What is going on when performers develop their skills through play and exploration? When what they have done in the past starts to break down and they find new solutions beginning to emerge? It looks ugly – because at the heart of what these athletes are doing is a movement into their Ugly Zone!
Skilled performers all seem to be happy, even passionate, about operating at the edge of their ability. They make mistakes, explore options and seem to delight in engaging at the edges of their ability; trying, failing, trying again, failing again.
Like children playing, they are exploring while they are practising: intently focussed, moving and perceiving, making decisions and problem-solving. All the time they are building on what is necessary for skill development in the context in which they are operating.
Their internal dialogue is more “I wonder what will happen if…?” rather than “I must try and do it like this.”
Skilled performers understand that if we increase the challenge by changing those things we can control… our performance starts to become unstable (ugly). This is where we enter “The ugly zone” – a term coined by Dr Dave Alred to describe the area just beyond our current ability, where we will try and fail, but try again with support, encouragement, reward, self-esteem and energy.
Of course, the old adage of ‘change one thing at a time’ does not hold in this ugly zone as this is where our stable solutions break down. Sometimes many elements will need to be adjusted to allow us to play and explore productively. Even to get into our personal ugly zones we are likely to need an appropriate level of challenge. We may also need to identify what is actually limiting our performance and we may need to find ways to home in on key “search spaces” for developing a skill.
The Ugly Zone Rocks because when we play and explore within it we learn and develop in all sorts of ways – but we may face all sorts of challenges making this work for us.
- We can get lost in the Snow – in the incidental which we might mistake for relevant information.
- We might become overwhelmed by the Rabbits – the things like unnecessary anxiety, stress, fatigue and social pressure.
- We can end up Pooh Sticking – managing to get by but in survival mode – without picking up on what matters or our development.
Of course, we are not always going to be wanting an unstable place but sometimes our ugly zone really is where we need to be.
If we want to change our movement patterns, our ways of problem-solving, our ways of making decisions or our ways of perceiving information we may need to embrace our ugly zone and become comfortable with instability and making mistakes.