The world as seen by Michael Phelps

Listening to the greatest Olympian ever offers life lessons that can be extrapolated into multiple domains

Charles Assisi

One perk of journalism is getting invited to annual day celebrations at companies. I must admit, most are routine affairs. Hotels are booked at exotic locations where things follow a script. The founder talks of how tough the past was, the chief executive paints a picture of the future, and bored executives sit through until they can binge drink and party.

At the 20th anniversary function of venture capital firm True North on January 11, though, there was no gossip to exchange or anger to vent at traffic piling up outside. Much of the jostling instead was to get close to Michael Phelps, the greatest athlete in Olympic history.

Everybody had questions on their minds: What does it feel like to win 28 medals in the 30 events he participated in? What may he be like? What does it feel like to be in his shoes?

And when he finally spoke, much like everyone else, I heard him closely. The 34-year-old sounded wiser than his years. I haven’t heard too many young men say it’s okay to be vulnerable. And much else.

A few learnings stayed long after he was done speaking.

Learning #1: “Me time” matters

From where I was seated, first impressions suggested Michael Phelps is an extroverted-introvert. I know the feeling. People think of you as an extrovert. But extroverted-introverts need much time with themselves. They crave to be with the few people they are close to and with whom they can be their true self. Minus them, they are lost. But their public demeanor suggests they are at ease with crowds.

This was obvious when Phelps spoke of how he couldn’t have gotten to where he did without his mum and coach. That is why each time he prepped to jump into the water, he knew exactly where his mother was seated, and his eyes would search for her. And as he shut himself out from the world, the only voice he heard in his head was that of his coach. Race done with, his eyes would look for what expression his mother’s face may wear because that told him all that he needed to know on how he did—better than any clock.

All else that he said in the public domain was perhaps rehearsed multiple times over. I think I am spot on. Because close to an hour into the conversation hosted by television anchor Gaurav Kapur, Phelps described himself as, “I am the guy who wears the headphones and doesn’t talk to anyone. I’m that kind of a guy. All of us have our own rituals.”

I could see many around me who sit in corner offices as part of their day job nod in acknowledgement.

Learning #2: Prepare for the worst

This was counter-intuitive to me. To place that into perspective, when a decision must be taken, I know the likely outcomes lie across a spectrum. That is why after having considered all outcomes, I punt on what may be the best one from my perch. After listening to Phelps, I figured there is one ingredient missing from my assessment of potential outcomes. What may the potential circumstances surrounding each outcome be? And that circumstances are not in our control.

We can only imagine what the ideal outcome ought to be and work towards it. At best, that can be described as goal-setting.

But a mental model Phelps uses is one his coach Bob Bowman taught him to deploy. Bowman asked him every day: “What is the worst possible circumstance that you can imagine?”

One possibility that emerged was that water could seep into Phelps’ swimming goggles. Bowman didn’t tell Phelps that in as many words. Instead, often without any warning, he would “accidentally” break Phelps’ goggles during practice sessions so water seeped in and rendered Phelps blind. That done, he’d compel the swimmer to stay in the pool without taking his goggles off. It was his way of training Phelps to prepare for the worst.

And as life would have it, during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, in the 200-metre butterfly race, 50 meters after he dived in, his googles started to fill with water. “I couldn’t see a thing,” Phelps said. “And it started to get worse. I was blind.”

By now, he had practiced so long and so hard, he knew how long the pool was and how many strokes would take him to the end before he had to turn for the next lap.

An obvious question Phelps said people ask of him is, why didn’t he take off his glasses? “Because my head was covered by two caps and the glasses were bound below it. If I took even a second out to take it off, competition would get past me.”

How do you practice to get there?

Phelps had a few pointers to offer.

a. It all adds up: “The great do things when you don’t want to do things. For me, if I don’t want to do things, as long as I came to the workout and gave myself something to, whether it be 10% or 15% of what I was intended to do, I was giving myself some practice that the others weren’t. It all adds up eventually.”

And how? Bowman drilled into his head that “I had the opportunity nobody else had on this planet—being able to become the first Michael Phelps and not the second Mark Spitz.” Until Phelps came along, Spitz was the greatest Olympian with seven gold medals, a record he held for three decades.

b. Innovate fearlessly: To do this, Phelps had to push his boundaries every single day. I thought it fascinating how Bowman pushed him when by Phelps’s own admission he thought it was “totally uncalled for.”

“What I was trying was to do something nobody had tried before. He made me do different sets to challenge my mind. Like 8,000 to 10,000 metres of freestyle swimming. He’d make me do all these workouts a month. The thing is, your body can do it. But the mind refuses to believe your body can do it. The mind must be convinced. You must learn to innovate fearlessly.”

He went six years without a break. “For every one-day you take off in sport, it takes two days to get back. So, for every kid who takes a day off on a Sunday, they are not fully back until Tuesday. I wouldn’t. That means, I get 104 days more training than they do. But I was willing to make that sacrifice. To me it was a no-brainer.”

“When people ask me how do I swim so fast, I find that amusing. I didn’t wake up one day and start swimming. I worked my tail off. Just train. Just prepare.”

c. Prepare for the worst: If any more perspective is needed on the significance of preparing for the worst, Phelps offers: “When I stood on the bar, I was prepared for anything. I had done the physical work, the mental work, I had done everything. When the lights came on, I was ready to go and give the competition every ounce. Goal setting was something I learnt early. Bob trained me to see it and live it in my head.”

He could see where he had to get to, even if the circumstances changed. The mind had already imagined what may it take to get there.

Learning #3: You get what you prepare for

After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Phelps was on top of the world. He was only 18. But he had accomplished all of the three things he had dreamt of as a kid. Become a professional swimmer. Break the world record. Win an Olympic Gold.

But that’s not how the media wrote of him. He was being compared to Mark Spitz and written off as a failure. To them, Phelps had bagged “only” six Olympic Golds and Spitz’s record of seven looked impregnable. “But I didn’t see myself as a failure. I was ready to move on to other things.”

Phelps went on a vacation. Contractual obligations with various commercial entities wouldn’t permit him to retire. “The hardest thing for me was to come back for the 2012 London Olympics. I have to say I faked it. I almost got away with it. But the results you get are what you prepare for. I didn’t get the results.”

To put that into perspective, he managed to get five medals and announced his retirement from the sport. It was, to his mind, the fourth time he had made his way to the Olympics and he had enough.

Learning #4: Everybody hurts

“The hardest part is on staying top of the mountain. That was because I wanted to get there. I knew how to get there. Every run is different in a way. Being able to come back over four Olympics, to think about it in some way now, I still don’t comprehend it.” It took him a long while to figure things out after the games ended.

“It was downhill. I got myself into some trouble. I didn’t want to be alive to be honest. I spent time figuring out what to do next. Those were the darkest days of my life…. I checked into a treatment centre and for the first time could look at myself as a human being. For long, I saw myself as a swimmer. I hadn’t seen myself as a person.

“To sit there as a person and become vulnerable, to allow yourself to become vulnerable is very scary. When you do that, you become afraid. I was sick and tired of living how I was. I wanted to figure who am I and what made me tick.”

By way of analogy, Phelps asked that we imagine a hard disk being taken apart. “If you picture a hard disk being taken apart piece by piece, that was [what] happened to me. I got rebuilt and started to deal with a lot of things I used to run away from…. I was good at compartmentalizing things and running away from what I didn’t want to face. Finally, I decided I must make a comeback and end things on my terms. I had to do it the perfect way.

“It took me a long time to acknowledge and show I am vulnerable. If somebody thinks I am weak because of that, I’m not. I can now show it makes me a human. That’s the most important thing. For long I thought I could do it alone. But I can’t. Trying to do it alone led me to a dark place. I sought help. And if I can save somebody’s life now, that is way more important to me now than winning an Olympic medal.”

Learning #5: Practice periodization

Quite honestly, listening to Phelps acknowledge how dark an abyss he had gotten into didn’t surprise me. This, for two reasons.

The first, because by Phelps’s own admission, he was fed-up of how his life was micro-managed. He wanted to be normal.

“For a long time I was eating 8,000-10,000 calories a day. I would fluctuate anywhere between five to ten pounds a week. I had to make sure I was keeping all the muscle and work at it. Eating was a job to ensure I could swim 80-100,000 metres a week. I’m now at a place where you can give me my favourite meal on the planet and find no joy in it. I just eat what I must to survive. I honestly don’t know what my favourite food is.”

Personally, I don’t think this is a good place to be in. Phelps had to give up on some of the simple joys of life to accomplish his larger goal.

Could things have been any different? At the level he had to perform and his obsession, perhaps not. But it did remind me of a conversation with the Delhi-based Dr Rajat Chauhan who practices sport medicine. He is also an ultra-long-distance runner.

The metric people are obsessed with, he told me, is watching our weight on the scale. But that’s not how the veterans do it. Instead, they train such that their mind and body peaks at just the right time. “You need to understand periodization,” he said.

Much discussions later, the import of what he was trying to explain dawned. Roger Federer has lasted as long as he has because he trains so his mind and body peaks in time for the Grand Slams. At all other times, he just practices and does not compete. Much the same can be said of the footballer Lionel Messi. He mostly walks during games. The only times he breaks loose is when an opening emerges to score. All of the other times, he conserves his energy.

That was very unlike Phelps at the peak of his career. Because as he put it, “I liked winning. But I hated losing more. I despised losing. Whether lifting weights, or squatting. I hate losing.” He spilt his guts. Every time. All the time.

As things are, he is a calmer, gentler person. Very recently, he went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. “The coolest thing about it is that I lay down on the bottom of the Atlantic and had a 13-foot long Hammer Head shark swim within six feet of me. It was one of the wildest things I did. They are majestic creatures. They were so calming. Unless you provoke or intimidate them, they don’t want to eat you or bite you. You are in their world and they just want to check you out.”

He sounded at peace.

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He also wrote a weekly column under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.