How comfortable do you feel when adrenaline strikes? Are you ready for it, like an athlete on the starting line? Or do you shrink away, lock yourself in a toilet until the moment passes and then vow you’ll never come face to face with it again? Or maybe, just maybe, you are the sort of person who is so catatonically afraid of that heart- throbbing, stomach-clenching feeling that you try and avoid all situations in which you know it will hit. In the book “The Discomfort Zone,” Farrah Storr — editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan UK — looks at how some of history’s greatest success have only come about through individuals stepping into their discomfort zones time and again. Using examples from her own life as well as men and women at the top of their careers including Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, gold-medal-winning athletes and award-winning performers, Farrah Storr explains not only why but how some individuals are able to force themselves into their discomfort zone where others cannot.
Victoria Pendleton is not a fearful sort of person. She couldn’t be. She is, after all, one of the most successful female British athletes of all time, with nine world titles and two gold medals to her name. She is regularly cited as one of the most talented professional cyclists of all time. She is, in that most hackneyed of phrases, a “national treasure”; a woman who has devoted her life to her sport and, along the way, carried us along for the ride.
When she retired from the sport in 2012, the world thought that was it. She would, like so many athletes before her, find her way to the sports commentators’ couch — an old, glorified animal put out to pasture. And besides — wouldn’t that be nice? No more merciless training. No more highly modified diets. No more press intrusion or performance anxiety before a big race? And sure, it would be — if you weren’t Victoria Pendleton, because in 2015 she was ready for another challenge. She’d been retired for just shy of four years at that point and was approaching her thirty-fourth birthday. She’d dabbled in light entertainment (“Strictly Come Dancing”); done the commercial endorsements and endless adverts (Pantene, Hovis Bread, a range of bestselling Pendleton bicycles); and done her stint as a commentator. Then one morning, as she waited to board a flight to New Zealand, something she describes as “the most outlandish and audacious proposal” arrived in her inbox. It was a challenge, set by an online bookmaker, for Pendleton to compete in the 2016 Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Cheltenham is a big deal — one of the grandest and most revered horse-racing courses in the world. The Foxhunter Chase, held on the last day of the festival, is a steeplechase race held over three miles and with twenty-two different jumps. It is as exciting to watch as it’s formidable to take part in.
Victoria looked at the date. The race was in thirteen months’ time. What’s more, Pendleton had never ridden a horse in her life. Plus, there were other things to consider. The world of horse racing is a hard, often insular world. Newcomers are rarely welcome. She would be competing against some of the most seasoned jockeys in the country, on one of the most public stages. The risk of failure was great. The risk of a life-threatening injury even greater. It would require her to metaphorically saddle up and step into her discomfort zone.
She solicited the advice of those around her. “Crazy” was what most people came back with. That or, “It’s a very dangerous game.” “People of your age don’t start riding,” one experienced rider told her, “especially not race horses.” But then Pendleton had spent her career defying the odds. A slight, pretty young woman from Bedfordshire, an unremarkable backwater county sixty miles outside London, she was, she says, never taken as seriously as other athletes. She was “not the right shape.” She lacked the bulky, weightlifter silhouette many believed was necessary to blast through such races as the keirin — an eight- lap sprint round the cycle track. She was too “girly,” others said. She liked clothes and make-up, and when she wasn’t on the track she wore her hair long and blow dried. She was not, many believed, what a true, powerful athlete should look like. And yet….
So, one glacial British morning she set off to see the professionals, driving the short distance to a race track not far from where she lived. As she stood there in the fog, unable to see more than an arm’s length in front of her, she heard them: half a dozen horses galloping down the track, the heavy beat of their hooves sending tremors through the ground. And then, finally they appeared, cutting through the gloaming like something from a Manet painting.
“It’s an exhilarating noise to hear horses galloping towards you. It gets the heart racing and the adrenaline pumping. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end,” she tells me. “And I’m familiar with that feeling. I don’t hate it. My experiences of being in that place make me comfortable with it. After all, you need that kind of stimulation in order to be your best physically and mentally.”
A few weeks later she signed on the dotted line.
Why would she do this? Why, after years of pushing herself deep into her discomfort zone, with competition after competition, would she choose to do it all over again — and this time in a sport she barely knew or understood? She did it because she knows how easy it can be to feel comfortable inside your discomfort zone. Victoria Pendleton has spent her life competing. She knows what it feels like to be consumed with nerves before a big race. She knows the rhythm of her own heartbeat. She knows that “nerves” are all part of the success process.
“As a kid I found competitions overwhelming and unpleasant to be honest,” she tells me. “Even now there are times in my career when the competition is almost traumatic, because I’ve wanted to succeed so desperately. But when it comes to competition you’re always going to have those feelings. You need them. You want to have them. It’s a natural instinct. Your body does it to look after you. You can’t control them. They will always be there. You just need to better understand them and be familiar with them.”
In other words, you have to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, otherwise you’re on the path to “discomfort paralysis.” Part of that means reframing those feelings as advantageous rather than debilitating. “I think you have to [reframe them] because if you are fearful and you give into it, then you’re frozen most of the time. In sport the race will start at the time it’s going to start and you just have to be on the start line. And those last few minutes before it happens…. I am always slowing my heart rate down. My thoughts are running wild and my heart feels like it’s about to explode outside of my chest. I try to think: Keep calm. Experience it. Just kind of accept that you need it. You need that stimulation [to have] quick reaction speeds and good decision- making. So you need to be like ‘C’mon. I’m ready,’ rather than, ‘Oh God, I need the toilet. I’m panicking. My heart is going up my throat. I feel like I’ve got a thousand butterflies in my stomach and any minute now I might be sick.’ No, you need to recognise those feelings. You recognise them. You accept them. You rationalise that you need them.”
Pendleton, like most world-class athletes, has what I call “discomfort recognition” down to a fine art. She reels off all the sensations most of us experience when we’re in our discomfort zone as though she were giving me her name, age and date of birth. She can describe the way her skin tingles, how her heart races, the way the whole experience feels like a “rush” that almost catches her out.
By understanding how her body reacts (and, of course, by repeated exposure to this feeling) she is never caught off guard. Because it’s when we’re caught out, when a great big adrenaline rush catches you like a surfer on a wave, that we freeze. That’s the moment you are paralysed. That’s the Daniel Day-Lewis moment. That’s the “discomfortparalysis” that stuffs it all up.
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Published with permission from “The Discomfort Zone” by Farrah Storr, which is now available in paperback, eBook and audio.