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  • Writer's pictureEmily Robinson

What makes long term change so hard?

Starting on the journey of long-term change in athletics is both daunting and compelling. Athletes often aim to elevate themselves and their game to new heights in their sport, pushing boundaries and striving for excellence. However, achieving this goal is far from simple. The path to success is riddled with obstacles, demanding an unwavering commitment and the courage to confront challenges head-on. This underscores the importance of adhering to long-term changes. Such changes are essential for athletes as they foster continuous growth and excellence while promoting resilience and adaptability, qualities applicable to any area of life. Prioritizing progress, regardless of its magnitude, not only enhances performance but also equips athletes to navigate obstacles and leave a lasting legacy, inspiring others to pursue their own versions of their best selves. Throughout this discussion, we'll explore the challenges athletes face in making lasting changes to their routines which will hopefully spark strategies to overcome these barriers. 

Instant Gratification vs. Delayed Rewards

  1. Instant Gratification

Today's culture does a fantastic job in cultivating this idea of instant gratification, which by definition is the temptation, and resulting tendency, to forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit. In other words, this form of decision making is focused around one thing: time, or rather, the lack thereof. In the realm of sports, this term instant gratification manifests as a desire for immediate success and measurable results. Athletes are constantly tempted by false promises of shortcuts to greatness, whether it be a training strategy or the next great weight-lifting program ensuring overnight performance improvements. Examples of this behavior include but certainly are not limited to:

  • Using performance-enhancing drugs

  • Extreme weight cutting 

  • Ignoring injuries

Examples of athletes focusing on maintainable behavior impacting long-term changes and outcomes include:

  • Skill development 

  • Proper injury prevention and rehabilitation

  • Lifestyle changes 

When given the opportunity to sacrifice long-term progress for short-term gain, athletes find it much easier to choose the latter, particularly in an environment that prioritizes excellence and victory. This mentality fuels athletes' constant struggle to balance immediate results with the benefits of patience, discipline, and long-term investment in their sport.

  1. Delayed Rewards

Understanding the importance of patience and discipline while also minimizing the power of immediate gratification is crucial for athletic and overall improvement. Picture this: you're training hard day in and day out, pushing yourself to the limit, chasing that next win or PR. It can be tempting during this training phase to focus on the quick wins, your physique, performance stats, or potential shortcuts to greatness. But here’s the thing: success in sports, like in life, takes time. It's about the journey of where you want to go, the slow progress, and the small victories along the way. That's where delayed rewards come in. They offer athletes benefits beyond just winning, helping them grow and improve over time, leading to consistent and longer-lasting results. 

Psychological Factors

  1. Comfort zone and fear of failure

Unfortunately, in my days as an athlete, I never truly understood the benefits of failing. In fact, I avoided it at all costs. After stepping back from the game and gaining both maturity and perspective, I now understand the importance of stepping beyond your comfort zone and allowing yourself the opportunity to fail. Exploring what’s beyond your comfort zone and overcoming the fear of failure are essential for athletes regarding long-term success and adherence to goals. Comfort zones offer familiarity but they also limit growth, while fear of failure can also hinder progress. By embracing discomfort and viewing failure as a stepping stone rather than a setback, athletes can push past their limitations, challenge themselves, take risks, and learn from setbacks to achieve their full potential. By reframing failure as a necessary part of the journey toward success, athletes can embody the resilience and determination so desperately needed in life, ultimately achieving their long-term goals in their sport. You must be willing to fail. 

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan  

  1. Mental resilience and self-discipline

The bottom line is that in order to adhere to changes you wish to make permanent, you must display qualities of resilience and self-discipline, as they are the cornerstone of long-term commitment amongst athletes. When faced with adversity, it’s not often that physical ability alone carries an athlete through their challenge, but rather their ability to stay mentally strong and disciplined. No matter the circumstance, mental resilience allows the athlete to:

  • Bounce back from a setback or failure stronger and more determined

  • Stay focused and maintain confidence

  • Handle unexpected obstacles and pressures

  • Emotional strength to cope with stressors

Self-discipline, on the other hand, is the driving force behind consistent training, healthy habits, and goal-oriented focus. It’s the ability to stick to a plan, even when motivation sways and inevitable distractions arise. Together, mental resilience and self-discipline are a powerful combination that enable athletes to navigate through their highs and lows, all while staying committed to their long-term goals. Much like your principles, these qualities serve as a guide to success and fulfillment. 

Physical Factors

  1. Body adaptation and plateauing

Your body and it’s health and abilities can be another highly influential competent in achieving long-term change. Biologically, when you first start training, progress comes in quickly as the body responds to the learned skill; however, progress will inevitably begin to slow. This experience is what we refer to as plateauing and is the natural step of an athletic journey. In these plateaus, growth seems to stall for the athletes despite their continuous effort, which can be extremely frustrating and draining on their mental health. To overcome these plateaus, it’s vital that the athlete embraces the season of change and introduces new and potentially varied training methods to then see training growth. By maintaining patience and applying mental resilience, athletes can navigate through a plateau and continue progressing toward their long term goals, understanding that growth is not linear. 

  1. Injury setbacks and rehabilitation

Injuries are a very unfortunate result of being a member of the athletic world, and their impact can be profound not just physically, but psychologically. Whether it's a minor sprain or a more severe ligament tear, injuries often disrupt training routines and competition schedules, potentially derailing progress toward long-term goals. The rehabilitation process that follows the injury can be demanding, and requires patience, dedication, and commitment to recovery protocol. However, it's during this time that athletes have an opportunity to address weaknesses, correct imbalances, and build a stronger foundation for future success, evolving their journey toward long-term success.

Environmental Factors and Social Influence

  1. Team Culture

Team dynamics play a pivotal role in shaping an athlete's ability to sustain change over time. When athletes are part of a supportive and cohesive team environment, they benefit from:

  • Encouragement

  • Motivation

  • Accountability 

All of which is provided by their teammates, coaches, and support staff. This support system fosters a sense of belonging and shared purpose, encouraging athletes to stay committed to their goals even in the face of adversity. Think about it: when you're surrounded by teammates who believe in you, who push you to be your best, it's easier to stay focused on your goals, even when the going gets tough. You feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself – a tight-knit community brought together by a shared passion for the game.

On the flip side, negative team dynamics foster conflict, distrust, and a lack of support within teammates, making it difficult to stay motivated and focus on both individual and team goals. This is why cultivating a healthy and supportive team culture is so critical for athletes. Creating an environment where everyone feels valued, supported, and empowered to be their best selves helps to motivate success and progress toward goals. When athletes have the right teams behind them, there is no limit as to what they can achieve, which is why having a positive team dynamic can be the secret ingredient that fuels the journey to long-term success. 

  1. Coaching and Support Systems

Coaches play a pivotal role in shaping the long-term development and growth of their athletes, in both a positive and negative manner. Here's a breakdown of how they can have both positive and negative impacts:

Positive Impacts:

  • Skill Development

Coaches can provide their athletes with the skillbase needed to improve their skills over time. Through structured practices and constructive criticism, athletes can finetune their abilities and reach their full potential. 

  • Mentorship 

By offering emotional support and guidance, a coach can become a mentor to their players and create a positive relationship that helps form confidence, resilience, and a growth mindset. 

  • Goal Setting

Part of being an effective coach is helping your athletes set realistic goals, both short term and long term, that will appropriately challenge them. 

  • Accountability 

By holding athletes accountable for their actions, coaches can teach their athletes the importance of commitment, responsibility, and discipline. 

  • Character Development 

As we all know, sports go way deeper than just athletic skill as they play a pivotal role in shaping character and values. Through words and actions, coaches can instill qualities of integrity, sportsmanship, and respect for others, which can be applied both on and off the field. 

Negative Impacts:

  • Overemphasis on Winning

Coaches that overemphasize winning above everything else could potentially create a toxic environment where athletes feel pressured to perform at all costs. This type of environment could lead to anxiety, burnout, and an overall loss of love for the game. 

  • Poor Communication

Coaches who fail to effectively communicate with their athletes may struggle to successfully explain their feedback, expectations, and goals for the team. Misunderstandings can arise, leading to frustration and disengagement from the coaching process.

  • Negative Reinforcement 

Certain coaches use methods of harsh criticism, punishment, and humiliation to run their programs. While discipline is absolutely vital, large amounts of negativity can diminish an athlete’s confidence and self-esteem, hindering their likelihood of achieving their long-term goals. 

  • Failure to Address Mental Health

The mental well-being of an athlete is just as if not more important than their physical performance. Coaches who ignore or dismiss mental health concerns may overlook signs of stress, anxiety, or depression, putting athletes' long-term well-being at risk. 

In conclusion, navigating the journey of long-term change in athletics is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. Athletes strive to continually elevate themselves and their performance, facing numerous obstacles along the way. These challenges are full of the struggle against the allure of instant gratification, the necessity of embracing delayed rewards, and the psychological, physical, and environmental factors that influence their progress. Overcoming these obstacles requires a combination of resilience, discipline, and support from coaches, teammates, and support systems. By prioritizing progress over immediate results, athletes can cultivate enduring growth and excellence, leaving a lasting legacy that inspires others to pursue their own paths to greatness. 

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