Bad Habits

Something that I’ve heard a lot in the realm of coaching sports and martial arts is the idea of building “bad habits.” Ingraining a bad habit is something that you want to avoid at all costs, and to some coaches, training and practice may be heavily built upon this idea. In kendo, we were advised not to practice on our own without the supervision of a qualified teacher in order to avoid bad habits. Here I will explain why I think that all is bullshit, and my opinion on bad habits in general. 

It would be imprudent for me to say something like “bad habits don’t exist,” clearly they do, for example I consider smoking cigarettes to be a bad habit. It’s harmful to your body, but people who have started are compelled to do it anyway. But smoking is different from what we talk about with training physical skills, smoking is an addiction, and you don’t hear coaches talking about bad habits in their sports as an addiction. You never hear a kendo coach say someone is addicted to using too much right hand, or a fencing coach say someone is addicted to dragging their back foot in a lunge. The idea of bad habits in physical skills is a different phenomenon, and everyone knows it. 

What I’m talking about here, and what I have observed coaches call “bad habits,” are aspects of a skill or specific actions that are deemed undesirable. The reason could be because it is less effective in the performance space of the sport, or because it does not meet the coach’s preconceived notion of what the action should be. Often, unfortunately, coaches do not know the difference between these two.

Before we get into the more interesting points, let’s tackle the low-hanging fruit of why this is problematic: the coach could simply be wrong. I’m sure it happens in other sports as well, but in fencing and kendo (which I am most familiar with), there are a ton of actions that are considered bad habits that you see players at the top level do constantly. One, as I have mentioned previously, is the lunge heel drag. 

I did not have to search very hard to find a top level fencer doing this, they almost always do it

This is something that is constantly taught in fencing classes. It is called out as a safety risk, with the claim that you will hurt your knee or ankle if you do it. Focusing on “fixing” something like this is purely a waste of time, it’s not a safety risk (if it were then every top level fencer would have a broken heel all the time), and it’s probably something you’re going to end up doing in fencing if you’re trying hard to win no matter how hard you try not to, because that’s just how we move. This is far from the only example, there are tons of things that are taught as canon in many sports but are never actually done in the performance space. This is why it’s important for a coach to be self aware and try to understand how things actually work in reality, rather than parroting whatever their coach taught them. 

The idea of a “bad habit” implies that the way you do something the first time you do it is the way you will always do it. In kendo, we did a lot of static swings and footwork before we were allowed to spar, with the idea of not building bad habits. The idea is that you do your swings under the supervision of someone who can correct all of your mistakes, so that you do it right the first time and don’t have any bad habits later on. The problem with this is that you can’t do it right the first time. You don’t know how to do a skill when you first start it, and over time through experience you make your movements more efficient and applicable. The idea that you can correct all of your mistakes and get all of your learning out of the way right in the beginning is unrealistic. You can easily prove this, because even after going through all of those corrections, people who do kendo still end up with bad habits.

The bad habit idea is a strange way to frame learning. What it implies is that there is a perfect ideal way for you to be doing the sport which you would be doing, if only you could break all of your pesky bad habits. Imagine you have never played tennis before, and you attempt to serve the ball. Your serve will not be perfect, it will have all kinds of weird aspects that make it less efficient than it should be. Are these bad habits? How could they be, you’ve only done them one time. It is just the way your body moves, which happens to be not very efficient for tennis since you have never played it before. Over time with practice and experience, your serve will improve, and you won’t be stuck for life with the issues of your first serve. Learning how to serve was not an effort of playing wack-a-mole with perceived bad habits, but of moving to a more efficient state from a less efficient state. 

So is that it, do I think bad habits are fake? Well kind of, but it’s not that simple. I think the idea of learning via chasing down all of your bad habits is not the best way to go about acquiring a skill, but I do think there are concepts and ideas that exist that one may equate to the “bad habit” idea if they were so inclined. The fact is that we do things, and we do them in a certain way. The ecological approach has a concept called “attractors” to explain this, Tea and Jack have already written articles that touch upon this idea. In his book Learning to Optimize Movement, Rob Gray defines an attractor as “…a region in the solution space to which a solution is drawn to.” At this point, you can say “wait a minute, this is the same thing as a bad habit but given a fancy name, this is a dumb clickbait article!” If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’re willing to hear me out. 

Like I said, if you really want to, you can say an attractor is the same thing as a habit and leave it at that, but I think there are important differences that directly affect how an action is coached and learned. Basically you can think of an attractor as a gravity well, or a bowling ball on a trampoline. If the ball is heavy, actions that are close to it will tend to fall into the “valley” that it creates. When you first start, you have natural tendencies towards certain actions, which create valleys. In order to learn, you have to de-stabilize your existing valleys, which can be done by changing the situation so that your current action can’t be used or won’t be successful, and/or building new valleys by creating situations in which different actions are afforded. 

The main idea behind a bad habit is that it must be broken. Breaking a bad habit is all about the willpower of the individual. If they try very hard not to do whatever the bad habit is, then they will succeed and improve, and if not then it’s just because they don’t have strong enough willpower. The idea of improving through subtraction of bad habits is also tied to the idea of the platonic perfect technique. The perfect technique is always there, and you can access it if you just get rid of your pesky bad habits. 

Bad Habit Wack-A-Mole

Overall, I think it’s a little overly inflammatory to straight up say bad habits don’t exist. It’s undeniable that we tend to do things in a certain way, and that way takes effort to change if it needs to be changed. What I do think is that the idea of chasing down bad habits is not a good model for learning. No one is going to start off perfect, you can’t head inefficiencies off at the pass, the way you move will become more efficient over time with practice and experience. If something specific needs to be dealt with, that can be done as well, but make sure what you’re trying to fix is actually something that matters, and you’re not wasting your time trying to fight against something that your body is always going to do no matter what. Either way, the way that you do things the first time is not the way you will be stuck doing them forever. That is the whole point of training and learning.