Who remembers playing “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder in elementary school? It seems like a rite of passage. I majored in vocal performance and spent years working as a musician. When my oldest son brought home his packet of songs, I couldn’t help but feel excited for his own foray into music.
He dove right in, and the phase where his instrument sounded like a dying animal was mercifully short. My budding musician was tearing through songs. Atta boy! He was determined to become a rock star at the recorder. However, before long, as the songs became more complex, I heard him yell in frustration. He would play a difficult piece over and over again, missing the same notes each time. I realized that he hadn’t learned how to practice.
We looked at the song again. There were only a few notes that he consistently struggled with playing. So instead of trying to swallow the entire piece, we tackled only the problematic phrases. He practiced two notes at a time until they came naturally. Then we put them back into the entire phrase. When that felt good, we tried the entire song again and boom– he nailed it.
Here’s the thing: tackling a fitness goal works pretty much like practicing music. When we find that attaining our goals has failed, it’s often because we haven’t learned the skills necessary to reach them. Learning how to practice at fitness will set you up for success. Here’s an example:
“I want to gain muscle and decrease my body fat”
This is the most common “outcome goal” that I hear, and yet it’s usually the most elusive for people. Everybody’s starting place is different, but for many people, gaining muscle and decreasing body fat will require becoming adept at the following skills:
- Expending more calories than taking in
- Learning how to lift weights in a safe and effective manner
- Following a strength and conditioning program
- Getting adequate nutrients for goals
- Learning how to create meals and snacks that support goals
- Creating a schedule that allows for fitness goals
- Working on other issues like sleep or stress management
- Re-learning how to manage patterns that impede progress, like stress eating, restrictive habits/reactive binging, etc.
- Portion education and awareness
What do you think would happen if you threw all of those behavior changes at someone who was just beginning to develop these habits? Yikes!
Practice the line, then play the song.
Chances are, if someone has been struggling to get results, they haven’t mastered the skills required to get them. Each one of those skills needs to be learned, with plenty of practice along the way.
One of my clients was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to lose weight. We looked at her nutrition, and one red flag emerged: she drinks a large amount of soda; enough that it totals almost 1,000 kcal a day. Just knowing this hasn’t led to change. She has had to take the time to try different strategies: Going cold turkey failed. Swapping soda with seltzer water was unsuccessful. Eventually, she was able to find that giving herself a modest daily allowance of her favorite treat was livable. It allowed her to still enjoy something she loved without allowing it to derail her goals.
She needed to practice the skill of changing this habit in a way that worked for the long haul. Her failed attempts weren’t really failures: she was practicing the skill until she was able to succeed.
Make it Work for You
Take one habit you want to improve. Break it down into parts. Is there a particular component that is tripping you up? Set your laser focus to that one small part and practice.
The great thing about practice is that you don’t fail. You just note what worked, what still needs work, and then revise your strategies from there. Eventually you’ll learn the lines, and the whole song will fall into place.