I Hate: Bad Habits

Mar. 28, 2014

I was at training last week on a beautiful (blustery) day. I was excited to be out playing, and excited to learn more awesome goalkeeper stuff. I was sure - as I am every day - that that was going to be the day that I made every save perfectly (what can I say I'm insane...I mean I'm an optimist).

We were warming up with some basic handling, and I was taking the 400th volley that week in which I didn’t get my arms out in front of me before, during, or after the shot. Predictably, my arms got jammed up against my chest and I dropped the ball.

A voice inside my head let out a blood-curdling scream. Three seconds earlier that same voice had been whispering: Get your hands out in front of you. Get your hands out in front of you. Get your hands out in front of you. And yet there the ball was again sitting at my feet.

Betrayal! My body was intentionally sabotaging me.

It’s a similar sensation to when you’re sitting on the couch with a bag of chips. One second you’re thinking I really shouldn’t eat any more. I’m full, they don’t even taste good anymore, and the food baby I’m growing is approaching 6 months. The next second, you taste Doritos. You look down at your hand and sure enough it’s covered in orange powder.

Side note: I believe my subconscious has been trying to make me fat for years. I consistently find myself standing in the kitchen with the refrigerator or the cabinet door open and no idea how I got there. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even keep food in the house unless eating it raw will kill you – my subconscious may be a bitch, but she gives up easily.

At least that’s what I thought until last week. Last week my body-mind connection was having all kinds of technical difficulties - like my check engine light was on. I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to do it and when the ball was struck, I suddenly went on autopilot - as if my body were telling my conscious mind to eff off.

Coincidentally, one day after training I was sitting in Barnes and Noble next to the psychology section when a friend pointed to the book The Power of Habit and suggested that I would enjoy it. (she also suggested a book on how to make friends...but that's an issue for another day)

In the first chapter, The Habit Loop, a man with a severe brain injury has essentially no memory and can’t remember the layout of his house when asked. A moment later he gets up, walks to the kitchen and makes himself a sandwich with no difficulty.

The reason?

Habit.

When we complete an activity enough times, the action is stored in a different part of our brain than our memory. When we do something we’ve done a million times, autopilot takes over. How many times have you driven to work in the morning and not remembered the trip?

Freaky right?

I think so.

Sadly, I did not find a section in the Power of Habit about how to make your body behave properly when someone strikes a soccer ball at your face. However, the author, Charles Duhigg, does offer a basic blueprint for habit change.

  1. Figure out the trigger for the habit
  2. Figure out the reward you receive for completing the habit
  3. Replace old habit with new habit when you feel the trigger
  4. Keep the same reward
  5. Repeat a zillion times.

Kind of a bummer huh? You just have to work at it.

Still, I read on with the hope that Chapter 2 would be entitled How to Succeed at Habit Change without Really Trying (it wasn't).

But in the third chapter of the book, The Golden Rule of Habit Change, Duhigg deals with the “relapse” into old habits. Something obviously near and dear to my heart. It’s not as though I can’t get my hands out in front of me, or that I don’t go through four or five saves doing it correctly.  It’s the consistency that is difficult. How do I make it stick?

“It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over into other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was an ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.” (p.85)

Perhaps that is where I struggled last week. The problem with doing something incorrectly 400 times is that you begin to doubt that 401 will be any different. You begin to doubt whether you are capable of change. And that's where you lose the battle before it even begins.

That's the day when you step on the field thinking that you aren't capable of keeping the ball out of the net. And surprise, surprise, on that day you aren't.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a culture, and by people who believe that change is possible (something that Duhigg suggests is essential).  And I’m grateful for the investment they’ve made in me. One of these days, they won’t need to remind me to keep my hands in front of me. One of these days it will just be a good habit.

I’ll keep you all posted.

-A