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Using the Science of Habits in Your Coaching

Using the Science of Habits in Your Coaching
August 25, 2022 | | 9 min read

William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that life is a mass of habits. Let’s learn how coaches can use the science of habits.

In the last ten years, James Clear, BJ Fogg & Charles Duhigg have all written bestsellers that examine habits and how they can be used to improve your life. I have read all three (partly to see if they were all the same book) and each of them offers practical tools. It even helped me change a few bad habits and build a few good ones. As I read them I found some ways coaches can employ the science of habits to improve their team.

At its root, coaching is breaking bad habits and forming the good habits that will help your athletes and team succeed.

Why do humans have habits?

This might feel like science class for a few minutes but I think it is worth it. Stay with me.

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast, and Slow, that our brains possess two systems. System 1 which operates quickly and automatically, with little or no effort or voluntary control. An example in sport would be executing a skill like dribbling. It is done with minimal effort from the brain. Athletes recognize what is required and execute the action. System 2 allocates attention and energy to the effort of mental activities that require concentration, agency, or choice. An example in sport is a guard having to process what is their next best action when being pressured by a full-court press. In fast-moving sports like basketball, we want to train our athletes to use System 1 as much as possible.

This is why basketball decision training is so important, it helps athletes use System 1 more often which leads to faster decisions.

The important takeaway is that the brain is lazy and wants to use System 1 as much as possible, it requires less effort and energy, and this is where habits come in.

Habits allow the brain to make decisions and execute skills automatically and avoid engaging System 2.

In sports, as in life, our habits define us. The more good habits an athlete has the better they will be. Habits can include nutrition, offseason workouts, and how athletes choose to execute in games.

How are habits formed?

Ok, maybe a bit more science class, but I promise you we are getting to the part that will help your athletes and teams.

The simplest explanation of habit formation came from Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. He explains that habits are formed by the repetition of a Cue, Routine, and Reward.

An example from basketball. When a shot goes up (the cue) a good habit is formed when the defenders all box out (routine) and one of them secures the rebound (reward).

The team I coached last week at nationals did not have this habit ingrained. As the best and most athletic players in the province, they were able to secure rebounds in club and high school without having to build the habit of boxing out. The cue was the same for them (shot goes up) at the high school level but they were able to secure the reward (the rebound) with the routine of simply going after the ball without boxing out.

As the coach responsible for defense, I did not do enough to change this habit.

We lost out in the quarterfinal against a very large team from Alberta. They were taller at every position and we needed to do a better job boxing out to have a chance to win. We lost in part because we could not make up for the 34 rebound advantage by hitting enough timely threes or forcing more turnovers. They simply had too many possessions. In the end, our team finished 5th in the country which was awesome but all of us felt that a medal was in reach.

Rather than dwell on the fact that I didn’t do enough to fix a problem I am going to make sure I have a plan in place so that it doesn’t happen again.

James Clear has created a framework that I can apply to help build or change the habits of my athletes & teams.

James Clear’s four laws to create or change habits

All three authors stress the importance of small changes that lead up to large behavior changes.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines four laws that will help anyone change or build habits.

Law 1: Make it Obvious

Once a habit is built the behavior becomes automatic. It is creating a habit that is challenging.

Clear suggests making the benefit of the habit you wish to change obvious.

To use the example of my team who didn’t box out here are the steps I will use as a coach to help them see the benefit of building the habit.

  1. Explain the why. -How does our team benefit from boxing out?
  2. Show them the why.- Video of teams who are really good at boxing out and those who aren’t (where will I find that video 🤔).
  3. Make sure they know how- Make sure athletes understand what you specifically want them to do. They are more likely to do it if your explanation is frequent, clear, and, specific. I didn’t do a good enough job of making sure that my athletes knew how important boxing out was for our team to meet our goals.
  4. Have the athletes write down and commit to boxing out.- It is much easier to hold someone accountable when they have written their intentions. For example, “I will box out every time an opponent takes a shot”. Publically displaying this also makes it obvious.

Law 2: Make it Attractive

There are two ways to make a habit attractive. You can reward it or punish it.I think punishing it should only be used as a last resort as it ties the habit to a negative consequence. By rewarding the behavior it becomes part of the identity and culture of your team. Rewards should be things that intrinsically motivate your athletes to embrace the desired habit.

A few suggestions using the habit of boxing out.

  1. Praise it when you see it. – For behavior that occurs frequently like boxing out stop practice or highlight in film when you see all five defenders box out and the ball hit the floor before it is recovered.
  2. Measure it- Track the behavior in practice and games. How many times has each player boxed out?
  3. Award it- Have an award for the player who boxes out the most. When I attended Toronto Raptors training camp a few years ago they had heavy-weight championship belts that they awarded to the top shooters in practice. It would be easy to do the same thing with any behavior including boxing out.

Law 3: Make it Easy

Making it easier to complete the routine and secure the reward will make your athletes more likely to create the habit you want to see.

There are a few things that coaches can do to help athletes make it easier to establish the habits they want to see.

  1. Decrease Friction- Provide more opportunities in training to practice the skills you want to develop into habits. Set the constraints in drills such as rewarding more points in a competitive drill when all five players box out.
  2. Increase Friction- During the extra training reps do not reward the habit that you don’t want to see. This can also be

Law 4: Make it Satisfying

Seeing and enjoying the benefits of creating a good habit is a great way to make sure it continues. The more satisfying the result the more likely that the habit will continue. Here are a few suggestions that coaches can use to keep a habit satisfying.

  1. Celebrate the creation of the habit. – Create milestones that show the behavior is becoming a habit and celebrate meeting it. Team celebrations are important it also adds importance to the behavior.
  2. Show the benefits of the habit- Explore the difference before and after the creation of the habit. How many fewer possessions have your opponents had per game since the habit has been created? What is the team’s record since the change of habit?
  3. Use an accountability partner- We use an exercise from Lead em’ up called the 6 Man. Each player has an accountability partner who has their 6 (their back). We assign a whole slew of habits to keep track of and make sure that we are headed in the right direction and as partners, they keep each other on track. From debriefing practice to assessing performance in several targeted areas like Self-talk. It would not be hard to start discussing how the team boxed out in a specific drill, practice, or game. The more importance coaches show to any habit the more serious the athletes will take it.

There is one last tip that it is important for coaches to know.

When a new positive habit is formed and replaces the old habit, it does not disappear it is just waiting for the cue, routine, and reward to reappear. This is why coaches need to stay on top of their athletes, to ensure that the routine remains consistent and they don’t return to the routine that is easier and provides the reward most of the time. Boxing out does not always yield a rebound for the player. Athletes could easily slip back to the habit of simply going for the ball because it is more rewarding for the athlete to secure a rebound themselves than ensuring that their team secures the ball.

Thanks to Jason Payne for writing this. He currently coaches basketball and writes about how coaches can help teach Mental Performance Skills to their athletes. If you’re interested in reading more, check him out here!

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