You don’t go to the gym once and expect to be fitter, trimmer, and stronger.
You don’t eat one healthy meal and expect to always be healthy.
You don’t execute one speed workout and expect to be faster.
You don’t go to one practice or training session and expect to be competition ready…Trust me your coach would not be having it!
So why is it that athletes think they can read one article or blog post on “mental toughness tips,” visualization skills, mindfulness training, etc. and expect to be ready to mentally handle race/game day pressure?
An athlete recently said to me, I’ve read a lot of books on how to be a better swimmer, but you don’t actually get better at swimming unless you get in the pool and swim, a lot, with a lot of specific feedback from my coach on deck. It’s the same with mental skills training. My job is to be the “coach on deck” looking objectively at the automatic patterns of thoughts, feelings, sensations, behaviors, and situations that contribute to reactions that are detrimental or optimal to an athlete’s sport performance. Then, as necessary, recommend changes are needed to break detrimental patterns and/or changes are needed to enhance performance. This is not an easy task for the athlete, because just as it has taken years to develop your sport technique and skills, it’s likely that your detrimental reactions, for example, “emotional meltdowns,” poor and distracted focus, or harsh self-judgment and criticism were years in the making or “practicing.”
When it comes to sports psychology coaching it is likely we are challenging patterns an athlete has “practiced” for 5, 10, 20+ years. In psychology we call this conditioned habitual reaction, meaning anything that we practice in life over and over again becomes automatic (in neuroscience terms it is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity). In the new book Uncovering Happiness the author illustrates this concept perfectly “…whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis swing; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one – neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit.” As you can see, the brain does not know the difference between a tennis swing or anxiety response. What you practice becomes habit. The Dictionary of Psychology defines “habit” as “a systematically repeated behavior pattern performed automatically. These patterns help people to adjust to life by permitting them to meet various situations with little attention, but if they become too rigid they may hinder adaptation to new situations.”
Can you see how this applies not only to mental skills training but our sport and in life?! What we practice consciously becomes habit (unconscious and automatic). In psychology there is also the concept called “practice limit,” which means that in any learning situation, there is a point at which continued practice yields no more results; the optimal level that can be achieved by practice on a given task by a given participant at a give time has been reached. This is the one of the major goals of mental skills training; to practice the plan so much so that it becomes a part of you, that it feels as if you no longer have to consciously redirect yourself to be focused, calm, or objective YOU JUST ARE. Such and powerful and life changing concept! That is why I would rather an athlete practice one affirmation a thousand times then practice a thousand affirmations one time.
Practice->habits=life. What you experience in life and in sport is likely the manifestation of many “practiced” patterns over several years. Is there any pattern in your life where you have realized that you have felt like it was impossible to break? or have said “it’s just the way I am.” It’s never too late to start practicing one new thought or self-caring behavior…
Who am I?
I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half of the things you do you might just as well turn over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly.
I am easily managed – you must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons, I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great individuals and, alas, of all failures, as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures.
I am not a machine, though I work with the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a human. You may run me for profit or run me for ruin – it makes no difference to me.
Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet.
Be easy with me and I will destroy you.
Who am I?
I am Habit.