Some young athletes seem to be destined for greatness at early ages but never reach the heights that many thought they would achieve.
Others start slow but continue to make progress year after year, until one day they have gone much farther than the so-called ‘can’t miss’ kid from their earlier days.
How does this happen?
Habits, both good and bad.
In his excellent and highly-acclaimed book ‘The Power Of Habit’, author Charles Duhigg gives a very well researched and informative look into how habits form, and how they can be altered.
First, we need to understand that there are 3 parts to what he calls the ‘habit loop’.
Habit loop: CUE–>HABIT–>REWARD
The cue is what triggers the habit to occur, and is most often an unconscious undertaking. It’s what triggers the habit, and can be many things. Emotions, time of day, and unmet needs are just some examples of how a habit can be triggered.
The habit is the thing you do. It could be something positive like doing your homework, eating breakfast, or getting in a great workout. Habits can also be less productive, like playing video games, eating junk food, or losing focus at work or school.
The reward represents why you do what you do, and is tied deeply to the cue, or trigger. Rewards can be tangible things, like getting paid to show up for work, or they can be more subtle, like the satisfaction you get from completing a job that truly matters to you.
BUILDING GOOD HABITS
The younger you are, the fewer ingrained habits you have built into your life. So it stands to reason that getting good routines in place early on will make it far easier to regularly do the things we all know promote health and success.
Eating a healthy breakfast
Getting homework done
Listening to and taking internalizing feedback from coaches and teachers
Being a good teammate
So how do you get kids to start doing these things routinely? The key lies in the habit loop above, namely creating the cue and the reward to go along with what you want to see them do.
Cues need consistency to develop, they must be done regularly for them to take hold. And the reward must be truly meaningful to the individual.
Let’s take listening to your coaches as an example. Coaches who set expectations for listening (eyes on me, no one talks when coach is talking, etc) are actually creating cues that build better listening habits. Whether they internalize what you teach them may or may not happen right away, but at least you are setting up a routine that is more likely to lead to success.
On the back side, the reward may be the improvement the see and feel from what they were taught. Far more likely though, the reward will be the recognition and positive feedback from that coach or a parent for making progress, especially if that athlete is younger. Remember, rewards are often positive feelings that come from an activity.
UNDERSTANDING KEYSTONE HABITS
Studies done in the last decade have shown conclusively that those who begin exercising also start eating healthier, and become more productive at work or school.
It also showed that families who eat dinner together raise kids who do better in school, show greater emotional control, and have more self-confidence.
And here’s the amazing one: Kids who make their bed every morning grow up to become more productive at work, possess a greater sense of well-being, and are far better at sticking to a budget.
How does this happen? Because exercise, eating a family dinner and making your bed are what are referred to as ‘Keystone Habits’. Keystone habits are those that create a shift in mindset that spreads to many other aspects of our lives.
It is these keystone habits that are what makes an athletic development program so powerful for kids when it is done correctly. Some of the keystone habits we look to develop through training are:
Learning to overcome adversity
Pushing past your comfort zone
Working positively with others, especially those that are different from you
Taking on bigger challenges with no other reward than the satisfaction of succeeding
Sticking to your commitments
All five of those are critical to success in training, athletics, school, work, and relationships with others. They go way beyond sports.
BREAKING BAD HABITS
So what about those who already have bad habits in place that need to change?
Author Charles Duhigg states that once habits are deeply ingrained they cannot be eliminated, only replaced by something else. Yeah that sounds like bad news at first, but if you understand the habit loop you have the secret to changing them!
Do you want to limit the time your kids play video games?
Do you want your kids to eat healthier?
Do you want them to behave in a different way?
Be observant and search for the cues that trigger the habits you’d like to see improved. Remember that cues can be triggered by a time of day, a particular emotion that kicks in (failure, distraction, stress, need for connection with others, etc), or something else.
Rewards are often not as obvious as they may first seem, so don’t jump to a quick conclusion. Kids may play video games to get away from the social stress of their school day. They may eat unhealthy food because they skip breakfast and lunch and became ravenously hungry later on. Bad behaviors may be attention-seeking, independence-seeking, or something else entirely. One thing will be true every time, the ‘reward’ for the habit will be deeply meaningful to the person doing it.
Experiment with changing the activity, but never eliminate the reward itself. With patience, an observant approach, and a bit of trial and error you’ll find suitable replacement eventually.
In the end, it is far easier to build positive habits early in life. Once they take hold they create a kind of upward momentum that leads to higher levels of success.
If you or someone you know has bad habits that need to change, remember that all is not lost. Seek to make changes in the routine with the understanding that looking to eliminate the entire habit loop will be nearly impossible, but adaptations can be made that will have a life-long positive impact.
Nothing shapes a child’s future – whether positive or negative – more than the habits they build in their earliest years. The more we can guide them to building better habits, the more likely they are to succeed.