1: August 8, 2008.  Beijing, China.  Summer Olympics.  Men’s final for the 200-meter butterfly.  

Michael Phelps knew 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,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  

“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.  [Michael] couldn’t see anything,” writes Charles.  “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 cause for panic.”

Michael was calm.

2: “He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure.  As he started his last lap, [Michael] 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, glided 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,” Charles writes.

When the race was over, a reporter asked Michael what it had felt like to swim blind.

“It felt like I imagined it would,” Michael answered.

At the end of each swim practice, coach Bob Bowman would tell him Michael Phelps to go home and “watch the videotape.  Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up,” Charles writes.

Bob wasn’t referring to an actual videotape.  “Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race,”

“Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, [Michael] would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly,” Charles notes.  “He would visualize his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, and the finish.  He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end.  He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart.”

During practice, when Michael was swimming at race speed, Bob would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Michael would push himself to another level of performance.  “It almost felt anticlimactic as he cut through the water,” writes Charles, “He had done this so many times in his head that, by now, it felt rote.”

And it worked.  Michael got faster and faster.  Before a race, Bob would whisper, “Get the videotape ready.” Michael became the most successful Olympian ever, winning 23 Olympic gold medals.

3: Bob believed that the key to victory for swimmers was creating the proper routines.  In addition to having watched the “videotape,” Michael also learned a series of behaviors to find calm and focus himself before each race, “to find those tiny advantages that, in a sport where victory can come in milliseconds, would make all the difference,” Charles writes.

Once Bob established a few core routines in Michael’s life, all the other habits—his diet and practice schedules, the stretching and sleep routines seemed to fall into place on their own.  These habits are an example of what is known in the academic literature as a “small win.”

“We’d experiment, try different things until we found stuff that worked,” Bob told Charles.  “Eventually we figured out it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers.  We worked them into a routine.  There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory.”

Michael was prepared when the water blinded him in his goggles during the Olympic final.  He had planned for possible surprises and for how he would respond—just another of videotape in Michael’s head.  

“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,” writes Charles.  “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 in the day and had been nothing but victories.  Winning is a natural extension.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What habits in my life are serving me well?  What habits are not serving me well?

Action:  1: Make a list of the habits in my life.  2: Select one I would like to change.  3: Change it.

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