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Discipline Shouldn’t Be Hard

by Craig Howie and Will Murray

The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.
Richard Bach

If you look up the word “discipline” in Webster’s dictionary the first definition is given as one word—punishment! This one word definition is followed by the following definition:

“A rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity.” 

These definitions shed light on how we have been conditioned to think about discipline. To put it simply, we need to follow the rules and if we don’t, we should be punished. Now take it a step further and think about all of the classic lists of rules we have been exposed to throughout our lives. Ninety-nine % of these rules contain words such as, “Do not, stay away, refrain from, not tolerated, keep out,” and more. No wonder discipline seems so hard! 

We can all agree that discipline is a vital trait for triathletes. We establish certain goals and commit to a series of actions that will help us achieve these goals, but if we can’t stay disciplined, then veering off the roadmap is inevitable. Contrary to Webster’s definition, however, self-discipline does not have to be hard, challenging or torturous! So frequently, we tend to think of discipline as what we are not allowed to do. But, how different would it be if we could think of it as what we are allowed to do? To put it another way, what if we looked at discipline as being in control of our own actions instead of being governed by imposed rules or regulations? 

Let’s look at this discipline situation in a real world context and consider one of our athletes. Conner (not his real name) was concerned about his diet and wanted to cut out all simple sugars. Specifically, Conner had a real problem with brownies. As he put it, they were his “weakness.” Before stating his goal to avoid simple sugars we had seen Conner go days at a time without even thinking about a brownie. In fact, we h­­­­­ad seen him go days without eating much of anything because he was too preoccupied with training and his job. This was all about to change. As soon as he drew the line in the sand and said, “I will not eat anymore simple sugars, especially brownies,” he suddenly became obsessed with sugar and brownies!  Brownies became the forbidden fruit and it was all that he wanted. One week later he ate nearly an entire pan of brownies in a moment of so-called “weakness.”

Conner and we decided on a new course of action and it all focused on a simple shift in how we stated his goals. His new goal became:

“I will eat at least one large serving of fruit and one large salad every day.”

In addition to this we decided he could eat whatever he wanted otherwise. 

Very quickly, Conner began to have two or even three salads per day and he finished each morning workout with a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Sure he had a brownie now and again, but he began to fill himself up so much with the “good,” that he didn’t really want the “bad.” 

Working with Conner through all of this taught us several valuable lessons about discipline.

  1. Discipline done well is about action and not inaction.  It’s about what you will do and not about what you will avoid doing. It works better ro replace a behavior than eliminate it.
  2. Instead of creating a list of rules to follow, create a list of actions that you will take.
  3. Create a situation in which you become so busy with the “good” that there will be no room for the “bad.” 
  4. Take control. You are not governed by rule; you are the governor of your actions.

Discipline done wrong is costly. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner David Kahneman describes experiments by Roy Baumesiter testing the energy costs of will power (discipline). The experimenters presented their athletes with a choice between celery and radishes on the one hand and—you guessed it—chocolate and rich cookies— on the other. They instructed the athletes to resist the tempting food in favor of the virtuous vegetables.  After that, they tested the strength (yes, physical strength) of the athletes, and found that athletes performed more poorly on strength tests after undergoing a bout of self-control. They hypothesized that all that self-discipline used up a lot of glucose in their brains, leaving them depleted for the strength test of their muscles. To test this glucose-depletion hypothesis, they did another experiment just like the original, but this time gave the athletes glucose tablets after the self-discipline test and before the strength test. The result: no decrease in strength performance.

As Kahneman puts it:

  • The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engage in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops. The effect is analogous to a runner who draws down glucose stored in her muscles during a sprint. The bold implication of this idea is that the effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose, and (Roy) Baumeister and his colleagues have confirmed this hypothesis in several experiments.[i]

In our book, The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes, we provide instructions for eight specific techniques to enhance and uncomplicate discipline. Here are a couple of examples you can try right now and see in how many ways they work for you.

Pattern: New Behavior Generator Pattern

Purpose: To develop new skills in situations which call for positive responses.

  1. Recall a situation where you felt un-resourceful (frustrated, confused, surprised, angry, frightened). Really be in the situation for a moment, seeing, hearing, and feeling what’s around you. Be aware of others and how they are responding (that’s called (1st position).
  2. Take a deep breath, and physically step back from the situation as if you were stepping out of “yourself over there” Shift your posture to express a resourceful state that you desire, then observe the situation as if you were watching a stage play of yourself (3rd position).
  3. Evaluate the situation and Select a model:
    1. “Think of someone else who can handle that kind of situation really well.”
    2. “See that person doing different behaviors in that troublesome context.”
    3. “Choose one of those behaviors that you think would be particularly appropriate for you to learn to use in that context.”
  4. See behavior in context. “See and hear yourself doing those effective behaviors in that context.”
  5. Ask yourself if any part of you has any objections to being this way, and notice anything that comes back.
  6. Associate: Step back into the situation with the new resources fully available to you. Experience it from the inside, hearing, seeing, and feeling yourself behave with all of your resources available.
  7. Evaluate your new response. If you need a more positive response, return to step 3 and choose a different resource and/or model or mentor that has the resources you need.
  8. Test: Rehearse for the future, by imagining a similar situation in which you want to have all your resources available.

Let’s face it, endurance sports are hard enough without adding in a set of unreasonable rules and punishment. A list of “do not” rules will only lead to distraction from and depletion of your training and racing resources as well as a big spoonful of guilt when you occasionally stretch a rule. So turn it around, take control and let the word discipline remind you of what actions you will take in order to achieve your goals.

[1] Kahneman, D.  (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. P. 43.

[1] Andreas, S. (Ed). (1996).  NLP: The new technology of achievement. New York: Harper. P. 76-77.

Craig Howie is a professional coach and ultrarunner. Will Murray is a USA Triathlon coach, has a Practitioner’s Certification and more than 100 hours of advanced study in NeuroLinguistic Programming. You can find out about their book, The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes at