We are a couple weeks into the new year, which means spring season is around the corner. New Year’s is the time of creating resolutions and, unfortunately, spring is the time of failed resolutions. Actually, if you make it to spring consider yourself ahead of the pack. According to this article from Psychology Today, most quit their resolutions by February. Truth is, most resolutions are dead on arrival because they are not well thought out. If you make a resolution, most likely there is a recognition of some desire to change. Many of us can easily identify something we wish to attain. The difficult part is the execution. As has been said before, “a goal without a plan is just a wish”[i]. Whether it is to stop doing something bad or start doing something good, it is easy to get derailed. This is because doing something new and different typically means eliminating something old and comfortable. Resolutions that stick have a defined plan with simple steps for changing behavior.
Sports success is largely about developing good habits. Practices and drills are repetitive, so movements become natural and applied unconsciously in a game. Developing good self-improvement habits better positions athletes to become the best player then can. This sounds simple and is easy to say, but again, following through is when things start to fall apart, as with most failed resolutions. It does not matter what level of player you currently are. It also does not matter what others are doing (or not doing). Success is a function of what you put into it. Commit to an improvement process and stick with the plan.
For those resolving to improve their soccer skills (or any other sport/activity), put together a plan. Write it down. Tell somebody about it as a form of social accountability. Use a tracking tool, either electronic or simply writing in a journal. We often dream about how it would feel to achieve a goal but fail to visualize the pain and struggle along the way. Devise a goal and work backwards. Think critically about the desired result and why you want to achieve it. What interim goals need to be met? How will you measure progress? How will routines change? What sacrifices will have to be made? The end goal is different from the habits needed to achieve it. Don’t confuse the two. A goal is a future desire. Habits form the process of behavioral changes necessary to meet the goal.
Be careful of the specificity of the goal. If not set properly, it could undermine good habit development. For instance, instead of striving to make the top team, make a goal about improving. “I am going to get faster.” “I am going to become a better shooter.” Then, work towards those goals. Create a running plan. Put time on the calendar to go to the park and practice shooting. Goals focused on internal improvements have a better chance of success versus those which rely on factors outside your control. Another key to staying on course is not quitting when there are no immediate results. In the beginning, following new routines and accomplishing new tasks should be counted as successful progress.
One of the best resources on creating good habits is James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. While a book on habits may not sound exciting, if you are interested in change, it is very powerful and useful. An athlete himself, Clear overcame adversity by developing strong habits and is now an expert on the subject. Anyone interested in changing behavior should check it out.[ii] I played for a coach who used to say every team practices the same amount. It is what you do outside of practice that makes you a better player.[iii] This is true at any level, age, or activity. Team practice does not always create long-term habits. That needs to come from within. Don’t let bad habits get in the way of reaching your goals.
As an athlete, be honest about your goals, including why and how to reach them. Make sure they are within control and realistically achievable. As a parent, guide your kids toward appropriate goals and support their development of proper habits.
Happy New Year and happy habit forming!