Coaches: Help athletes break bad habits

 In Anxiety & Nerves, Coaches, Winning & Losing

You can break bad habits and you can help athletes break bad habits. Coaches have the best opportunity to be the mentor that someone needs to motivate them through the process.

What is meant by habit?

If you were to look in the dictionary, one of the definitions of habit states that it is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary. Acquired means your athlete wasn’t born with it and fortunately doesn’t have to die with whatever bad habit they have.

Here are a few examples of habits that would be good to help athletes change:

  • Nerves when competing
  • Quitting when things get hard
  • Anger tantrums after making a mistake
  • Cheating when stressed out

Habits are a way to cope

Habits are generally developed through necessity. When an athlete is faced with stressful circumstances, they find ways to cope with them. Bad habits are behaviors, or reactions that help us deal with ordinary everyday events due to a lack (information and education) of healthier ways to deal with these situations. For example, before competition when an athlete feels butterflies, the butterflies generally trigger scared, negative thoughts, or nerves (reactions), versus taking a deep breath and letting go of the butterflies (healthier taught option).

Why does a habit feel involuntary?

A habit feels involuntary because it’s been used as a way to cope for a long time. Using the above example, when butterflies come up, it will automatically trigger negative thinking. Because as humans we have a need to think our way through things, thinking that will fix the nerves, it semi satisfies the need to cope with the situation, and the habit continues to perpetuate itself. An event happens and without much conscious thought a response that then turns into a habit follows. It could be a good or bad habit, but typically it is not a positive reaction.

This is how people lose their sense of control over habits, but habits are not an inherited trait and your athletes have control over them.

Talk about what you see happening

Forming new habits starts with communication. Help your athlete understand the connection between the action and the reaction. For example, have a conversation with your athlete around how butterflies before competition seem to lead to negative thinking which leads to poor performance. Your athlete has probably never thought about it.

If your athlete wants to stop the negativity leading to poor performances, help steer the athlete to a better way to deal with butterflies. For example, if a better way to deal with nerves is to take a deep breath, your athlete will need to change or stop that link from negative thinking to taking a deep breath. The athlete needs to remind their brain (over and over) that they are going to use a deep breath rather than head toward negative thinking. This takes time.

Here are a couple of tips to help your athletes remind their brain of the change:

  1. Have an index card with the words deep breath on it in their sports bag
  2. Have deep breath reminders pop up on a cell phone
  3. Suggest the athlete have a routine that includes taking deep breaths to warm up mentally before practice and competition

Seeing this, hearing this, and doing this over and over starts to feel involuntary and builds a new blue print – a NEW habit, a GOOD habit – to replace the old blueprint in your athlete’s brain.

How you can help an athlete break a bad habit

Ask your athlete how you can support them in their endeavor to break a bad habit and make change. Some might want your help, while others won’t.

Continue to reinforce and affirm the mental behavior just as you would the physical behavior. Like anything new, you can help an athlete understand that change will be hard, but those feelings go away; as is the case with anything in sport or life that is new.

If the athlete wants support, help them set small, realistic goals to stay motivated in this process of change. For example, I am going to write deep breaths on an index card that I leave on my night stand and I am going to practice taking deeps breaths, right after I wake up, three mornings the first week. Then I will practice deep breaths before practice this week.

Realistic means it must feel achievable; what can your athlete do that will set her up for success versus failure. Your athlete’s confidence will grow as they reach one goal. This sets them up to set and work toward more goals.

Avoid bad habits that derail your game, and practice new habits!

It makes the difference between winning and losing. It makes the difference in advancing their skills. It’s difficult to change what’s comfortable and familiar, even if it is negative or not working. Many athletes may not realize for years that what they are doing is problematic. Once realized, athletes don’t know how to change what’s not working and they begin to feel like they don’t have options or any control over what’s happening.

It is not your job to assess your athlete’s habits and decide which are good, and which are bad. If your athlete asks what they can do, this is the first step to help them develop ways to change their automated response and collaboratively help them develop goals so they see success. Use your coaching experience and educate them on some alternative ways to deal with nerves, difficult moments, mistakes, or cheating. This information will start to build your athletes confidence because now they have options and it will help them feel as though they have some control in the situation.

If they continue to struggle or cannot break a bad habit, this is when they will need different skills to practice and start to eliminate a bad habit. It takes time and different athletes react to different mental skills to make the change they need. Based on my experience, this can take some guidance and usually an individualized program created specific for their situation.

Reach out when a bad habit seems unbreakable and you need to turn losing into winning.

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