Swimming against the tide

Topics Michael Phelps | swimming

Less than nine months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps slipped and fell outside his training facility and fractured his wrist. Even as the world wondered whether he would be able to resume competitive swimming after doctors said the fracture would take months to heal, Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, had other ideas. After much coaxing from them, doctors surgically repaired the wrist — and the champion was back in water just 10 days later. 

The rest is history as Phelps won eight gold medals. Behind the astonishing success was incredible hard work. Phelps started swimming without the use of his arms at all as the fracture meant he could no longer count on his long and powerful upper body, and had to focus on the weakness of his legs. Finally, Phelps won many of the races at the Beijing Olympics using the strength of his powerful new kick.

This is a perfect lesson in contingency planning — you and your team members must think through what you are going to do if things don’t go perfectly.

After he finished fifth in his first Olympic final in Sydney in 2000 as a 15-year-old, Phelps said he used his absence from the medal podium as motivation. So he decided to get into the pool the next day itself. Six months later, he broke his first world record.

This just proves there is no shortcut to success even for the mega-talented. Phelps used to swim intensively six hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for almost two decades. As other swimmers took one day off in a week, this habit gave him 52 days of extra practice every year. “If you want to be the best, you have to do things that other people aren’t willing to do,” Phelps said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last week. 

His comments at the Summit were a fantastic lesson in leadership — the stuff champions are made of and their ability to embrace adversity and leverage it to their competitive advantage. Apart from the hard work day after day, here are some other lessons curated from Phelp’s comments in various forums.
  • Be prepared to succeed: Phelps showed why it was important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Thus, preparation for all possible contingencies is an important part of a leader’s training. That way, nothing that happened during a swimming event would cause him to freak out or leave his comfort zone. In short, set a goal, figure out what you need to do to achieve it and then pursue it with everything you have.
  • Never give up: Phelps experienced many setbacks during the prime of his life, including the wrist fracture before the Beijing Olympics. But he fought back every time. Consider this: At the height of his career, a single photo, taken from a cell phone, showing him smoking marijuana at a college party sent his life into a tailspin. He was ridiculed, lost major contracts, was suspended by USA Swimming and was so depressed that he couldn’t even get out of bed. But he did what only champions did: he accepted his mistake, made amends and then went on to recapture the magic. In his public engagements, Phelps has talked about the importance of fiercely protecting one’s brand reputation as it could take years and years to build a strong brand. But about 60 seconds of bad judgement can make you lose everything.
  • Set clear goals: Phelps did, as he found it helped to put his goals down on paper and to frequently look them over, especially after a tough day. While earlier he used to think about the next race or the next practice, now he tracks long-term goals — five, 10 and even 20 years from now. It’s vital for a leader to adjust his thinking to think that far ahead. 
  • Raise the bar after every success: Writing down your goals and reminding yourself about them is not enough. You will have to set audacious goals as an 8-year-old Phelps did. As Phelps said at the HT Summit, he was not chasing medals, he was chasing times. He knew the times of all his competitors, he knew his competitors better than they knew themselves. He knew the times he needed to get, so that no one could touch him — ever. That means he never compared himself with anyone else and always tried to beat his past performance.
It is obvious from all this that the road to super stardom is not for the weak hearted.

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