Approach health resolutions as new skills to master

After the season of reflections and resolutions often comes the season of failure and frustration.  And we are just about at that critical time.  As people who make health related New Year’s resolutions often make a big mistake, they look at them as an issue of willpower rather than ability.

A more helpful approach is to consider those more healthful behaviors new skills, and to accept that there is a process in becoming competent in those.  No matter what new skill you decide to learn, there are four learning stages each of us goes through, also known as the four stages of competency.  The model is attributed to the work of psychologist Thomas Gordon and his employee Noel Burch in the 1970s, and is described in the “Gordon Training International” website.  Being aware of these stages helps us better accept that learning can be slow and frequently an uncomfortable process.

Stage 1: Unconsciously unskilled:  We don’t know what we don’t know.  We are inept and unaware of it.  For example, after seeing the great shape a friend of mine was in and learning that it was the result of being a swimmer, I decide to make it my 2019 resolution to get fit thru swimming.  I go to the local pool to swim laps and I immediately felt self-conscious and awkward.  I could not swim more than a length of the pool without being out of breath.  I was fighting with the water and going nowhere; I could not kick, I could not breathe.  I saw people swimming back and forth with seemingly no effort, they used strokes and equipment, I had never seen, much less used and didn’t know even existed.

Stage 2: Consciously unskilled:  We know what we don’t know.  We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.  I have exercised for many years, so I thought I was already pretty fit and strong.  Wrong.  After two or three sessions in the pool, I was struck by how few of the movements I could do well.  It is time I decide to take swim lessons.  The instructor did a lot of observing and correcting.  I also observed the ease with which he or she and other students did more advanced movements (and learned how long they’ve been doing it.)

Stage 3: Consciously skilled:  Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing.  We now know how to do the skills the right way but need to think and work hard to do it.  In each swim lesson, I try to concentrate completely on doing the movements correctly–both to get the most benefit from them and to avoid getting corrected.  It is not easy because I am not used to these positions and haven’t yet developed the core strength it takes to do them well.  It is invaluable to have an instructor there to coach and help me get it right.

Stage 4: Unconsciously skilled:  If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural.  Now after numerous swim lessons, clinics and joining a Master swim team, I can now swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke and no longer feel awkward.  I can swim back and forth without feeling out of breath.  I look forward to going to swim practices; they are energizing, challenging and rewarding, and no longer scary.  I made a new circle of friends.  I‘ve gotten stronger and more fit and other people notice the difference too!  Still I see how far I have to go!  (This year and maybe the next, I am learning butterfly!)

There is almost an indefinite amount of skills to learn in all areas of your life.  There is always something new to learn and master.  The choice for your reflections and resolutions is endless, but each resolution must be broken down into skills to master, and then go thru the process: research the problems, assess what needs to be done to reach it, take action to learn the new skill and finally enjoy the rewards.  Be aware that those lifestyle or behavior changes require a long and sometimes painful process before it is built into a skill that seamlessly fits into your life.

To help you keep those resolutions alive, January and February are also the “get into shape” months and a lot of events are organized:

  • The one hour postal swim which is a National Championship, with ranking, relays and results. Oregon is always trying to be one of the best teams in the nation, and it is a numbers game.  The more people who swim it, the more opportunity we have to be first.  You do not have to be the fastest, you just have to swim it and you will glean some points for the team.  It can be swum in any pool during January and February.  Bob Bruce, our long-distance guru, provides the details of some financial incentives to swim the e-Postal events in 2019 (see his article in the January, Aqua-Master)
  • The 2019 Smarty Pants Vitamins US Masters Swimming Winter Fitness Challenge: a 30 minutes swim to be completed between February 15 and 28, 2019. This is a non-competitive fun event.  The big advantage of this swim is the 6-week free training plan which can be very helpful if you are swimming by yourself and are new to the sport.  All the proceeds also benefit the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation.
  • The February Fitness challenge is hosted by our local team, the Tualatin Hills Barracudas. In a nutshell, the goal is to swim as often and as much as you can during the month of February.  Our coach Sara Shepherd wrote an article about it in the January, Aqua Master.
  • The USMS Go the Distance program. This is an ongoing program which can be started anytime.  You get a personal log, in which you record your swim mileage as you go at your own pace.  You will collect rewards as you reach some milestones.

To finish and to help me with my resolution of bringing more clinics to the swimming community, where I am still at the stage one of that skill (I don’t know what I don’t know), I am still asking for your help with filling out the monkey survey about clinics.  Here is the link: or you can send me an email (  Thank you so much and happy, fit 2019.

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