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Valuing Discomfort

This article is shared by Player Development Project

Many world-class performers tell stories of discomfort, rejection and failure at some point in their past. Is this coincidence? Player Development Project Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses the importance of discomfort as a catalyst to success on the learning journey .

American scholars such as Brene Brown and Robert Horner (researchers into education, development and vulnerability) have led us to the following question: if curiosity marks the start of the learning process and vulnerability is the birthplace of creative connection, is discomfort a catalyst for development?

Development can be defined as durable changes resulting from a combination of experience, learning and maturation.

In terms of world-class athletes, painful experiences may have (subconsciously) challenged them to question their development journey – what they do and why they do it – renew their dedication and re-assess their mindset. Consider some real-life examples such as West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell. On the books at Liverpool until the age of 15, he was then released by manager Gerard Houllier and signed for Tranmere Rovers – a time he refers to as “heartbreaking”. After a few years developing with Tranmere and then Ipswich, Aaron was signed back to a Premier League club and is knocking on the door of the England squad. Another player inline for full international honours is Harry Kane, released from Arsenal at 11 and then at Watford, Harry was loaned out to gain valuable experience before his breakthrough season at Tottenham this year.

The Science of Discomfort

Cognitive development research suggests that discomfort, specifically ‘feeling out of our comfort zone’, is caused by a mental state called cognitive disequilibrium. This mental discomfort is basically an imbalance between someone’s understanding of the world and their new (or current) experiences. Simply put, adapting to new ideas can be confronting and uncomfortable.

factors influencing human development

Development specialist and leadership author Stephen Covey explains that an individual’s understanding of the world is shaped by the current paradigm guiding their thought. Covey describes a paradigm as the culturally constructed lens through which we view the world. Consider the old paradigm or ‘old school of thought’ around pre-season fitness, when I started playing it was all about running laps, intervals of 200m, 300m, 400m. Now modern technology and scientific research has shown that playing small sided games (3v3’s, 4v4’s etc.) and manipulating the time, rules and playing area can bring about the same fitness outcomes – the added benefit being that the training is sport specific. What we’ve all experienced here is a paradigm shift – in this case a slow change over a number of years. However the speed of change will vary from person to person, as will the discomfort felt – do you rip the Band-Aid off or peel it back slowly? Sometimes we don’t have a choice – adapt or die.

Thomas Kuhn, author of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ supports the idea that paradigm shifts occur when ‘new findings’ begin to contradict a person’s current practices and traditional beliefs. The value we place on these traditional beliefs – running laps for example – will determine the discomfort we feel when breaking with tradition and moving outside of our comfort zone.

However research has show that this cognitive discomfort, these moments of imbalance and feelings of mental discomfort are the “major energising force in development”.

This is why Covey believes:

“If you want to make minor changes and improvements, you need only work on practices, behaviour or attitude. But if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms.”

Dr. Stephen Covey

This may be why so many high performers tell stories of discomfort, rejection and failure at some point in their past. So if the science of discomfort shapes player development, what does this mean for coach development? How do we embrace discomfort in our development?

Former New Zealand Football Coach Development Manager Steven Dillon gives insight into this question by sharing his experiences at the World Football Academy (WFA) expert meeting in South Africa in 2014. The WFA is made up of expert speakers and delegates from over 20 countries around the world and from a wide range of both professional and amateur backgrounds. Steven’s experiences give insight into elements of the development environment created by the WFA. Steven attended the conference last year while working for Auckland Football Federation.


“Arriving at the WFA led to feelings of discomfort almost immediately. Here I was, in the middle of South Africa, originally from England but working in New Zealand, rubbing shoulders with some of the most knowledgeable and respected people in football. Talk about a reality check – I felt like an imposter.

But although it took time to acclimatise to my surroundings, what followed were six days of the most incredible, uplifting and challenging level of expert speakers that I had ever come across. If there was ever a study in creating a culture of excellence, this was it. The variety of topics enabled us to take a broader view of football whilst still being linked by the same philosophy and always having the reference and starting point of football.

There are a number of talks that stood out and have stayed with me, which says a lot about the quality of the presentations. These key messages consistently reinforced in many of the talks were:

  • Don’t use your environment as an excuse for mediocrity.
  • Understand that often from discomfort there becomes awareness and from reflection comes action. Embrace the discomfort.
  • Create a no-excuse environment where staff, players and coaches have everything they require in order to perform.

The quality of all these talks during the intensive program meant that I had to keep my standards high. I’ll be the first to admit that my standards did slip, numerous times, and I had to constantly challenge myself to control my thoughts and keep up with the rest of the group.

One example where my standards fell really stands out. But, on reflection, through my intense discomfort came my clearest moment of development at the entire event. In front of the group, I delivered a mediocre (at best) half-time analysis of Chile vs. Holland during the FIFA World Cup. Under the spotlight, I was told to stop my analysis mid-flow and sit down – all very matter-of-fact – as the quality of what I was saying wasn’t acceptable. Deeply uncomfortable, I was left to reflect on some of the group’s probing questions that made me consider my standards and the potential impact on people involved in football in New Zealand, while the next coach attempted to rescue the analysis.

Here I had two choices. I could stand up and bounce back or sit back and dwell on the mistake. It took me a while to process what I had just experienced but I made the conscious effort to thank Raymond for pointing out my inefficiency. Such was the culture of development at the Academy – where else in the world would you feel safe enough to thank someone for making you feel so uncomfortable? From this point on I was focused and raised my standards back to the level that should be expected of the group. Desired effect achieved.

This situation also helped me to reflect on what I got out of the WFA event. I had felt discomfort and out of my depth for almost the entire time, and this discomfort had come from an awareness of the gaps in knowledge between myself and the other expert delegates. But this discomfort had also been the catalyst for my development – when faced with these feeling I could have sunk or swam; sat back or stood up. I’m glad I made the right choice.”

Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) provides a framework to understand how the learning and experience at the WFA expert meeting contributed to Steven’s development. From a learning perspective, the Zone of Proximal Development represents the zone sandwiched between what people can understand and what they can’t – indicating what the learner can understand with the assistance of others. From the perspective of experience, the ZPD could become the Zone of Proximal Discomfort. Consider learning a language; immersion in a foreign country is often uncomfortable and isolating but ensures we learn out of necessity.

zone of proximal development

Revolutionary practitioners have always created discomfort; these open-minded individuals continually raise the bar, push standards to new levels and refuse to accept the status quo. Revolutionists like Billy Bean in baseball and Pep Guardiola in football are modern examples, while Johan Cruyff’s impact on football, and Dick Fosbury’s on high jump, kick started the evolution of their respective sports.

In practical terms, we need to recognise that experiences of discomfort have the power to:

  1. Change mindsets – research by Carol Dweck has shown the benefits of a growth mindset (valuing efforts and challenge) over an entity-focused mindset (valuing natural ability and the result).
  2. Challenge definitions of success – the ‘achievement goal theory’ shows the benefits of concentrating on your individual mastery of a task, rather than comparing your ‘success’ to that of others.
  3. Accelerate learning – training sessions that appear messy and chaotic are often challenging players, placing them within the zone of proximal discomfort, and while these sessions are often uncomfortable for players and coaches they can be essential experiences for development.

John Allpress, National Development Coach with the FA, supports this view and recommends that coaches “encourage players to work outside of their comfort zone and take risks”. However, we must take a balanced approach when working with our players, remembering that:

“Discomfort can be created in a number of ways. You can simply ‘pitch’ the session or challenge just out of reach of the learner, but within their ZPD. However, creating too much discomfort is not conducive to effective learning, because the challenge is too great.”  

 Sean Douglas, National Coach Education Manager, Football Federation Australia.

It’s a fine line – balancing challenge, discomfort and success. Remember the ZPD will contain skills, techniques and tactics that are too advanced for players to understand and execute by themselves, however they should be able to achieve these new standards with skilful coaching. In teaching our players to value and embrace discomfort, we we must value and embrace discomfort ourselves.

Image Credit: ‘In Mou We Trust’ via Flickr

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