It’s a new year! While December can be a month filled with nostalgia and contemplation on the past year (or years), January is often a month that drives lots of goal setting, and thinking about the future. It’s an exhilarating time to take a moment to view things with fresh perspective and start charting a course toward future achievement! A such, in this first Coach’s Corner of 2023, I’d like to share a common pitfall that I’ve encountered when setting out to accomplish all sorts of exciting plans for the new year. This one overlooked principle is so subtle but so significant that ignoring it could be the reason we might find ourselves getting wistful in December 2023 and wondering what went so wrong with all of our great intentions.
"Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive.” - Robert Pirsig, Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Even when my first steps on the path to new goals are filled with all the building blocks of success; journaling, planning, accountability etc., I’ve found that if my mindset remains focused entirely on the expected outcome, all of my efforts still fall short of the mark. While becoming distracted from the objective can be a reason we don’t reach it, an obsession with a desired result won’t make it happen either. Dedication to a process, however, can drive a meaningful change.
This is the basis of all successful athletic improvement, and the reason that committing to "doing workouts” for awhile or even completing one good program, for example, isn’t all that great at getting sustainable results. Routinely living with good principles of training, recovery and periodization will help build that intangible we call character, which is the basis for lasting refinement. Now you might be thinking; “But isn't maintaining a laser focus on the goal what makes successful people successful!” That might be what some gurus say or even think, but whenever I’ve been able to make a truly remarkable positive change in my life it’s not just because I spent most of my time visualizing a result, it’s simply because I unlearned some old habits and adopted a lasting set of new routines.
"Good or bad, habits always deliver results.” - Jack Canfield
When goal setting, I used to ask myself, “Do I have what it takes to accomplish this?” Unfortunately this drove a bit of insubstantial guesswork resulting in an emotional decision. Now I try to ask myself, “Do I want to create the habits of someone who can achieve this?” This means we have to actually get to know what the routine of a successful person looks like, unless it’s something nobody has ever done before, in which case the best we can do is model a plan based on the closest comparable footprint we can find. With that said, merely mimicking another athlete’s programing won’t clone that athlete’s results. Simply put, we cannot possess another athlete’s character, which was built in unique conditions and formed from deeply personal experiences. We can, however take inspiration from another’s success and use it to cultivate a set of experiences and actions which form our own character.
"Long-term consistency trumps short term intensity.” Bruce Lee
Most fitness industry marketing is geared toward tricking us into viewing our future success based on the results of just one (often intense) bout of exercise, series of sessions or short term program. This would also apply to nutrition and recovery practices as much as it does to strength and conditioning, obviously. “If I can just accomplish short-term goal ‘x,' then I’ll be in a much better place and it will be easy to tackle any other hard stuff.” This attitude can cause even the most driven trainee to rush to the top of a hill only to fall off into a valley, at the foot of a daunting mountain that they now have no ability to climb. Instead, a commitment to a process, not just a program or outcome, of habitually taking steps that cultivate skill, of eschewing actions that delay progress, these habits forge more capable people.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
Progress really comes down to this. As human beings, one of our greatest gifts is the amazing ability to learn and to adapt. New skill and physical adaptation is what we hope to achieve from training, of course, but what actually drives this adaptation? Well… Consistent exposure to the adaptive stimulus, of course. And what is consistency, but being in the habit of doing something? Sounds simple, right? But as much as I love to extol the simple virtues of practice, research has shown that engaging in deliberate practice only accounts for about 12% of the change we see in the quality of our performance. We want to do a whole lot better than just 12% so if consistent practice isn’t all that we need, then what else goes into this cocktail?
Self assessment, introspection, adjustment, experimentation; these all have to be part of the routine as well. Think of it this way, if I practice poor technique consistently, I will become very adept at doing something poorly. Merely practicing for the sake of practice isn’t going to effect much of a change. It is the actual learning that should result from practice, how we adjust to mistakes, the progressive nature of our adaptation, that drives meaningful improvement. Consistent practice is a start, but then we must evaluate progress, abandon old methods or personal biases that are no longer serving us, seek out creative solutions to new challenges that arise. If this transformative process is repeated often enough it will become a set of habits and these habits are the elements which cultivate character.
“All philosophy lies in two words, sustain and abstain.” - Epictetus
As we tread carefully into this new year, and dare to make plans for a brighter future, I’ve got some big ideas and challenging goals to work on for sure. But I’m going to try to focus even more on the process of cultivating a successful routine than on an end result. If this sounds like a sound philosophy to you, then perhaps together we can work to sustain what needs to be done, abstain from the destructive, and continue to build the habit of excellence this year!