Hacking the habit loop: Help your clients and athletes achieve goals faster with this proven 3-step formula

by Brian Cain, MPM

Get this FREE MiniCourse to help your athletes perform their best, overcome any obstacle, and stay focused under pressure.
[gravityform id="3" title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]

Your life is a sum of your habits. The habits you have shape how you spend your time and how successful you will become—in sports, in achieving your goals, in life. 

Even the most disorganized person relies on countless daily habits. You may not be aware of them, but you already perform habits every single day, all day. 

The order in which an athlete puts on gear before practice or a competition? That’s a habit. 

What a client turns to when they’re experiencing emotional turmoil or feeling stressed? That’s a habit. 

The way you scramble your eggs, how often you check your social media, they way you tie your shoes—all habits. 

And each day, your habits are driving everything you do… whether you recognize it or not. 

In today’s article, we’re going to break down the role routines play in our lives, and I’m going to outline a 3-step formula you can use to help your clients and athletes establish the habits they need for success. 

The habit loop: An invisible force that drives ALL of our daily actions—whether we realize it or not

According to habit expert and author of Atomic Habits James Clear and author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, every habit follows the same framework:

  1. Reminder (the initial “trigger” that initiates behavior). 
  2. Routine (the behavior itself, or the action you take). 
  3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior). 

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in everyday life:

  • Your phone buzzes or dings (reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The buzz or ding acts as a trigger or cue. It’s the prompt that starts the habitual behavior. 
  • You check your phone (routine). This is the actual behavior. When your phone buzzes or dings, you know someone is trying to get ahold of you (or that photo you just posted on IG is BLOWING UP with heart emojis). So you check your phone to see what’s up. 
  • You find out who’s trying to get ahold of you, or how many “likes” you’ve received (reward). This is the reward, or the benefit gained from doing the behavior (or punishment, depending on who is trying to get ahold of you or what reactions your IG post is receiving). You want to find out why someone is trying to get ahold of you, how many people love your photo. Discovering that piece of information is the reward for completing the habit. 

Each day, this same process occurs over and over again, in hundreds of different ways and scenarios, running your day to day actions on a subconscious level.  

And that can be a really good thing; or a really bad thing…

Positive vs. Negative habit loops (The key to achieving goals and unlocking true performance potential)

This is extremely powerful, yet profoundly simple: If the “habit loops” currently at play in your life (or your clients’ and athletes’ lives) don’t line up with your health, fitness, and performance goals, then the chances of achieving them are almost ZERO. 

Whether we’re talking about weight loss, improving strength and conditioning, or performing our best during competition, it’s our ACTIONS that matter most. 

And the habit loops driving the actions of your clients and athletes each day are at play in both positive and negative behavior patterns. 

Let’s break down an example of a negative habit loop:

Trigger = A referee makes a call that an athlete disagrees with in basketball. 

Routine = The athlete tosses their hands up in the air, rolls their eyes, and yells “What? Are you kidding me!?”

Reward = Everyone knows that the athlete disagreed with the ref’s call. The athlete feels like they got cheated by the ref and wants everyone to know it and feel sorry for them. 

Now, for an example of how we could turn this into a positive habit loop:

Trigger = A referee makes a bad call. 

Routine = The athlete stays big with their body language. Their self-talk is, “good, give them that call, I’ll get the next one.” They take a deep breath and associate their exhalation with blowing away and releasing the last call. 

Reward = The athlete is able to focus back in on the NEXT play/possession with a clear and present focus, harboring ZERO negative energy towards the previous situation, giving themselves a better chance for success.

See what a difference it can make, depending on whether you have a negative or positive habit loop at play?

The takeaway: Everything we do on a daily basis is driven by the “habit loop” of trigger, routine/action, and reward. 

Eating junk food late at night? Letting the pressure of competition sabotage confidence and performance? 

If you can help your clients and athletes identify the habit loops at play and reverse-engineer the negative to become positive, they can hold the power to drastically improve performance and success toward goal achievement. 

Interested? I’ll show you how…

Hacking the habit loop with Mental Performance Mastery Training: 3 steps to break bad habits and replace them with good ones

Knowing how habits are formed and increasing awareness of the habit loops at play in our lives, and the lives of those we coach, is a good first step. But you don’t want to stop there. 

The real power lies in understanding how to replace bad habits with good ones. 

The key: You don’t eliminate a bad habit—you replace it. 

Once you’ve recognized a bad habit and accompanying routine that is holding someone back, it’s time to implement a strategy called “habit stacking.” This is a process you can use to replace the negative habit with a positive one that provides a similar benefit and is more in line with the person’s goals.

Habit stacking is simply the process of using existing habits as triggers to build new habits from. 

Let’s take a look at how this could play out with a junk food habit that might be holding a client back from achieving their health, fitness, and performance goals:

Negative habit loop: One of your clients (we’ll call her “Jane”) is eating too much junk food. 

Trigger = Jane is hungry, just like she always is around 10pm, so she heads to the pantry to find something to eat. 

Routine = Jane sees the bag of Doritos, sitting where it always sits, and eat handfuls of chips while watching reruns of The Office. 

Reward = Jane feels the initial dopamine surge of happiness from eating food that’s chemically engineered to satisfy her taste buds. And for the moment, her cravings have been fulfilled. 

Unfortunately, this habit, while providing momentary fulfillment, move’s Jane further from her health and fitness goals. Not good. 

Now, using the concept of “habit stacking”, you aim to help your client replace this negative behavior with one more in line with her goals:

  • First, your client gets rid of the Doritos. Instead, she buys something that aligns with her goals of being strong, fit, and healthy so she can perform at the highest level. 
  • Your client buys protein bars that have less calories than Doritos and a better micronutrient profile to support her performance. And she places them in the exact spot in the pantry where the Doritos used to live. 

Now here’s what your client’s late-night snack habit loop looks like:

Trigger = It’s 10pm, she’s hungry. 

Routine = She goes to the pantry to find a snack and sees a protein bar sitting where the Doritos used to sit, so she grabs one and enjoys it while watching reruns of The Office. 

Reward = Your client feels the dopamine surge of happiness from eating a food that tastes good, fulfills her hunger, and supports her goals. 

NOTICE: The only thing we changed here was the routine/action. Everything else stayed the same. This is the simplest and easiest way to leverage the way our brains create and follow habits. 

And while this is just one example, the same approach can be applied to any situation where a negative habit or behavior is not supporting one’s goals or helping them perform at the highest level possible. 

Use existing routines to build new ones by following this simple 3-step process:

  1. Identify the habit you want to change. 
  2. Identify the trigger, routine/action, and reward. 
  3. Adjust the routine/action to be something positive that still yields a similar result from the same trigger.

Now, the only left for you to do is to apply what you’ve learned in this article to your coaching to help your clients and athletes achieve goals faster and unlock their true performance potential.

Want to learn more coaching strategies to master the mental side of performance? Take this FREE 3-day course…

If you found today’s article helpful, and you’re interested in more cutting-edge mental performance coaching strategies, I’ve put together a free 3-day course for you. 

In this course, you will learn how to:

  • Get your athlete’s to perform their best when it means the most by using a SYSTEM to create an elite mindset. 
  • Compete at a higher level, more consistently—while managing distractions and adversity—by establishing the right routines. 
  • Create the championship culture you need in your program to develop elite athletic leaders and cultivate a clear vision that keeps motivated and juiced up. 

Drop your info below to learn the systems and secrets I use to help the top coaches in the world compete at an elite level—year after year.