Becoming a Better Athlete Happens Outside Your Comfort Zone

with Lesley Paterson

“I’m not going to call an ambulance this time because if I do, you won’t learn anything.” -Brian Griffin, Family Guy

Let’s face it; it sucks to suck at things. Even worse is when other people are watching you suck. Worse still is, while in the midst of your own suck, you take a look around and see other people doing the exact same thing as you, yet they are clearly NOT sucking. That’s the suck trifecta.

Most of us don’t mind being really bad at things if we know that no one else is watching or judging us. Take singing in the shower. I’m Beyoncé. But put me in a Karaoke bar and I’ll curl up like one of those fortune-telling red fish. When we talk about “getting out of your comfort zone” we are usually referring to putting ourselves in situations in which the risk of humiliation (Will l look stupid?), embarrassment (Will others think I’m doing it right?) or feeling inadequate (Am I good enough?) is high. This is a totally normal reaction and nothing to be ashamed of. But, as you start to understand why this is happening, you’ll realize your brain has sold you a turd.

Just like physical training, our brains get better at coping with uncomfortable situations the more we do them. But why on earth would anyone want to do that? I’m sure I could get better at taking a punch if I punched myself twice a day, but why? Unlike punching yourself which involves real pain and physical risk, the fear we feel when stepping outside our comfort zones is not only fake news, it’s a sign that a growth opportunity awaits. Literally.

When we are forced into a new experience, neural connections in our brain start re-wiring to help us better cope in the future. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. The reason that this is so important is that it reduces the number of things that scare you. And why is it important to be less scared? Because you’re better able to enjoy life without being constantly interrupted by unwelcome thoughts and feelings, allowing you to build happiness, contentment, and good mental health. So yeah, it’s very important.

In order to bust out of your comfort zone, you’ve got to remind yourself of the ground rules:

  1. Actions can fail, but people can’t.

Couldn’t complete your first triathlon? Figure out why. That’s fantastic guidance for how to change your training so you can complete it next time.

  1. Reframe your goals.

The best goals are based on the effort you plan to give and your attitude, not the time it takes you, where you finish, or how others see you. Start every new, intimidating situation with this simple pledge: No matter what happens today, I agree to give it everything I’ve got and stay positive given the circumstances. My mantra is ‘effort and attitude.’

  1. It’s good to make snap decisions, even if they turn out to be wrong.

Procrastination is your comfort zone’s best friend because it reduces anxiety but at the same time, it builds the fence around you even higher. It maintains status quo and reduces your preparedness. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just enter the race, or sign up to the new session without thinking about it too much.

Once you’ve internalized the ground rules, start by being a spectator of the thing you want to do but are scared to. Perhaps you watch a master’s swim session before joining in, or sit on the bleachers to see what the club track workout is all about. Look for people who seem similar to you. Pay attention to how different people cope with being [slow, uncoordinated, last, or whatever it is you’re scared of). Next, try to ‘pre-create’ the fear in your own head and come up with a plan to attach that fear. Afraid of getting dropped on the first interval? Go back to your mantra of effort and attitude. Scared you won’t know what you’re supposed to be doing or intimidated by instructions you don’t understand? Take ownership of your newbie status and rehearse a few lines: “Excuse me coach, but this is my first time here, and I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be doing next.” Everyone was a newbie once.

So what are you waiting for? Go find your magic. It’s waiting for you but it’s outside of your comfort zone.

Lesley Paterson is a Liv ambassador, a 3-time World Champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion.” (VeloPress).  Available from www.braveheartcoach.com.

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