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December 14, 2017
Understanding Habit Formation for Real Results

Habits are Everything

According to NCAA rules, athletes at the college level will spend anywhere from 8 to 20 hours a week in mandatory athletic activities under the watchful eye of their coaches. If we give 8 hours a night to sleep (wishful thinking) that leaves 92 hours a week or over 54% of their time is on their own utilize, or to waste. As we know most of the adaptations that athletes based on training will only be optimized by athletes doing the right things during those 92 hours. As we will never be able to (and shouldn’t be able to) monitor athletes 24/7, it is up to us as coaches and mentors to guide them to create quality habits that will lead to real results.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

How long does it take to build a habit?

Small computation regarding time taken to develop a habit

When asked this question the most common answers are 21 or 30 days. These myths have lasted since the 1960’s based on observations from a plastic surgeon who noted it took, on average, 21 days for people to get used to their “new face” post-surgery, or 3 weeks for a new house to feel like a home. This myth though is still common-knowledge, as can often happen when complex concepts get diluted and oversimplified into basic “rules of thumb” (see the 10,000 hour rule). A 2009 study found however that in reality, it takes on average 66 days to create a habit, with quite a bit of variance. The shortest time was 18 days and the longest was 254! This misunderstanding of how long habits take to form has led to many habits never being created in the first place.

Habits start as process goals, created with larger outcome goals in mind. The beauty is once these tasks or goals truly become habitual, they no longer require much thought or willpower. This in turn allows our conscious focus to attend to more important tasks or new more advanced habits. Without first allowing time for habits stick we are setting our athletes up for failure by moving on to new goals simply because 3 weeks have passed. For example there is no need to dive into more advanced nutritional education with athletes who don’t have any consistent nutrition habits to start.

Athlete engaged in a Lateral Bound

A more recent study found that it takes at least 4 bouts of exercises a week for 6 weeks to create an exercise related habit. Yet as coaches we are taught to change programming 3 to 4 weeks simply because that is what we’ve always done. Athletes don’t need to train utilizing 30 different movement variations when they still haven’t mastered the basics. While time is our most valuable and most limited resource, we cannot simply press fast forward and expect results.

Habits are Everywhere

Great athletes are typically extremely routine driven. They thrive on repetition and understand the value of mastery. Whether that’s waking up at the same time every day, eating the same meals, practicing consistent mindfulness habits, or training movements or skills. Tom Brady still works on his footwork just as Dirk Nowitzki still practices free-throws. As coaches we far too often worry about adding variety because we believe athletes will get bored, but more often than not it is coaches who lack the discipline for repetition. Not only does this variation not allow for habits to be formed, but by constantly varying training we do not allow movement capacities to adapt and stick, creating true change.

Small modifications can and should be made to keep things interesting without changing the habits or process to soon and in turn altering the goal. Adjusting intensities, reps, and sets in training. Changing environments such as locations or music. Even something as simple as adding different spices to food will add enough “variation” to keep things from getting stale without changing the construct of the task itself. We must allow time for the brain and the body to allow things to become habitual.

Habits Drive Results

The truth is that our lives largely consist of a series of habits, both good and bad. Consistent positive habits and routines are largely what separates the mediocre from the good, and the good from the great. In order to make change, concerted time and effort must be given to create new habits and break old ones. The NCAA hours rule is simply an example to show the need for habits to be created. At the professional level more and more restrictions on the amount of required time these athletes can spend with their respective teams and coaching staffs. We must understand the process of creating habits with our athletes and guide them to create habits of their own. Habits must be created as a product of time and consistency, only then can real results occur.

December 14, 2017
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