Why Discipline Matters

This past Monday I wrote a piece on two landmark experiments that fundamentally shaped how we think about the concepts of willpower and self-discipline (check it out here). 


The infamous Marshmallow Experiment proved that our ability to delay immediate gratification in favor of a future good is a massive predictor of success. When we sacrifice present indulgence for future gains, we become happier, more productive people in the long-run.


The second study was based on Roy Baumeister’s chocolate and radish experiment which permanently altered the idea of how we use willpower to make disciplined decisions. Before Roy’s 1996 experiment, willpower was thought of as a skill.  


Instead, Baumeister found that our willpower is more analogous to a muscle. When you lift weights your muscles become tired and fatigued; willpower works the same way. Our willpower can become fatigued when we have to make a series of difficult decisions. Willpower depletion makes it difficult to maintain a high level of discipline.


Armed with this new understanding of the inner workings of willpower and self-discipline, let’s turn to the difficult task of applying this understanding in the context of our teams. 


To get a better idea of exactly how leaders can use this information to transform their teams, I’ve outlined the basic challenge that nearly every leader faces.


Basic Leadership Challenge (as it relates to discipline)

  • Teams are groups of individuals


  • Individuals often struggle with self-discipline


  • A lack of self-discipline is the root of many team problems


  • The most effective teams are a cohesive group of disciplined individuals


  • A disciplined culture is essential for success


Solution: Improve personal self-discipline that spills over to the larger team and creates a culture of discipline within the team.


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The game of basketball is all about decision making. Every coach I’ve ever played has preached the virtue of discipline. The disciplined teams are able to remain steady through the choppy waters of competition.


We are going to explore the specific strategies that you can use to positively influence your team’s ability to make self-disciplined decisions in critical situations. 


Here’s exactly what we’ll explore today:


  • The Positive Effects of Discipline
  • Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion
  • Growth Exercise: Learning from Starbucks


The Powerful Effects of Discipline

Truth be told, the power of discipline simply can not be overstated. Discipline is the structural integrity of every great organization. The skyscrapers of success are always supported by the nuts and bolts of discipline and without discipline those building simply cannot stand.


Here’s what legendary leadership author Jim Collins had to say in a recent interview about the importance of discipline:


“A great company is marked by a culture of discipline. A self-disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action. And when you begin to lose a culture of discipline, that is when you really start to fall.”


Discipline sustains, propels, and drives great teams to both take disciplined action and engage in disciplined thought. Creating a culture of discipline is more than a philosophical idea. Discipline has real, tangible, long-term benefits that are invaluable in creating a culture of sustained excellence.


Here are 5 specific ways that discipline can tangibly change your team:

1 – Productivity

  • A disciplined team is a highly productive team. Think about how discipline could affect each one of your basketball practices. The more your team stays disciplined in their execution, the less time the coach needs to stop practice to correct mistakes. The less time you have to stop practice, the more time you have to work on other parts of the game.


2 – Genuine Relationships

  • Teams build trust when they know their teammate is going to be disciplined in performing their role. Discipline breeds responsibility, responsibility builds trust, and trust is the foundation for great relationships.   


3 – Mission Focused

  • Disciplined people don’t sweat the small stuff so they can focus on the important issues. They keep first things first.


Here’s a golden nuggets of truth from one of my favorite authors C.S. Lewis:

“Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”


4 – Culture Creators 

  • Disciplined individuals create a culture of discipline because they become the example for others to follow. Discipline is like the common cold, it spreads quickly and is difficult to stop.


5 – Future Growth 

  • In the long run, disciplined people are infinitely more valuable because of who they are going to become in the future. Disciplined people stay committed to their personal growth, and increase their future contributions to the team because of who they are going to become in the future.


Discipline has the power to transform your team, but creating a culture of discipline is difficult. We are going to look at some specific strategies that every leader can use to preemptively combat a lack of discipline. 


Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion

Willpower is the gas tank that fuels our self discipline. But we learned from Monday’s piece that certain activities can quickly deplete our willpower.


Based on scientific research (much of which is present in Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit), here are 3 specific strategies to fight willpower depletion and maintain self-discipline.


1. Pre-commitment

As the field of research dealing with willpower and discipline has expanded, researchers have looked at people from all walks of life to give them clues about what factors could influence our willpower. 


In one experiment, scientists from Scotland took a group of elderly people who were recovering from recent hip or knee replacements. They wanted test the notion of “pre-commitment” as it relates to maintaining discipline in a given task.


Some of the participants in the study were given journals while others were left to approach their rehab in whatever way they felt was best. The participants with the journals, were told to write down specific strategies for how they would deal with the inevitable difficulties associated with their rehab.


One of the biggest problems that affects elderly people recovering from a major surgery, is their ability to overcome the pain and inconvenience that comes with having a knee or hip replacement at an old age. Staying consistent with rehabilitation is often a difficult and strenuous task. 


After the journals had been passed out, researchers found that the participants who wrote down specific strategies for dealing with difficult problems had a much higher rate of recovery. 


For example, one participant knew that every time he stood up from the sofa he would inevitably experience a shooting pain down the front of his knee. This pain would cause him to be tempted to sit back down immediately – it was important that he moved around the house during the day instead of sitting down, movement was key in his recovery process. His strategy for dealing with his “couch scenario” was to immediately take a step forward away from the couch. 


Researchers learned that the participants who simply committed beforehand to a specific series of actions were more likely to follow through. Rather than relying on your willpower to help you make decisions in the heat of the moment, making the decision ahead of time greatly increases your chance for success. A pre-commitment to stay disciplined during a specific circumstance gives you a greater chance of keeping your willpower muscle strong because you have already done the hard work of making the decision.


2. Eliminate the Decision

Making difficult mental decisions taxes your willpower muscles. But if you can eliminate the conscious act of making the decision yourself, you have a better chance of staying disciplined. Here are two effective ways to take the decision-making load off your shoulders.


Turn Your Decision into a Habit

Our brains naturally create habits in an attempt to maximize mental efficiency by turning off the conscious decision-making parts of our brain and putting our mind on autopilot. The less decisions you have to make, the stronger your willpower will be.


Turn whatever behavior you are trying to change into a habit by creating a cue, routine, reward loop for that action (more on that here).


Group it

Teams of people can help avoid “willpower depletion” by spreading the decision-making responsibilities across a number of people. When others share the burden of making tough choices, you will be better equipped to tackle the difficult challenges of life. 


3. Frame the Decision

Our natural learning process is rooted in our ability to relate something that is unfamiliar to something that we understand. Often this is best done using pictures or analogies.


In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit he talks about how Starbucks framed their customer service protocol using the simple acrostic, LATTE (Listen, Acknowledge, Take-Action, Thank, Explain). 


This was brilliant for two reasons.


First, they used the concept of pre-commitment by identifying the exact inflection points that every Starbucks employee deals with when they encounter a difficult customer. They gave their employees a detailed roadmap with specific checkpoints that could be easily followed whenever they were dealing with a customer service issue.


Second, they framed the acronym into a concept everyone was familiar with: a coffee drink. The coffee drink acronym wrapped a boring customer service mandate into a easily digestible morsel of information. This simple, yet powerful tool helped reinforce a culture of customer service in a way that is easy to conceptualize and remember. 


Growth Exercise 

Learning from Starbucks

You can use the same process Starbucks created to implement its customer service policy within your basketball team. There are hundreds of different scenarios that you could address – these literally could be anything, whether in practice, games, individual workouts, weight room sessions – so feel free to explore the possibilities of giving your team an easy to follow roadmap through these inevitable points of resistance. 


Part 1 – Pick a Situation

Ex. The opposing team goes on a scoring run during the game.


Part 2 – Identify the Inflection Points

Think of this as identifying the checkpoints in the emotional journey going on inside your players heads – just as Starbucks could predict what types of problems their employees would face, you need to identify these same inflection points for your players.

  • They start scoring
  • The game feels like its getting away
  • You can feel frustration or disappointment
  • Panic can set in


Part 3 – Use a word picture as a Pre-Commitment

This can be an acrostic, an analogy, a metaphor, a word picture, really anything that is easy to remember and conveys your central message. 

Ex. Whenever the other team goes on a run, remember to simply BALL


B – back to basics (return to the fundamentals)

A – attack on D (raise the energy level on defense to shift the momentum of the game)

L – link together (don’t try to change the game by yourself, stay together)

L – light a fire (inspire your teammates through great energy and focus)




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