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Michael Phelps: on achieving excellence, work ethic, and overcoming challenges

By Aynur Nuriev, 28 November 2020

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete in the world. He would have definitely secured a top-place in the Hall of Fame for swimmer if such one had existed

How many gold medals does Michael Phelps have? He's 28 career medals, 23 of which are gold, he competed in five Olympic games beginning in Sydney when he was only 15 years old and finishing with a splash at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. 

Not everyone knows that Michael attributes much of his success to learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and letting his vision be his “north star”. In this article, we will break down his thorough interview given at Think Forum for the business community and take a deep-dive into Phelps's decision-making process, approach to sports training, and pro career. It is a truly fascinating path Michael Phelps passed through and even a glimpse of it “behind the stage” could give many lessons to athletes of any age, skill, and discipline.  

Definition of “excellence”

I think every person can really define excellence in their own way, I think it really determines on what they want at the start of it, for me, when I started this whole journey, it was with a goal of breaking a world record, winning Olympic cold metal, becoming a professional athlete, those are the goals that I had as a little kid. 

So for me, that was what excellence was, and once I was able to get there. So for me, I guess it was kind of goals because the goals are something that played such a huge part in my everyday life, from the moment I wake up until the moment I got into bed, they were somewhere where I could see them every single moment when I was in my home, that's what really got out of bed, that's what helped me on days where I was struggling, so yes, I think goals are what really drove me and what made me try to become as excellent as I possibly could.

On his coach Bob Bowman

I had had so many kind of head-to-head battles throughout our career because we're both pushing each other to the max, because we both have these massive, massive goals that nobody has really ever thought of, and we're trying to conquer these things.

So for us, when we spend this amount of time around each other, we just know how each other work, he knows what buttons to press for me to be able to get that extra 10% that he needed, so that extra 20% out of that day that he needs from me to be able to have a chance to give... These goals are, I guess, a real shot to be able to be achieved, and I think just the dynamics that we have because it wasn't the typical coach-athlete relationship.

I believe that he had confidence in me, and that was something that I really had never felt from a father figure, and just like that interaction and those emotions that we had and that passion that we had for what we were doing, I think If I swam for anybody else that just wouldn't have been anywhere remotely possible to do what I was able to accomplish, what we were able to accomplish. 

There were days where I was walking out of the pool giving in the bird or screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, and we hate each other, and there were days where we wouldn't talk. But I knew that we had to go through that because we were the best team together, and looking back at my career now, he's somebody that will always be more than a coach, he's always more than a friend, he's a part of our true family and like I said none of this would be possible without him.

Michael Phelps and his Coach Bob Bowman
Michael Phelps and his Coach Bob Bowman. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

On training with one coach, Bob Bowman, for 20 years

The longevity that we've had, it was just something that we both saw in one another, and no matter how hard it got, and I'm sure there are some questions coming up, I don't wanna jump into them, but there are some really hard times that we went through together, and it brought challenges to us and we kinda just decided that we were biting the bullet and we were gonna get through it together, and just because we saw how strong we were together, the number of years from, I guess if we look from.

I'm really big with numbers and stats, so basically for me, like 2001 to 2004, probably in those years were the biggest building years for me going into 2007-2008, which rarely the best two years of my career and they were challenging at times because those were the years where I went to six or five or six or eight years without missing a single day, so 365 days of the year, it doesn't matter, a holiday or birthday if I'm sick, this or that, it doesn't matter.

I was in the pool because that's what I wanted, I wanted to make that sacrifice to do something that nobody else was doing, to give me the opportunity to potentially do something and nobody else has ever done. And I didn't care what I had to do to get there, I was willing to come every day because I wanted it. 

On work ethic and ambitions

So I wanted to do something that the sport had never seen, that people had never seen, the globe had never seen. And to be able to have that opportunity, I had to be able to do things differently. I couldn't do it in the same way that everyone had done it before, so for me to go five or six or eight years that man, I had 52 extra days a year, but also in the sport of swimming, if you take one day off, it takes you two days to get back to where you were. So somebody takes off on a Sunday, they're not back until Tuesday, so they're only getting Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, as where I'm getting six years straight, so I'm getting that much more ahead of them, I'm getting that much more work, I'm in that better shape, and that's what I had to do to basically set up for 08.

On the importance of visualization 

I can control what I do and how I prepare to getting up behind the block and just racing, I can't control what anybody else does, so for me, I wanna know how the race could go, how I don't want the race to go, and in a perfect world, how the race should go, 'cause it all goes back to preparation, if you're not preparing yourself before the meet, you're not gonna get a time you deserve. 

So for me, I have to make sure I'm doing all the work leading up to a big need so that I get behind the block and I don't have to think about anything else, I'm not worried about how I prepared. So I started visually, I guess, visualizing at 13, 14, just so everything around me was taken care of when I got to meet, so I could be completely relaxed, so when I put my head funds on, all I'm thinking about is music. I get to go up and just do what I practice to do. 

Me visualizing just, it just mentally prepares you and you can kind of check that box off, and I think that's what we wanted to do every time we got to a major international and competition, we wanted to check off as many boxes as we could, because if we did that then, what else do we have to worry about? Everything else is just gonna happen naturally as it should...

Michael Phelps on visualization
Michael Phelps on Visualization

On losses and competition

Ian Crocker gave me one of the biggest beatdowns that I probably ever took in 05 ad on... So we went, I broke a Russian, broke the world record in the first semi-finals, I broke the world record in the second semi-finals, Crocker broke the world record in the finals. Back-to-back days in 2003-2004, I came back and won the gold medal in the 200 fly and the 100 fly by 4100 of a second in 2005 World Championships, he literally beat me by a body length in 40 meters. In the last 40 meters of the race, and I was second, and that was probably to this date, the biggest beat down I've ever taken in my life, and that frustrated me to no other.

And for me, if I have a loss like that, that's gonna stick with me more than any other victory, so for me, I wanted to replay that in my head and to know what that felt like, because I was gonna do everything in my power preparing myself for that next summer to have a rematch to make sure it was not like that, and that's just how it worked.

I'm happy that I didn't have many losses, but I would have liked more because they really motivated me, like the loss in 2012 in the 200 Fly killed me for two years. A devastated me for two years.

I mean, if everything was exactly perfect and we got everything we wanted every single step of the way, would that really be that fun? Honestly, would that be fine? No, you wanna be able to work at something, you wanna be able to put the work in and put the time in to be able to accomplish a goal that you have. And for me, my goals were times, so I had to put the work in to get those times, if I didn't get the times, I went back to the drawing board because those times were so important to me, I wasn't racing anybody else, I was racing myself when I was in the pool, I didn't care what anybody else did, If I went the times that I had on my goal sheet, I knew there was not another soul on that planet that could have done the times that I had written down, so I didn't care. And I'm the first one to admit that my life and my career was not a smooth, easy road, so I had a lot of ups and downs, I went through a lot of tough times, but I was still able to do everything that I possibly wanted.

Anything, if you really want something and you care about something that much, it doesn't matter if you don't, if you're not super successful the first time, because it is something that you're truly passionate about, you're gonna get up and do it again, and do it again, and do it again, it doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down.

Note: you might be interested in our speed training and agility drills to improve your speed and agility. 

On grit and goals

I look, I was somebody who's picked on all the time... My teachers in middle school, I was told that I would never amount to anything. My sixth grade English teacher told me that I was picked on and made fun of because I had big years, I was picked on and made fun of because I shaved my legs and I was a little small, so suits. So for me, it doesn't matter how hard it is to get there, if you really want something, there shouldn't be a damn thing in this world that should stand in front of you and accomplishing that goal, and that's the bottom line, 'cause our mind... If we put it to... If we put our mind to something we can accomplish truly everything, do you think people thought I was absolutely crazy for wanting to win eight, I guarantee you they were... People publicly said it, I didn't care because I wanted it, and I knew it was possible.

On criticism and doubt

It's always fueled me. People who doubt, people have always doubted me in my career, I've always jammed their word to write down their throat every time, and honestly, there's nothing more rewarding than doing that... I can't talk enough. I say in Forest Australian summer and going into 2008, the public has stated that there is no way it's possible to win eight Olympic gold medals. I highlighted that comment and I posted it in the back of my locker, so every day I went into practice and I saw that comment and I was like, Alright, dude. Well, here you go. So this time around in 2016, he publicly said that No person over no mail, no male or female over the age of 30 will ever win an individual gold medal, so I was like, Oh okay, we're gonna show you that you're gonna eat those words, so I said The afterwards, he came over, I came over for a wedding and I was like therapy, I was like, Man, I was like... As a friend, I was like, You really had some nice words for me, and he goes, Yeah, but you know what? He goes, I know how your mind works.

On goal-setting and tracking progress

As an 11-year-old kid, I started writing those sheets with Bob, and we did short-term and long-term goals, and we basically planned out how we were gonna get there, so our motto basically turned into dream plan reach, come up with a dream that we wanna accomplish, figure out how we're gonna get there, plan it out and reach for it. So for me, I started with little times, and once I hit those times, I just instantly change them and made them super fast and trying to get him again, but they were broken down into splits, detailed split by each 50, and for every single one, they were plastered basically in my closet next to my bed, so I could see them every single day, because there were days where I didn't wanna get out of bed, there were days where I'm sure I can't move, I don't wanna swim, I'm tired, I don't feel... Well, this, that and the other. I'm sure we all have days like that unless somebody really likes to get out of bed every day and go to work if we have a...

Because I had to have some idea of what I was doing every single day. I need divine to visually see that. And for me, if I could go to practice on a day where I was feeling 30% and I could get 20% out of the workout instead of getting a zero, that's better than none, so I always try to use little things to keep me motivated throughout my journey of trying to accomplish these goals, and... I'll share two stories. I had one goal, the goal sheet from Rio, I had one goal for the for free. Really, the very first day, that was the only goal. Time I, I wanted to break a road record in the 100 fly and the 200 IM or the 200 am, I would've taken either one, to be honest, but that didn't happen, and then I called my coach afterward, we got home from a few weeks after gompa and I said, Bob, I said, I only accomplished one of my goals, and he said, Let it go, just let it go.

On mental health

With some of the things that I carried on and struggled with throughout my life with my family, with my father, and other things that caused me to reach this low point, I was able to actually really look at myself in the mirror and like who I saw as a person... And I think that was the first time in my life that I really saw that, and that was something that I think allowed me to relax more as a human being, and for me, I felt more like a human being then kind of basically what the media or what these people are trying to make us out to be, and I'm a human being who is just very gifted in the sport that I chose, and I go through the same exact everyday struggles that people deal with... Human beings deal with all over the world and... For me, it's still the same today. I still struggle with mental health. There are still days that are worse than others, are better than others, and it's just life, I go through the same exact everyday struggle that people experience all over the world, so for me, this is normal for me, so...

I'm somebody that suffered from a handful of times of serious, serious depression, spells, the most recent in 2014, where I wanted to commit suicide and didn't wanna be alive anymore. So for me, going through this journey and understanding that there are so many people that are struggling out there, for me to be able to just to save a life, I think is something that's way bigger than ever winning an Olympic gold medal. For me, I actually just had a friend of mine yesterday who committed to a side and I grew up with his older brother, and there's a reason why the suicide rates are going up, and it's something that needs to change, and it's something that we're fighting every day, and it's something that's very special. 

I think just the statement of, “It's okay to not be okay” It's a great way to start. I think it's... For me to go through everything that I went through, I had to essentially become vulnerable, and that's a scary word, I think through a lot of people, I had to go out of my comfort zone to try to experience something different to hopefully get different results and hopefully feel better and hopefully be able to be prepared to go through other things if there are challenges down the way. So for me, I allowed myself to become vulnerable and I communicated... I think for the first time, I think that was something that I never did, and I was somebody who was really good at compartmentalizing things and really just stuffing things away and never talking about them and never dealing with him, and at any given moment, I can explode and it's not healthy. So for me, it was just about opening up and just talking, I think that's something that's so big, and also I know for myself, and I think we can all help each other if we see somebody isolating to make sure that we can do everything we can or we can try and help that person not isolate because that's a scary place, and you know, I know that if I ever see myself isolating, that's a red flag and I need to instantly pick up the phone or talk to my wife or do something to make sure that it doesn't escalate in another direction...

It was a moment when I lived in that dark place, what kind of helped me turn the corner where I was suicidal, and for me, honestly, I sat in my room for three to five days and I didn't wanna talk to me about it, I didn't wanna eat I just wanted to be left alone. And when I started to think, I think that's one of my greatest things. When I start really using my brain and I had piecing quiet to really start just thinking of other ways to go about things, and for me, I've never been somebody who's given up and I didn't wanna give up in that moment, so for me, I thought there was a different road that I could go down. And I started talking to the people who I trusted the most and who treated me like I was a human being, treated and be like me, and we're dead on us and open, and I just started asking questions, and when I found this route of going to the meadows and seeking professional help was a way that could potentially help me, I decided to take it.

Conclusion

Michael Phelps laid down the essentials of a successful sports career: train your swimming as hell; improve yourself both in terms of physical and mental training; never hesitate to ask for help when needed; goal setting and visualization is the key for long-term success. One can apply these principles to any sport or an inspired athlete. 

Today there are plenty of ways to improve swimming training the athlete can choose from. The rise of swimming camps shows its efficacy because professional and amateur athletes can improve their skills in a short time under the control of experienced coaches. Yet, the vast part of preparation is always done locally, at athletes swimming pools. 

That is why whatever the athlete’s skill, it is necessary to constantly upgrade your training knowledge. Stay tuned with us on Sportlane, and become first to know everything related to swimming training.