Habit in Sports

Repetition can make a simple behavior very powerful.  Improving  your  physical  health  by  exercising,  increasing  body  strength  by  working  out,  or building up your potting skills in playing snooker can  only  be  achieved  by  frequently  executing these behaviors. However, people often struggle to maintain such regimes; sport schools typically see a decline in attendance a few weeks after the season start, and many training programs fail due to a lack of perseverance. Turning a beneficial behavior or practice into a habit is therefore the key to success. Unhealthy or ineffective habits may form barriers  for  change  and  may  prevent  establishing positive outcomes or improvements.

In the psychological literature, habit has always been  defined  in  terms  of  frequency  of  behavior, which  was  inherited  from  the  behaviorist  school. However,  there  are  problems  with  this  definition.  The  first  problem  is  that  it  is  unclear  how frequently behavior must be executed in order to qualify  as  a  habit;  does  a  habit  exist  after  2,  4, or  20  repetitions?  Secondly,  frequent  behavior  is not  necessarily  a  habit.  An  athlete  may  regularly attempt to break the world record in sprinting, but few  would  consider  this  as  a  habit.  We  therefore need a better definition.

Such  a  definition  of  habit  rests  on  three  pillars. The first pillar obviously is repetition. Habits are  formed  by  repeating  behavior  with  satisfactory outcomes and without repetition there is no habit.  However,  repetition  is  a  necessary  but  not a  sufficient  condition  for  behavior  to  qualify  as  habit, hence a second pillar, which is automaticity.

Habits are typically executed with relatively little mental  effort,  awareness,  and  conscious  intent. These qualities make habits being experienced as easy or fluent; there is not much thought involved or  needed  to  carry  them  out.  While  habits  are forms  of  automatic  behavior,  they  are  functional and goal directed; we develop habits that serve us in  one  way  or  another,  no  matter  whether  these goals are constructive or unconstructive. If a habit has been developed, the recognition or activation of a goal may thus automatically elicit the accompanying  habit.  This  relates  to  the  third  pillar  of habit, which is context stability. This pillar is not so  much  a  feature  of  the  habit  itself,  but  rather of the conditions and environments where habits occur.  Habits  are  often  elicited  by  specific  cues, such  as  a  particular  time,  location,  physiological  state,  or  the  presence  of  an  object  or  person. Habits thrive in stable conditions, where the same cue  elicits  the  habitual  response  time  and  again. For  instance,  a  person  may  have  developed  the habit  of  running  twice  a  week  after  work  and before  having  dinner.  Such  a  habit  may  flourish if  this  person  has  a  stable  pattern  of  returning from  work  and  having  dinner  at  the  same  time and location but would be difficult to maintain in the face of irregular work times or if this person would travel a lot.

Some Caveats

Measurement.  If  we  accept  that  behavioral  frequency  is  an  inadequate  definition  of  habit,  the traditional way of using behavioral frequency as a measure of habit should be replaced by one that is commensurate  to  the  new  definition.  The  Self Report  Habit  Index  has  been  developed  for  that purpose. It is a 12-item scale, which assesses habit as  a  psychological  construct.  It  incorporates  the various  facets  of  habit,  such  as  the  experience  of repetition and the lack of awareness and conscious intent.

Locus of control.  The fact that habits are dependent  on  and  elicited  by  cues  in  the  environment where the behavior takes place points to a shift in locus of control when behavior becomes habitual. Whereas  new  or  deliberate  behaviors  are  controlled  by  conscious  intentions  and  willpower, which  is  very  much  in  line  with  prevalent  sociocognitive  models  such  as  the  theory  of  planned behavior,   habits   are   to   a   much   larger   degree controlled  by  the  external  environment.  Habits are thus less likely to change through motivation and  attitude  change.  Although  motivation  and attitude change may certainly help make changes, managing  the  environments  in  which  behavior occurs may be paramount to success if strong habits   are   involved.   This   implies   identifying   and changing  or  removing  the  cues  that  trigger  old habits  and  engineering  the  environment  for  new habits to establish and flourish. Habits may thus be  planned  in  a  particular  environment  and  may be  promoted  by,  for  instance,  the  use  of  implementation intentions.

Where  is  the  habit?  One  may  wonder  whether habits really exist in the domain of sport and exercise. After all, many who practice sport and exercise  do  that  intentionally  and  mindfully.  These activities are characterized by repetition, but seemingly not so much by automaticity. It is therefore important to analyze precisely where exactly habits may reside. Take for instance exercising. While exercising   may   be   executed   intentionally   and mindfully, it is often the decision to exercise where the problems lie. If we would deliberate every time whether or not to exercise, we would be vulnerable to our well-developed skills to rationalize and find excuses  to  stay  home.  On  the  other  hand,  if  we make  the  decision  to  go  exercising  a  habit  and build  this  into  our  daily  or  weekly  routines,  we would  not  need  to  deliberate  whether  or  not  to exercise, but rather which route to take or which clothes to wear. In other words, while the activity itself may be executed in a mindful, and hopefully joyful fashion, the decision to exercise is the critical habit.

Opportunities to break and create habits.  As breaking old habits often requires rearrangements of the environment where habits reside, we may look for opportunities to break habits that sometimes naturally  arise.  This  happens  particularly  when  people undergo  life  course  changes,  such  as  moving  to  a new  house,  starting  a  family,  changing  a  job,  or starting retirement. These events provide short windows of opportunity where old habits are temporarily broken, and individuals may be looking for new ways  to  arrange  their  lives.  In  those  situations, people may consider making changes that they have contemplated  all  along.  These  may  also  provide opportunities where behavior change interventions may be more effective and thus provide more value for money.

Mental habits.  We have not only habits of doing but  also  of  thinking.  Mental  habits  are  repetitive patterns of thought, which may possess the crucial features of behavioral habits such as described by the three pillars. Mental habits may involve negative  thoughts,  which  then  may  get  in  the  way  of good performances and may affect outcomes such as one’s self-esteem or mental health. Mental habits may also involve positive thoughts, which may then  play  constructive  roles  in  keeping  up  one’s motivation and believing in oneself.


  1. Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2010). The automatic component of habit in health behavior: Habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology, 29, 374–383.
  2. Verplanken, B. (2006). Beyond frequency: Habit as mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 639–656.
  3. Verplanken, B., & Orbell, S. (2003). Reflections on past behavior: A self-report index of habit Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 1313–1330.
  4. Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114, 843–863.


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