Learn From Everything: Take a Step Into Your Discomfort Zone

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan is not alone. Most of the great people who have ever lived, have failed. Many of the great entrepreneurs went bust numerous times before they made serious money. The great artists and composers have torn up more work than they ever publish. Great athletes always miss more than they score and make more duff shots than perfect shots. And, as Michael Jordan says, that is the reason they succeed (Heath, 2009; Hartley, 2011).

It’s funny how most people hate making mistakes. As human beings, we tend to view mistakes as negative. We tend to view bad performances as negative and view losing as negative. In reality though, it’s not the case. I agree that it’s usually uncomfortable at the time because we want things to work perfectly all the time. We want things to come off perfectly first time and often get frustrated if the results don’t show quickly enough.

Everyone knows that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. However, there are relatively few people that embrace mistakes and celebrate them, or even who see them as a positive. Common advice is to forget about bad performances and put them behind you. However, the impact of losing or performing badly does often drive people to work harder on their game. Daft as it sounds. Most people learn the least about their performance from victories or successes (Halden-Brown, 2003).

To Be a Great Athlete – You Must Learn from Everything

One of the characteristics of a truly great athlete is that they learn from everything – the good, the bad and the average. They learn from wonderful performances and dire performances equally. Those truly great athletes realise that to stay ahead they don’t just need to move forwards. They actually need to move forwards quicker than everyone else, or they’ll get overtaken. At the very pinnacle of every sport are athletes who have to constantly improve their game. They have to get better after every single training session and every single match they play. If they don’t, they know that someone will overtake them.

How quickly are you moving forward? Are you a better player than you were at this point last season? Are you better than you were last month? Are you better than you were last week? Are you a better player today than you were yesterday? It is probably quite easy to say that you’re better than a year ago. But what about a week ago? Have you improved in the last week? Have you used each session and each game that you’ve played to become a better athlete? There are countless learning opportunities available. They are available to everyone. Some people recognize them and get the benefit of them. Other people miss the opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be a heavy exercise. Taking time out whilst driving home from a game or a training session is often a really good way of taking the learning opportunities. It can be as simple as asking yourself, “what did I do well?”, “what do I need to work on?”, “how might I do it differently next time?” (Hartley, 2011)

Your Performance Review – Make it Routine

In reality, many athletes don’t tend to review their performances on a regular basis or in any real depth. They don’t really step back and look at how their game is progressing. For professional athletes, the off-season usually provides a good opportunity for reviewing, reflecting and learning many of the lessons from the competitive season. Some will do a superficial review. Some will work hard to tease out the real gems. Often it’s tough to do. Reviewing your performance can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re honest. You may not like some of the things you see. However, when you do honestly review your performance, you’ll be able to put a plan into place to tackle the things you’re not completely happy with. Once you’ve done that, your training programme starts to write itself. Even better, you know that the time you are spending in training will directly help improve your game. It might surprise you to know that a lot of very well respected athletes do training sessions, or play matches, without really knowing what they are trying to achieve.  Podium Sports Journal has featured another great technique to help with this type of focus, check out P3 Thinking.

From the Review Comes Purpose, Confidence, and Long Term Focus

There tends to be a close link between reviewing your performances and developing long term focus. It’s very difficult to have clear long term focus if you’re not really sure what you are working on. It is tough to keep focused on training for a long period if you’re not sure how each session and each match is helping to make you a better player.

You will probably also see how this all links to confidence. Imagine the difference in your confidence going into a tough tournament if you know your training has been incredibly focused. Imagine how much more confident you’ll feel if you know that you’ve been getting better and better week on week. How will you feel when you know you’ve almost eliminated some of the weakest areas in your game? Imagine how you’d feel if your previously shaky backhand was now rock solid because you’ve been working on it and testing it for months (Orlick, 2000).

Be Willing to Be Uncomfortable

Learning can be uncomfortable for us because inevitably it means making mistakes (Colvin, 2008). If we only attempt things which we’re comfortable with, we will never progress (Cotterill & Johnson, 2008). Learning does not happen in the comfort zone, it happens in the ‘discomfort zone’. We have to push our boundaries. As human beings, we are fantastic learners. We are wired up for learning. Often we shut down our innate abilities to learn because we get scared to make mistakes or scared to fail.

If you want to become an awesome learner again, go back to basics. Remember how you learned to walk. You stood up and fell over. You fell over a lot! As a baby you kept getting up and falling over. Each time, you’d refine it very slightly and then try again. You never gave up. You had no fear of mistakes. Instead you kept going and eventually succeeded. If you apply this to your sport performance and even your life, you might be surprised at what you can achieve.


Colvin, G. (2008) Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers From Everybody Else, New York: Portfolio.

Cotterill, S. and Johnson, P. (2008) ‘Exploring the Concept of the Comfort Zone in Professional Soccer Players’, Association for Applied Sport Psychology Annual Conference. St Louis, USA

Halden-Brown, S. (2003) Mistakes Worth Making: How to turn sports errors into athletic excellence, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hartley, S.R. (2010) ‘Learn From Everything’, Squash Player, 38(6), 24.

Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.

Heath, R. (2009) Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big, New Jersey: Career Press.

Orlick, T. (2000) In Pursuit of Excellence: How to Win in Sport and Life Through Mental Training (3rd Edition), Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES Accredited Sport & Exercise Psychologist.

Simon is a freelance sport psychologist & performance coach at Be World Class. In recent years he has worked as a consultant performance psychologist to the English Institute of Sport as well as working with a range of professional sports in the UK. Simon has worked with Premiership and Championship football clubs, international teams including England Squash and professional golfers.

Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time. For details, visit www.peakperformanceeverytime.com

Photo credit: Dominik Walker

4 thoughts on “Learn From Everything: Take a Step Into Your Discomfort Zone

  • June 16, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Excellent article which correctly highlights that as humans we have a negative approach to making mistakes. Recently, Alex Ferguson Manager of Manchester United suggested that he learnt most from matches that he had actually lost.

    I believe it is human nature that we dwell too much on mistakes. However, making mistakes itself is human. Maybe it is to do with the society that we live in. Western society seems to be too much to do with success and that failure leads to tarnished reputations.

    To overcome these issues I fully believe that humans should reflect more often. In addition, we should view making mistakes as part of the learning process and therefore should be taken as constructive.

    A closer look at graduate/tutorial programmes would suggest a change in practice can support humans. For example, having modules on reflection, emotional intelligence and getting students to keep reflective logs would enhance ability to overcome mistakes. Through this process individuals can reflect and examine how their performance is being influenced and what they can do to overcome these issues.

    • June 19, 2011 at 6:24 pm

      Dear Gill,
      Very thoughtful response and one that registers an evolving trend in applied sport psychology toward mindfulness. Not just in research initiatives, but in the actual practice of consulting with athletes and coaches to be sure. In the past few years the number of programs on mindfulness at the annual AASP conference has grown significantly…and this is clearly a good thing. I agree with you whole-heartedly that athletes who enter competitions without reservations, and readily make mistakes are truly gamers. The one’s who then, routinely review their performances and are mindful of how they can improve moving forward become great. Thanks for the input,
      Stephen Walker, editor


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