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There is no denying the fact that behaviour change is hard
By: Andrea Furst (profile)
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As a sport psychologist who subscribes to the positive psychology movement, I would prefer to replace the word ‘hard’ with ‘challenging’… but the reality is, more often than not, people do find it difficult to change their behaviour. However, are we making behavioural change harder for ourselves than it needs to be?

As a sport psychologist who subscribes to the positive psychology movement, I would prefer to replace the word ‘hard’ with ‘challenging’… but the reality is, more often than not, people do find it difficult to change their behaviour.  However, are we making behavioural change harder for ourselves than it needs to be?

In my field of sports and performance psychology, I frequently see people who tell me that it is difficult for them to change their behaviour.  I also frequently observe individuals who demonstrate very little changes in behaviours and who often revert to old behaviours over time or when they are in situations of stress or anxiety.  The reality of achieving permanent positive change requires self-awareness, commitment to the process (through really wanting to change), and constant monitoring. 

The point of this article is not to scare you away from trying to change, or to use negative psychology to stimulate you into action.  Rather, that in order to achieve in success in life, a dedicated approach to behaviour change is necessary and its often not about what the majority of people do, but being the exception and not the rule. 

Behaviour change relies on self-control, which has been linked to success all aspects of life.

“However you define success – a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health, financial security, the freedom to pursue your passions – it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities.  When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict ‘positive outcomes’ in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control” (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

So, if we can understand self-control, then it makes sense that is must be easier for behaviour change to occur.  It is often the case that athletes try to change too many variables simultaneously and in a short time frame.  Golf, perhaps more than most sports, tends to promote the urge to change aspects of the game, be it swing, putter length or brand of driver.  Behaviour change is made harder because we are expecting too much of our brains to process given the complex role it plays just keeping us alive each day… let alone maximising our potential on the golf course!

Many of the challenges we face on and off the golf course can be answered relatively well by understanding self-control.

First, let’s review what we are talking about when it comes to self-control and willpower…

“Self-control is what people use to restrain their desires and impulses.  More precisely, it can be understood as the capacity to override one response (and substitute another).  It is largely, synonymous with ‘self-regulation’… Most self-regulation occurs in one of four spheres.  People regulate thought such as trying to concentrate or shut an annoying tune out of their minds.  They regulate emotion and mood such as when trying to feel better.  They regulate impulse such as when resisting temptation.  And they regulate performance such as by trading off speed and accuracy, or persevering despite a discouraging failure” Baumeister, 2012).

This article highlights some of the main points relevant for golfers, which can be applied to other areas of your life as well.

Carefully choose the number and complexity of your behaviour change goals.

I know that this is something you have heard before, but setting too many goals is a sure way to reduce the chances of achieving them…

There are numerous occasions where players change too many facets of their game, or attempt to make multiple changes at the same time, or both.  Players will often make changes to their clubs, their coach, their set up, their pre-shot routines – all in desperation to get better and see improvements in their scoring ability.  Given that the psychological skills are often seen as intangible relative to other skills, such as a player’s technical or physical skills, players often make more frequent changes to psychological skills.

Consider the progress of your golf game as a live experiment.  If there is simultaneous change on several aspects of your game, it is going to be very difficult to work out what is actually having an impact.  The purpose of any level of player is to become consistent at their highest playing level.  Changing all of the time doesn’t help to become consistent.  Nor does changing several aspects of your game at the same time contribute to consistent golf.

The preference is for all players to change aspects of your game strategically, methodically and gradually so that you know what impact certain changes are having to your game.  You need to be able to measure change. If you improve on each aspect of your game from what you are currently doing, all of these aspects add up and your need for change is less dramatic however you still benefit from the improvements to your game.

Since we have a limited amount of willpower, it is valuable to consider that we cannot simply decide to change a wide range of aspects in our game at the same time.  Behaviour change eats away at our stores of willpower and often results in minimal change if we don’t respect its limits.

Respect the limits of self-control

You have a finite amount of willpower each day that becomes depleted as you use it.  You also use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

If all self-control draws on the same energy, it’s worth planning the type of practice you do throughout your day to ensure that your quality of practice remains high.  For example, if you are doing tasks requiring self-control all day, then don’t leave difficult tasks until the end of the day.

If you are trying to self-regulate thoughts, emotions, impulses and/or performance, then it is hard work for your brain to process and it needs recognition for the required discipline.

Maintain your glucose supply to your brain

There is a strong relationship between willpower and the brain’s glucose levels.  Baumeister and colleagues have found that the act of self-control uses glucose and as such the glucose supply to the brain is less after people exert self-control.

The immediate practical application for this knowledge is to ensure that you prepare yourself adequately with the best types of food to feed your brain.  This is not new advice. However, it is helpful to have the science to support the advice constantly provided to players by psychologists, dietitians, coaches, and parents that golfers need to eat and drink throughout the round.  Food is not just for energy for the body but enables the brain to continually make decisions about shot selection over 18 holes.

It’s also worth considering your eating habits during your practice days as they are often long days shifting between the course, driving range, and short game facilities.

Monitor yourself regularly.

It may be very wise to embrace some “tiger mum” like monitoring.  The tiger mum style of monitoring targets self-control and discipline rather than only being concerned with building self-esteem.  It teaches children to value the importance of discipline, as it is central to success in these families and can be observed in sporting stars all around the world.

If the idea of someone else monitoring you is unappealing, then embed some self-imposed monitoring into your practice schedule and performances.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, and all the appropriate activities, resources and guidance, behaviour change will still take time; changes can occur but can regress very easily.  Monitoring can help to minimise the slip-ups.  I am sure you have heard the benefits of weight-loss programs while people are in the program but as soon as they are left on their own, they revert to old behaviours and gain weight, because they are no longer getting monitored!

Goal setting is a prominent part of any change process and generally you will find people who benefit most from goal setting will record their goals so they can review their intentions and track their progress.  When goals are recorded, then there is evidence of where you started and what changes you wanted to make and of course how you are going to make them.  By regularly (i.e., daily) referring to the written goals you can access whether you are on track or whether you have lost your way, which all contributes to an effective self-monitoring process and builds self-control.

Be open and willing to work hard at change.

You can change if you are prepared to put in the hard work!  This is supported further by the research conducted by Baumeister and his colleagues over the past 20 years. 

If you regularly exercise your willpower, it will get stronger.  Your willpower will even become better for arbitrary tasks that are irrelevant to the actual behavior you want to change! For example, if you exercise a change in behaviour (e.g., work on your posture) for 2-3 weeks, it will have a flow on effect on your ability to exert self-control in other aspects of your life.  Try it! 

The takeaway message is that small seemingly irrelevant tasks contribute to the development of your ability to exert self-control. 

It is vital to remember that even small changes assist in behaviour change.  The benefits of making small changes will add up over time and contribute to much larger behavioural changes.  So, there is no need to try to change too much at once.

Enjoy the benefits of becoming an effective self-controller!

Through understanding that you have a limit to how much self-control you can exert, you can guide your life in an effective, pro-active way.  Pre-planning will keep you on track and remember, simple strategies can help build self-control.  For example, avoid situations that may lead to temptation (e.g., not going down certain aisles in the supermarket or deciding to do a thorough course analysis prior to the round so that you have a plan in place for competition that you stick to).

The self-control movement is not about making you feel good immediately.  However, the evidence in the literature suggests the application of self-control is producing more successful people in all walks of life in a wide range of disciplines.  It is about delayed gratification through recognition that the wait is worth it.  In the long run, you will be better served on and off the golf course through valuing imposed discipline.

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