IN AUGUST 2008, Michael Phelps lost his sight during the Beijing Olympics 200m butterfly swimming final. Some water leaked into his goggles, and by the time he approached the final lap, the cups in his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn’t see anything. Not the line along the pool’s bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be a cause for panic. Phelps was calm. In remarkable fashion he went on to win that race and set a new world record.
Prepare for all scenarios
Everything else that day had gone according to plan for Phelps. The leaking goggles were a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared. His coach had once made him swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the race visualisation Phelps practiced daily with his coach had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure.
As he started his last lap, because he was blind Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require and started counting. He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength. 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 visualisations he had practiced in his head said. He made a twenty-first, huge stroke, glided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. He had timed it perfectly. When he took off his goggles and looked up the scoreboard, it said World Record next to his name. He’d won another gold.
After the race, a reporter asked Phelps what it had felt like to swim blind. “It felt like I imagined it would,” Phelps said.
Preparation, resilience and belief
Here are a few lessons we can learn from the events of that Olympic night in Beijing:
Preparation. Anything important that you do requires thorough preparation. You need to prepare for all scenarios. Prepare for the best case scenario and for the worst case scenario. That way, you are not surprised when something out of the norm happens. Phelps and his coach knew that something unexpected such as a leak in his goggles could happen, so they prepared for it. He won a gold medal and set a new world record from a worst case scenario.
Build resilience. Things do not always go as we plan. Life throws some setbacks in your way. This is when you need to be resilient. With resilience, you have the ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. Stress and adversity can come in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, or workplace and financial stressors, among others. You demonstrate resilience when you can face difficult experiences and rise above them with ease. Resilience is not a rare ability; in reality it is found in the average individual and it can be learned and developed by virtually anyone. When Phelps realised his goggles were leaking, he did not stop swimming and give up, instead he called upon his resilience and faced the difficulty as best as he could.
Believe in yourself. Most successful individuals have an unwavering belief in their ability. They genuinely believe in themselves. When Phelps was swimming that final lap, he was relaxed, swam at full strength, and calculated how many strokes he believed would take him home. That composure in such a difficult situation comes from someone who believes in their own ability. In the important things you tackle in life, you too must believe in your ability. You must believe in yourself even when other people doubt you. As they say, “A side effect of doing challenging work is that you’re pulled by excitement and pushed by confusion at the same time.” You will need to believe in yourself to push past the confusion and inevitable difficulties that come with challenging and important work.
Dream as big as you can dream, and anything is possible … I am sort of in a dream world. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real. – Michael Phelps
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Doubleday Canada, 2012).