The Olympics games are an event that I have always followed with enthusiasm, and had the privilege of witnessing in person on more than one occasion. I watched France’s equestrian jumping team win the gold medal in Montreal in 1976. In 1992, I cheerfully applauded the Dream Team in Barcelona when the USA took the gold in basketball. And in 1996, I got to see the Czech Republic’s Jan Železný win a gold medal and set a new world record in the javelin throw, in Atlanta.
This summer, however, with the runaway commercialism and jingoism many countries bring to the games, I was only moderately interested in watching the events. But while it is easy to be cynical about the Olympics, the London games offered a phenomenal spectacle, with defining inspirational moments.
Although all the athletes deserve praise and recognition for their physical prowess and achievements, I would like to single out one competitor for a special homage this year. In my mind, Michael Phelps embodies a formidable aspect of the spirit of the Olympics. By demonstrating that anything is possible, he has confirmed that human potential is just about inexhaustible.
Before Phelps victory in the 200-metre individual medley, no man had won the same Olympic swimming event three times in a row. Before Phelps, no man nor woman had ever collected more than 18 medals. In London, he did that by adding four golds and two silvers, bringing his already amazing total to 22 medals.
When Michael Phelps was in kindergarten, his inability to sit quietly prompted his teacher to comment that he was not gifted. School didn’t seem to interest him. His poor grades showed a lack of focus and seemed to confirm the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder given by the family’s physician.
At the age of 9, Phelps was put on Ritalin, a medication used to treat hyperactivity. Luckily, he was born to a family of swimmers (at 15, his sister Whitney was ranked first in the US in the 200-metre butterfly). By 10, he was ranked nationally in his age group. And when Michael was 11, his swim coach, Bob Bowman, who still coaches him today, detected Michael’s potential and predicted an Olympic future.
Watching Phelps performances over the last three Olympics (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012), I feel that we can get inspired by his trailblazing successes and learn some useful tips from him, both in sport and in business, to help us achieve our dreams.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. – Goethe
The American architect Daniel Burnham once said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Phelps made big plans for the 2012 Olympic games and followed through with them.
His earlier ambition was to outdo Mark Spitz’s achievement of seven gold medals, earned at the 1972 Munich Olympics. After eight gold medals and seven world records, Phelps’s next long-term goal was to have the same impact on the sport of swimming that Michael Jordan had on basketball and Tiger Woods had on golf.
Phelps was looking to the future when, out of determination, stamina and a burning desire to transform the image of swimming for children all over the world, he put together the most ambitious Olympics program in the history of his sport. “I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level,” said Phelps.
And he did, he became an inspiration for an entire generation. Gregg Troy, the American Olympic men’s head coach, said that Phelps’s phenomenal success has led to a deeper pool of athletes, “High profile athletes attract younger athletes to emulate.”
Rule your mind or it will rule you. – Horace
1964 Olympic gold medalist swimmer Don Schollander once wrote that “Psyching out is part of the game. You’ve got to be able to take it and you’ve got to be able to do it. In Olympic competition, a race is won in the mind.”
Michael Phelps has been described by The Baltimore Sun as “a solitary man” with a “rigid focus” at the pool prior to a race. “Michael’s mind is like a clock,” said his mother. “He can go into the 200-meter butterfly knowing he needs to do the first 50 in 24.6 to break the record and can put that time in his head and make his body do 24.6 exactly.”
Phelps himself says, “As soon as I walk in the door, everything else that is going in my life doesn’t matter, it is like my brain shuts off. I don’t have to think about anything, I am there to swim, that’s’ it.”
We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
At age 12, Phelps willingly got up every day at 6:30 for 90-minute morning practices, and would continue to swim two to three hours every afternoon. To earn 22 medals, Phelps had to race 46 times, counting preliminaries and semifinal over three Olympics.
While vision and focus are keys to success, discipline is the glue that keeps them together. The most difficult challenge related to discipline is that just telling someone to become disciplined doesn’t work.
As sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman writes in his book The Mental ABC’s of Pitching, “You can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.”
“Self-discipline is a form of freedom,” continues Dorfman. “Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”
“Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” – John W. Gardner
“I didn’t want to compete to make history, I wanted to compete to be the best,” said five-time Olympic medalist Nadia Comaneci. That kind of sustained excellence requires a combination of passion and determination. “I consider myself a normal human being who has found a passion that I love and I don’t give up,” said Phelps.
When Phelps was growing up, he had a passion for what many believed they would never achieve. During the London games, he showed the world that with passion and discipline, any obstacle can be overcome. “Anything is possible as long as you want it and work for it. It doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks,” said Phelps.
The long-term consequence of his extraordinary performances goes far beyond the Olympic games themselves. When an athlete achieves what was once considered unthinkable, it makes every barrier suddenly look vulnerable.
Michael Phelps will be remembered for having raised the bar higher and for shattering the notion of what we thought was possible. In doing so, he helped the rest of us believe that, as long as our dream is big enough and as long as we work hard to make it become a reality, anything is possible.
Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.