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What can you learn from Michael Phelps on how to compete like an Olympian?
Our daughter, Carylyn, is a Junior Olympics swimmer and she met her hero, Michael Phelps, this summer at the University of Michigan swim team camp. After autographig her t-shirt, he told her, "Always listen to your coach!" Well, she was over the top and, yes, we were all glued to the television to watch him in Beijing get each one of his eight Olympic gold medals and become the greatest Olympian of all time with 14 gold medals!!
Since Michael's awesome achievement, our family has been reading as much as we can about this world champion, including Phelps' autobiography, Beneath the Surface. We've also been having many "lessons learned" discussions about what it takes, both in and outside of the pool, to be a champion of that caliber--in whatever you undertake. It occurred to me that those of us in the "pool of business" might benefit from reflecting on these.
1. Create a vision for yourself. When Michael was 12 years old, his coach, Bob Bowman, sat down with Michael and his parents and told them that he had Olympic potential and could conceivably go to his first Olympics at age 15...which he did! Before the 2008 Olympics he and his coach wrote down their goals for each event. Michael, himself, talks about how he envisions a race before he swims it--imagining the strategy he will use and the time he will beat. (I wonder if he imagined winning the 100 butterfly event by a touch of only .01 seconds for his seventh Olympic medal!?!)
2. Stay focused on your goals. Among his swimming colleagues Michael is known for his incredible discipline and focus. Before a race he "cocoons" himself with earphoned music and when he stands on the blocks his goal is to swim only one race at a time---to not focus on the "big picture". Ironically, as a young boy he was diagnosed and treated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He had so much unbridled enegy that was often unproductively used. With the help of his coaches he learned to channel that energy in the pool and eventually those same habits of discipline transferred over into other aspects of his life and he removed himself from medical treatment. Maybe his former third grade teacher, Barbara Kines, summed it up best: "Perhaps it had never been focus that Michael lacked, but, rather a goal worth focusing on."
3. Execute, Execute, Execute. When he is training (6-7 days a week) Michael is in the pool an average of 6-8 hours a day and spends another 2-3 hours on dryland training. The practice sessions are designed to perfect technique and build flexibility and strength. By swim meet time all the practicing enables him to just hit the water and "go for the goal"! Michael knew early on that having goals wasn't enough, he knew he would have to sacrifice and that it would take incredible devotion to hard work to reach his goals. "Growing up in high school, I wasn't hanging out with friends every day or on the weekends. I was willing to give that up."
4. Build a team around you. If you were able to watch all of Michael's Olympic events, you noticed he seemed the most genuinely happy when his relay teams earned their gold medals along with him. In none of those 3 relay races did he, alone, contribute to winning the gold. Standing with his teammates, like Ryan Lochte, Jason Lezak and Aaron Piersol, on the medal podium he described his thoughts: "We talked before the race about our goal for the team. The most fun part is being part of a team. It's the best thing having four Americans all swim well together."
5. Maintain a form of work-life balance suited to you. When interviewed about what he does besides swim, Michael acknowledges that he lives a rather boring life that is centered around his "work". He credits however, his mother, Debbie, a middle school principal, and his two sisters, both of whom were also nationally acclaimed swimmers, for keeping his head and feet on the ground.
6. Celebrate the Journey. "Michael, where are your medals?" he is often asked. For Michael, the medals just symbolize the success of a journey. "I wouldn't have medals if I hadn't had dreams first. They best part about waking up, after all, is remembering how sweet the dreams actually were."
One columnist wrote at the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Games: "Perhaps we Americans needed those games. With unemployment rising, the dollar shrinking, and prices rising, we needed to see American flags waving." We needed to see an athlete such as Dara Torres do what no woman had ever done, win two silver swimming medals at the age of 41. We needed to watch an athlete do what no man had ever done, win eight gold medals in one Olympics."
Perhaps now that the Olympic Village in Beijing is quiet and the athletes have gone home, all of us also need to look "beneath the surface" to examine what it really takes to turn in an Olympian performance at whatever "race" we are trying to win.
All the best,
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