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Lessons From My Godson and Michael Phleps

Michael Phelps 100m qualifying race

Category: Performance Improvement

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part blog mini-series. Click here to read Part 1 – Back To Your Future.

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time. That’s impressive.

This time two years ago, my sister’s then 14-year-old son, Ethan, was in school in Mount Kelly, Devon. He’s also my Godson. We’ve always been close. His six months in the UK in 2016/17 brought us even closer.

You see, Devon’s a long way from his home in Sydney. It wasn’t easy for him as a 14-year-old. He was at Mount Kelly because the school has an elite swimming programme. Ethan, needless to say, is a handy swimmer.

He committed to the process. He focused on the swimming as much as he could, thereby playing to his strengths.

The power of visualisation

He trusted his coaches and the gruelling training programmes they designed for him. He trusted himself.

He was grateful for the wonderful opportunity that not many children are fortunate enough to have. So he had perspective when times were tough.

On one of his weekend visits to London, we had one of our great chats where he taught me some valuable lessons. He quizzed me about my life and work. He always does. He’s interested. He likes to understand more about me and my life. As I said, we’re close.

I chatted through the current state of the business and where I was going with it.

I explained the power of visualisation. How our mind sees in pictures.

I elaborated, “If I want my mind to work for and with me, instead of me allowing doubt and fear to seep in, then I need to give it a clear picture of what success looks like.”

“Yeh mate, I know”, he interrupted.

“Oh really?”, I asked

“Of course. Doesn’t everyone? How else do you think Phelps won so many gold medals?” he asked.

“I reckon most athletes visualise their success”, I replied, “How do you use it?”

“Same way he did. By visualising the race going well. Breathing, clean strokes, clean turns, pacing myself well over the first 50 metres, smooth and easy throughout, keeping enough for a strong finish.”

“Wow, that’s impressive”, I said. As I thought about it, it wasn’t all that surprising. Not at his level.

I asked a little bit more.

When things don’t go to plan

“So what happens mid-race if something doesn’t go according to plan?”, I put to him.

“Like what? Like Phelps in the 200m ‘fly in 2008?” He was getting animated now. “When his goggles filled with water and he still won gold? Haha, nothing was going to stop him. He’s a Beast!”

The story goes like this: Phelps had been dominating the pool at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was going for his 10th Olympic gold by the time the 200m Butterfly final came around. He already held the world record and was expected to win.

But then disaster struck. Or so most would think…

As he dove in at the start of the race, his goggles began to fill up with water.

Here’s his account to reporters after:

“I dove in and they filled up with water and it got worse and worse during the race. From the 150-metre wall to the finish, I couldn’t see the wall. I was just hoping I was winning.”

He couldn’t see.

So how did he win?

He had visualised this happening and had a backup plan. He had a way to overcome the obstacle.

He knew how many strokes it would take to go from one end to the next, so he could judge his turn accurately, or reach for the finish at the 200m mark. He was able to pace himself without looking to where the opposition was because he had been there in his mind’s eye already.

Overcoming setbacks

Ethan has had a great 2018. Over the summer, he travelled from Sydney and qualified for the ‘Pathway Programme’ with Swim Ireland. He achieved this by swimming a particular time in the Irish Nationals at the National Aquatic Centre.

It wasn’t straightforward. It was an emotional roller-coaster. In his own words, his life as a swimmer was on the line.

On Thursday, he thought he had blown his best chance by missing the time in his favourite event. This was a shock as he had trained in a way that suggested he would easily qualify with a good race. He was at rock bottom after the race.

On Saturday morning he reminded himself that he still had a chance that day. It wasn’t what he had planned, but the alternative path ahead was his to step into.

By Saturday he had qualified in an event he was less favoured in. He put years on his mother and nana. I like to think of myself as a calming influence but my nerves were shot to bits too.

His dreams drowned one day, only for him to resuscitate them 48 hours later.

My Godson Ethan with his cousins

I was beaming with pride.

As a result of entering the Pathway Programme, he’s back in school in Mount Kelly in Devon. There, he’s immersed in an elite training programme whilst he studies. He comes to Dublin to train with the Irish squad at various junctures during the term too.

He’s living his dream.

Last weekend in Lisburn at the Irish Short Course Nationals, things improved again.

He swam seven Personal Bests (PBs). He’s now the fastest in his age group in Ireland 200m Fly and 400 IM. He’s 4th and 5th fastest in Ireland (all ages included) in both, respectively. He also holds the Mount Kelly record in the 400IM, which is amazing given the quality of British swimmers who have passed through the school.

The vision of your ideal future won’t happen automatically

What can you take from this?

The vision of your ideal future won’t happen automatically. There will be many obstacles along the way. The more you can envisage what might get in your way, the easier they will be for you to overcome.

So how do you go about this in practice?

  • Begin with the end in mind. What year is your Vision set in? See Part 1 of this mini-series for help drafting this.
  • Break it down into key areas. You can use the Wheel of Life Exercise. It’s up to you, maybe you want to narrow it down to Family Life, Work Life, Health & Fitness.
  • Work back in Milestones. For example, my Vision is set for 2023. So I am working to Milestones in 2021, 2020, and 2019. Decide what feels best for you.
  • What needs to happen at each milestone to make the next a reality?

When you get to 2019, you’re ready for the next step. Take it.

There’s a lot to admire about Michael Phelps (and Ethan!) Over the past few years, Phelps has spoken openly about his anxiety and depression. Last year in Chicago at a mental health conference, he called for more people to “seek and reach for help”.

To my mind, there’s more strength in that than in his apparent superhuman achievements in the pool.  

Godson and Godfather alike hold Phelps in high esteem. As we do each other.

This is the type of content I write about in my regular emails. To read more about what you can do today to improve your own performance and lead your millennial talent more effectively, click here to sign up. You’ll also get a free report called “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”, which sheds further light on the topic.

About The Author

Jasper WalsheJasper and his team specialise in clarifying, simplifying and prioritising the many demands of the multiple roles leaders are expected to fill today. Against a backdrop of constant change leaders and their teams must develop a way of working that fits and works for them. Using a proven and sustainable framework called TRIPSTM, clients who commit to the process are guaranteed to improve performance, vitality, fulfilment and engagement at all levels.

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