Complacency. What is it, and why does it matter?

Author: Mike Shaw, Co-founder of Headstartpro Performance Training

Complacency is like functioning on ‘autopilot.’

Complacency is 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.

Figure 1 illustrates what happens to an athlete’s awareness when they start a new sport or learn a new skill. At the beginning, 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 it compromises awareness, and therefore, athletes are far more prone to making critical errors.

Figure 1: Awareness/Complacency Continuum

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 your 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.

What strategies are you using to combat complacency?

For a full list of performance-related habits and other strategies for combating complacency, check out our online courses for coaches and athletes:



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