What Michael Phelps Did That Will Improve Your Life Too

Michael Phelps. Credit: Getty Images

Elite athletes are all about maximizing performance. It’s what they train for, many of them for decades, to achieve what only a select few can. That training is as much mental as it is physical. Because peak performance requires alignment between who they are and what they do.

Such was the case with Michael Phelps. The Olympic champion whose values fell out of sync with his competencies — and whose very identity would be defined by what he did in the pool.

A Young Phenom

Credit: Getty Images

At age 15, Phelps became the youngest male Olympian since 1932. He didn’t place at that first showing in Sydney’s 2000 games. But over the next 12 years, he would win an astonishing, record-breaking 22 medals — 18 of them Gold.

By age 27, he had accomplished more than any other athlete on the planet. He was undoubtedly the world’s greatest swimmer. And many still laud him as the greatest Olympian of all time.

By every measure, Phelps was incredibly successful. A young man doing what he loved — and doing it very, very well. And the showings he produced at every event he competed in, were proof of his natural abilities and strong work ethic.

Even Success Is No Match For Misalignment

But Michael Phelps had demons too. Excessive drinking and gambling became distractions following his 8 Gold wins in Beijing. Leading up to the London games, he admitted, his heart and mind weren’t particularly in it. Bouts with his coach, skipped practices and mishaps in and out of the water became the norm. In an interview with NBC Sports’ Bob Costas, Phelps outlined his lack of commitment to the 2012 Games. “Prior to London, I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with the sport.” Phelps continued, “ I was pushing so many people away, and I just wanted it to be over.”

The Olympic phenom that had taken the world by storm, was trying to survive a storm of his own

The real test of alignment, though, came after 2012 — after he had quit the sport altogether. Phelps was spiraling dangerously out of control. Losing a battle with depression and contemplating suicide. The Olympic phenom that had taken the world by storm, was trying to survive a storm of his own. It was his arrest for DUI, the second in his relatively young life, that jarred him back to reality. He checked himself into rehab, where he eventually renewed his sense of childhood love of swimming and reignited his commitment to who he is, a father, friend, and athlete, and what he does, swim faster than anyone on earth.

The Weight of a Nation

The point of recognizing misalignment is to avoid exactly the pitfalls this highly decorated athlete faced. Phelps, still a relatively young man in 2008, was carrying the weight of a nation on his back. While he was stealing America’s hearts as he brought home the Gold night after night, Phelps was struggling to keep his heart in the game.

He knew, even then, that who he was and what he was doing was out of sync. His ability to define himself, separately, from the sport that had been his life for so long, became an overwhelming struggle. Eventually, it took a toll on his work and life. Tormented by pressures and lacking alignment, he struggled to sustain the spotlight, and his performance suffered.

In his interview with Costas, Phelps says he could have done more in London. “I was always doing stupid things that held me back… I had other things that would take away from what I was doing in the pool, and I was probably never really 100%.”

And yet, even with his lack of effort, he won an incredible 6 medals — 4 of them Gold. His explanation, “I basically did that off of pure talent — very, very minimal work.” Imagine if he had tried.

When Talent Isn’t Enough

Most ordinary people lack the discipline, years of extreme training and Olympic-sized aspirations of an elite athlete like Phelps. So why do we push people to “do more”, “do harder”, and “do longer” when we fail to reach our performance objectives? Even Phelps couldn’t simply rely on his raw talent to get him through those times. A lack of identity — of knowing “who we are” — leaves us vulnerable to those times when doing isn’t enough. The times when the spotlight isn’t on and the stadiums are empty and we’re left to deal with our own reality.

Are You Prepared?

As an organization or individual, defining who you are (your values) and aligning what you do (your competencies) is critical to that preparation. Core alignment defines strong brands that can help guide, guard and shield from those times of uncertainty, by setting clear expectations for yourself, your colleagues and your customers. Those expectations also help drive and boost performance and foster greater collaboration and innovation.

The lesson we can learn from Michael Phelps’ very public experience, is that we should stop defining who we are by what we do. That we should all take the time and energy to gain clarity on our identity, whether individual or organizationally, and figure out the best way to communicate that. Doing that requires self-assessment, self-reflection, and mindfulness. And, like Phelps, having a professional coach can be a valuable asset in this process as well.

Prepared. Win or Lose.

Going into his 5th Olympics, Phelps says he is stronger physically and mentally, and he believes, better prepared than ever. His qualifiers in Omaha earlier this year certainly make that case. He won 3 races, setting the second best time in the world for the year in the 100m butterfly. But, he says, win or lose in Rio, his renewed alignment and sense of self, ensures he’ll weather the disappointment far better than before. “…I think now being able to prepare how we have, I’m willing to accept whatever results I get. I mean, sure, will I be ticked off? Probably, but I’ll know deep down inside that that was the best I could do that day.”

That’s what Core Alignment sounds like.


ERICK STRAGHALIS is the founding principal of Dynamic Spark — consulting and coaching that helps Individuals and Organizations define who they are and what they do to create impactful brands, maximize performance and authenticly engage their audiences.

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