How to Reach Your Martial Arts Goals – Part 1: The Behavioral Science Lowdown

By Joel Williams | Food for Thought

Jul 08

It goes without saying that consistent training is the only way for you to advance up through the ranks of the martial arts system you have invested your hard earned money and precious time into studying. This is the first post in a two-part blog article series where I want to share both science and practical tools for establishing good training habits. In this post I will cover some important background information about the behavioral science around habit formation and maintenance. The second post (look for it next month) in this series is where I will share with you my own personal journey in applying these scientific principles (and a free mobile app) to keep myself on track.

Forming Habits: The 21 Days Myth

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. There are other versions of this (sometimes stated as 30 days or 1 month). Apparently, this “myth” arose out of some very specific research conducted in the 1960s (which was not actually about habits, by the way) and got picked up by the self-help author and speaker crowd. Once a best selling book or popular author says something, unfortunately that is often taken as “gospel truth” and not questioned.

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: dizain

A recent study tested this myth empirically (they did a real, rigorous study). These researchers wanted to know how long it really takes to form a habit. They studied the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period (each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt). Some chose simple habits like drinking a bottle of water with lunch, others chose more complex behaviors like running for 15 minutes before dinner. At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it.

So what did they find? It took more than 2 months before a new behavior become automatic: on average, it took 66 days to be exact. The researchers also determined that the length of time it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In this study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

What can you take away from this? The truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from 2 – 8 months to establish a new habit, not 21 days. It will vary from person to person. Don’t be concerned if it takes you longer. Just know that it may take longer to “lock in” than what is often stated in popular culture circles. Be patient, use proven tactics and you WILL succeed!

The Trigger > Action > Reward Cycle

This cycle is a simple illustration of the main components required to establish a habit, and is sometimes referred to as the Habit Loop.

The Habit Loop

cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into cruise control (automatic mode) and ushers a specific routine. The cue can be a person, place, thing, or even emotion. For martial arts training, a common cue is class time. For those who do not train at “brick and mortar” schools, however, will have different cues – perhaps an alarm integrated into your daily calendar.

The routine is the second part of this three-part loop. The routine is an action that can be mental, emotional, or physical.  This is what really makes a habit, a habit. This is what you DO – in your case, the training routine.

The reward is what makes doing the routine worthwhile, at least, from a neurological perspective. A reward may not seem like a reward on its surface, especially if your habits cause you financial, physical, or emotional pain. Runners who get “runner’s high” actually get a shot of endorphins after a run—that’s the reward. 

A really straightforward explanation of this cycle (with applications) can be found here.

What Is Your Level Of Motivational Readiness?

The Big Picture

James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente (University of Rhode Island) first wrote about the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) in the 1980s. This behavioral model was developed to guide clinical behavioral intervention of addictive behaviors. Smoking cessation was the first behavior of interest and intervention strategy that built the conceptual and practice empirical foundation of this integrated model of human behavior. Over the years, the model has been successfully applied to other risk behaviors (e.g., sun exposure) and lifestyle behaviors (e.g., diet, physical activity). Most recently, TTM has been used to guide web-, texting-, or mobile app based behavioral interventions.

Stages of Change | James O. Prochaska & Carlo C. DiClemente | University of Rhode Island

Dipping Our Toes Into the Psychoanalytic Pool

One aspect of TTM that is useful in our discussion of forming and continuing a habit such as consistent training, is the concept of stages of change (SOC). According to SOC, an individual is presently “at” a specific level of “readiness to change” (with respect to a particular behavior). Now, since SOC is behavior specific, I could have a high level of readiness to change my exercise habits but have a low level of readiness to change my eating habits.

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: Asier

Bear With Me… A Little “Fancy” Psychology Talk

Those who are not even thinking about changing are in the first stage (called pre-contemplation). Stages 2 and 3 are those people who are thinking about making a change (called contemplation) OR have taken some real step toward making a change (called preparation). Stage 4 is the stage where the “rubber meets the road”… that is, this is when a person actually engages in behavior change (called action). Lastly, Stage 5 is where people continue with the new behavior (called maintenance).

Source: Adobe Stock | Author:

Say What, Now?

In the behavioral sciences world, so-called “stage theories”, like the stages of change, assume that behavior change involves movement through a sequence of discrete stages, that different variables influence different stage transitions, and that effective interventions need to be matched to stage.

TRANSLATION: when therapists (or researchers) are trying to get individuals to change their behavior they need to know (1) “where” each individual patients (or subjects) “are” (in terms of wanting to change), so they can (2) customize appropriate (stage-relevant) strategies to facilitate behavior change.

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: pathdoc

Coming Back Down To Earth

We can use this science base to guide our own personal efforts at changing behavior (or establishing and maintaining a new habit). Notice in the image above that for each stage of change there is a corresponding list of important things to do (more technically, we can call them strategies) that “fit”, or are appropriate, given your readiness to change. See, that wasn’t hard! In the following sections I’ll expand these important foundational concepts and talk about some concrete, real-life strategies you can use to lock in your habit of consistent martial arts training.

Stages of Change Applied to Training
  • Stage 1 is largely irrelevant to our topic as most of you reading this are either thinking about starting a GMAU program or you are already a student.
  • So, for those of you in Stage 2 (maybe someone who is thinking about starting a GMAU program) the important things for you to do are to (1) consider what things may prevent you from training, and (2) determining who, in your social network, can you count on to: keep you accountable, encourage you along the way, and help you through any difficulties you face along the way – likely some of the things you already “pre-identified” in step one.
  • For those who align with Stage 3 (this may be someone who has enrolled in a GMAU course – possibly even tried a class or two – but has not yet begun to train regularly) you should focus on setting realistic training goals and figuring out a realistic timeline for you to be prepared to test for the next belt or chevron rank. From a day-today perspective, setting realistic training goals includes thinking through what days during the (typical) week you can actually train, how much time you have free to train on specific days (this can vary from day to day – if you can do more [or less] on specific days then do what you can). From a bigger picture perspective, think about how long it will take you to accumulate the hours required to be eligible to test for the next belt or chevron rank. Those who are at white or yellow belt level may not know exactly but as you move through the ranks you will have a better idea of how long is reasonable for you. Remember that the time frame will vary from person to person – and that is OK!
  • Stage 4, is where you take action. This is literally where you have not only taken steps toward a new habit, you have a plan and you are executing that plan. At first, you may realize your goal needs to be “dialed in”. Some may get overzealous and try to do too much, and others may have the bar set a bit low and are not making real progress. Either one of those things can be habit formation breakers due to feeling overwhelmed or simply bored.
  • Lastly, in Stage 5 you are focused on “staying the course”. This stage is where some find themselves on cruise control and where others struggle. If this stage is easy for you, you mainly need to figure out how to stay motivated. If this stage is harder for you, you should lean hard on social support and rewards to keep you excited. I will expand on these strategies below.

Proven Behavior Change Strategies

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: cacaroot

Goal Setting

Goal-setting is a widely used strategy in health promotion intervention and goal setting is particularly relevant to physical activity, as: goals are often prescribed to or set by individuals; real time feedback by today’s popular activity trackers is based on goal-setting principles; and individuals often adopt national/worldwide physical activity guidelines as activity level goals or targets. Behavioral science tells us that when people aim for and master a task that has some personal value, they experience a sense of satisfaction (and confidence). Further, satisfaction derived from reaching goals builds internal motivation. In other words, your goals have to be “high enough” for you to honestly feel that you have accomplished something and “low enough” that you can actually reach them. There is a real balance at play here. Once you find that sweet spot, reaching a goal will only motivate you to do more!

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: alphaspirit

For the GMAU student, goal setting can be applied not only to consistent training (e.g., times per week, total hours per week) but also to having the required fitness level to complete assignments and tests, which must be filmed continuously. I, for one, have found myself “sucking wind” during Krav Maga assignments and testing! A 2016 meta-analysis of 52 studies showed that across multiple studies, goal-setting is an effective strategy with a significant impact (measured as effect size) on actual physical activity behavior. When creating your own physical activity goals be realistic, and set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound!

  • Specific : WHAT exactly do you want to achieve?
  • Measurable : HOW will your know when they reach the goal?
  • Achievable : Is this goal REALISTIC? Not so high you can’t reach it. Not so low you aren’t making progress.
  • Relevant : Will your goal HELP YOU reach your training objective?
  • Time-bound : Set your goal within a TEMPORAL CONTEXT (set number of training hours per day, sessions per week, etc.)
Source: Adobe Stock | Author: ilkercelik

Problem Solving And Trouble Shooting

Problem solving or troubleshooting comes into play when you fail to reach a goal. It is important to not let this get you down. Especially early on, you may need to simply “zero in” on a realistic/achievable goal given your current level of training, life time constraints, etc. The simplest application of problem solving/troubleshooting is to re-visit your goal and ask some simple questions:

  • What prevented you from reaching your goal?
  • Was the reason a physical limitation or a time limitation?
  • Whatever kept you from reaching your goal – was that a “one time thing” (in which case you may want to try to reach that goal again) or was it a good indication you may be trying to do too much?
  • What could you change that would allow you to reach the original goal, as stated?
  • Do you need to modify the goal to be more realistic/achievable?
Source: Adobe Stock | Author: Андрей-Яланский

Maintenance And Relapse Prevention

In the maintenance stage you want to figure out how to “stay on track” with consistent training, making adjustments (as described above) as needed. Here are a two tips that are important in this stage:

  • Reinforcing Management: In order to stay motivated, you need to incorporate self-rewards (internal motivation – e.g., buy yourself something nice when you reach a goal) or positive feedback from others (external motivation – e.g., verbal praise or pat on the back from someone who’s opinion you value) to keep you excited. Let’s face it, obtaining that next belt or rank can be very motivating but you need to learn to find ways to “celebrate” along the way. But what, exactly, that looks like depends on what speaks to you personally. In other words, what makes you tick?
  • Leverage Helping Relationships – Trust others in your social network, accepting and utilizing their support to change. This could be family or friends, other GMAU students, etc. Social support, in the form of an accountability partner, someone to help you problem solve, or that “natural cheerleader” in your life that makes you feel great about your accomplishments can be very powerful across several stages and particularly so in the Maintenance Stage in connection with problem solving and positive reinforcement. The hardest part for you may be in identifying key members of your social network and actually asking them to give you support. Don’t be afraid to ask! Something like this could actually deepen a social tie you have with someone else.

Customize A Plan… How YOU Can Use This Info

Source: Adobe Stock | Author: gustavofrazao

One of the best examples of how to set up a personal action plan comes from the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. I am a health behavior scientist and I became a Master Trainer in this program and integrated the CDSMP concepts and principles into some of the grant-funded disease self-management interventions that my colleagues and I have implemented and evaluated. In the CDSMP, patients choose one behavior (or habit) that they want to change each week. We walk them through a process to help them set their personal goal, then we “test” how confident they are in achieving the goal. The following week we check in with how they did, apply problem solving/troubleshooting strategies (if needed), celebrate goal achievement, and set a new self-management goal for the following week. Here is a quick overview of how we teach individuals to develop their Action Plan that you can apply to setting your personal training goal(s):

  • Identify a specific, actionable goal
  • Determine the actions required for you to achieve the goal
  • Define where, how much, how often, and when the actions will occur
  • Set a specific start date
  • Decide how and when you will self-check progress
  • Lastly, the confidence check: On a scale from 1 to 10, how confident are you that you can reach this goal? (If you answer less than 8 then you need to re-visit and tweak the goal)

Part 2 Preview…

Catch up with me in August when I publish a blog post on my experience with the HabitMinder app. I will download this app and use it over the next 30 days to help me stay on track with my training. In my post I’ll include some videos of me using the app and track progress toward my training goals. Until then, take care and train hard!

About the Author

Husband. Father. University Professor. GMAU Certified Krav Maga Instructor.

Leave a Comment:

(6) comments

Glenn McHenry July 11, 2020

Great article, with some deep insight that I will be incorporating into my life, at a time where I need it! Thank you!

    Joel Williams July 11, 2020

    Glenn – I am pleased to hear you found some insight here. Train hard, sir!

Andy E July 11, 2020

Great article, Joel! I have read up a bit on the cognitive sciences involved here and I totally agree. As we build habits, new synapses are formed in the brain. If we support the habits through discipline and positive-reinforcement, the synapses between neurons become like automatic thought processes. Very useful info, especially for martial artists like us.

    Joel Williams July 11, 2020

    Andy – thank you for your comments. Best wishes in reaching your training goals!

Zach July 13, 2020

Very helpful, thanks!

    Joel Williams July 13, 2020

    Glad you found this blog post helpfu, Zach!

Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: