Article written by Tom Foxley
Coaches are quick to talk about the physiological adaptation to a stimulus: the energy pathways, muscle recruitment, recovery time, Vo2 max etc. but they often neglect the adaptation at the heart of the matter: the psychological one.
What could be more important?
There are two sides to adaptation to a stimulus: neural adaptation and habituation. In this article, I’ll be discussing habituation. For the largest impact in your life, understanding how habits are formed and destroyed is the most important.
First, picture this story. You’ve picked up a niggle. At the moment, it’s just that – a niggle. You know that it will progress into something more severe soon though if you do nothing about it.
So you see a physio, chiro or research the issue yourself and come out with a plan of action. You know that for the next 3-4 weeks, you’re going to have to mobilize, stretch and strengthen the affected area 5 or 6 times a week.
The first week is a breeze, you’re clearly motivated. You do the work you’re supposed to do and begin to see the rewards as the niggle dissipates. You know you should be doing it for another three weeks, but forget one day. You remember just before you go to bed (when you still have time for 5 minutes of mobility).
You know what’s coming: you fall out of the routine and 5 weeks later, the issue is back with a vengeance.
This is a familiar experience in athletes worldwide, whether that’s in nutrition, mobility, training, meditation, visualization, recovery, whatever… So what do we do about it? We learn the process of habituation/adaptation so when you feel yourself sliding, you can acknowledge that you’re just at a stage of the process and you know what to do about it.
Introducing the Competence Spectrum
“He is most powerful who has control over himself” – Seneca
When you begin a new routine, it’s easy for you. The novelty of the process and excitement of the end goal make the first portion of any desired goal easy.
With excitement and relish, we smash the first few days. We tell our friends how well we’re doing. We can see the progress we’re making and the end goal seems closer already.
Then, for some reason, you wake up one morning and don’t feel like doing it. It could be personal issues, work stuff… you know, the normal shit. So you miss “just this one day” and promise you’ll be back on it tomorrow. Needless to say, a few weeks later, you’re not performing the habit that once served you.
At this point, you’re likely to find something more shiny. Hold on though, because you’re actually closer to making this a permanent habit than you think. In fact you’re at stage 3 of 4.
Before I identify the stages, let me define some terms.
Competence: Performing a behavior that serves you/that you want to perform (a beneficial behavior)
Incompetence: Not doing said behavior
Consciousness: How much you have to think about performing the behavior
Resistance: How difficult it is to perform the beneficial behavior
So, as you progress from incompetence to competence, you can see that both the resistance and the consciousness increase. As it becomes habitual though, the consciousness required and the resistance both diminish.
Along the way to competence, you will hit 4 stages:
- Unconscious incompetence
- Conscious incompetence
- Conscious competence
- Unconscious competence
Picture this… (guys, you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from. Girls, hopefully this will explain a few things)
Since you have been a young dude and were first peeing without help, you’ve been leaving the seat up. After all, who is there to complain? This is of course, unconscious incompetence. Soon, you meet the woman of your dreams and move in together. Leaving the seat up becomes an issue. It’s discussed and you promise you’ll sort it out.
Despite your best intentions, the habit is deeply ingrained and you “forget” (read: can’t be bothered). You know you’re doing wrong but can’t make yourself want to put the seat back down. We’re now at conscious incompetence. Your new girlfriend catches you. You promise to sort yourself out.
So, next time you go for a pee, you begin thinking about the idea that you’re going to put the seat down when you’re finished. Whilst you’re peeing, your aim wanders because you’re thinking about it so much. It takes every ounce of self-control to remember to put the seat down. Fortunately, you succeed this time. Welcome to conscious competence.
To take a slight deviation from the metaphor, this stage (conscious competence), is when we’re most likely to fall off the intended plan. The resistance is at its highest, and your level of consciousness is at a peak too. The key here, is to acknowledge which stage you are at and push through. Understand that you are actually closer to securing the habit than you’ve ever been before.
Repeat this enough, and eventually you’ll perform the behavior without thought – unconscious competence.
Back to our bathroom-based episode, that’s what happens here, you ingrain the pattern and it becomes habitual to put the toilet seat down after you pee! Success! You’ve reached unconscious competence, congratulations. Plus, your girlfriend will have to find another reason to finish with you now.
Does it always happen this smoothly? No.
Are there slight deviations depending on the person and the habit? Of course.
But we do know that everyone much follows this path, as long as they keep taking steps forwards.
So, next time when you find it difficult to prep your meals or do your mobility/accessory work know this: you’ve just reached a milestone along the way. You’ve just made progress. Let’s take another step.
I work with functional athletes on their mindset. Mindset (thoughts), lead to actions. Actions lead to results. Mindset is the lead domino to tip. That’s why I do what I do.
I also run The Alpha Movement Podcast which is a deep dive into the mindsets of some of our world’s best athletes and coaches. I extract the building blocks of a successful athlete (and get to speak to Games competitors and coaches).
I’ve racked up over 10,000 hours of CrossFit and 1-2-1 coaching. I’ve spent time in one of the elite arms of the British Military – oh, and I love German Shepherds, rock music, and slashing turns in deep powder on some fat skis.