The date was 10th October 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 a nine-wicket defeat by Pakistan at 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 called pressure inurement training during 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.