Old habits aren’t necessarily bad habits...but they can turn into them down the road.
I remember having to completely change my jump shot in high school. I had started working with a new coach who told me point blank, "Your set shot might work now in high school, but it’s going to get thrown out of the gym in college."
It was time to get worse before I could get better.
And so began the slow process of completely changing and unlearning a skill I’d practiced for over 10 years and relearning it all over again. One might look back and minimize it; after all, learning something new at 16 years old doesn’t sound like that big of a deal.
But I remember the experience pretty clearly: the resistance, the emotional pain, and the pretty much constant frustration. After all, the idea of working really hard and getting worse at something is a tough pill to swallow, even for a 16 year-old.
It was made even more difficult because I was ultimately solving a problem that didn’t exist yet. My slow little set shot was doing the job at the moment.
At the end of the day, it took a lot of faith, trust, and humility to bite the bullet and reteach my body and mind to do something it didn’t necessarily need at the time.
This change required that I:
If you are a coach helping an athlete change an old skill or develop a new skill, it will serve your athlete well if you understand that these psychological components are the true barriers to athletes learning new skills.
And, if you are an athlete, it can be useful to know that your mind will most naturally want to resist the change as you step into the unknown.
In my case, if I worried about the ball going in the basket (kind of a key measurement for basketball), I was liable to drop kick a chair out of frustration instead.
I had to learn to let the frustration of air balling go in the beginning of my brain's retraining. I had to instead focus on little, tiny milestones and give myself little pep talks in between what seemed to be monstrous failures (i.e. “I coordinated the jump with the release on that one. GREAT!”, “My feet timing was perfect. AWESOME!”).
If I focused on making the shot instead of how I was making the shot, I naturally went back to my old habit, my usual set shot (which still worked, by the way).
If I didn’t really believe that a jump shot was going to help me, if I wasn’t really willing to let go of my old way of doing things, I wouldn’t have put in the work to develop my new skill.
The easiest thing in the world is to stop halfway and resort back to whatever bad habit is comfortable.
You can always lie to yourself and say, “Well, I tried and it didn’t work,” but just remember: At that point YOU’RE the one holding you back and nobody else is to blame!
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“Trying” to make a change gives you an easy cop-out. Anyone can “try”. It’s a matter of saying “I will” that makes the mental difference.
Set a training plan to keep you committed to actually making the change, not just attempting it.
While it’s impossible to know just how long it will take to make a change and see the results, having a milestone to focus on can remove a lot of the uncertainty.
Since the brain associates unknown factors with fear, and fear ignites a deer-in-the-headlights freeze, let’s avoid ambiguous endings and the confusion and discomfort they cause for your brain. There is enough discomfort with learning the new skill already!
Learning a new skill is both exhilarating and at the same time really, really sucks.
Talking through some of the emotions you might feel ahead of time (i.e. excruciating frustration and the desire to quit) can give you armor to deal with those barriers when they inevitably pop up to test you.
TIP: Take a 2-minute break when a barrier arises. Get some water, take a few deep breaths, express yourself, and then get back to work.
Eventually, that new skill you suffered to learn (or one you suffered to un-learn) will become a natural part of your brain’s chemistry. Eventually, something in your mind will ‘click’, and you’ll cheer, "I get it, I finally get it!"
And that will be a great moment, indeed.
Psst… Just for fun, watch this short video about how a man had to relearn riding a bicycle—a backwards bicycle!—and how it was a greater challenge to the brain than he and other challengers anticipated:
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