Complacency What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

  • May 28, 2019


Some thoughts from Mike Shaw, co-founder of HeadStartPro Performance Training

Complacency is like functioning on ‘autopilot.’ It’s a mental state that leads to mind-not-on-task, or lapses in focus and awareness. Athletes become complacent when they have done something so many times or for so long that they no longer think about the risk of error.

When an athlete starts playing a new sport or learns a new skill, complacency is generally low because their awareness is high. The stimulus of the new activity demands their focus. But as time goes on and skill development continues, athletes have a greater tendency to become complacent because they become more comfortable and confident. The problem is, when complacency is a factor, athletes are far more prone to making critical errors.

Now, saying that skill development creates more risk of error goes against the traditional view on physical competency. We think that athletes will make fewer mistakes when they put in more time developing sport-specific skills—which is right to a point, but there’s a caveat here. When athletes get too comfortable and start functioning on autopilot or in ‘La La Land,’ it puts them at risk of making more mind-not-on-task performance errors. We also see an increase in injuries due to complacency, too. Typically, the injuries caused by complacency are the “stupid” ones, that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

So, how do we combat complacency? Or more accurately, how do we compensate for times athletes become complacent?

Let’s go back to skill development and habits. Your habits, or what you automatically do, will help compensate for times that you’ve become complacent. If you develop sport-specific skills to the point of “habit strength,” your actions will fall back on those performance-related habits.

If you have good performance-related habits like, moving your eyes first before you move or getting your eyes back on task quickly if you’ve been distracted, you’re much more likely to see plays break down sooner, and you’ll be able to react faster if you see a pass or a shot coming at you.

Working on a habit like looking for line-of-fire potential will also prevent costly injuries. For instance, coaching bantam minor hockey players who start body checking for the first time to work on the habits of: keeping your head up at all times (to avoid open ice hits) and to skate at the boards from an angle (to prevent being checked from behind) will help prevent concussions.

Auto-pilot can work in our favour.

As coaches, we want our athletes to achieve peak performances. To do this, we need them to release their mental state and shift from an energy-expensive conscious processing to the subconscious mental state where actions and awareness meet—aka “the zone.” To get them here more often and manage the downside of the subconscious (complacency), we can prepare them with strategic skill development and getting them to a level of “habit strength.” And here’s the kicker, whether or not they’re performing in the zone or La La Land, their habits compensate for any mind-not-on-task errors they might make or the injuries that could happen.

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Coach Responses

What strategies are you using to combat complacency?

Share your tips and best practices!

David Fletcher – Sailing – Toronto – 8 years

“…In Sailing, like all water sports, complacency can be a life or death issue. When you have been doing routine actions for years without issue it’s easy to forget the dangers those best practices are protecting you from. I’m reminded of an incident from the 2018 Volvo Ocean Race. During “dangerous” sea conditions everyone follows the rules to stay safe. But this time it was an easy sailing day, just about noon. Despite 20+ years of experience, and being 500+ miles off shore with no support, the sailor “Turned off” his brain, likely because it was so calm. The result was the most exciting 90 seconds of his life as a rogue wave bounced him overboard without a lifejacket or GPS beacon. The onboard camera man caught it all on film. – “

Craig Kelly – Soccer – Toronto – 3 years

“…One of the strategies I use is to have my team practice with different distractions that may come up during a game. I find that when my athletes are tired or distracted, that’s when they tend to go on “auto-pilot” and are at the biggest risk of making a mistake or even getting injured. By practicing for and anticipating different distractions, we come up with contingency plans that help the players stay in the moment on the field and perform to their highest potential.”

Mike Recine – Hockey – Richmond Hill – 5 years

“…Personally, I think that this topic of complacency is of high relevance and something every coach in every sport should consider educating themselves on further. As stated, complacency occurs subconsciously within athletes when they begin to excel in a given skill set, ultimately causing them to become too comfortable while performing certain movements, tasks etc. and essentially becoming less aware of what exactly they’re doing in that given moment. One of the most interesting points is how this term of complacency does not only apply to sport-specific scenarios but also, tasks, movements and skills that we use in our every day lives.

After constant repetition of any task in life, although not intentionally – the more we do it, the less we think about it. For these reasons, educating coaches on the topic of complacency can be extremely beneficial for their athletes on and off the field. The topic encourages coaches and athletes not to “go through the motions” while performing certain tasks which can lead to smarter thinking on the field, injury prevention and really anything in between. Ultimately, the topic is of high relevance especially within the coaching industry as well as a topic that should be recognized a bit more.”

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