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.

*** New for Christmas from Marianne Davies ***

Snow, Rabbits & Pooh Sticks

Motivation, arousal and focus of attention in the ugly zone

Click here to read in full @ www.Dynamics-Coaching.com

A few early trips to the River Tryweryn in Bala were memorable for all the wrong reasons […] 

I was acutely aware of the fact that getting to the bottom, the right way up, had nothing to do with my ability. I was always too overwhelmed to be able to recognise or use any of the ‘affordances’ that the river features offered.

[…] the more paddling that I did, the less confident I became. The less confident I became, the more worried I got, and the more I would focus on what strokes and techniques I had learnt on the lake  […] I was over supported and operating outside of my ability (what I now know as ‘controlling support’) […] I was not able to develop perception-action coupling or decision-making skills by just following and hoping.


My early kayaking practice on the lake, ‘pretending’ to be on moving water was a great example of ‘snow’. 

The environment was not variable and I had been encouraged to have an internal focus of attention on the shape I was making, not an external focus on specifying information in my environment (which did not exist on the lake anyway). This focus on non-specifying information meant in practise that I was biasing my focus of attention to irrelevant information when I was on a river. All of this was confounded by the pressure I put on myself, my lack of intrinsic motivation, and my anxiety about not being competent.

The motivational environment I was experiencing when I was paddling was not supportive of my basic needs (to have autonomy, relatedness and competence) so I was being thwarted in becoming more self-determined or skilful.

 […] The first thing that struck me was how she involved me in all the decision-making. 

Where would I like to go? What route? Which pitches did I want to lead? It seems crazy now to acknowledge the impact that had on me. The sense of ownership, excitement, and autonomy.

We romped up a frozen Idwal Stream  […] I had such a heightened awareness of the properties of the ice, placing my axes and crampons, belay points, making safety decisions. My focus was quiet and absolute.

We moved quickly and confidently together. My heart soared with the sheer exhilaration of feeling so confident about my leading ability. The thrill of being completely focused, absorbed, at ease, feeling totally respected and supported. It was a real turning point for me. I was still buzzing weeks later.


“How can my horse suddenly think a rabbit is dangerous after 12 rabbits had run past and been perfectly safe?” 

Warwick explained that we have a finite amount of capacity for worry, he called it the ‘worry cup’. Once this is full, it is full. Whatever tips you (or a horse) over the edge is not relevant, just the fact that there is no more space.

The rabbits are the stresses that are unhelpful. Worrying about making mistakes, being wrong, not being able to make decisions (especially about how much challenge you are happy with), not being supported, not belonging, not being competent; these are all ‘rabbits’. The rabbits collapse your ugly zone reducing the overall challenge levels that you can cope with or even if you enter it at all.

My one day of ice climbing with Nikki was super-charged with self-determined motivation and learning, mostly due to it being a very needs supportive environment.

On my early kayaking trips I was always following someone on the rivers without a clear goal or focus. Never getting the chance to do the same river section multiple times with purpose and explorative play (repetition without repetition), I became more and more aware of the feeling of ‘winging it.’ I called this Pooh Sticking after the game that Winnie the Pooh and his friends played […] In my little micro-bat, I basically bobbed to the bottom of the river sections, sometimes even bouncing off rocks and the sides, like one of their sticks in the game. Completely at the mercy of the water and luck.

Pooh Sticks…

As with my early paddling experiences, when something is too hard, or there is too much information and we cannot attune to what is important (the specifying information); we are not in the ugly zone, we are Pooh Sticking! This is what I was doing for most of my early paddling and climbing. At best, we can end up as a frustrated novice, with a lack of mastery despite hours of practice. Perhaps even thinking that we are just not talented enough.

Abandoning someone in a full, complex performance environment is likely to result in them Pooh Sticking. The perceptual-motor search space is just too big!
Released 25th September 2019
It seems like the people who are elite are the ones that had an opportunity to do all that exploring and experimenting without being corrected – early on – so they got good before they were coached

In this conversation, Marianne Davies (Dynamics Coaching) and Stuart Armstrong (Sport England) discuss…

  • How to use constraints in the sport of canoeing
  • An ecological approach to equestrian sports
  • How to facilitate learning that is in the ‘ugly zone’

This is a great conversation. We hope you enjoy.

Marianne Davies worked for many years as a full-time senior adventure sports coach during which time she was responsible for the design and delivery of a two-year practical-based module for a Sports Science & Outdoor Education degree course at Bangor University. Her coaching, coach education, assessment and national trainer experience includes more than 20 years of working in sports, academic and corporate environments. Her sports development background includes several years as a development officer and then eight years as Coaching Manager for Canoe Wales.