Comfortable with being uncomfortable?

In our previous article (which you can read here), we talked about the effects of pressure on performance and how the natural defence mechanism of our bodies can lead us into “mind blindness” and consequently to making poor decisions.

In this piece we will look at a coaching technique you can use to help build resilience/tolerance to pressure and to fast track the development of adaptable skills in the performers you work with. 

Please note, we will use the word "performer" throughout this article to represent the "coachee" - although the theories presented here are in the context of elite sport, they can be applied equally effectively to the corporate world.

A constraints led approach to coaching...

The first place to start when looking to help you take performers to a position of being “comfortable with being uncomfortable” is to look at introducing a constraints led coaching model.

In short using a constraints led approach is to understand that behaviours and movements are influenced by a dynamic environment, where interacting constraints place different and changing demands on the performer or the task itself.

In a traditional model of instruction the coach will give directions to the performer, indicating where and what movements or behaviours need to change, observing during a closed practice and providing feedback/further corrections in an attempt to shift the movement/behaviour towards the desired outcome.

In a constraints led model the coach will design practice so that the task contains a specific constraint, or so that the performer themselves is constrained in some way (physically or cognitively). The constraint being such that it guides the performer towards the desired change of movement pattern or behaviour. This approach has the benefit of helping the performer develop feel for the change from their own experiences and as such internalise it more effectively – thus accelerating the speed of skill acquisition. This leads us onto a variation of one of my favourite quotes in coaching from Graeme McDowall (you can read more of his words of wisdom via twitter @GraemeMcDowall)...


Working with a junior rugby team it was observed that their basic catching skills were not at the level the coach required of them. The coach had spent some time working with the team on their catching skills – explaining optimal body position, the importance of watching the ball into the hands and other typical coaching cues – but with little change of behaviour.

To attempt to accelerate the skill acquisition we had players put on a pair of gloves which had half a squash ball glued to the palm of each hand – effectively making the task of catching much harder. The theory being that in order to improve the skill, we had to make the skill harder – to make it more difficult to feel the ball into the hands. The group were suddenly forced to focus much more closely to complete the task, to direct maximum attention to the incoming ball and to the feel of the ball in the finger tips as it arrived. With no other instruction (aside from the structure of the practice), the teams ability to catch improved exponentially in no time at all. Simply by shifting the team into a problem solving mentality we created an environment where players were effectively challenged, but still eventually able to achieve mastery and as such their intrinsic motivation improved along with their skill levels.

Another example, this time from my own sport of tennis – I have long felt that players double fault in tennis because they lack feel for the ball on the strings of the racquet at contact. This is then magnified when attempting to serve under pressure (for reasons discussed in this article). I could spend time discussing and directing them towards the optimal technique for spin serves – racquet path, grip, ball toss, arm/body positions and rotations and so forth - and we could implement a blocked practice to work on the changes. Through this we might see improvement in technique (which is of course important), but we likely wouldn't see development in feel or ability to perform under pressure. So, instead I designed a constraints led practice – by changing the task to have the server change their start position every time they made a serve, sometimes 10ft behind the baseline, sometimes wide outside the sidelines, sometimes very close to the net, we even raised the net height from 3ft to 6-8ft in some places.

We played a game of “service golf” where players had to complete a course, serving from the different start positions into targets – looking to complete the course under a par score – if they went over par they had to play another round until they came in under par.

This use of task constraint meant the athletes couldn't hit their usual, routinely practiced serves – they had to adapt their technique to overcome the new constraints (unfamiliar distances, unfamiliar targets and unusual net heights) – they had to find new ways of 'working' the ball. This brought their focus sharply to the contact point of the ball and therefore to the feeling of the impact.  Working under the pressure of starting the whole task over meant they had to give it their full attention - nobody wanted to be the last one in. They had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. For some it became a tortuous experience, but each player stuck to it, found ways to be successful in the task and improved their personal resilience as a result.

(Incidentally, in both examples after completing a variety of sessions with similar themes we have seen a vast improvement in the relevant statistics)


A constraints led approach has also been shown to encourage and develop adaptation skills in performers...

Newell's model of constraints tells us that performers who can adapt their technique and performance to the three main constraints (task, environment and organism (performer)) and have a high level of perception-action coupling will achieve the best performance. Those who cannot adapt their technique – no matter how theoretically perfect it may be – will not achieve the same high levels of performance consistently.

“In a contest of otherwise technical equals, adaptability and innovation will prevail... An adaptable and innovative performer can defeat a technically superior performer who is not adaptable.”
Dr Ray Brown

One issue with taking a more directive approach to coaching is that it can create dependancy on the part of the performer. Being frequently given exact instructions in training, they have limited experience of adapting skills 'on the fly', they become less able to make clear, concise, independent decisions – especially when under pressure. They rely on the coach telling them what to do and when to do it.

In some situations this is acceptable as the coach is permitted/available to have an impact on the performer from the side lines – but in many sports and in many life situations, the performer is required to act independently. A constraints led model creates a dynamic environment where the performer is given license to explore solutions (both movement and behavioural) to problems and execute them under pressure – leading to robust, repeatable, adaptable skills.


So what?

There are many areas in sport and in life where adopting a constraint led model could be the key to unlocking optimum performance, from achieving a sporting personal best to making a presentation. To implement a constraints led model as a coach, one has to look at the desired outcome (movement or behaviour) and work backwards from there, creating situations which stimulate the performer into making changes in the desired direction. It requires a little more work on the part of the coach, compared to simply telling the performer what you want them to do, but the results can be incredibly powerful - robust, adaptable skills and an ability to execute them under extreme pressure.

If you have experience of success using constraints led coaching, either as a coach or performer, please let us know in the comments below.

If you would like to investigate developing a constraints led approach for your own coaching practice, please contact us here to discuss our coach mentoring packages.