As a sport psychologist it’s my job to be a scientist and coach to athlete’s emotional-mental-behavioral patterns. This is not an easy task because it may mean confronting patterns that the athlete is not ready to confront. Thankfully I’ve had lots of experience with this in my clinical work but it does not make it easier. Sometimes we hold on to patterns and situations because they are predictable and safe, but in the end if we are courageous enough we will break free from them.
This diagram below illustrates (very simplistically) in the CBT model how difficult it can be to change. It’s not as easy as “thinking positive.” To make real and lasting change many factors have to align, not to mention the daily practice of mental training. Can you see how the below illustration applies to sport?
If targeting what to change is not challenging enough then add in the readiness for change. Many athletes say they want change e.g. to be faster, healthier, communicate better, be more confident, but when it comes down to sticking to the plan and investing the time, discomfort, money, and effort their actions do not always match the words. Don’t get me wrong there’s no judgement here but I think it’s important that an athlete be 100% honest with themselves if this is the time to be ready to change.
Going back to my grad school days we studied The Transtheoretical Model of change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983; Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992) which I continue to use when conceptualizing an athlete’s readiness for change. Thankfully Wikipedia has summarized the stages nicely (no need to re-invent the wheel right). “In the transtheoretical model, change is a “process involving progress through a series of stages:”
- Precontemplation (Not Ready)-“People are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, and can be unaware that their behaviour is problematic”
- Contemplation (Getting Ready)-“People are beginning to recognize that their behaviour is problematic, and start to look at the pros and cons of their continued actions”
- Preparation (Ready)-“People are intending to take action in the immediate future, and may begin taking small steps toward behaviour change”
- Action – “People have made specific overt modifications in modifying their problem behaviour or in acquiring new healthy behaviours”
- Maintenance – “People have been able to sustain action for at least six months and are working to prevent relapse”
- Termination – “Individuals have zero temptation and they are sure they will not return to their old unhealthy habit as a way of coping”
- In addition, the researchers conceptualized “relapse” (recycling) which is not a stage in itself but rather the “return from Action or Maintenance to an earlier stage.”
We have a saying in the world of psychotherapy “that we are trying to work ourselves out of a job” and essentially its the same with my sport psych work. The goal is to support, teach, and guide athletes to the “Termination” stage and in the process have them accumulate as many “tools” as they can.
So why put ourselves through all this? Why go through the vulnerability, the confrontation, the setbacks (relapses), the accountability, and the sacrifices of change? (I can honestly tell you it’s not cookie-cutter for any athlete and no one rolls smoothly and perfectly through the all stages of change). As relenting as this process may be it’s worth it in the end. I was inspired to put this post together by this excerpt in Ronda Rousey’s new book “My Fight/Your Fight”
This passage illustrates how difficult but rewarding it can be to initiate change in our lives to work towards our dreams, in and out of sport. Any athlete that I work with hears it to no end that I want them to focus on the process. But it’s not just “the process,” in practicality it’s you (consciously) recommitting day in and day out to being out for your comfort zone. It’s the willingness to no longer hide from the patterns or behaviors. It’s committing to the small steps each day, even if you question “is it worth it? will this make a difference?” It’s embracing that this too is the mark and message of your life.
So if you are going through change try not to be so hard on yourselves. Change takes time. It’s requires mental patience, but also do not let yourself off the hook too easy. Find support and TRUST that it WILL be worth it in the end…
Shine on and keep reaching for your peak!
“I don’t believe my athletes care what I know, until they know that I care.” -Teri McKeever, swim coach Cal Berkley.