What is a habit?
The Merriam-Webster definition of a habit has a couple different variants, I find this one to be most fitting; “An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” In layman’s terms, something you do so often that it’s done without thinking. For example; putting on a seatbelt, brushing your teeth, or riding a bike. Riding a bike at first is a real challenge. You struggle to balance yourself, you will fall a few times, but once you learn it, it becomes simple for the most part. It is something so well known there’s a phrase about picking something back up as it relates to it, “It’s like riding a bike.” Habits are cornerstones to all we do in life. As kids we learn many habits that shape how we are for the rest of our lives. To be a good student you learn good study habits, doing your work in timely fashion, and paying attention in class. As athletes we are taught techniques, trained to move our bodies certain ways, and many other things.
As an athlete you often hear about “muscle memory.” To do something so often that your body can do it without you having to think of it. Think of something simple for example, like running. When you first learn how to run you are taught to do it a certain way, but eventually you don’t have to think about how to run, you just do it (like Nike says). It becomes HABIT. Sure you might run weird if you do it naturally one way and someone reshapes your habit to correct you, for example if you run cross country your coach may teach you how to run distance more efficiently if you run a certain way. That is the beauty of habits though, they are not finite. They can be changed, improved, and completely rebuilt if need be. The reason I titled this post “Habits are everything” is because I truly believe that, how we do anything is how we do everything. If you can reshape your habits, you can reshape your life, in school, in sports, and in totality.
Make your Bed Each Day
In his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin Admiral William H. McRaven gave the class of 2014 perhaps one of the best speeches I have ever listened to. Simple and effective as most Navy SEALs tend to be. He started them with one major point, to change the world start by making your bed. If you would like to listen to the speech you can find that here. I also highly recommend his short novel of the same name. In his speech Admiral McRaven talks about the importance of starting your day by making your bed. When you make your bed you start your day with a win, a task completed. When you first make your bed you might think it is simple, something that is trivial. Make it enough and you form what many call a keystone habit. Just like brushing your teeth you will form a habit that becomes an easy way to start the day right. Ever heard the phrase “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” That may be true, you may sleep poorly but if you get up and push through that feeling and make your bed, you will start that day off with a win! Without stealing too much of his thunder I will move on from this point but I wanted to illustrate that not all habits are created equal. Some are simple, like opening a door, nothing special. But some are massively important, some can change the trajectory of our entire life, some are what we may call, a Keystone Habit.
What is a Keystone Habit?
If you have read any of my previous posts you probably know I am a sucker for quotes. I am also a sucker for philosophy. Here I combine both! With a quote from perhaps one of the most fundamental sources of Western Philosophy, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, using a quote that deals with habits: “The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves. So just as a piece of land needs to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.” In layman’s terms, habits are who we are and are crucial to learning anything in life. Now, let me use another quote that is often attributed incorrectly to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.” -Will Durant. Now, I am not going to pretend like I’ve known this forever. I actually figured this out when I was researching a cover photo for this post! Will Durant wrote this quote in his book “The Story of Philosophy” in 1926 in which he talks about Aristotle of course. He may have found a more modern way to summarize Aristotle’s quote but the main purpose of both quotes remains the same.
Habits are crucial to anything in life. Every day you likely do 50 things out of habit, things you have been conditioned to do your entire life. Think of a few common ones; opening a door, getting dressed, tying your shoes, and even walking are prime examples. At some point in our lives these things may have been a challenge but eventually they became so engrained within us that we don’t have to think about them anymore. What if I told you this applies to life and athletics as well. Now these simple habits aren’t what most would consider keystone habits, these are fairly simple. Keystone habits are habits that are a backbone for the rest of your lifestyle. A keystone habit is one that acts as a domino effect for the rest of your habits and lifestyle. For example if you are someone who likes to workout that generally leads to you liking other things that involve healthy living as well. You tend to eat a little better than those who don’t work out. You may not be perfect, but no one is! Another keystone habit may be getting a lot of sleep. Those who consistently get a lot of sleep see a lot of benefits in other areas of their life. These things are not rocket science, they are habits. You start one day going to the gym and go regularly until you no longer have to convince yourself to do it, you just do it because it is a habit. Now, how does this apply to athletics? Let me explain.
Keystone Habits in Athletics
To explain habits in athletics let me start with a quick aside. I am not the perfect person, I am not an Olympic champion, hell I am not even a state champion. But I have trained around multiple Olympic champs, world champs, national champs, and countless state champs. One thing I am though is observant. Observant of many of their lifestyles and habits. There are many commonalities of high level athletes, most of all how they practice. While at Penn State I loved practice but I also loved watching how others practiced. Seeing how they did things opened my eyes to how far off the mark I was as an athlete and allowed me to learn and improve. Now, I could never catch up to how these guys had been training for half their lives but I could impart what I learned onto the next generation. What my teammates did, and what all world class athletes across all sports, and all levels do is very similar. They are deliberate in their practice and preparation. Now, athletes are not robots. Not everyone is going to be able to be laser focused 100% of the time at practice, but habits don’t require laser focus. They are formed and require no extra thinking it is something you simply do. For example, in wrestling it is paramount that when you shoot a shot you have your head up, very few of my teammates at Penn State would shoot with their head down in practice. Why? Because they have trained their entire life to shoot with it up. Every shot in practice is proper technique, head up, a good grip, and a proper finish. You can think and remind yourself to do the small things in practice that make you better but once you do it long enough and it no long requires thinking. You will form a habit that will make you infinitely better over time. My head coach Cael Sanderson used to remind us that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Let me expand on that a bit.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Now, we have all heard the old trope “Practice makes perfect” while this is true to some extent is not entirely true. I am not a gifted guitar player. I could get a guitar and I could learn to play. I could practice every day but if that practice is just plucking the strings for an hour am I really going to get any better? Will I ever play in a famous band? No, not likely! However, if I had learned guitar at 5 years old, and practiced my cords daily with a teacher who helped make sure I was doing each perfectly from age 5 to age 15 it very likely that by 25 I could be playing for others. Maybe not necessarily famous but very good where others would enjoy it. The same is true for athletics. If you show of up for practice in any sport and just go through the motions, or even worse slack off, you are not much better than the guy who stayed home that day. Practice makes perfect only to the extent that you do things in a very deliberate way. A simple way of saying this, DETAILS MATTER. I used an example of making a cake in my previous post Win or Get Better( linked here). I used it there to illustrate the importance of the process versus the results. However, the same rings true for details mattering, or rather habits mattering. If you try to bake a cake without eggs you won’t get a cake. Forget the sugar and your cake will taste very different than what you expected. If you go to practice and drill incorrectly you will form bad habits, it’s like making the cake with rotten eggs. Now, as with practice, even if you have all the proper ingredients but don’t follow the recipe you won’t get a good cake. If you go to practice in any sport and ignore coaches, ignore the teachers you will likely not improve. If you don’t practice with good habits it’s just as bad as skipping entirely. To practice perfectly you need to focus on the little things for each technique. A good coach will focus on these things, a great coach will harp on them, but at the end of the day it comes down to the athlete to execute properly. So this leads into my final point of the importance of habits. Proper practice leads to proper execution.
Perfect Practice leads to Perfect Execution
To wrap this up let me start by saying that I don’t coach perfection. I am not perfect, my athletes are not perfect, my teammates at Penn State were not perfect, my coaches were not perfect. Many were some of the best ever, but they will tell you they’re far from perfect. One thing my team harps on, and I do it now as a coach, is never believing we’re perfect. We can always improve. Now, that said, perfect practice and perfect execution do not mean a person or athlete is perfect. It simply means that they have become so good at something that they know how to do it repeatedly with high chances of success. Perfect execution isn’t realistic 100% of the time, but even the best batter in baseball history failed to reach base 64% of the time (Ty Cobb). His batting average was .366, meaning he reached base roughly 36 times out of 100 at bats. Some baseball players are specialists at hitting homeruns, they will either strike out or hit a bomb, even then not ever hit is a homerun. The same rings true for wrestling just as much as any sport. If you practice with intent, do things perfectly in practice scenarios, or at least close to perfect, you will tend to have more success in the matches. As a coach I recently changed my philosophy from giving a set rep range to giving a set amount of time, with an emphasis on proper habits on techniques. I would rather my athletes get 3 near perfect reps than 10 horrible ones. When you drill with proper habits, you will execute in matches much the same way. It’s the same in any sport, if a running back in football has a good jump cut that they’ve practiced 1000s of times, when it comes time to jump cut the defender they can trust their body to execute that. They won’t always be successful but if they are it’s bad news for the defense.
Perfect practice leads to perfect execution, it does not mean perfect results. Perfect practice means that you will train your body to remember what perfect feels like, some call it muscle memory. Muscle memory is back by science as our body does have the ability to remember how things feel, and how they should feel. Think about grabbing a cup, a common habit of any person. If you grab a glass of ice water your hand grabs it and even if you’re not looking at it your brain knows what it feels like. This is years of grabbing cold cups, seeing the ice water and associating that it should be cold. Eventually your body just remembers that. The same is true for athletics. Your body will remember how it feels to do things a certain way, it may not be the same reaction every time but when you allow your body to take over you can compete in ways you never thought imaginable. When you form great habits your mind can relax while your body does the work. Now, if you get into what is called the Flow State these habits become even more powerful, but that is a topic for next week! Stay tuned to the Centurion Mindset blog for posts to help you win the mental game. If you enjoyed this please consider sharing it with others! If you haven’t already ready please consider giving my other posts a read as well, I have linked them below! Have a wonderful day and thank you for reading! -Coach Higgins.