Vulnerability and sport – seminar discusses the importance of stretching yourself

30 August 2019

All of our brains are hardwired to avoid threat and to be safe. So what happens when we ask them to move from the comfort zone to the stretch zone and embrace vulnerability?

“When you feel scared or threatened, or something’s going on, it’s much harder to put your thinking cap on,” Dr. Natalie Hogg, sports psychologist, says. “Our brains will always choose to keep us safe or get us out of danger if they can.”

This confronts our brains with a dilemma, Hogg says, because “on one hand, we really crave being safe, and on the other hand, there’s another part of us that’s hardwired for social connection, for wanting to be connected to others, for wanting to make friends, for wanting to have relationships.

Sometimes, those things don’t feel like they’re working together. Sometimes when we get close to people, they might let you down. Or when you put yourself out there in some way with a group of people you don’t know, you might feel like they’re rejecting you. Or you try to start a relationship with someone and they’re not interested.

There are all these moments in our life where we start to feel threatened by that connection.”

Embrace vulnerability and put yourself out there with a group of people you don’t know is exactly what we asked athletes to do during the fifth installment of the Wellington City Council Sport Talent Development Programme Seminar series on Monday 19 August at Toitu Poneke Community & Sports Centre.

Sem 5 brain

“The thing is, we do like to feel comfortable, we don’t like to feel vulnerable. But the only way to get to feel comfortable, is to actually make yourself vulnerable by stretching yourself so that there’s more things that you feel comfortable doing,” Hogg told the athletes.

“So vulnerability is a really important part of developing as a person, developing as an athlete, and you’re doing it all the time, but keep trying.”

The session started by having the athletes define vulnerability. Their answers included:

  • Pushing you out of your comfort zone
  • Being brave
  • Being courageous
  • Feeling of taking a risk
  • Having courage to do something
  • Revealing your weaknesses with intent to improve
  • Stepping outside of your comfort zone
  • The unknown outcome
  • Feeling unsafe and unsure

Sem 5 sport it 1   Sem 5 spot it 2

They then moved into two activities, with half the group playing the card game Spot It, and the other half blowing through straws.

Although the games were simple in design, they carried some key underlying messages for the athletes.

“What we find with this game, is when you start to get stuck, you start to panic a bit don’t you – this is hard, I don’t know what I’m doing – and it’s really hard to focus,” Hogg told athletes in her ‘Spot It’ debrief. “So we get too focused, too zoned in.

Has anyone experienced that in their sport, when you get so stressed out about something, that’s it’s hard to actually get it done?

Then we get slow, and we get uncoordinated, and what we actually have to do is relax into it. That’s what this game shows – sometimes, the more you relax into it, the less you try, the easier it is to get going.”

 Mark and group 2

Not only were athletes educated on the psychology of vulnerability, but the seminar created environments where they could experience it, rather than just hear about it.

Blowing through a small, restricted straw placed the athletes in a brief setting of discomfort in order to test their stress responses. The activity asked the athletes to understand their inner voice, in order to gain better clarity on why they would take certain actions.  

“One of the things I love about how our sessions have developed over time for this group, is that we started to talk about how can we help you feel these things, help you experience them, make it interesting and get you to feel it in a way,” Hogg said.  

“We’ve made you sit with people who you don’t know, we’ve put you out of your comfort zone as you walk through the door, and you don’t know what we’re going to ask you to do this evening.

And look at what you can do when you kind of let go and go for it, go with the flow and get to know people. You’ve been talking, having discussions, and there’s been fewer panicked looks at me!”

 Sem 5 Stretch Strategies

In the last part of the seminar, the athletes looked at their comfort, stretch, and impossible zones, and were asked to place actions into each area.

By doing things in the stretch zone – things like reaching out to someone you don’t know that well or speaking in front of a group of people – you grow your comfort zone so you feel comfortable doing more things, Hogg explained to the athletes.

Alternatively, if we don’t grow our comfort zone by stretching ourselves, our comfort zone starts to shrink.

Beyond the stretch zone is the ‘impossible’ zone. This is for things that you look at and know that there is no way you can do that.

For example, one athlete wrote “backstroke, sleeping, and training” in their comfort zone, “morning swims, racing, and breast-stroke” in their stretch zone, and “singing, dancing, and public speaking to big crowds” in their impossible zone.

Sem 5 spot it 3

The athletes then worked in small groups to come up with “stretch strategies” – things they can do to help them achieve/get more comfortable with things in their stretch zones. Some examples they wrote down were:

  • Trying at school – more
  • Wearing my reading glasses
  • Doing my internals on time
  • Using my time effectively
  • Recovery after training, eg. Stretching and rolling out
  • Work on my mid range pull up
  • Go for extra training sessions by myself (when I don’t want to)
  • Restricting my sweet/fat consumption

Identifying stretch strategies is important because these zones aren’t permanent. Things that are in the impossible zone can over time move into the stretch zone, and then the comfort zone as you continue to stretch yourself.

You just have to embrace a bit of vulnerability first.

Find out more about the WCC Talent Development Programme

Mark at Seminar 5