Michael Phelps and Habits

imagesThe following is an excerpt from The Power of Habit by Charles DuHigg. Chapter 4, Keystone Habits, page 114 – 115.

Michael Phelps coach Bob Bowman is being quoted.

“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over (emphasis added). When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victorious. Winning is a natural extension.”

Back in Beijing, it was 9:56 AM – 4 min. before the races start – and Phelps stood behind his starting block, bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped up onto the block, as he always did before a race, and then step down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was twelve years old. He stepped on the blocks again, got into his stance, and when the gun sounded, leapt.

Phelps knew that something was wrong as soon as he hit the water. There was moisture inside his goggles. He couldn’t tell if they were leaking from the top or bottom, but as he broke the water’s surface and began swimming, he hoped the leak wouldn’t become too bad.

By the second turn, however, everything was getting blurry. As he approached the third turn and final lap, the cups of his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn’t see anything. Not the line along the pools bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your site in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic.

Phelps was calm.

Everything else that day had gone according to plan. The leaking goggles were a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared. Bowman had once made Phelps swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the videotapes in Phelps mind had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require – nineteen or twenty, maybe twenty-one – and started counting. He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength. Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At eighteen strokes, he started anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring, but since he was blind, he had no idea if they were cheering for him or someone else. Nineteen strokes, then twenty. It felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his head said. He made a twenty first, huge stroke, collided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. He had timed it perfectly. When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said “WR” – world record – next to his name. He’d won another gold.

After the race, a reporter ask what did it felt like to swim blind.

“It felt like I imagined it would,” Phelps said.

duhigg

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