One of the most effective forms of long-term behaviour change is the formation of habits. The brain is capable of methodically changing, adapting and re-organising neural pathways as a response to changes in the environment or situations. This is known as neuro-plasticity. Neurons that are associated with a specific behaviour or action function together and form a neural pathway – “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This imprint in our neural system is also what makes old habits hard to break. Through practice and repeated actions of a new behaviour or habit the connections of these neural pathways become established and strong resulting in re-wiring.
There are 3 stages associated with successful habit formation which form a psychological pattern called a “habit loop”:
See below : The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in life and in business – Charles Duhigg
Firstly, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold. Secondly, there is the routine, which is the habit itself. Thirdly, there is a reward, something your brain likes that helps it recall the habit loop in the future.
How do we do this in sport?
Declaration of intent – the athlete makes the desired habit or the behaviour change public in order to increase accountability and likelihood of commitment. This was particularly powerful in team or crew situations when the collective could support the individual for the common benefit.
Determine the most effective reminder or cue for the individual – for some athletes this could be a coaching prompt or a specific word, for others a visual cue or video feedback. The more powerful the cue the more frequently the routine will be carried out and the quicker the habit will form.
Coach as our conscience – athletes use the team around them to hold them accountable and at times provide the reminder and/or reward.
Align individual and team goals – habits that are being formed in order to benefit the team in addition to the individual athlete can be integrated and supported in the training environment to expedite habit formation through daily experience of the 3 stages of the habit loop.
Although it sounds straight-forward it is actually really difficult. Initially a lot of mental effort is required and dedication to repetition in order to create and imprint the neural pathway and therefore the habit loop. The pseudo-myth of a new behaviour or habit taking 21 days to form has been shown to be incorrect. Psychological research has now shown it takes an average of 66 days to form a new behaviour or habit (European Journal of Social Psychology). In addition “nerves that fire apart, wire apart.” Pathways that aren’t used weaken over time to allow room for new ones to form. This makes maintaining the habit difficult f it is not practised regularly. Therefore warning signs indicating a breakdown in the desired new behaviour or habit need to be anticipated early and counteracted.
The good news is… everyone has the capacity for change and neuro-plasticity isn’t finite. The more you challenge and learn, the more adaptive your brain becomes.
For further reading on this topic:
The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in life and in business – Charles Duhigg