What Breaking Boards Has to Do With Changing Behavior

Sports and exercise were never my thing. The only time I’ve been in a gym was during the tour of my college rec center. And while I tried a lot of sports, I quit the same amount. Usually mid-season. In fact, for a few I just showed up for the team photo. 

Vienna Pigtail Ponytail Falcons Spring 1990

(I quit a week later).

Well, on September 19th I’ll be testing for my green belt in Taekwondo.

green belt

That means two things: (1) I’ve got a mean spin sidekick, and (2) I’ve consistently stuck with this class for almost a year. That last one is key – I’ve consistently gone to class for almost a year. Me. Karen Ong. Queen of Quitting Sports.

I had to ask myself why – what’s compelled me to stick with something I usually hate for so long? The answer surprised me: It’s what me and my team do every day — behavior change. 

When I thought about it, I realized my instructors are masters in the art of leveraging behavior. Everything about the process is set up to keep you coming back.

My Taekwondo classes rely on four of the 12 determinants to leverage behavior:

1) Rewards: Every four months there’s a belt test. If you go to class consistently, you are invited to take the test and get a fancy new belt. You even get stripes in between belts as little baby rewards.

2) Efficacy: Let’s be real for a minute. The instructors call them “tests,” but in actuality, everyone passes. And that means everyone walks into it confident in their abilities. If high school physics had been like that, I wouldn’t have had to cheat all the time.

3 & 4) Norms and Self Standards: If somehow you didn’t get invited to test or didn’t pass the test, one thing is clear – you didn’t level up. Leveling up in a class setting is what we call a Twelve Determinant Two-fer: it allows you to express your self standards, by being the type of person who levels up. It also leverages norms, because you want to fit in with the rest of the class, which collectively has leveled up.  

So that’s the “why” – the reason I’ve consistently showed up for my Taekwondo classes, even on Saturday mornings, even when I’d rather be at happy hour, even when I know I’m going to leave unable to feel the lower half of my body. I’ve got to give it to those instructors of mine – they were playing me at my own professional game. If I wasn’t so afraid of them, I’d probably offer them a job at our office.

Oh and did I mention you get to break a board each test? No, this isn’t me breaking a board but trust me you will enjoy: 

Karen Ong Barone is Principal + Executive Creative Director at Marketing for Change.

If you want to learn more about changing behavior, check out our 12 factors that determine behavior.

12 Determinants of Behavior

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