just offering a recognized incentive because I knew she wanted to achieve the goal but was reluctant, and I didn’t want her to do it solely because she thought it would please me or her swimming teacher. I had no stake in whether she ever went off the board. Why not take a single hop instead? I knew that by the time she reached the third one, she would have overcome her trepidation and be enjoying herself. Though it may have been somewhat expensive, I found it worthwhile to see her beaming with pride as she boasted to her father about how tall the diving board was and how amazing it felt to soar into the air.

I know of many athletes who have experienced pressure to do better than they were capable of, ready to do, or willing to do at any particular moment. Encouragement often backfires, even when it is heartfelt, upbeat, and grounded on a realistic evaluation of one’s own abilities. Instead of the activity itself, the pressure becomes the focal point. Fear of hurting oneself, of failing others, of falling behind the group—whatever the fear may be, it prevents one from being able to draw attention to what’s necessary for success.

Because there was no personal agency involved in choosing to take on the activity in the first place, even if it is finished, there is often little gratification in that fact. The “growth zone”—also known as the boundary between one’s comfort and risk zones—is a thin line. As a mental skills coach and an athlete, I have found that it is preferable to give the person as much autonomy as possible when it comes to deciding whether to push through pain, fear, or mental obstacles. They also get to declare victory by doing this.

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