The Habit Trail

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Fall is the season I always associate with getting my act together. It’s back to school, back to wearing real clothes, back to using an oven instead of a grill. For skiers, it’s getting serious about dryland, equipment and all the anticipation that goes with waiting for a seasonal sport to come in season. It’s handy for skiers that training ramps up when everyone else is buckling down as well.

Fall is also when I get around to wrangling all the best advice I’ve read or heard and sharing it. A lot of great stuff comes from the Way of Champions Podcast, which I have mentioned here before. One book I meant to read, after hearing about it on that podcast, was a book called Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I never actually read the book, but I managed to sign up for Clear’s “3-2-1” weekly newsletter, in which he aims to deliver, “The most wisdom per word of any newsletter on the web.” It’s an ambitious goal, and after reading the newsletter for a couple of weeks I was finally inspired to get the book from the library.

Clear’s point throughout is that little changes or efforts, over time, add up to big gains. Immediately, this conjured up two memories. The first was my all-time favorite quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Next, I was reminded of a Squaw Valley coach from the Way Back Machine, Warren Gibson. “Gibbo” instilled in his athletes the idea of a simple daily routine, referred to as “Habit.” It was more a mandate than an idea, and it was kind of genius in that it was eminently doable—significant enough to maintain fitness and make you feel accomplished, but not so onerous that you had any real excuse to blow it off, even if you still hadn’t done it by 8 pm. I suspect Habit went through many iterations, but by the time I was introduced to it—around age 15—it involved a certain number of sit-ups, push ups, knee touch squat jumps and, my favorite part, 400 jump ropes.

Throughout the season, you did this every day after skiing, no matter what. (I still feel sorry for all those nice people on ski vacations who had to listen to jump ropes clacking in the hallways during their apres ski naps.) Our only other non-negotiable was the six run rule, whereby no matter how bad the weather, as long as the lifts were running we took at least six runs.

The power of Gibson’s “Habit” came back to me while reading Atomic Habits, which goes into great detail about how to build good habits and (for those of us who have a a few more trips around the sun) how to get rid of bad ones. These can be habits regarding diet, exercise, training, studying, corresponding, meditating, working, creating, connecting, social media, learning a new skill, and on and on. When I got to the parts where he explained why motivation is overvalued (identity wields more power than achievement) and why willpower is a useless strategy for long term change (environment blows it away), I was hooked. This guy was speaking my language.

I am sharing a few of the highlights I found helpful, in time for your week and your winter. I hope it inspires a trip to the bookstore, or the library, or down a relatively productive rabbit hole on the web.

Clear’s recommendations are all based on his theory that “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” These systems emerge from habits built around the Four Laws of Behavior Change:

  • Make it obvious
  • Make it attractive
  • Make it easy
  • Make it satisfying

Getting rid of bad habits is a matter of doing the inverse:

  • Make it invisible
  • Make it unattractive
  • Make it difficult
  • Make it unsatisfying

As Clear puts it, habits are not about having something (a goal), but about becoming something (an identity). The first step is to identify as whatever you want to be: an elite athlete, a compassionate teacher, a curious student, an avid gardener, a non-smoker, a good cook, a disciplined writer, a good listener, an accomplished musician, etc.  Then, “Every action is a vote for the type of person you want to become.” I love this way of guiding daily little decisions, and focusing less on what you want to achieve than on who you wish to become. 

AKA procrastination, letting the perfect get in the way of the good, analysis paralysis, etc. This is relevant in life and sport. Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done, while in fact you are just preparing. Action, on the other hand, means risking failure, but also is the only path to progress. The power of action vs movement is huge in ski racing, where the flawless run is the mythical unicorn, and fast, breakthrough runs often feel like a series of linked recoveries. Clear uses an example of an experiment in a photography class to show how students graded on volume, who improved by taking many little risks, took far better pictures than those graded on quality, who agonized over the perfect shot. The takeaway: Start with repetition, not perfection.

(This also brings to mind the dreaded college essay, which used to be something one just down and wrote, say in an afternoon, vs spent all summer crafting and massaging into the perfect 650 word masterpiece. Three words: get it done!)

Anyone who has ever rehabbed from an injury learns pretty quickly that there’s not much to it other than putting in the work. Getting good at something is no different. When Clear says that to succeed you have to fall in love with being bored, it reminds me of the Woody Allen quote that “80 percent of success is showing up.” If you want to be great, get your reps in— and show up on your bad days, especially on your bad days.

Another distinguishing feature between winners and losers, is how they deal with failure, which is inevitable. Rather than letting failure push them off the rails, winners learn how to recover quickly and get back to the program. In a recent chat with Jeremy Bloom, a successful entrepreneur and the only athlete to ski in the Olympics and play in the NFL, he told me about his “48-hour rule.” He allows himself to steep in a failure—as he says, obsess on it— for no more than 48 hours, and then gets back on track and moves on.

Another concept that really resonated was the discussion about reducing friction to make a good habit stick (and increasing it to get a bad habit to fade away). Clears makes this point with the familiar image of a kinked garden hose. You can increase the flow by cranking up the water pressure, or you can increase flow by removing the kink. This brought to mind coaches and programs who pride themselves on creating obstacles to make you tough, vs others who strive to remove stress wherever possible.

Clear uses lots of examples to illustrate how one small ritual (putting on your running shoes, hailing the cab that takes you to the gym, setting up your work space the night before, filling up water bottles and putting throughout the house) can tip off a sequence of small events that reinforce a habit. Once the sequence is set and the environment is created, a cascade of good habits can become unavoidable.  

I’m working on an updated reading/listening list, which will include books mentioned in the past, including The Culture Code, Captains Class and Atomic Habits. Next up on my reading list is Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I was reminded of the topic while listening to an interview with Robby Kelley on Ski Racing’s podcast Tips and Tales. Kelley, who this year is skiing and playing football for Castleton State, talks about the long term athletic benefits of a multi-sport background. If you haven’t yet subscribed Ski Racing Premium, I urge you to do so. Make it a habit to support your identity as a ski racing fan.

Happy Fall! Now gimme 10 and and grab your woolies!

In case you missed Racer Next summer stories in Ski Racing, here they are. Did I mention you should subscribe? And of course thank you for your support!

Hand Standteiner: The Heart of the Mountains

Remembering Max Burkhart

Devo Dispatch: Women’s D Team Camp Powered By All Female Staff

There Must Be Something in the Water: Lake Tahoe Olympians

Spinning Cotton Candy Into Colorado

Turn Up the Volume: How College Skiers Get Their Snow Days

1 thought on “The Habit Trail”

  1. Nice Edie, We just came through Santa Barbara a few days ago and my good friends sister lives in Cabo and Warren is now a major influence in the Gringo Hill community. He probably has them all doing workouts and spreading the Gibson way. My friend Tom was just down there and said Warren is still such a character. Such a small community we have as ski racers. Warren also had a big influence on myself, way ahead of the time, he had the first hot box for skis in Squaw and as with your dads hot box I took advantage of it, and his wisdom. Thanks for stirring the memories of a great Coach and person,.⛷

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