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In this Issue:

  • What the Greatest Olympic Athlete Ever Can Teach You About Becoming A Champion
  • Video: Do You Really Want to Reach Your Athletic Dreams?
  • Ask Dr. G
  • Holiday Sale!


This past summer in London, Michael Phelps added to his medal totals and distinguished himself as the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals. He now holds the all-time record for Olympic gold (18), twice as many as the next highest competitor! In Beijing, in 2008, his 8 gold medals set the record for the most first place finishes in a single olympiad and after his performances this summer, amazingly, he has been the most successful athlete of the Games for 3 Olympics in a row!

What has made Phelps so successful for so very long is his mental approach to his sport. He is a fierce competitor and has mastered a winner’s headset, which he began to develop at a very young age with the help of his long time coach, Bob Bowman. This is part of the legacy he leaves for swimmers and other athletes across all sports. When the heat of competition is turned up high, the mentally toughest athletes will excel, and that’s exactly what Michael Phelps has consistently done!

Recently I had the pleasure to talk with Bob and former University of Michigan and Olympic team coach, Jon Urbanchek about Phelps and what specific things have made him great.

Whatever your sport, if you want to take your performance to the next level, to go as far as possible as an athlete, then Michael Phelps has a lot to offer you! Don’t re-invent the wheel here! Learn from one of the mentally toughest athletes ever! Here are Phelp’s “7” mental toughness strategies to systematically help you build the mind of a champion:

#1) SET CLEAR, CHALLENGING GOALS – You have to know where you’re going if you really want to get there! You have to have a compelling reason for continuously working hard and sacrificing on a daily basis. Your goals will provide you with this! They will fuel your efforts and direct your energies!

When Michael was just 11 years old, Bob Bowman taught him to set and write down specific goals, starting with a dream goal and then breaking that big goal into 3 challenging goals for that season, one for each of his 3 events. Next, and MOST IMPORTANT, he had Phelps write down 3 very specific things that he could do in each practice that would help him get to these 3 season goals, like making sure his turns were clean, his technique was precise, etc.

Understand that the heart of championship goal setting is to link what you are doing today with what you want to accomplish tomorrow! This is a question you must continuously ask yourself:“HOW IS WHAT I’M DOING TODAY AND RIGHT NOW, GOING TO HELP ME GET TO WHERE I WANT TO GO?” When Michael was 12 years old he had written down as a dream goal that he wanted to swim in the Olympics. On the back of this same, yellow-lined, goal sheet and crossed out, was the big goal of winning a gold medal. At the time, Michael explained to his coach that he had crossed it out because he thought it was too unrealistic!

By the time he was 13, Phelps had gotten very good at this goal setting routine. At the beginning of this particular season, he wrote down 3 goal times for three of his events.These were, 2:04:65 in the 200 Fly; 4:31.86 in the 400 IM; and 16 minutes even in the 1500 M Free. At the end-of-season meet, Phelps went 2:04:65 EXACTLY in the 200 Fly, 4:31.88, (just .02 off) in the 400IM, and 16 minutes, .8 seconds in his 1500!

#2) WORK HARD – There is absolutely no substitute for consistent, hard work! If you have a dream that you desperately want to accomplish, then you have to be willing to pay your physical dues each and every day! You can’t just work hard whenever you feel like it. It can’t be a sometimes thing! It has to be an every day thing! What almost always separates the best from the rest is how hard they work! Phelps had a tremendous amount of energy as a kid, perhaps as a result of his severe ADHD and he consistently channeled all of this excess energy into his training. Very early on he learned the value of hard work and that you can’t become a champion without it!

This is true in ALL sports, but especially so in endurance sports. To become a champion you have to train yourself to continuously step outside of your comfort zone, physically, mentally and emotionally. This is how you grow as an athlete and as a person! Simply put, you have to learn to practice GETTING COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE! This is the path to greatness that Phelps followed, regularly doing the difficult things, over and over again, to the best of your ability!

#3) PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS – According to Michael’s Olympic coach, Jon Urbanchek, one of the things that Phelps did better than most was to pay very close attention to the details whenever he trained. He didn’t just mindlessly go through the motions. He focused on making sure his technique was precise, i.e. that his head was in the right position, his hand entered the water perfectly, etc. It’s these kinds of details that helped him achieve greatness because it insured that his training was always of the highest quality.

If you want your practices to be REALLY beneficial, then you have to pay attention to the important details as you go through them. You can’t just have a “the lights are on but no one’s home” mentality. Far too many athletes don’t work enough on building a foundation of solid mechanics/technique when they train. They ignore these little, important details, and as a result, inadvertently end up setting themselves up for failure.

#4) STAY CALM AND RELAXED PRE-PERFORMANCE – It is impossible to perform your best when it counts the most if you get too nervous pre-performance. The secret to you performing the way you’re truly capable of is to stay loose when the heat of competitive pressure is cranked up high and Phelps did this better than anyone! Both of his coaches claimed that they NEVER saw him nervous!

You can be the best conditioned, strongest and most talented athlete out there, but you won’t compete that way if you allow yourself to get hijacked by out of control nervousness! Staying clam and composed under pressure is a learned skill which Phelps got highly proficient at because when he was just 12 years old, his mother taught him progressive muscle relaxation, (PMR). PMR is a calming technique that Michael perfected through continual, almost daily practice. In fact, Phelps got so good at this relaxation technique that he was able to fall asleep almost immediately whenever he practiced it at night before bed!

You don’t want to go into your biggest, most important competitions HOPING that you’ll be able to stay calm and composed so you can do well! You want to be confident that you CAN control yourself! So make a commitment today to learn HOW to effectively calm yourself down and then regularly practice this technique (or two) until you’re incredibly proficient at it!

#5) USE A SET PRE-PERFORMANCE RITUAL – Having a familiar pre-performance routine that you always use right before your games/matches/races is an effective way to remain calm and in control of your concentration whenever the heat of competition goes into the RED ZONE. Far too many athletes lose/fail before the start because they unknowingly allow their pre-performance concentration to drift to all of the wrong things.

What you focus on both before and during your performance can make or break how well you perform. For example, if you allow your pre-performance focus to drift to the “UNCONTROLLABLES,” (anything that is DIRECTLY out of your control like the outcome, (winning or losing), the skill, size and/or reputation of your opponent, needing to drive this runner home, scoring a goal, a bad call by the ref, worrying about whether the coach will bench you, a past mistake, etc.), then you’ll get too nervous, lose your confidence and perform well below your capabilities. Having a set pre-performance ritual will help you learn to control your focus so this doesn’t happen!

As a young swimmer, Phelps developed his own pre-race ritual, a routine which he continued to use right through his entire career! He always stretched a certain way, listened to specific music (hip hop) and would then slap his arms 3 times right before getting up on the blocks. He had tremendous success with this ritual as a young swimmer and, as a result, developed a lot of confidence in it. This is something that you will always see with all great athletes right before a crucial at-bat, clutch free throw, important serve or shot. The athlete always does the very same things.

It’s your pre-performance ritual that will provide you with something to concentrate on which will then help distract you from all of the other the distractions. In addition, because your ritual is familiar and something that you always do before your perform, it will help calm you down and keep you loose, no matter how big the situation is or how many people you’re performing in front of!

#6) USE MENTAL REHEARSAL TO PREPARE FOR YOUR PERFORMANCES – When you mentally “practice” in vivid detail, “seeing,” “hearing” and “feeling” what you would as if you were there, you will systematically train yourself to perform this way when you are actually in the action. Regular mental practice builds confidence and helps you stay calm under pressure. Bowman taught Michael the basics of mental rehearsal and Phelps got really good at using “peak performance imagery” in which he practiced “swimming” the perfect race.

And then Michael, being who he was, took his mental rehearsal practice to the next level all by himself. Without knowing this was what he was doing, Phelps began using “coping imagery,”where he’d imagine things going wrong and then calmly and effectively handling them. By mentally practicing successfully managing the unexpected, Phelps’ was able to stay calm and composed when the “unexpected” actually happened!

Bowman taught Phelps early on that when things go wrong, you have two choices as an athlete: You can view the situation as a DISASTER and mentally knock yourself completely off track dwelling on this; Or you can look at the situation as a CHALLENGE that you can rise to and thus get better from! By anticipating bad things happening and then rehearsing exactly how you will successfully handle them, you will take your mental game to the next level! This kind of practice will enhance your confidence and keep you calm under pressure.

Phelps was on the doorstep of making Olympic history at Beijing in 2008. He had already won 7 gold medals and had just the 200 Fly in front of him to do something that no-one had ever done before, win 8 golds in a single Olympiad. As he dove in for the start of this race, his goggles started leaking. By the 150 mark, his goggles were completely full of water and he was blind. Instead of panicking on this last lap and focusing on the disaster, he calmly switched his concentration to his stroke count, because he knew exactly how many strokes would get him across the pool as fast and efficiently as possible. He had already visited this issue of what you do when you can’t see and so he was prepared for this possibility! By mentally practicing successfully mastering challenges, when one popped up, Michael wasn’t thrown off by it! He knew exactly what he needed to do, and did it to win his 8th gold medal!

Start looking for the CHALLENGES in all of those DISASTERS that happen to you! Get in the habit of thinking ahead and expecting the “unexpected!” Have a specific plan for what you’ll do when the “unexpected” does indeed happen to you and then mentally practice successfully executing this plan. Learning this one mental skill will help you not only develop mental toughness, but also be at your best whenever the pressure of competition is turned up high.

#7) BELIEVE IN YOURSELF NO MATTER WHAT – One thing that separates really great athletes from everyone else is that NO MATTER WHAT happens and no matter how many failures or setbacks they suffer, they never stop believing in themselves. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you must broadcast this belief to the entire world. It is only important that you buy it!

Phelps had an incredible amount of belief in himself and possessed the uncanny ability to dial this self-confidence up under pressure. The bigger the test, the more Michael focused! This is quite interesting given the fact that one of Michael’s elementary school teachers once told his mother that her son would never be able to focus on anything! No one knows what’s really in your heart and what you’re capable of accomplishing except YOU! Don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of your dreams. Handicaps and disabilities are nothing more than challenges for you to overcome on the way to your goals!

A version of this article appears in the December 2012 issue of USA Swimming’s Splash Magazine.

If you have a performance difficulty or you’re consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help.

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“I’m 16 years old and a pretty decent soccer player. I’ve made my State ODP (Olympic Development) team and have been invited to Regional camps before. My travel coach and even my state ODP coach are always telling me that I can play so much better than I do, but I’m “my own worst enemy.” I think I know what they mean because I get so down on myself whenever I make mistakes. It makes me so angry because I’m so much better than that, I shouldn’t be making them and then I can’t stop thinking about these while I’m playing. I really want to play in college and both my coaches have told me I’m good enough to play at a D-1 school, but I have to get my head on straight. Help!”

DR. G.

Getting upset and angry with yourself whenever you make silly mistakes is very common, especially if you are serious about your sport and have big dreams. However, as common as it may be, your coaches are right! Getting angry at yourself for messing up or failing will NOT help you play better. It will NOT motivate you and it WON’T help you reach your goals. Quite the contrary! It will be the BIGGEST obstacle between you and what you really want to accomplish! One of the most important lessons you need to learn is that in order to become a champion, you must be able to change your relationship with mistakes and failure!

Mistakes and failure are NOT the enemy! They are not something that you want to try to avoid at all costs! The only real way that you can learn and grow as an athlete is by messing up and failing. Our mistakes and failures provide us with valuable feedback about what we did that didn’t work and what we need to do differently next time in order to improve our performance. The only way to go from beginner to expert in anything is by failing enough!

If you get angry, impatient or frustrated with yourself for making mistakes while you’re playing, then you will inadvertently tighten yourself up, distract your concentration from where it needs to be in the action and set yourself up to make more mistakes and fail! If you are out on the field during a game and worrying about screwing up, your play will be tight and tentative! You’ll always play your best when your focus is completely away from the “what if’s!” You have to learn to play like you have NOTHING TO LOSE!

Keep in mind, the time to work on your mistakes is NEVER while you’re playing, and when it counts, and ALWAYS when you’re practicing and under NO PRESSURE! So when you screw up, one of your jobs is to IMMEDIATELY set that miscue aside and refocus your concentration on what’s in front of you! If the negative part of you insists on bringing that same mistake up again, then quickly refocus your concentration on the action in the NOW. Make a deal with yourself before your games that you will think about and work on your mistakes AFTER the game and in the next practice! Another job you have is to try to be kind to yourself whenever you screw up or fail. What you need most when this happens is forgiveness and patience, NOT frustration and self-directed anger!


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