Michael Phelps’ Top 5 Fundamentals for Pulling Off the Impossible

“I won't predict anything historic. But nothing is impossible.”

The Olympic Games are almost over and if there was one king at these games then that has to be Michael Phelps. He set one world record after another. He took home the most Gold Medals (8!) that anyone ever has at one Olympic Game. And he also has the most Olympic Gold Medals that anyone has ever won in the history of the games.

Phelps has some genetic advantages, like unusual long arms plus very flexible ankles, but the mental part is still crucial. So what can we learn from Michael Phelps and his mindset? Here are five fundamentals.

1. It starts with your thoughts.

“I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything.”

It all starts with your thoughts. They and your emotions get you to do – or not to do – things. And how you think and feel about your results and the work you have to put in determines who you are becoming and you what are achieving.

How you act does also to a pretty large degree determine what you get from other people in your life. Emotions and thoughts are contagious. And you tend to get what you give, at least over time.

A brilliant and beautiful expansion on this very basic idea can be found in James Allen's “As a man thinketh”.

2. Keep a steady and consistent focus.

“If I want to be as successful as I want to be, I have to be thinking about it all the time.”

Thinking about what you want is of course extremely important. But you also need to keep your focus there. Because you are and are becoming what you think about most of the time. If your focus starts to waver all over the place and you forget what you really want to focus on half the time or get caught up in other thoughts or emotions then things will be difficult.

Much of this comes down to how reactive you are to other people and events. If you are constantly in reaction to what happens around you, you let the outside world control what you focus on. So how can you get your focus to become more like an arrow that is moving forward rather than a boat where the guy at the rudder has fallen asleep?

How to train your mind to keep the focus on what you want:

  • Practise. This gets the mind used to this new way of keeping your focus. The mind will slowly start to accept this way, inner resistance will lessen and keeping the focus where you want it becomes easier.
  • Use your physiology and phraseology. You can use these two things to keep your emotions where you want them to be. Your emotions work backwards too. So by changing your physiology – how you sit, stand and move – to a more confident one you can feel more confident. And by using more positive words you can have a more positive frame of mind. So even if you don't feel confident or positive right now you can quickly change that by changing your movement and words.
  • Reframing. You can use reframing – to see things in a different light – to help yourself. How do you do it? One way is to ask yourself some good questions. If you are in a “negative” situation you can reframe it by asking yourself: what is awesome about this? Or “what can I learn from this?”
  • Use an external reminder. Written notes in highly visible places or a bracelet with an inscription can help you to keep your focus in the right place throughout your normal day.

3. Dream without limits.

“You can't put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.”

Sure, there might be some genetic advantages that some have that you don't. Time can also be a factor. You may not be able to lose those 30 pounds within a month, but you can do it over a longer time span.

You can – to a large degree – dream without limits and also use your own natural advantages to your benefit.

Now, dreaming without limits may sound like empty self-help mumbo-jumbo. But your dreams and beliefs do to a large degree determine what you can and will allow yourself to do. As Henry Ford said in his famous quote:

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.”

In my experience this is very much true. And it comes down to if you can see what you want in your reality as something realistic and if you will allow it to be there. If you don't then you'll work against yourself. You'll feel a lot of inner resistance that manifests in different ways such as self-sabotage in subtle and not so subtle ways.

4. Accept what happens and learn from it.

“A lot of new obstacles are coming, a lot of new feelings are coming, … I'm just taking it for what it is and learning from the mistakes I had this year.”

Resistance is fatal to get a good performance out of yourself. And as I mentioned last Friday, acceptance can help you to remove inner resistance and get things not only done but done in a better fashion than if you are resisting and working against yourself.

Acceptance is also very helpful when you make a mistake or fail. You can resist the failure/mistake and beat yourself up. This creates a lot of inner suffering and new resistance. And that makes it emotionally harder to keep going and trying since you associate mistakes and failure with so much pain.

Acceptance is a more useful approach. It can help you to release yourself from slipping into old, conditioned patterns of self-hurting behaviour when something “negative” happens.You can instead see a situation such as a failure with fresh eyes.

And instead of beating yourself up or feeling sorry for yourself you can see the situation in a more positive and constructive way. Like for instance by looking for the lessons or the positive stuff in your failure. One of the greatest things about acceptance is that it can give you freedom from your old behaviour patterns and “you acting as you have always done”.

Failure and mistakes can – in combination with acceptance – be very helpful. Here are four reasons why:

  • You learn. Instead of seeing failure as something horrible you can start to view it more as a learning experience. When standing in the middle of a failure, you can ask yourself questions like the ones I mentioned above in the reframing section of tip #2. Questions like: What's awesome about this situation? What can I learn from this situation? There is always one lesson or many more in what you may see as a failure.
    You gain experiences you could not get any other way. Ideally, you probably want to learn from other people's mistakes and failures. That's not always easy to do though. Sometimes you just have to fail on your own to learn a lesson and to gain an experience no one can relate to you in mere words.
  • You become stronger. Every time you fail you become more accustomed to it. You get desensitized. You realize more and more that it's not the end of the world. Failing may in fact become a bit anticlimactic – just like when successfully reaching a goal – after you have spent much time building a grandiose image of it in your head. Failing can also a have an exhilarating component because even though you failed you at least took a chance. You didn't just sit on you hands doing nothing. And that took quite a bit of courage and determination.
  • Your chances of succeeding increases. Every time you fail you can learn and increase your inner strength. So every failure can make you more and more likely to succeed. And there is probably no other way to the success you dream of without a whole bunch of failures along the way.

5. Be careful with inflating your ego or identifying too strongly with your success.

“I'm the same kind of guy before all this happened.”

If you let the success go to your head then it can, for one, make you an arrogant jerk. It can also make you more emotionally reactive as you inflate your ego and strongly identify with your achievements.

This will feel awesome at first. But soon you may start to doubt that you are still as good as your last achievement and as awesome as everyone said you were. And so you become more reactive to criticism or having a bad day. This affects the steadiness of your focus, thoughts and emotions. And so your inner life becomes more of a rollercoaster. All of this can not only affect your relationships with other people but also your performance.

This doesn't mean that you don't have a high level of confidence in yourself and your abilities. It just means that you should be careful with getting completely wrapped up in your past achievements and letting you ego inflate too a harmful size.

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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • For me, success is usually more distracting than failure. Whenever I get news or signs of my success, I can’t get back to work effectively for at least an hour and sometimes for the rest of the day. I feel like celebrating instead! But, Phelps recently taught me how not to be distracted by the wins as well as the losses when he won one gold medal from an event and didn’t even stop to enjoy it b/c he knew he had to quickly get to the next event and mentally stay focused for that one to win gold again … and again … and again. But one time, I think he only had a few minutes between two such events.

    In addition, the Olympics also reminded me of the sci-fi movie “Gattaca.” Spoiler warning: Do not read further if you don’t want to know what happens in that movie! In the future, married couples mostly choose to have their children genetically enhanced to ensure the best possible combination of each of their genes. However, one couple decide, out of love, to have a child the old-fashioned way without scientific intervention. The result? A child with a weak heart (played by Ethan Hawke). So, for their second child, they do it the scientific way, and produce a physically “healthier” child with no heart problems. Anyway, the first child always wanted to be an astronaut — an impossible goal even for the most elite physically fit genetically engineered folks, not unlike the Olympics. One such individual (played by Jude Law) became a paraplegic in an accident and thus his brilliant career was over despite his near perfect genes. While the man with the heart condition passed all the demanding physicals outsmarted everyone and got to realize his “impossible” dream of flying into space.

    In the Olympics, I also admire the persons who were in second place but still ran their hearts out when suddenly the first place runner tripped up (hit a hurdle or dropped batons). That’s how life is. Sometimes genetic gifts or the favored winners make mistakes, too, so it’s important not to focus too much on Phelps genetic gifts. Someone else without them in the future might do it, too! Lance Armstrong has an unusually large lung capacity but no one trained as hard as he did year round for the Tour de France. Whose to say it was more his lungs than his unique — and grueling — training methods?

    Ethan Hawke’s character in Gattaca was confronted by his brother about the swimming races/contests they used to have as kids where the goal was to see how far they could swim out to the ocean before one of them finally “chickened out” and turned back to shore. Hawke always beat his “healthier, stronger” younger brother. His brother asked him, something like: “How did you do that? I always swam out there till I thought I couldn’t go any farther without risking being able to make it back to the beach.” Hawke replied, something like: “I never held anything back. I never thought about making it back to the beach.”

    Now, that’s focus! : )

  • These are all such important points – thank you for sharing this!

  • I love number three: Dream without limits. That couldn’t be said better. I like your blog. I found you through a writing post on StumbleUpon. Glad I did, I just subscribed.

  • defiteness of purpose!

    thanks for another great post. i can assure you it’s greatly appreciated.

  • Al

    Michael Phelps grew up a few miles from me in Baltimore. I don’t know him personally, however. What I have enjoyed about him through the years of his development, as I enjoy in everyone I meet, are the silent constant messages that people communicate to one another. I enjoy them because they are honest communications, good or bad. With Michael, his silent communication evidences sincerity, commitment, professionalism. His easy smile indicates a friendly person but his aw shucks approach tells you that he is not quite confident in his growing stature around the world, which is not surprising. Recognition of my own silent communication, as well as the silent communication of others, has been instrumental in the success of my businesses. Mr. Edberg’s commentary on Michael Phelps points out a few other important silent communication tools, and these are focused inward as much as outward. Very interesting and very powerful.

  • If I might be so bold as to add an element to this great lesson on achieving one’s goals, it would be to have a RESOLVE to succeed. One of the hardest parts of reaching one’s vision of success is making that commitment to doing so.

    Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot fail if you resolutely determine that you will not fail.”

    Thanks to you, Positivity Blog and to Michael Phelps for the guidance.

  • I enjoyed point #5 very much. It’s easy to get carried away when one meets with resounding success after success. But when this happens, can we practice humility? Can we not let success get into our heads? Yes…it is a good idea to keep a lid on an inflating ego!

  • This guy is incredible.
    He even predicted his success.
    This shows success does not come from ordering the universe, but through hard work.

  • Focus is the key for me. When my focus wains I get sidetracked and nothing gets accomplished. I constantly use a list to keep me on track. As soon as one thing is done I take a leisure break, recharge the battery then start on my next task.

    Phelps has laser focus. The funny thing is he has ADHD, but it looks like he uses it to his advantage. I look forward to watching him swim in 2012.

  • All very important points.

    “I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything.”

    It all starts in the mind – this is clearly the case.

  • I think one of the most important lessons here is that Michael Phelps never let his dreams stay just inside his head. He took concrete steps to accomplish what he envisioned for himself.

    It’s easy to dream, it’s working to make the dream true that separates those who just believe from those who actually achieve.