How do we learn and how do we change?

All of your experiences have shaped your brain to have a preference for different habits and behaviours. You run many of these habits regardless of whether they are still relevant or necessary. Think about something you’ve been doing for a while which you find challenging to change. For example, changing your diet, modifying your running style or changing your weightlifting technique. If you have performed enough repetitions to make these movements  habitual, then you need a special focus and careful repetition to install a revised habit, which can become your automatic “go to.”

With focus, you can choose to learn and practice new, more desirable behaviours. You can change and learn new, more effective which ways to live and train. Be excited to know that you can create habits which deliver you the results that you want.

Basically you can re-wire your brain, redirecting chemical, hormonal and physical resources to create new pathways. This re-wiring can improve your weightlifting technique, helping you to surpass a plateau or reduce your risk of injury. You can also re-wire your brain to establish a different mind-set in terms of nutrition and your emotional associations with food.

You can learn to do anything differently with focus, repetition and feedback.  (Feedback can by from yourself and others i.e reflection, video analysis or through coaching). 

Here are a few pointers which will help you to learn and create new habits:

  • When creating a habit quality repetition is key. In the first instance, I favour high quality and high frequency i.e. little and often to accelerate learning and lay down new pathways. It depends on what you are learning in terms of physical skills so I wont be prescriptive here. Here is a recent personal example, I’ve recently got my first ring muscles ups (they are not the prettiest at the moment but I’m consistently hitting them now.) I’m aiming for 4x30min sessions of muscle up related practice (drills) per week. This is a taxing move, but realistic for me in terms of the time I have and my current level of strength and conditioning.
  • Maintain this level of practice until the paths are fully established (which will means that less concentration and mental effort is required perform the move or ‘habit’.)
  • Now the the habit/ movement needs to be maintained with less volume but higher intensity- so loading with weight, linking moves, doing lifts in a class etc.
  • You may notice that you revert to your old ‘style’ when under pressure and this is why you need to practice in training with increased intensity and be more mindful in high pressure situations.
  • In terms of maximising your learning process, don’t attempt to learn too many things at the same time as it can overload and confuse the brain.
  • A useful analogy I like to use is,  imagine a field of grass with a lot of lightly trodden paths through it – none of which are fully established. This could be compared with trying to learn multiple types of pull-ups at the same time. This can cause the brain to become confused, frustrating you and slowing the learning process down.
  • Ingrain one habit or pattern before moving on to the next one. As the analogy suggests, if you don’t maintain the new habit, the grass will grow back over the paths again and your skills will become scrappy. Maintenance is important for sharpness and ease.

Athlete: Cat Jones (ION)

Photo credit: RXD Photography