Get in the Habit of Being Uncomfortable: Insights from Michael Jung and “Ride Big”

In this excerpt from his book Ride Big, professional athlete performance coach John Haime talks about where we can find the opportunity to grow as riders and competitors, and shares valuable insights from 2022 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day winner Michael Jung.

Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Challenging what’s comfortable to you is uncomfortable.

Let’s be clear…

I am not asking you to “smash” your zone of comfort or make a huge jump outside of what you’re familiar with. That would be stressful and too much. We know through psychological models like Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and other theories of motivation that safety, security, and comfort are fundamental human needs. In fact, after food, water, and shelter, safety and security are next in line. Human beings want to feel safe and secure, and have some level of comfort. What I am asking you to do is to expand your area of comfort in calculated ways so that you can more fully express yourself, enhance your riding capabilities… and grow.

Your job as a rider when it comes to increasing your performance and exploring your abilities is finding your own balance between a passive state of seeking safety and comfort, which is normal (and a primary human need), and an active state of seeking growth and Riding Big. If you want to Ride Big, you’ll have to slowly loosen your hold on your security blanket. After all, while a basic level of safety and comfort is important, I think you’ll agree that missing your riding potential is not necessarily comforting!

“Why would I want to feel uncomfortable? Don’t I want to be comfortable to ride well?”

This is a question I’m asked often, and it makes sense to ask it.

Chances are you are in the habit of being comfortable when you are in the ring or on the field. It just feels good, so you stay there. This false feeling of comfort is short-term thinking driven by a natural instinct to feel safe, secure, and comfortable. But if you want to break the habit of
being comfortable and riding in that confined little space, you must take a longer-term approach, test the limits, challenge yourself in a practical, step-by-step way, and build a new habit of feeling uncomfortable.

Michael Jung and fischerWild Wave. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Michael Knows Growth

Eventer Michael Jung learned about the idea of comfort zones in the barn when he was a little boy starting to ride. One of the leading riders of this generation knows a thing or two about inching forward and stretching the limits. After all, you don’t become one of the world’s leading equestrian athletes living in the confined spaces of a small comfort zone. Nobody in the past 20 years has highlighted Riding Big more than Michael Jung. This well-rounded eventing champion owns three gold and one silver medal from the Olympic Games, including individual gold medals in both 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio. He also has two gold medals and one silver from the World Equestrian Games, and seven gold medals from the European Championships. In 2016 he became only the second rider in history to win the Grand Slam of Eventing.

Michael grew up on horses on his family’s farm in Horb-Altheim, Germany. “I grew up in the barn and got to ride all sorts of horses,” Michael says. “And, no, it wasn’t easy. I had many mistakes, many problems and I fell off 1,000 times — but I was always willing to learn and always found a little step that made me happy to do better.”

Michael believes that many people don’t push the edges of the comfort zone for a number of reasons:

1. Riders think that they didn’t really learn it and therefore can’t do it.

2. Mistakes are essential to growth and riders are often afraid to make them.

3. There are many things that don’t work right away and riders give up too easily, even though they know it’s the right way.

I talked to Michael about some steps he would recommend to help you expand your comfort zone. Here are a few he says are key:

1. You have to decide to go through the problems and not around the problems. Michael believes that even though riders know they are doing the right thing, they don’t persist and too easily look for other ways around the problem. He suggests you stay with it and solve the problem. “This is where you gain confidence — when you go through the problems and not around them,” he advises.

2. Don’t be afraid to fall off. “I fell off 1,000 times, and I learned from each one.”

3. Never be too shy to make mistakes. This is the way you learn, develop, and grow. “If you don’t make mistakes, it’s very difficult to get better.”

4. You always have to try and push forward. Failing is always a step forward to improvement and getting closer to where you’d like to go. If you don’t fail, you don’t have defined reference points to evaluate and improve.

5. Sometimes you need to go one, two, or even three steps back. “To build confidence, I believe in backing up to go forward,” says Michael. “This builds confidence for both you and your horse — it takes pressure off both.”

Michael Jung and fisherChipmunk FRH. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Build the Habits

I love what Michael shared about mindset in training and the idea of “going through a problem instead of around a problem.” This is what the idea of being uncomfortable is about. Are you willing to stay with a challenge and experience the pain of doing it again and again until you get it right? Let’s face it, it’s far easier to go around the problem, do what’s easy and what’s comfortable — even though it may be wrong or won’t last or won’t advance your abilities.

Building a habit is about repetition. If you don’t have the staying power to continue the repetition, push up against the perimeter of your area of comfort, and work to make it automatic, the habit doesn’t stick. The first habit for you to develop is the habit of practicing becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This excerpt from Ride Big by John Haime is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.