Thursday, August 14, 2008

Phelps Gives Lesson in Mental Game

For someone (like myself) who works with and studies the mental makeup of athletes for a living, there is nothing like having the opportunity to analyze Michael Phelps’ performances in these Olympic Games on a daily basis. At any moment, while viewing the NBC broadcasts or researching various news sites, another quote or anecdote is communicated about his idiosyncrasies, his training, his emotions – even his ever-present mother.

It’s no surprise that the common viewer can quite easily understand what makes him so good. He puts in the effort, sets challenges, stays positive, and enjoys himself, his teammates, and his ability to represent the country (and really the global sport of swimming for that matter).

He also has the perfect swimmer’s body and continues to work on his strength and athleticism. For instance, he knew that he could put in work that would enable a more effective and explosive turn, so he initiated an intense strength and conditioning weight workout. His powerful force and technique off the wall is more evident than the Spanish basketball team’s reason for posing for a team picture in a potentially, politically slanted manner.

Other remarks we’ve heard or read about Phelps:

  • Has the best mind of anybody else
  • Maintains a bulletin board of motivational reminders
  • The bigger the event, the bigger the performance
  • Works harder than anybody else
  • Wants to destroy competition
  • Gets out and seizes the lead or puts it in cruise control and then blitzes by
  • Wants to make a statement
  • Sets high goals and wants to do something nobody has done before

Again, he is proof (it’s considered unsound to “prove” anything in psychological research, but Phelps gives me good reason and – ha – proves there is an exception) that the greatest of the greats are at that level because of their ridiculous mental toughness and head games. Tiger wants to demolish every one, every course, and will only call it quits when he can’t compete anymore. Jordan felt the same way – a couple times. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Pete Sampras. Lance Armstrong. Brett Favre. Oh, right.

The most elite athletes are so focused, have picture perfect bodies for their sports, and train and play with a confidence of which others become jealous insofar as labeling the hardest workers arrogant or pompous. Phelps seems to be such an encouraging model for the cause of the elite. He enjoys setting new World, err Phelps, Records. He means something to his USA teammates, yet he also draws on their energies and their accomplishments. It’s stated best in The Australian:

Fellow Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol said it was Phelps' mental strength that separated him from the rest.

"At this level I do believe it is more a mental game than it is anything and it takes a certain amount of guts to do what Michael is doing," Peirsol said.

"He has just pushed us and we have all pushed each other, what Michael is doing is elevating everybody else's performance."

Phelps is taking forward just one lesson from that relay race.

"Jason (Lezak) just proved that anything is possible," Phelps said. "He was a body-length behind the world record-holder with one lap to go in a 100m freestyle race, and he came back and got his hand on the wall first."

The impressiveness is astounding. It’s not like there is a defense out there, directly impeding his swimming stroke or holding his feet as he prepares to sprint towards the finish. In sports like swimming or gymnastics or golf, one’s own mind may act as a better "D" than even the Celtics’ championship curtain.

On the other hand, the thoughts one generates can truly help an athlete prepare and perform, rather than harass and halt. And we (sport psychologists commenting on the mental game, coaches, aspiring athletes, and the layperson) are lucky to be able to watch possibly the greatest athlete of all time give a master lesson in how to control one’s mind and behavior -- whether he wins three more gold medals or not, Phelps is the PROOFessor.


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