Breaking the Habit: The 5 Phases of Change

 I love this picture.  It reminds me of change…..Sometimes you just have to hold on!

I learned a lot this summer.

In particular, I learned the importance of persistance when if comes to change…..

……And for whatever reason, it seems that breaking a bad stroke habit is almost as hard as quitting cigaretts. (p.s. smoking is bad for you)

Welcome to the 5 steps of creating change in existing habits (according to Coach Meg):

          1. Awareness
          2. Commitment
          3. Break-Down
          4. Persistence
          5. Maintenance

The Background:

I currently coach for a YMCA Age Group Team.  During the summer months we practice outdoor in a 50-meter pool from 6:30 – 8:30am.  Every morning the Head Coach – lets call him H.C. – arrives a little early (5:30am) so that I can get in and swim for about an hour.  H.C. was my swimming coach in high school when I was part of his YMCA national group.

H.C. remembers the strokes and times of almost all of his swimmers….

He remembered mine.

On one particular morning, earlier this season, I asked H.C. if there was anything funky with my freestyle stroke.  In all honesty, I mainly asked because I was tired, wanted a rest from swimming and curious as to what he would say.  I didn’t expect any kind of substantial answer.

Silly me.  H.C. responded with:

“Yeah, your not rotating, at all…and I have never said that to you.”

Oh.  Right.  Shoot.

For the next 2 months, I worked on rotation and freestyle.  I worked and I worked.  I hated myself, my stroke, the fact that I asked and [insert anyone/thing else I could hate].  But….somehow….. I changed my stroke.

How? The 5 Phases of Creating Change in Existing Habits:

  • Awareness – Something has to happen in order to bring a bad habit to your attention.  I like to call this “something” the “catalyst for change.”  Anything or anyone can be the catalyst for change.  But, keep in mind that a catalyst only starts a process.  It is not enough to simply be aware. In fact, that’s the easy part!
When H.C. pointed out that I wasn’t rotating, I was stunned.  I had no idea that my freestyle was as flat as a pancake.  I immediately started thinking about why that was and who I could blame for changing my stroke:
It must have been that one coach and that drill, or this other guy from 5 years ago that told me about swimming on a surf board….. “
Frankly it really didn’t matter WHY my stroke was this way, what mattered was WHAT I did with this new information.
  • Commitment – There is a reason people say an old dog can’t learn new tricks.  

Breaking a habit is hard.  When an athlete realizes he has to correct his technique, he has to break down the movement he “knows” and train his muscles to move in a new and “unknown” way.  You have to commit to creating change.

It is easy to say to yourself

“my current way of doing things is fine.”

But why settle?

It is much harder to expect more from yourself.  There are many reasons why the rotation in stroke of freestyle is necessary.  One important reason is that the rotation of the body helps to protect the shoulder joints.  If I didn’t change my seriously flat habit, I would eventually injure my shoulders.  Did I really have a choice?

  • The Break-down – This is the phase where you break your old habits by trying to master new skills.

Everything in your body gets confused.  That’s ok.  Frustration.  Anger.  Mental exhaustion.  Expect this.  Embrace it and keep working. Things will not feel fluid for awhile but do not allow yourself to slip back into old habits.

Going from flat-pancake freestyle to “skating” along the water made no sense.  My muscles had a vague memory of the movement, but everything was robotic and mechanical.  I felt TERRIBLE in the water.  I fatigued quickly simply because of the mental energy I was expending.

 I repeated this mantra over and over again:  “It will get better, this will feel better, teach your muscles, it will get better.”

  • Persistence – OK.  This one is easier then the break-down phase.  Don’t. Give. Up.

Changing a habit and/or building muscle memory takes time and repetition.   I remember reading somewhere that it can take anywhere between 2000 and 4000 repetitions for a particular movement to become an automatic muscle memory.  That is a lot of practice!

Keep reminding yourself that each day, each workout and each stroke is one step closer to your goal (what ever that goal is…).  However, each day you give up on yourself can be a HUGE setback for your goal and for your overall success.

  • Maintenance – Practice, Practice, Practice.

Congrats!  You made it this far!  Now, all you have to do it keep at it!

What does that mean?  For me, it was the day when H.C. told me that I had some fluidity back in my stroke.

This was also the day when I started to “get it”.  That moment I realized I swim freestyle and, for at least a few laps. I didn’t have to think about each aspect of the strokes movement independently.  It was awesome and I have no desire to loose this feeling, again.  

The point at which you “get” that your body understands the changes you want to make will take time, but once your there, you’ll know it.

Trust me, getting to the “get it” point is worth all the hard work.


Keep on Swimming,

Coach Meg

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