How to Harness Willpower and Create Good Habits
FINALLY! A guide on how to develop good habits and develop willpower – specifically for boxers!
To provide the best possible training for our athletes, we do our best to continue our own education, improve our techniques and share what we learn. The following article was inspired largely by the book “The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, by Charles Duhigg, which provides a framework for how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how to change them. This book is highly recommended for anyone – coaches, athletes and business owners alike.
Each chapter in The Power of Habit explains a different aspect of why habits exist and how they function. The book concludes with attempt to distill, in a very basic way, the tactics that researchers have found for diagnosing and shaping habits within our own lives. Here is a bit of what we’ve learned:
HOW TO HARNESS WILLPOWER AND CREATE GOOD HABITS
We’ve all been there. You are at your desk, it’s 2:45pm and you’ve hit a wall. The room is stuffy. Your eyes are heavy. The paper and screen are a blur. The only thing keeping you awake is the jolt of your neck as it catches your falling head. That’s it, you think; it’s time for a stretch. A quick 5 minute break to get the blood flowing a bit – then you’ll pull it all together and hammer out the rest of the day. But then it happens…
In it’s own light, it’s perfectly understandable – even reasonable. A walk to the kitchen, cafeteria, or vending machine and a quick treat may not seem like a big deal. But every minute and every calorie counts, and if you are not careful (and if you are like most people) this mid-afternoon break will become automatic. It will become part of your routine, performed without thought or contemplation, as part of your everyday rhythm. It’s your regular break before the final push. After all, you deserve it. You need it. It helps, so it’s what you do. However, this regular indulgence, over time, is guaranteed to pack on the pounds and slow you down in the ring.
Luckily though, not all habits are bad. The development of beneficial habits provide positive impacts and can make frustrating or difficult tasks require far less willpower. What’s more, certain ‘key’ habits have been found to have a ripple effect over our other habitual activities – making other engrained habits more malleable than they otherwise would have been. Take going to the gym, for instance. Once going to the gym is established as a regular activity, you may find that your eating habits, sleeping habits or even smoking habits are easier to change.
So – if you are a boxer, ask yourself the following:
- Do you drop your lead hand when you jab?
- Do you ever step with the incorrect foot first and cross your feet over each other?
- Do you always load up on your right hand, making it easy for your opponent to see it coming?
- Do you ever drop your hands after you finish a combination?
- Do you immediately let your guard down when the bell rings?
If you do any of those things, or have another persistent habit, read on. Answering that question is the purpose of this article. How can we go about controlling something that has become so automatic? How can we apply a better understanding of habit to improve our boxing training?
HOW HABITS FORM
Habits exist because our brains are constantly looking for ways to save effort. The area of the brain responsible for the formation of habits is called the Basal Ganglia. The Basal Ganglia is a golf ball sized area deep inside the brain near the brain stem. Without it, we would be forced to relearn actions – whether it’s driving a car or throwing a hook – repeatedly. Interestingly, the Basal Ganglia is not located near or directly related to the areas of the brain traditionally understood to be associated with active, conscious or rational thinking. It is separate and operates independently, under the radar, so to speak.
FACT: 40-45% of our daily decisions are made out of habit.
Quite literally, habit-forming behavior influences the neurological structure of the Basal Ganglia. That is to say, new neurons form as a result of our actions – and first impressions set the stage for future development. This is why old habits die hard – because the structure of the Basal Ganglia remains even when a new habit has been formed.
BOXING HABIT TIP #1: Learn it right the first time. Don’t rush technique.
A Habit can be understood as a neurological loop, consisting of three elements.
The Cue is something that triggers an individual’s senses. It tells your brain to go into an automatic mode and which habit to use. It could be the time of day. It could be a place. It could be the aroma of fresh baked cookies. It could be placing your running shoes by your bed. Research has discovered that a spike of brain activity accompanies the cue – the precursor that triggers the learned pattern to follow.
For a boxer, it might be the opening bell – but depending on your own practice, it could be a myriad of other things. The round-timer, the sounds and smell of the gym, your coach’s voice for example, etc. You should also consider the micro or macro level of perspective. The cue for energy and excitement might be simply arriving at the gym, whereas the cue for throwing a jab might be seeing your opponent’s hand drop a certain way. Some cues trigger general habits, and specific cues may trigger specific habits.
Once the cue is received, there is the routine. The routine can be physical or mental or emotional. The routine is the ‘chunk’ of actions that become automatic. Brain activity literally becomes quieter and more relaxed – yet the body performs the same complex series of tasks that originally required active contemplation and deliberation, but without the management or attention. During the routine, certain brain activity subsides. Similar to those who sleepwalk, the part of the brain that monitors behavior becomes dormant, yet the part of the brain that initiates activity remains alert.
This describes a situation most boxers have experienced at some point or another; either as beginners, who ‘blank out’ when first learning to spar, as more accomplished boxers who find serenity in the ring, and as intermediates who find moments of stillness within the chaos.
When new boxers spar, a fight-or-flight response can kick in which mentally, physically or emotionally overwhelms the athlete. This raw and automatic survival instinct, preempts the athletes training. When a positive habit or routine becomes established, boxers often enter ‘the zone’.
The Zone is the state of being or consciousness where he or she is able to perceive and receive information about their situation more calmly and fluidly, to make calculated decisions instantaneously, make adjustments and go-with-the-flow, without mental chatter or second-guessing that plagues less experienced boxers. This happens because the routine is automatic.
Finally there is a reward. The reward helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. It’s the benefit that follows (but doesn’t necessarily follow from) the routine. For example, while it may seem counter-intuitive, having some chocolate might serve as a reward for working out. In fact, in a study described by Mr. Duhigg, those who rewarded themselves with chocolate were nearly 60% more likely to develop the habit of working out even after they stopped rewarding themselves with chocolate – since eventually the other rewards of working out (endorphins, feelings of accomplishment and improvement, etc.) predominated.
For a boxer, the rewards are likely much the same as someone who is just working out, as well as the emotional and cathartic release of stress, and – of course – the satisfaction of being a badass.
CRAVING IS A KEY
Neurologically speaking, a habit is formed when the association between the cue and the reward becomes so strong that the feeling and anticipation of the reward become advanced and occur not after completing the routine, but when the cue is encountered. This, to put it bluntly, is a craving.
Just as the brain of a lab rat will light up in excitement when it hears the click of a gate opening because it triggers the routine of finding a treat in the maze, a smokers pulse may quicken when they simply see a pack of cigarettes. And not only do lab monkeys experience the pleasure of an anticipated reward as soon as they see the cue (a particular shape on a computer monitor), i.e., before they pressed the button and actually received some fruit – but when the cued action did not provide the anticipated reward – they became angry and despondent! That’s a craving.
Therefore, it’s important to recognize the underlying craving that drives your impulses as craving is what drives all habits and is essential to starting a new habit, or destroying an old one.
BOXING HABIT TIP #2: Know your motivation. What are you fighting for? What do you crave? What motivates your good behavior? But also what motivates your bad behavior?
Positive habits need reinforcement. For bad habits, though, once you identify a craving, it must be resisted. How do you override an old habit to form a new one?
POWER OVER MARSHMALLOWS
Perhaps you remember hearing about a social experiment where 4-year olds were asked to resist eating a marshmallow while left unsupervised for 10-15 minutes. If the child was able to comply, they were told they would be given a second marshmallow. As it turns out, only 10-15% of the children were successful at resisting their cravings. (Remember this experiment next time you pass near a Cinnabon kiosk!) It was thought that this test demonstrated the children’s aptitude for willpower. Unsurprisingly, 4-year old children lack self-control.
But what is willpower? It doesn’t quite seem like a skill – where, if I know how to fix my car on Monday, I still know how to fix it on Friday since, someone might be able to do wind sprints easily on Tuesday but not muster the ability to do them on Friday. Willpower is sometimes abundant (like when watching Rocky I) but sometimes lacking (like at the gym after a long day at work). What gives?
Willpower also seems more like a muscle than a skill since there seems to be a finite supply. Make me sit on hold for hours on end and I’ll lose my patience when you finally pick up. It seems, once someone’s willpower is all used up – there isn’t any left until it’s had a chance to recharge. So, maybe a more important question is whether willpower be learned or practiced and strengthened?
What Mr. Duhigg’s research in The Power of Habit uncovered is that willpower can be taught or learned – specifically, by creating habits.
Habits, as discussed above, trigger behaviors automatically. They do not require the same application of willpower as an unlearned routine. Someone may appear to have more willpower, when in fact they are operating out of habit – having trained themselves to work efficiently and diligently through a routine for some unseen or unobvious reward. We too can lighten the load on our demands for willpower output, by redefining our habits.
To redefine a habit, you must premeditate the cues and rewards with a cool head. By choosing a reaction ahead of time and being conscious of our mental state, we can make decisions while we are full of willpower and in control (i.e. a ‘cold’ mental state). Then, in moments of stress and/or excitement (i.e. a ‘hot’ mental state) where we are tempted by a craving, we can make a more conscious less habitual choice by focusing on the desired outcome, rather than the craving or temptation. The trick is to reuse the initial cue, replace the routine, and keep the same reward. If you can do that, change will eventually occur.
BOXING HABIT TIP #3: To change a habit, identify and reuse your current cue and reward, but associate a new routine in between.
Creating habits in a cool headed environment are exactly what boxing training is about. Moves are learned and rehearsed, premeditated and deliberate. Sparring can be used to test or temper habitual responses.
ELIMINATING BAD BOXING HABITS & CREATING GOOD BOXING HABITS
First, you must identify the reward. If you are unsure what you are actually craving, experiment with the routine to include or eliminate potential rewards. For example, using the afternoon cookie-craving example above, were you hungry? If so, an apple would suffice. Did you need to stretch? Then a short walk would cure the craving. Were you bored? Then maybe it’s the camaraderie you experience in the cafeteria you are after.
With regard to boxing, let’s assume you have a habit of jumping out of the pocket after each exchange. Is it because you are feeling off balance? Is it the fear of getting countered? Is it because you feel crowded?
Next, you must identify the reminder or cue – What are you experiencing in the moment immediately preceding the craving? Most cues relate to one of the following triggers:
- Your location
- The time of day
- Your emotional state
- Other people
- The immediately preceding action
If you are trying to overcome a non-boxing related habit, just identify the five things listed above every time you feel the craving and, over time, the pattern will become clear. The cookie-craving above could be a Type 2 issue (Time of Day) or it might also be a Type 3 issue (Boredom).
Applying this to boxing may seem a bit more complex, but it still works. Does habitually jumping out of the pocket change depending on where you are in the ring, i.e. is it a Type 1 (location oriented) cue? Do you only do it when you are tired, i.e. is it a Type 3 (emotionally related) cue? And so on.
Third, and most importantly, you must create and institute a new routine using the same cue and providing the same reward.
IT’S NEVER THAT EASY – STRATEGIC TIPS
Maintaining a positive mental attitude is required. If you think you will do poorly, you will. Individuals who do not believe in what they are doing will almost certainly fall short of the expectations and give up. Thus, it is critical that you believe it’s possible for the habit to change. This critical ingredient is often fostered by involvement in a group setting. Those who are accountable to a group are better off than an individual alone.
BOXING HABIT TIP #4: You must believe that you can change and that what you are doing will create the change you desire.
BOXING HABIT TIP #5: The support of a coach and team is often necessary. We fight alone, but do not get there by ourselves.
Another strategy for fostering belief is to accumulate small wins. By recognizing small successes, large seemingly impossible tasks are broken down into manageable chunks and positive momentum is generated.
BOXING HABIT TIP #6: Have patience. Understand that building good habits takes time. Appreciate and celebrate the small victories.
Crisis and camouflage are two other strategies for facilitating change. Crisis refers to situations where a deadline or other pressure is looming. In crunch-time, habits are often more malleable and willpower is more abundant. Use deadlines or create deadlines real enough to increase productivity. Camouflage refers to the process of grooming new habits to appear as close to the old habit as possible, to make the change more palatable. For example, using a scoop of yogurt instead of ice-cream to make a protein shake might yield similar flavors and textures, with less sugar, etc.
BOXING HABIT TIP #7: Take advantage of crisis. When habits are more malleable and willpower is more abundant, it’s easier to institute changes.
BOXING HABIT TIP #6: Camouflage new routines when possible or necessary to make change easier.
HERE’S THE THING…
Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for their opponent to react. They follow the habits that they’ve learned.
To help an athlete react automatically, habitually, you have to help them to stop making so many decisions during a match. If you can instill the right habits, they will win. Of course, no athlete is going to abandon their patterns simply because a coach tells them to – so rather than create new habits, aim to simply change the old ones. By allow each athlete to keep their own personal cues and rewards and focus on the routines, lasting and meaningful change is much easier to affect.