Pushing athletes harder: Why getting too comfortable can be hazardous - BelievePerform - The UK's leading Sports Psychology Website (2023)

Written by Mudit Krishnani

The date was 10thOctober 2017. The hearts of 325 million people were racing with nervous excitement as their country played for a spot at the FIFA World Cup 2018. A win was needed against underdogs Trinidad & Tobago to qualify(1). With so much on stake for USA, a world cup regular nation with a formidable team, the intensity was understandably high, passion and emotion filling the atmosphere at the Ato Boldon Stadium in the Caribbean. They had 90 minutes to prove that they belong with the best in the world…could they deliver? In what is considered a big upset, Trinidad & Tobago won the match, and shattered those 325 million hearts, all at once. The loss was almost incomprehensible, and when the reality of it dawned on the players, the staff, the fans, questions were asked: They were not going to Russia…

How could they lose? What exactly went wrong? Veteran footballer Geoff Cameron, who was part of the squad, says it was not about one match, but about the environment behind the scenes.

“After Jürgen Klinsmann was fired, and Bruce Arena took over, we got too comfortable. We lost our ambition and sense of progress. But more than anything, we lost any sense of competitiveness.”(2)

What is this‘too comfortable’environment that Geoff talks about? The term‘too comfortable’has been used in the media and by pundits very often(3), with club legends Ian Wright(4)and Thierry Henry(5)among those blasting manager Arsene Wenger’s dressing room environment in the last couple of his years at Arsenal Football Club for being ‘too comfortable’ for the players.

Earlier this year, the England men’s cricket team lost the first Test of a home series in summer for the first time in 23 years when they suffered anine-wicket defeat by Pakistanat Lord’s(6), and according to former England skipper Michael Vaughan, the English players were too comfortable and needed some ruffling in terms of the playing XI to get the best out of them.

“They’ve got all the skill and talent on paper, but I want to see more in terms of their mentality of how to play Test cricket. It might trigger the team into thinking none of us are safe. I think it’s too comfortable.”(6)

What is the ‘too comfortable’ setting?

Reading the examples, it appears like certain features in the atmosphere around the athletes seem to create a feeling of too much comfort and safety that can be disastrous for performance, both individual and team. It has well been established that the environment impacts an athlete’s performance(7)and among various elements in the environment that influence an athlete, the interplay of Challenge and Support is known to affect performance significantly (8,9). Challenge refers to a part of environment that consists of high expectations from athletes to instill accountability and responsibility for their actions, whereas support is all about helping athletes develop their skills and grow, providing a setting that encourages learning and helps build trust among athletes and coaches and includes esteem, emotional, informational and tangible support (9,10).

The balance between challenge and support determines the kind of environment that envelopes the athlete and effects various aspects, including well-being and performance, and in sport, the 2×2 matrix formed by challenge and support include a Stagnant environment (Low challenge, Low support), Unrelenting environment (High challenge, Low support), Facilitative environment (High challenge, High support), which is considered to be the most effective environment that promotes development, well-being and improves performance, and the environment that is usually meant when criticisms of ‘too comfortable’ are made with regards to athletes or teams, the Comfortable environment. It comprises of a high level of support, but low level of challenge to push the athletes or team harder (10). Not the ideal condition to thrive in, the comfortable environment has certain characteristics that can cause dips in performance, making it imperative to try and increase the challenge in order to transform the environment into a facilitative one.

An important point to note here is that although a facilitative environment is the ideal aim, it is not a static environment, but a dynamic one which requires consistently high challenge and support over a period of time and not at any particular moment (10).

How to identify a comfortable environment?

The question that arises here is one that related to what it is like to be in such an environment, and how someone can identify a comfortable environment. There are certain features of such an environment (10) and if majority of those frequently surround the athletes, it is highly likely that they are getting too comfortable. The general atmosphere in a comfortable environment is an over-protective one, with everyone always being ‘nice’ to each other. This leads to an avoidance of difficult conversations, and underperformance is often not addressed. This may be a consequence of personal relationships between people, like in the case of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, whose form dipped significantly in 2017 (after an amazing 2016), and according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, one of the reasons for that was his relationship with the new offensive coordinator.

“…there was a feeling that, following the firing of former coordinator Bill Musgrave, he got too comfortable, because he was too close to Musgrave’s replacement, Todd Downing.”(11).

Complacency is also prevalent, with athletes getting too cozy working in their comfort zones. All this leads to stunted professional and/or personal growth, causing individuals who want to be stretched to feel constrained, which could make them look for alternatives, especially in a professional context. For example, some Premier League youngsters have moved away from England, playing abroad to escape the environment which can get too comfortable for them.

“I think that’s the problem with players my age today, especially in England. We get too comfortable, too quickly…I knew moving here to Germany would put me out of my comfort zone, but I really wanted to make it and I understood that at a young age.”

-Kevin Danso(12).

Danso rose through the ranks of MK Dons before moving to FC Augsburg, where he later became the youngest player in the club’s history to make an appearance in the Bundesliga(13).

These are some of the characteristics of a comfortable environment that can be very useful for a coach in identifying such a setting where the performance is dipping because athletes are not being pushed hard enough.

What to do if the team is getting too comfortable?

For a coach, it is imperative to try and balance support and challenge over time to get the best out of his athletes(9). Since various psychosocial training programs that promote stress desensitization and inoculation in sport have been found to be effective in enhancing performance (10), to balance challenge and support, coaches can introduce a procedure calledpressure inurement trainingduring practice sessions.

Pressure inurement training refers to an approach that manipulates the environment in a relatively controlled setting with an aim to evoke a stress-related response in athletes (10). The manipulation is done in order to ensure maintenance of functioning and performance under pressure. This kind of training is done after skill acquisition and automation, and it involves gradually increasing pressure/challenge on an athlete using two ways:

  1. The properties of the stressor itself can be manipulated to increase challenge, for example the stressor can move from non-competitive type to competitive, from familiar to novel, and increase in frequency.
  2. The significance of the stressor can be gradually increased by manipulating their personal relevance to an athlete, importance in terms of reaching goals and consequences of failure.

Increasing challenge is only a part of pressure inurement training, and care should be taken that the support provided through learning and practice does not get taken away too much, and monitoring the individual responses to the aforementioned increased challenge training in terms of both mental well-being and performance can indicate whether the person has successfully adapted to the challenge or not.

Successful adaption will be manifested as facilitative responses and positive outcomes, which can be further enhanced by developmental feedback and increased challenge. On the other hand, unsuccessful adaption can be seen as debilitating responses complemented by negative outcomes, which calls for motivational feedback and increased support.

Along with pressure inurement training, rigorous team selection might act as a trigger for athletes to push themselves harder, ensuring that players don’t get complacent by thinking their spot in the team is safe. This brings us back to the comments of Michael Vaughan, and it seems like dropping players can actually help them perform better. Take the case of Mallik Wilks, the 19-year-old Leeds United footballer currently on loan to Doncaster Rovers. In October, the striker was dropped for a match, which motivated him to prove his worth by training harder and play well when he got the chance.

“It taught me that I cannot get too comfortable. There’s always someone fighting for your spot, which is a good thing for this team…My performances had dropped. I was careless on the ball.”(14).

He scored in the next game that he started(15).

To conclude, it is important to realize that players can and do get too comfortable if the environment around them provides good support but little or no challenge, which can affect performance negatively. Hence it becomes imperative to actively reflect on the environment and its characteristics in terms of challenge and support, and identify the onset of a comfortable environment, if there is one. In that situation, then, working to reduce support and increase challenge for athletes to improve performance and push them to get the best out of them becomes important for the athletes and the team to realize their potential and reach their goals effectively.


How do you develop a winning mentality in sports? ›

Winning is a mentality, and here's a series of things you need to consider when instilling it into the minds of your players.
  1. Set the conditions for success. ...
  2. Define winning for your team. ...
  3. Set goals. ...
  4. Motivation as an instinct. ...
  5. Mindset is everything. ...
  6. Preparation is key. ...
  7. Put faith in your players. ...
  8. Failure is motivation.
Apr 27, 2017

What factors are linked to success in sports? ›

Fitness is just one of the factors, and for many sports plays a major role in success. In addition, there are psychological factors, then many more minor factors including supply of equipment, opportunity for training, expertise in coaching and skill teaching, nutritional status, a good support network, funding etc.

What are the theories of sports? ›

THEORETICAL PARADIGMS. Four major sociological paradigms can be applied to the field of sports. These are the functionalist theory, conflict theory, interactionist theory and feminist theory.

How does psychology affect performance? ›

Many psychological influences on athletic performance are subconscious. Negative external or internal psychological factors can lead to mental blocks, causing breaks in focus and preparation, poor performance and, at times, injuries to the athlete.

What is the psychology of great athletes? ›

Some of the most important psychological characteristics that must be developed by athletes to be successful include volition and drive, confidence, calmness, emotional control, and mental focus.

How do I get out of a negative mindset in sports? ›

How Can I Use Thought Stopping in Training?
  • Step 1: Identify the Negative Thought. ...
  • Step 2: Put a Stop to the Thought. ...
  • Step 3: Challenge the Thought (if You're in a Training Situation) ...
  • Step 4: Replace the Negative Thought. ...
  • Step 5: Practice.
Jul 1, 2020

How do athletes stop overthinking? ›

4 tips to quiet the mind in competition:
  1. Remind yourself or your athletes that practice is complete at the start of competition. Rely on what you have already learned in practice. ...
  2. Adopt a functional mindset instead a trying to be perfect. ...
  3. Avoid “fixing” what may not be broken. ...
  4. See the ball—hit the ball.

What is the biggest factor affecting sports performance? ›

Lifestyle factors that affect sports training and performance
  • Sleep.
  • Stress.
  • Nutrition.
  • Health & Energy.
  • Motivation.
  • Relaxation.
Jan 18, 2022

How do people get good at sports? ›

Skills, drills and techniques can take months of solid repetition before you feel comfortable taking them out on the pitch. Building that confidence isn't easy. The best way to mastering new skills – and therefore improving as a player – is through relentless practice.

What makes a good sports person? ›

Support teammates by saying "good shot" or "good try." Never criticize a teammate for trying. Accept calls and don't argue with officials. Treat the other team with respect and never tease or bully. Follow the rules of the game.

What are 3 sports psychology concepts? ›

There are three general theories of motivation: participant/trait theory, situational theory, and interactional theory. These theories are similar to those of personality.

What are the 4 C's of sports psychology? ›

In his book “Developing Mental Training,” psychologist Peter Clough, describes four important traits of mental toughness, which he calls the four C's: confidence, challenge, control and commitment.

What are the three focuses of sports psychology? ›

Clinical and counseling issues with athletes. Organizational and systemic aspects of sport consulting. Developmental and social issues related to sport participation.

What are the 4 factors of psychological affecting sports performance? ›

There are many psychological factors that affect sports performance and personality such as: Motivation, Concentration (or attention), Confidence, Anxiety. Athletes must be aware of the psychological. The factors in sport, the important role they play and how they contribute towards maintaining health and well-being.

What are the psychological effects of athletes? ›

In addition, lower levels of self-esteem and sensation-seeking in athletes have been associated with greater risk for depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and negative physical symptoms, all of which may impede performance. Extremes of athletic identity, either too much or too little, may limit performance.

Why is psychology important in sports? ›

Sports psychology looks at how physical activity and mental well-being intersect. Sports psychologists help athletes maintain high levels of performance by prioritizing mental fitness. They also look at sports participation in relation to skills like teamwork and emotional regulation.

Do athletes have a growth mindset? ›

Athletes with a growth mindset can typically win and lose with grace and enjoy the success of other athletes. This mindset leads to open minded, hardworking, calm, and coachable athletes. The good news is, you have the ability to change your mindset!

Which athletes use psychology to improve their performance? ›

Basketball Players Who Know the Power of Having a Mental Performance Coach. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O'Neal all say that working with sports psychologist George Mumford was an integral part of their success.

What are the most common psychological problems among athletes? ›

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is common in athletes and presents with problems focusing, concentrating, learning, attention shifting and sustained attention. ADHD is probably the most common psychiatric condition that sport psychiatrists treat.

What causes athletes to lose confidence? ›

Fear of failure is the biggest issue for athletes who lose confidence in competition. When they are tense and afraid to perform, athletes' performance suffers, and this hurts confidence. Find out what the biggest fear your athletes have about competition and address this.

How do athletes improve their mental health? ›

Develop confidence in yourself. Recognize that your own strength and resourcefulness help increase your self-confidence and ability to problem solve. Accept circumstances that cannot be changed, and focus more on the situations you have control over. Develop realistic goals.

Why do athletes need to be mentally strong? ›

In sport, mental toughness is necessary in order to play at the elite level; factors influencing the extent, include self-determined motivation, environmental and surrounding factors, along with other personal forces such as persistence and optimistic thinking.

What is the best mindset to have in sports? ›

The Mindset of Athletes
  • Fail well. ...
  • Daily traits. ...
  • Ambition. ...
  • Persistence. ...
  • Positive realism. ...
  • Humility. ...
  • Lack of regrets. To not think of the past, but only focus on the next performance.
  • What you can do. Work on your process.
Feb 25, 2021

Can sports be mentally draining? ›

With the unpredictability of sport, being unable to cope with challenges or changes can lead to excessive stress, and in turn, emotional fatigue. The athlete's perception of stress and pressure is what matters most in the development of emotional fatigue.

What is negative behavior of an athlete? ›

This can include things like undue pressure, abuse, taunting, poor sportsmanship, foul language, harassment, bullying, victimisation and more. It can be verbal, written, physical or emotional.

Why do athletes have worse mental health? ›

Elite athletes are vulnerable to mental health disorders as a result of the various specific stressors they experience in their sporting environment. Key factors are the impact of injury, overtraining, social media scrutiny and ongoing competitive pressure to perform.

How can athletes reduce stress? ›

When it comes to dealing with stress, there are some helpful tactics that any athletic professional can use.
  1. Take Breaks. ...
  2. Keep a Realistic Schedule. ...
  3. Delegate Tasks. ...
  4. Allow Time for Personal Exercise. ...
  5. Give Breathing Techniques a Chance. ...
  6. Spend Time With Those Close to You. ...
  7. Keep Up With Your Hobbies. ...
  8. If needed, see a Counselor.

How does mindset affect athletes? ›

The theory of mindset offers cues in helping to understand an athlete's motivation to perform. With a fixed set of beliefs, an athlete is motivated to prove oneself and receive praise. Whereas with a growth mindset, the motivation is to work hard, develop, and persist.

What makes a winning mentality? ›

What is the definition of a winning mentality? To me giving everything you've got (effort/perseverance/take initiative/being a leader) in order to win, also in the face of adversity (e.g. red card, missed chance, goal down) is the winning mentality.

What is a winning mentality in sports? ›

An athlete must know how to deal well with bad moments in their specific sport. The key is to stay focused and passionate with no negative emotions, even when the outcome does not seem to go all the way to meeting your expectation. Learning from mistakes is extremely beneficial!

How do you develop a winning personality? ›

Developing a Winning Personality
  1. Maintain eye contact. ...
  2. Have good posture. ...
  3. Use body language. ...
  4. Aim for conversational balance, not self-absorption. ...
  5. Achieve, but usually without making others feel less-than. ...
  6. Show moderate confidence. ...
  7. Judge, but usually without expressing it. ...
  8. Default toward the positive.
Mar 10, 2019

Does winning change your brain? ›

Physiological changes in the brain after winning stimulate the production of more receptors for the hormones of winning which means the effects of those hormones are increased, making the winner more sensitive to the win and vice versa for the loser. Even at the molecular level, success breeds success.

What is an example of a win mentality? ›

Win-win thinking requires optimism that can see beyond the constrained resources, competitive threats and problems of today to see opportunities to work with others to achieve a leap forward. For example, a manager who tries to learn from a talented rival in hopes of making great strides forward in their career.

Does winning build confidence? ›

Winning does build confidence especially when that winning represents a true accomplishment; (i.e., I've beaten a worthy opponent). However, winning against other teams or individuals of much lower skill levels normally does little to bolster self-confidence. Winning gains one access to rewards and special privileges.

How do athletes train their brain? ›

An athlete can develop positive affirmations and thoughts in place of the negative thoughts and practice saying them several times a day. Eventually, they will begin to believe it and retrain their brain. Negative thinking is a mental brick that weighs athletes down and keeps them from reaching their potential.

What builds a good personality? ›

Be genuine in your interest in others:

Genuinely engage people to learn about them and what they do. This helps you to build a wealth of experience that contributes to a strong personality. From your interactions with others, you get to gain from their experiences and outlook on life.

What is the key to a winning mindset? ›

The key is being objective and looking closely at all of the factors involved in a situation. Taking the time to evaluate your intentions and focus on your strengths and talents. You have the capability to do great things. Be aware and be mindful of yourself and the world you live in.

How do you maintain a winning mindset? ›

Be coachable and open to feedback.

One of the keys to having a winning mindset is being coachable and open to feedback. This means being willing to listen to others' perspectives and learn from their experiences. It also means being receptive to constructive criticism and using it to improve your performance.


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