Fall is a fun time to look for excellence in sports — soccer, cross-country meets, MLB’s World Series, basketball getting underway… I love this time of year. And I turn to Aristotle’s quote as one way to understand excellence. We are what we repeatedly do. We are creatures of habit in ways that most of us cannot imagine. When the habits align with a clear focus on and strategy for improvement, then we see movement towards excellence. And yet, as neuroscientist David Eagleman argues in Incognito, much of what we do during any single day is outside of our conscious awareness. We are too often on autopilot.
Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not. ~~ David Eagleman (Incognito)
We may not want to believe this. Where is free will, we ask? Well, it’s there. It’s just that there are other forces to consider. And a major one for athletes and anyone seeking excellence is HABIT.
We most effectively develop habits through deliberate practice. “Deliberate practice” is talked about routinely now, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and others who have popularized the term. But what is often missing is the simple aspect of habit-formation which takes place simultaneously on the behavioral and neurological level.
Here are some tips to help get your desired habit established and to maintain it most consistently:
1) Write down your goals.
2) Describe the potential roadblocks for the goals you have set. What will sap your self-control and potentially derail your pursuit of the goal? When is this most likely to occur? For each would-be roadblock, create a specific coping plan. Here, you want to use an active coping style that involves problem solving or another method that addresses the challenge. Under stress, many of us will choose an avoidance strategy to take the pressure off; this, though understandable, is ultimately ineffective. Many times, athletes will feel like dropping out, but will utilize a pre-determined plan to manage that moment. Without a plan, you are likely to revert to your old habits.
3) Give a boost to your self-control. Do you need to enlist more social support? Do you need to alter your environment, so that there are fewer distractions from your goal? Write down the concrete steps you can take to boost your self-control.
4) Monitor yourself. Look for and document small victories, which will allow you to see the progress towards your goals. This will also help you reduce black & white thinking patterns which are inflexible and which lead to demoralization: “I broke my diet by eating ice cream when I shouldn’t have. Oh well, I might as well finish the pint.”
5) Avoid the self-licensing trap. In the pursuit of a goal, expending initial effort can demotivate you from expending further effort. As a result, you may allow yourself to indulge when you have previously acted in accordance with a goal. “I went to they gym this morning. It’s okay to stop for fast food. I’m pretty tired anyway.” You need to plan for how to answer the self-licenser (SL) that pops up in your head. The SL is sneaky, quick, and persuasive. A key to managing this temptation is to expect that it is coming. Remind the SL voice that you treat each situation as separate from earlier behaviors. View that moment as an opportunity and challenge to strengthen your self-control habits while getting closer to your goal. Lastly, enlist friends who can give you support and whom you can ask to help keep you accountable to your goals.
6) Surf the urge. For 30 years, Dr. Alan Marlatt was the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. His approach to treating addictions focused on helping his clients recognize high-risk situations for relapse and then plan a strategy to deal with them. High-risk situations occur when there are strong cues (inside oneself, in the environment, or both) that trigger an urge to engage in the older habit. When working with clients who wanted to quit smoking, Marlatt used a surfing analogy. He taught clients to note any rising urge to smoke and then direct their attention to the growing wave, keeping balance until the wave crested and subsided. Athletes use this technique of surfing the urge to get through tough parts of their workouts and competitions.
Let me know how you do with these suggestions and what other things you use to establish and maintain habits most effectively.