Athlete Mental Training Articles

Why Habits Are The Key To Your Success As An Athlete

Eli Straw
Why Habits Are The Key To Your Success As An Athlete

As an athlete, I am sure you are always on the hunt for ways to improve your game.

Each level you reach offers new opportunities to succeed, along with many new challenges. Your job is to figure out an efficient way to continually elevate your game.

But no matter what sport you play or what level you’re currently in, a single principle remains the same: you need consistency.

Consistency is what truly leads to success. Consistent training and having a consistent approach will provide you with the edge you need over your competition and place you in a position to reach the potential you know you’re capable of.

This is where habits come into play.

The Power Of Habits

What is a habit?

A habit is something you do consistently without having to think very much about it.

For example, brushing your teeth is a habit (I hope). At least once a day you have the habit of throwing some toothpaste on a toothbrush and cleaning your teeth. But when was the last time you really had to think about brushing your teeth?

I doubt it’s something you spend all day worrying about or the whole week planning for. That’s because it’s a habit.

Habits create consistency, as they remove a lot of thinking and turn an action into something you do at an almost subconscious level.

When it comes to sports, this power is something you want to be sure you’re using to its full capacity.

I said in the introduction that consistency is key to your success as an athlete.

Now I’m sure when you read that your mind immediately thought about being consistent in the outcome. However, how much control do you honestly have over the outcome of your performance?

Very little.

Except for the way you train, prepare, think and feel leading into and during competition.

Therefore, the type of consistency I’m referring to that has such a tremendous impact on your success is consistency in preparation and approach.

But there are many aspects within your game that need to be worked on, and a ton of tools/exercises you must use to do so. Thinking nonstop about what all you need to do each day can be draining.

For this reason, habits need to become your best friend.

By turning an action into a habit, you take away that tiring effort of having to think and plan and simply know that each day/week you are putting in the consistent effort you know is going to lead to success.

So the next question is, what are some of the main habits you need to begin building as an athlete?

"By turning an action into a habit, you take away that tiring effort of having to think and plan and simply know that each day/week you are putting in the consistent effort you know is going to lead to success."

Different Habits Athletes Need For Success

Now the specific habits you build will be dependent on your sport. However, there are general categories that are important for you to focus on.

These include strength and conditioning, skills training, mental training, and nutrition.

Habit #1: Strength & Conditioning

There’s no denying the ever increasing importance of becoming stronger and faster as an athlete. The degree to which you aim for strength, speed, or quickness will depend upon the sport you play.

However, no matter what type of athlete you are, focusing on strength and conditioning training will help.

When I say strength and conditioning, what I’m referring to is a term that encompasses all forms of physical training that goes outside of the specific skills within your sport.

So this will include work performed in the weight room, aerobic conditioning, along with speed and agility training.

Why is it, do you think, that developing the habit of performing strength and conditioning work is important?

It all boils down to how progress is made.

To strengthen your body or gain speed, you need time. Consistent repetition is necessary for your body to make the adaptations that translate into more power or quickness. Consistency that you may not always be in the mood to do.

By creating a habit of strength and conditioning training, you can rest assured you are putting in the required amount of repetition to make the improvements you want within your game.

Habit #2: Skills Training

Above all else, if you aren’t highly skilled within your sport, success isn’t very likely.

Working on your skills isn’t something unfamiliar to you. I’m sure you’ve spent many hours practicing and fine tuning your mechanics. But what about the training you do on your own?

In my experience, practices can only do so much to help you develop high level skills. Mainly because you aren’t the sole focus (unless you play an individual sport), your coach has to work on making the team as a whole better.

Therefore, you need to ensure time is spent outside of formal practice building your strengths and improving your weaknesses.

That is why skills training needs to become a habit.

Habit #3: Mental Training

Outside of physical strength and high level skills, there’s a key factor that makes the difference between high level athletes and those who never reach their potential: their mind.

Mental training is the practice of developing certain skills and attributes within the mind. These include confidence, focus, the ability to perform under pressure, positive self-talk, and much more.

Just like with physical training, mental training requires repetition. A great example of this is when you want to change the way you speak to yourself.

Self-talk has a direct impact on your confidence, anxiety, fear, and any other emotion you experience. Therefore, your goal should be to cultivate positive and productive thoughts.

But the brain acts like a sponge, absorbing the information you feed it. So you have to think about how you currently speak to yourself. If it’s negative, this is due to years of programming. To change such thinking, luckily years aren't required, but deliberate and consistent repetition is.

That’s why developing the habit of mental training is such a powerful resource for you as an athlete.

"Outside of physical strength and high level skills, there’s a key factor that makes the difference between high level athletes and those who never reach their potential: their mind."

Habit #4: Nutrition

The three previous habits have been about ways you can strengthen your body and mind. Yet such effort requires fuel. Fuel that can only come through proper nutrition.

The importance of a solid nutrition plan cannot be understated.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t out train a bad diet?” Well, there’s a lot of truth to that statement.

But as an athlete, you have many responsibilities during the day, going from training to training, and tossing in class if you're a student athlete, so it may be difficult to stick to the most optimal and efficient nutrition plan.

Enter the power of habits.

As I said earlier, a habit is something you do automatically. You’re not having to put much thought each day into what you’re going to do. With the busy schedule you have, this is an amazing way to ensure you’re keeping up with your nutrition.

Create a habit around what you eat and when you eat. That way, you know each day you are fueling your body with what it needs to perform, both physically and mentally, at optimal levels.

How To Build Any New Habit

Now that you know the importance of making use of habits as an athlete, the next question is how can you begin building a habit?

Well, it’s easy to say, just start doing something. The more you stick to a nutrition plan, let’s say, the easier it will turn into a habit.

Yet, that’s not always easy to do when the action is not yet a habit.

So our goal is to bridge the gap between wanting to form a habit and the time it takes for the action to actually make its way into becoming a natural part of your routine.

This happens by sticking to a simple five step process from the beginning.

By doing so, you aid yourself through the initial phase and quicken the pace at which whatever you are doing forms into a habit.

Step #1: Commit To A Time Period

In the beginning, deliberate effort is going to be required on your part.

This means holding yourself accountable for a specific period of time. Making sure that each day you are working on the development of your habit.

When committing to a time period, think about your own nature.

Are you someone who takes easily to a routine or does it take you a while to get used to something?

If you are quick to feel comfortable in a new routine, the time required for putting in conscious effort may be less than if you struggle with developing a habit.

Either way, commit to a specific amount of time you are going to give yourself to develop the new habit.

Step #2: Start Small

Let’s use mental training as an example.

If you tell yourself you have to perform meditation for twenty minutes a day, visualize each aspect of your game, rewrite a self-talk routine four times, and write in a journal twice, do you think you’re likely to stick to this for very long?

Probably not if you haven’t allowed yourself to gradually build up to this point.

Instead, you want to start small, giving yourself the opportunity to grow accustomed to the activity and then increase the amount and frequency from there.

Going off our example, it would be wise to begin with five minutes of meditation followed by reading through a self-talk routine once. Then, as the days and weeks go by, increase what you do when it feels right.

The reason I suggest starting small is because what you’re actually doing is training yourself to act. You want to get comfortable with performing an action or following a plan, even if it only takes you a few minutes a day.

"The reason I suggest starting small is because what you’re actually doing is training yourself to act. You want to get comfortable with performing an action or following a plan, even if it only takes you a few minutes a day."

Step #3: Make It Daily

If you do something today, wait three days and do it again, then wait another four days to perform it once more, that is a lot less likely to develop into a habit than if you did the same activity each day.

Now, in order for this to work you must remember the previous step: start small.

You want to perform your new habit daily. But that doesn’t mean overwhelm yourself in the process.

For example, as a basketball player who wants to develop the habit of practicing free throws, don’t force yourself to shoot one hundred each day. Begin by shooting ten each day. Then increase it to fifteen, twenty, and so on.

Performing your new habit daily allows for consistency and gives you a greater chance of growing accustomed to doing it on a regular basis.

Step #4: Never Miss Twice

Have you ever started working on a habit, only to miss a day, which then turns into two, and three, and then a month has gone by and the habit has become a thing of the past?

I know I have.

To counteract this I have a rule when it comes to creating a habit: never miss twice.

This can be explained best through an example. Let’s say you are working to develop the habit of sticking to a nutritional plan recommended by your coach.

You’ve stuck to it quite well for a whole week. But on Saturday you hang out with your friends, you guys go out to eat, have a few drinks, then you go on a date at night and eat some ice cream afterwards.

You diverted from your plan, but does that mean you have to get upset with yourself and throw up your arms proclaiming that your habit is destroyed?


You simply wake up the next morning and make sure you get yourself back on track.

When working on building a habit, always remember, missing once is okay but never miss twice.

Step #5: Have An Accountability Partner

The final step is all about seeking help.

We all need someone who can let us know when we’re slacking and keep us accountable towards our goals.

For you this may be a teammate, a coach, a parent, or a close friend.

The only real piece of advice I have when it comes to choosing your accountability partner is that they must be able to tell you the truth and not be afraid to let you know when you need to get yourself back on track.

Final Thoughts

The best way to improve is through consistency.

You need to be sure, whatever aspect of your game you are wanting to improve, repetitive and deliberate work is being put forth.

Though, this can often become tiring to think about. Constantly having to remember what you’re going to do each day. Which is why habits can be the key to your success as an athlete.

Whether it’s working on your strength, speed, mindset, physical skills, nutrition, or anything else, turning the action into a habit will ensure the consistent work necessary to succeed is being put forth.

Use this five step strategy to form any new habit you want and unlock the power habits can give you as an athlete.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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