Setting Non-Negotiables in Sports: Consistency


When coach Clive Woodward took on the management of the English Rugby team back in 1997, they were failing. Six years later and they had been transformed into winners – becoming the best in the world.

Woodward’s approach can be captured in one word: consistency. And he began with time.

The team was told they had to be fifteen minutes early for everything. The players called it ‘Lombardi time’ after Vince Lombardi, coach of Wisconsin’s Green Bay Packers, back in the 1960s.

Lombardi said at the time, “Winning isn’t a some-time thing; it’s an all-time thing.”

Consistent behavior, such as timekeeping, is a non-negotiable. It’s about setting high standards.

Take four-time Olympian and 2018 Winter Olympics flag bearer Erin Hamlin.

Her outstanding 20-year career is a testament to her consistency.

“I’ve tried to keep my overall training, nutrition, and recovery plans simple throughout my whole career and that has allowed me to keep my performance consistent,” she said.

Experiencing failure in 2010 didn’t result in her giving up, instead, “I just put my head down and got some grit and kept going, and the consistency came back with my results.”

It worked. Hamlin became the first-ever US medalist in the singles luge event at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The Psychology of Consistency

A 2020 research study looking at the factors involved in high performance in elite high jumpers found that consistency in the pre-race routine was essential.

The best players typically performed the same preparation routine for each competition, getting their kit ready, practicing self-talk, and performing visualization.

It seems consistency is vital in top-level sports to get and stay in the zone of high performance.

Professor Damian Hughes, international speaker, author, and expert in performance and behavioral change, writes, “It’s consistency that turns one-time higher performers into all-time high performers.”

Consistency relies on commitment and trademark behaviors.

When Hughes interviewed high performers, they all had something in common: consistent, non-negotiable behavior. The best athletes have trademark behaviors they commit to, even when things get tough.

And it works from the bottom up. Managers at the best soccer clubs in the UK insist their players turn up looking sharp – wearing a shirt and tie. Why? Because it’s non-negotiable, it helps build consistent behaviors. And they are more critical to success than any other objective.

While it’s vital in sporting and academic success, research has shown it’s the same elsewhere. Top performers in business not only set outcome goals, such as hitting sales targets, but also define goals related to behaviors. Just think, if you are investing in a business, you want someone who looks well-presented and turns up on time.

The coach is more likely to pick the player for the team who always turns up to training early, smart, looking like they are ready to give their all.

What does consistency look like for our young athletes?

So, let’s consider what it would take for our high school and college athletes to be more consistent in their sports and academic studies:


  • Academic performance – our young students need to think about creating study schedules and gaining a complete understanding of what’s needed to make the required grades.
  • Training regimens – just like Erin Hamlin, sportsmen, and women should plan and adhere to a regular, structured training regimen – most likely built by both student and coach.
  • Diet and nutrition – being their best demands training and skills and a consistent and healthy diet – that’s fit for practice and competition.
  • Mental health practices – managing stress is vital. Mindfulness and time spent with others away from sports and studies can help our young athletes stay resilient and focused.
  • Upping and maintaining engagement – high school and college athletes should be consistently engaged as team players and community members. Volunteering and actively participating in school events can foster responsibility and leadership.
  • Rest and recovery – are vital yet often overlooked. Sleep and rest must be planned. Athletes need to allow their bodies to heal, reducing injuries and maintaining peak performances.
  • Skill development – mastery doesn’t just happen. Yet, it is vital to achieving and maintaining a competitive edge. It takes perseverance, including days, weeks, months, and years of dedicated, deliberate practice. 
  • Goal setting – setting and working toward goals should be a constant part of a student athlete’s life. Regularly reviewing progress keeps athletes motivated and on track throughout their development.
  • Personal conduct – respect, dignity, and pride, may sound outdated, but they are vital. They show discipline and a consistent approach to high standards of behavior, and over time, they develop character.

How do we make consistency a trademark behavior?

Let’s consider for a moment the routine coach Woodward put in place at half-time in every match:

0-2 minutes – in absolute silence, players put on a new kit and think about their performance.
2-5 minutes – the coach provides their assessment of play so far while the players take on fluids.
5-8 minutes – the coach wraps up with some final words of encouragement.
8-10 minutes – complete silence, and the players visualize kick-off.

It was non-negotiable. Consistency was part of getting into the right mindset and joining the path to success.

Finding trigger points for consistency

Identifying and committing to the right behavior is not the same thing.

Our young players must find consistency by implementing powerful habits.

Hughes writes, “The value of habits lies in the fact they happen automatically – you’re still in control, but on autopilot.”

And we begin by understanding what happens when we fall into–and out of–doing the right thing.

Let’s think about nutrition. If our young athlete grabs a burger every day on the way home from evening practice, it’s not creating a balanced diet, replacing the vital nutrients they lost.

So, we look at three steps:

Step one is the ‘cue’ – the athlete feels hungry after practice.
Step two is the ‘routine’ – they walk past the fast-food restaurant on their way home.
Step three is the ‘reward’ – they grab a burger, and it tastes great.

The bad habit cycle isn’t inevitable. Once you understand the steps, you can change the outcome.

Research by Peter Gollwitzer, a professor at New York University, suggests we need to focus on the ‘cue’ or action trigger.

After I finish practice, I will drink the protein shake and eat the healthy snack I brought with me.

It’s simple, but the cue sets the stage for something more positive.

High performers use triggers throughout their day. Over time, they create a culture in which trademark behaviors come naturally.

For swimming legend Michael Phelps, he was consistent with his sleep routine.

He knew how and when he was going to sleep and created a routine around it. He even slept in a special altitude chamber to maximize his training benefits.

Wrapping Up

For our young athletes to be their best, they must commit 100% to their trademark behaviors.

Consistency is the path to being the best – in school and sports. And they might want to start with timekeeping.

As one coach said, “What is done in the shadows, reveals itself in the light.” If they can rehearse their trademark behaviors–good sleep, eating well, getting to practice on time–in every waking moment, they will be ready for competition.

When under immense pressure, they will have a body and mind that is prepared by consistency.

Anna Hall puts her silver medal in the 2023 World Championship in the grueling track and field event, the heptathlon, down to core exercises and stretching for ten minutes every night before bed.

Trademark behavior can’t be a part-time thing. It has to be lived. And the rewards are enormous.


Breaking barriers: Consistency pays off with Erin Hamlin. TrueSport. (2020, October 28). https://truesport.org/perseverance/consistency-erin-hamlin/

Clough, P., Strycharczyk, D., & Perry, J. L. (2021). Developing mental toughness: Strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing in individuals and organizations. Kogan Page.

Gretton, T., Blom, L., Hankemeier, D., & Judge, L. (2020). The Cognitive Component of Elite High Jumpers’ Preperformance Routines. The Sport Psychologist, 34(2), 99–110. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2019-0093

Humphrey, J., & Hughes, D. (2023). High performance: Lessons from the best on becoming your best. Penguin Books.

Olympic Day: Athletes share essential exercise tips and healthy lifestyle recommendations for all. Olympics.com. (2023). https://olympics.com/en/news/olympic-day-athletes-exercise-tips-healthy-lifestyle-recommendations