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One Small Change

Is Your Workout on Autopilot?


If you’re trying to be a more consistent free-throw shooter, putter, pitcher, field-goal kicker, tennis server or you name it, then you probably believe that you need to practice that skill repeatedly. Turns out you’re half right, according to Douglas Newburg, Ph.D. Although he’s a sports psychologist, he isn’t afraid to challenge the dictums of his profession. One of the biggest is that routine enhances performance. While it’s important to establish a mental and muscle memory of a key repetitive skill, he argues that it’s only beneficial to a point.

“When a routine becomes a matter of just going through the motions, it’s no longer doing what it was designed to do,” he notes. “If you shoot 500 free throws but don’t pay attention to how each one feels, you’ll stop improving and even develop bad habits.” So how do you know when diligent practice begins to have diminishing returns? Two things to watch for: First is a lack of motivation or an ongoing dread of doing the routine. When you’re bored and not paying attention, blips in the mechanics of the skill can arise without your noticing. The second sign is feeling you have to do the routine in order to be successful. In this respect, it becomes superstition. It’s effort for effort’s sake without any feedback.

“A routine is a shortcut that works for a time,” says Newburg. “But predictability, in anything, eventually keeps you from improving.” The antidote to all this is increased awareness. Practice is only practice if it’s done mindfully. One of the greatest golfers of all time, Ben Hogan, would hone his drive by hitting 50 balls in 2 hours. He’d think about each shot. He’d have a purpose for every ball. That’s practice.

This is life advice as well. Newburg contends that most people’s lives are 99 percent habit and routine. The commute, the job, the relationship, the workouts…have all become the mindless lobbing of endless free throws. In our striving for a better standard of living, our living has become standard. Rather than continuing to grow, our quality of life plateaus.

Newburg contends that leading a habitual life—what he calls “living on a checklist”—manifests itself as stress, chronic pain, insomnia, and even depression. Because we’re basically unchallenged 24/7, the energy we constantly produce has no outlet and turns into anxiety, restlessness, eating disorders, addiction, and even illness. Even if you’re constantly tired and are skeptical that you actually have excess energy, Newburg swears it’s there. For proof, he suggests doing 25 biceps curls with a pair of dumbbells or a set of push-ups. “Suddenly, all that energy you didn’t think you had shows up,” he points out.

The good news is you don’t have to quit your job, divorce your spouse or change your sport entirely to break out of this rut. Newburg says the habitual life is a fearful life, and you merely have to practice getting a little more courageous in everything you do, which is precisely the premise of this month’s One Small Change experiment. (Click here to start from the beginning of this month’s series.)

“Believe it or not, the best place to start is brushing your teeth,” he says. “If you pay attention to how it feels, you’ll realize it feels really good, and you’ll do a better job of it.”

Now apply this same principle of awareness to everything else you do. Feel it. Whether you’re running on a treadmill after work (or on the treadmill of work itself), monitoring how you feel will enable you to make adjustments that will result in more satisfaction and better performance.

“Feeling is the data of life,” says Newburg. “A routine that constantly utilizes it will open you up and allow you to see what’s possible."

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Focus, Goals, Attitude, Sports Performance