Many world-class performers tell stories of discomfort, rejection and failure at some point in their past. Is this coincidence? Or do these uncomfortable experiences lay the foundation for long-term development and, ultimately, success. PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses the importance of discomfort on the learning journey.


American scholars such as Brene Brown and Robert Horner (researchers into education, development and vulnerability) have led us to the following question: if curiosity marks the start of the learning process and vulnerability is the birthplace of creative connection, is discomfort a catalyst for development?

Development can be defined as durable changes resulting from a combination of experience, learning and maturation.

In terms of world-class athletes, painful experiences may have (subconsciously) challenged them to question their development journey – what they do and why they do it – renew their dedication and re-assess their mindset. Consider some real-life examples such as West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell. On the books at Liverpool until the age of 15, he was then released by manager Gerard Houllier and signed for Tranmere Rovers – a time he refers to as “heartbreaking”. After a few years developing with Tranmere and then Ipswich, Aaron was signed back to a Premier League club and is knocking on the door of the England squad. Another player inline for full international honours is Harry Kane, released from Arsenal at 11 and then at Watford, Harry was loaned out to gain valuable experience before his breakthrough season at Tottenham this year.

The Science of Discomfort

Cognitive development research suggests that discomfort, specifically ‘feeling out of our comfort zone’, is caused by a mental state called cognitive disequilibrium. This mental discomfort is basically an imbalance between someone’s understanding of the world and their new (or current) experiences. Simply put, adapting to new ideas can be confronting and uncomfortable.

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James Vaughan
James Vaughan
James Vaughan is a Co-founder of Player Development Project and currently based in Stockholm where he is coaching at AIK and working towards his PhD in Creativity & Motivation in Football.
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