The Power Of Great Habits

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Characteristics Of Top Performers 

I have written and talked a lot about the characteristics and traits that are ever-present in elite performers. Being lucky enough to coach a selection of top professionals in our sport, as well as highly successful business leaders, I have had the chance to observe and note the most compelling traits. The personality traits and characteristics are strikingly similar between professional athletes and leaders in business. This begs the question: Are these leaders and professional athletes simply special people? To some extent, perhaps, but it remains true that most of the traits they display are a result of learned behaviors and the ability to adopt positive habits. Few, if any, were simply born with innate talent in their specific endeavor. What separates these people from their peers is their ability to learn and improve. Each of these people has been able to establish ongoing positive actions and habits, which add up to great performance or leadership. As you might guess, these elite performers could not work on everything that needed improvement at once. Whether they realize it or not, many had one or more little evolutions in habits, which ended up opening doors to much bigger changes. Often, changing one habit can be the catalyst to much bigger change.

Channeling Your Focus - purplepatch Case Studies 

Our goal as amateur athletes is to adapt and evolve to improve performance. In this complex sport that we all love, I consistently notice how overwhelming it can be for athletes who are aiming to improve performance. There is simply so much detail that athletes can drown in with all the potential improvements they need to alter to become a better athlete. Instead of overwhelming yourself trying to improve your weaknesses you may be better served by focusing on nailing the fundamentals. During your season focus on one or two key habits at a time and see if it is a catalyst for a bigger change in your performance.

By way of an example, a couple of years ago I placed a heavy focus on a group of my athletes to do two things. The first, get the basics right.  

  1. The Basics
  • Follow the prescription of the workouts (be ready for key sessions and make the low-stress sessions very easy)
  • Refuel after every workout
  • Establish quality sleep habits
  • Focus on skills/posture/form when the workout calls for it
  • Place a priority on functional strength workouts

All sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  The next request was to select a key habit to establish.

  1. Establish A Key Habit - Case Studies

This request elicited an instant response from Sarah Piampiano, who was a first-year pro at the time. Just a few years prior, she was working huge hours while at a Wall Street investment bank. With very little exercise every done, she decided to take a single action; to quit smoking. Without going into all the details, this simple action led to increased energy, better fitness and, ultimately, a journey that led to a career change to professional triathlete. Sarah’s entire journey could be the result of a single habit change; that led to multiple smaller, yet significant behavior changes.  In fact, she has gone on and created a wonderful web platform - the habit project - which is designed to help people of all backgrounds break poor habits and establish positive ones. Of course, we won’t have too many smokers in the ranks, and Sarah’s last cigarette was many moons before this discussion, but it was a great catalyst for a healthy discussion. A sample of other habit goals are:

  • Consistently maintain clean and functioning equipment
  • Eat a complete breakfast every morning
  • Prioritize sleep
  • Ensure the easy training sessions truly are easy

If you review each of the above, you will be correct in thinking that each of these should be automatic givens for a serious athlete. They should, but we are not robots; we are humans. Going a step further, I analyzed the traits of the athletes with different bad habits. My findings may not surprise you, but they are worth reviewing. 

  • The athlete with the dirty bike: Tended to be late to workouts or the last getting in the pool. She suffered the most from mechanical bike issues or poor luck; she often skipped warm ups across sessions.
  • The athlete who skipped breakfast: Had trouble with fatigue and body composition, tending to over-work in sessions, he had frequent training interruptions with sickness and greater peaks and valley’s in performance.
  • The athlete who skipped sleep: Had trouble with race day performance improvements, had fatigue issues, hadn’t improved in the last 18 months.
  • The athlete who over-worked the easy:  Consistently injured, sick and underperformed relative to her potential.

To reiterate, these athletes were mostly good and still achieved solid results, but all had challenges. We finished the meeting with some laughs and very narrow goals. They all knew that I would take care of the training prescription and career development; all they had to do was focus on the basics and evolve a couple habits.

The Results 

Without exception, each of their habits evolved dramatically.  Of the four, the most dramatic results occurred for the athlete who stopped skipping breakfast and the athlete who started taking a bit more time to prepare for training (and clean their bike). While the other two certainly improved, they didn’t display the seismic shift that clearly related to the other habits. Let’s explore the cleaner and the brekkie lover.

The athlete with the clean bike:  We cemented this as an ‘Every Saturday Afternoon’ project. I added the clean bike task to the athlete's plan and mapped it to the calendar. It was a specific task. It became a ‘key session’, and something that held the same importance as a track, swim or bike session. We made a joke about it, but the attention to detail and care began to expose other behaviors. She became interested in her equipment and began to establish a relationship with it. The structure also seemed to establish different behaviors. Warm ups kickstarted on time; renewed focus occurred around planning, and (unsurprisingly) race mechanical issues disappeared. She realized that poor planning and dirty equipment ended up creating stress in an area that could be avoided. Now, she has the cleanest equipment, is on time, and has control over nearly all the areas she can control. This change has left more room for physical and emotional capacity to pour energy into areas that truly do cause performance improvements.

The athlete who ate breakfast daily: There are all sorts of emotional responses to food and negative habits can develop from a desire to improve performance and body composition (eating less). The simple act of making breakfast a daily mainstay left this athlete with a simple emotion. Control. The breakfast ensured refueling from the morning workout, facilitated recovery, opened the door for healthy food choices later in the day, and aided energy balance and readiness for afternoon training sessions. The headline news? Greater training consistency, a positive relationship with food, and body composition improvements. It is hard to overstate the value of this single habit. Rather than going on a diet, we simply established a critical habit that led to better behaviors and a more positive relationship with eating. Perhaps the nicest thing about this story is that, beyond body composition and performance improvements, I saw this athlete become happy. The passion increased, and the door of opportunity opened for her. She now has the promise of success in the sport, and I don’t hesitate to imagine that this single habit change was the key that opened her potential.

Ultimately, triathlon is a very complex sport. You will always be challenged to improve across many areas. Before you drown in confusion, get the basics down and establish one or two key habits that you can change or create. These small changes might be a catalyst to many other improvements.

For additional reading on habits, you may want to visit Sarah Piampiano’s website or read: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

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