As the game clock ticks, we all get trapped in repeating habits, in a comfortable zone - most often below where we are capable of playing. What you may not know about these habits is they are below your consciousness and determine what you think you can or can't do. You become comfortable with these habits and they end up running the show.
What is Your Comfort Zone?
Everyone knows about the idea of comfort zone: the space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It's a comfy place where you're not threatened and everything always stays the same - offering you mental security.
There's a lot of science that highlights why it's so challenging to break out of your comfort zone, and why it's good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your comfort zone by expanding it... and improve your game.
In 1908, Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson showed that a state of comfort created a steady level of performance. But, they also highlighted that if you want to increase your performance, a state of relative anxiety is needed - a place where stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This is called Optimal Anxiety and it's beyond your comfort zone. Further, they also showed that too much anxiety can produce too much stress leading to performance drop-offs. So, finding the balance for you is key.
You are not alone in the quest to expand your comfort zone. The leading professional hockey players and other athletes I work with daily are constantly working to shift their comfort zone and find the place leading to higher performance. If you want to become a better player and see improvement, it's an important exercise for you too.
The Comfort Zone Can Shrink.
Let me give you an example of my first introduction to comfort zone.
I grew up at a golf club and, as a part of my summer duties, I did the scoring each year at the club championship. I stood at the scoreboard and marked scores of the membership. Players were categorized in four divisions - A, B, C and D - based on handicap index. I saw the same faces each year, and year after year, players turned in their card and it was dÃ©jÃ vu - the same players turned in basically the same card... and same score... every year.
I always wondered how it was possible that a golfer could play (and practice) the game for 10, 20, or 30 years and stay in the same division every year without any real shift in improvement!
The answer is comfort zone. The longer you stay in the same comfort zone, the more it shrinks and the harder it is to expand it. The more you continue to do the same things, make the same mistakes, ingrain the same habits, the more your comfort zone shrinks - and you become THAT player - your identity.
What Causes You to Be in the Comfort Zone?
You've seen it many times. You start playing great or "out of your mind" in a game and then WHAMMO - a little bit of poor play brings you back to reality. This often happens when a player has some good play early and then subconsciously slips back to "where I should be".
In your game, your comfort zone is determined by how you think you typically play. Whenever you play, you'd like to play a little better, take a little more risk, but you are expecting a result in your "usual" range. Inevitably, you'll have games where you flirt with play outside your zone; maybe you play the first two periods really well, recognizing that a great third period will give you a result well above your normal zone.
Then what happens?
You start thinking about what could be. You start playing conservatively, trying to "protect" your great two periods of play. Next thing you know, you've adjusted everything back to the comfy zone and the great game fades away.
I'm sure you've also seen the reverse happen. You have a couple of poor periods and then a sudden surge of good play at the end of a game mysteriously puts you back in that comfortable performance place.
What are Your Roadblocks to Growth as a Player?
We all have roadblocks to growth. Despite your efforts to want to grow and get better, certain walls can interfere with your progress as a player. Here's a few that may be familiar to you...
- Fear of growth (not feeling safe to grow) - a major barrier is what is called the "I'm stuck" syndrome. "I've always been that way, so how could I possibly change?" You feel stuck at times, and when you do, you don't feel great about yourself... or your game.
- A negative view of yourself as a hockey player - you see and know yourself as an average player or someone who struggles to excel in games, so that's where you stay as a player.
- Skepticism - you believe any steps you take to improve won't work or will be a waste of time. "I tried that and it didn't work."
- Uncertainty regarding how to begin or what direction to take - you don't know how to get better, how to evaluate your game or what steps to take to do it.
- Challenging yourself emotionally - forcing yourself to work on your limitations. Not an easy thing to do and not as fun as the feeling of working on your strengths and seeing a good result.
It's too late for me to change, I'm too old or I don't have enough time. You use excuses that it's not the right time to improve - and put off doing it. The most important factor for you to break out of your comfort zone is asking yourself why you are staying in it! You must be genuinely interested in improvement, and know what benefits you want to get out of it.
Step by Step - Build Slowly.
Expanding the perimeter of your comfort zone by slowly and intelligently pushing your barriers will build confidence. The process should be methodical and progressive. Don't run out and try to change your entire game overnight. Evaluate what needs to be done - physically, mentally and emotionally to move up a level - and create the steps to get there. It will be a gradual process and almost guaranteed won't be a straight line.
Some Ideas to Start Expanding Your Comfort Zone.
Face Your Fears - stepping out of your comfortable area will probably cause some fear - the dreaded "what ifs" are the downfall of many players. "What if I fail?", "What if I really can't do this?", "What if I'm not good enough?" Stay in the moment and do things slowly. A committed plan with reasonable milestones will give you the confidence to get to a new place.
Change Your Routine - you can begin growing your comfort zone through small changes in your approach to the game - adding 30 minutes/ week working on a weakness, get feedback from coaches on what needs improvement and how to do it and understand your own emotional make-up so you know what causes ups and downs in your game. What are the triggers that cause emotional shifts?
Get Out of Your Own Way - See yourself in a new light. You probably put self-induced limits on yourself. The truth is, sometimes you've just got to get out of your own way. If you begin seeing yourself as a better player, chances are you will be. Raise your opinion of your game and yourself and you will set the table for better performance.
Time to Change
Comfort feels all cozy and warm when you're in it, but it's also a double-edged sword. If you stay comfortable for too long, you begin to get bored, lazy and too satisfied with average results. If you want to improve in the game, challenge the status quo - push your limits and you'll see the game in a new light.
It won't be easy and will take some time but I think you'll like the results.