Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it — Michael Jordan, Team USA Olympic Gold Medalist 1984, six-time NBA champion.
Taking part in the Olympic Games is every athlete’s dream —it’s an event of great prestige and honour. Athletes only get one chance every four years to qualify and compete at the Olympics. Most elite athletes dedicate long years of their lives to compete at the very highest level against other word-class athletes.
If you’re struggling to hit your goals.
If you’re not living the life you’ve envisioned for yourself.
If you want to make changes in your life and become the type of person you want to be, I have some advice for you:
Learn from the people that have achieved the ultimate success in their field; Olympic Gold medalists — apply the same principles these elite athletes use in your life because they’re transferable and will help you achieve long term success.
1. Setting Challenging Goals
“Goals should never be easy. They should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time.”— Michael Phelps
Retired swimming sensation Michael Phelps knows what it feels like to achieve goals. He’s the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 Gold medals, 3 Silver medals, and 2 Bronze medals.
The above “goal sheet” Michael Phelps created when he was 8 years old helped him realise his dream of going to his first Olympics at the tender age of 15, as part of the U.S men’s swim team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
His longtime coach, Bob Bowman said this about Michael Phelps “he may be the most goal-oriented person on the planet”.
“You must begin with the end in mind.” — Stephen Covey
In Stephen Covey’s international best-selling book, the 7 Habits of highly effective people, he talks about “beginning with the end in mind”.
Covey says, “ to begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction”
Setting goals helps you to navigate the way to your set destination — it’s like a campus. If you live aimlessly every day without aiming for a particular outcome, you’ll have an unfulfilling life.
Tony Robbins, a world-famous motivational speaker, best-selling author, coach, and philanthropist says “Setting goals is the first step from turning the invisible to visible.”
George T. Doran coined the term SMART goals in 1981 in a management research paper for the Washington Power Company and it’s a rule used universally, especially by champion athletes. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. Let’s look at this more closely.
Specific — your goals need to be clear, concise and specific for them to be effective. Try and ask yourself the 5 W’s: What is my objective? Why do I want to accomplish this? Who needs to be involved? and Where is the location?
Example: Instead of saying. “ I want to lose weight next summer”, you could say “ I want to lose 20 pounds next summer”. As you can see, the latter is more specific.
Measurable — goals need to be measurable so that you can track your progress and evaluate along the way to keep you motivated. Ask yourself questions like, “how much?” or “how many?”
Example: Let’s say you are working on a side-hustle and you want it to eventually replace your income. If you know that you earn $60,000 a year, you’ll need to earn $5,000 every month to reach your goal. Every month you can track your progress to see how far or how close you are to the target amount because it’s measurable.
Achievable — goals need to be realistic and achievable. They need to be challenging enough but not impossible; it’s about getting a fine balance. You have to see yourself achieving them.
Example: Let’s say you want to run a marathon in the next month. If you’ve been a couch potato for the last 10 years and have never been athletic in your life, it’s impossible to go from doing zero exercises to running a marathon without sufficient incremental training over some time to get your base level fitness.
Relevant — goals need to be worthwhile and fit in with your overall life plan. They must have positive benefits. Ask yourself whether it’s the right time to pursue the goals and whether other people may be negatively impacted by them.
Example: You want to pursue a postgraduate degree as a full- time student. First, consider whether you can afford not to have a full-time job until you complete your studies. Will the qualification help advance your career or possibly increase your income? if so, it might be worthwhile.
Time-based — goals need to have a deadline. You need to have a specific date or time by which the goal must be achieved.
Example: Instead of saying, “I want to save $10,000” you need to say, “I want to save $10,000 by 31 December 2020.
Goals need to be written down because it helps with clarity. Once goals are written down, they become more real. An often-cited 2015 study by Dr Gail Matthews, a Clinical Psychologist at the Dominican University found that people were 33% more likely to achieve their goals if they wrote them down.
In a process called encoding, the brain naturally associates something in writing as more important and stores it in the hippocampus, an important part of the brain responsible for analysing and storing important information for long term memory.
I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. If I don’t write my goals down, I eventually forget about them and never achieve them. The old proverb, “out of sight, out of mind” is true.
In a 2015 TV interview with Joe Buck from Fox sports, Michael Phelps said, “I have my goals somewhere I can see them, so when I get out of bed I know I’m waking up to work on what I’m going to achieve.”
2. The Power of Visualisation
“I always visualise the run before I do it. By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.” — Lindsey Vonn
Visualisation has been part of elite sports for a long time. Olympic Gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, one of the greatest female skiers in US history credits visualisation as one of the tools responsible for her success in the Winter Olympics. At the start of every race, you can see her closing her eyes and moving her arms and legs, imagining every turn, slope, and intricate movement.
Visualisation involves setting goals using the SMART principle I talked about earlier and then creating a mental image of achieving the goals, including the steps or processes required in reaching them.
Research shows that visualisation is far-reaching and has shown to be useful across many professions and disciplines for example in music, martial arts, law enforcement, and medical professionals.
Surgeons who visualised the surgery beforehand in great detail, combined with physical practice improved their skill level and were less likely to make errors in an actual surgical procedure compared to surgeons who didn’t.
A lot of people including celebrities like Jim Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and Arnold Schwarzenegger credit visualisation for their successes.
“Visualize this thing that you want, see it, feel it, believe in it. Make your mental blueprint, and begin to build” — Robert Collier
Visualisation helps with the mind-body connection. When you create an image in your mind, you’re cognitively rehearsing the skill before you do the real thing.
It’s not daydreaming which makes your mind wander because you’re bored. Remember when you were in high school and pretending to listen to the teacher mumbling something about a quadratic equation, while you were thinking about what you were going to get up on the weekend?
This is different —visualisation is a sort of “focused daydreaming” — it’s purposeful, planned, conscious, and done with intent.
How can you apply visualisation in your life?
The best form of visualisation uses all of your senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. What mental image can you see? What can you hear? What do you smell? Can you “feel” it?
Effective visualisation must be detailed.
- You need to focus on every detail — It needs to be clear and vivid, focusing on every step and process involved in achieving the goal, not just imagining the end result.
- You need to imagine every possible obstacle you’re going to encounter, and more importantly, how you’re going to overcome it.
Michael Phelps famously swam with his goggles filled with water in the 200 metres butterfly final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won Gold. He didn’t panic because he’d visualised the entire race hundreds of times — stroke by stroke from start to finish; he knew how many strokes were required to cover the length of a pool to reach the wall on the other side.
Decide whether to use internal or external visualisation.
Psychologists believe there are two types of imagery: Internal imagery — which is from your point of view and external imagery which involves looking at yourself from the outside or third person as if you’re being filmed. We are all unique, therefore you need to decide what works best for you.
3. Strong Work Ethic — No Pain, No Gain
“Champions do not become champions when they win an event, but in the hours, weeks, and months, and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely a demonstration of their championship character.” — Michael Jordan, Olympic Gold medalist for Team USA in 1984, six-time NBA champion.
Michael Jordan, widely acclaimed as the greatest basketball player of all time, a six-time NBA champion, five-time Most Valuable Player amongst the numerous accolades he holds, is no stranger to hard work.
If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary series, “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan’s career, his former teammates and coaches recount his legendary work ethic.
Michael worked on his game in the off-season, just as hard as he did during the regular NBA season. He put in the yards on the court before official practice — working on his jump shots, practising his three-point throws, hitting the gym to build muscle — he simply didn’t want to be outworked.
Very few people saw the blood and sweat, the gruelling practice sessions he endured to improve his overall game.
They only saw the almost superhuman-like skills he displayed during games. He made it look easy because he’d done the hard work during practice when there were no cameras around.
When Michael Jordan was drafted into the NBA at 21 years old, he wasn’t the most talented player, but he became the greatest player of all time, through sheer hard work.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” — Stephen King
Life is a competition whether you like it or not.
You’re competing against other people for jobs.
You’re competing with other companies for clients.
You’re competing against other people to win the affection of a girl or guy.
You’ve got to work harder than everyone else if you want to come out on top.
Consistent hard work pays off. You need to work on your goals every single day. Each time you show up, you get closer to achieving your goals. Little progress is better than no progress.
It’s not easy — hard work involves working long hours. It means sacrificing time with friends and family sometimes while grinding through the tough days.
For example, I’ve got a 9–5 Job but I’ve also got side-hustles. I have to work on my side gigs after a long, hard day at work, even when I’m tired, even when I don’t feel like doing more work.
I’d rather watch Netflix and grab a beer from the fridge every night, but I don’t. I can't afford to relax all the time. Sleeping late during the week, waking up super early, and using my weekends to get in some work is all the time I have — it’s not easy, but that’s what I need to do to realise my dreams.
Hard workers don’t make excuses, they show up all the time.
They’re not too tired to do the work.
They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them.
They don’t wait for the right time.
They take action even when they’re not quite ready. Stop talking about what you want to accomplish — talking is a waste of time. You need to talk less and do more. Talking is easy, anyone can do it.
Stop telling everyone what you’re going to do and let the results do the talking.
Stop messing around by reading all those self-help books. Reading and researching mean nothing if you don’t take action.
You don’t like my tone? Good. Maybe I’ve gotten through to you.
I know you can do better…. if only you tried just a little bit harder.
Put in the work for yourself, for your family, for your friends.
4. Mental Toughness
“If you have that belief that you want to be successful, then you can talk to your mind and your mind will control you to be successful” — Eliud Kipchoge, former 5000m world champion, Olympic Marathon Gold medalist, 2016 Rio Olympics.
The greatest athletes also have the strongest minds — this is what sets them apart from their peers. Many athletes are blessed with talent and they work hard in training but they can’t handle adversity — they buckle under pressure.
Eliud kipchoge, widely considered to be the greatest marathon runner in history, became the first man to break the two-hour marathon barrier in 2019. This remarkable feat, once considered unattainable, would not have been possible without exceptional mental toughness. He had to use his mental training to get the body to do what he believed was possible.
Mental toughness can loosely be defined as the ability to persevere and keep going in pursuit of your goals despite facing obstacles along the way. At its core, it’s about being resilient when faced with overwhelming pressure.
Mental toughness is innate but can be cultivated and developed with consistent practice. It’s a gradual process — it takes commitment and dedication. Think of it as a “muscle” that needs to be constantly exercised and developed to become stronger.
“The only way you gain mental toughness is to do things you’re not happy doing. If you continue doing things that you’re satisfied and make you happy, you’re not getting stronger. You’re staying where you’re at. Either you’re getting better, or you’re getting worse. You’re not staying the same.” — David Goggins — retired US Navy Seal and ultra-marathon runner.
According to a study by Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, mental toughness, which she calls grit, is the key defining factor of successful people in many fields.
Personally, one way I try to increase my mental toughness is by taking cold showers every other day in the middle of winter.
It’s a real shock to my system, but it gets just a little bit easier each time. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I practice being purposefully uncomfortable to build my resilience.
Each individual must define what mental toughness means for them. For you it could be:
- Consistently completing a few more reps than you normally would at the gym.
- Committing to exercising three times a day for the next three months.
- Sticking to your weight loss diet for a whole month.
- Working on a personal project every single day for the next six months.
Here are some practical ways you can develop mental toughness:
- Think positively — having a positive mindset is crucial to developing your mental toughness. Try and focus on the positive aspects of your life and convince yourself that most negative situations are temporary. Practice positive self-affirmation for example, stand in the mirror and say, “Today, I’m going to have a good day”. Avoid any negative self-talk, because it becomes self-fulfilling. Avoid toxic people and surround yourself with positive friends.
- Practice mindfulness — practising mindfulness techniques such as meditation is hugely beneficial in building mental toughness according to numerous research. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety and helps build your resilience.
- Get enough sleep — we’ve all heard about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep — according to the Sleep Foundation, adults should get 7–9 hours of sleep a night. A review of several studies by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that there was a correlation between poor sleeping habits and depletion in willpower, a function of mental toughness.
- Exercise regularly — regular exercise enhances your mood, reduces anxiety levels and can also alleviate long-term depression all of which help with becoming mentally strong.
You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get. Michael Phelps, American swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time.
The good thing about achieving success in any area of your life is that other people have taken the steps required to get what they want — all we need to do, is be willing to learn and apply these principles of success. We can copy them — there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. There are no secrets — the “secret sauce” for success is everywhere around us, we just need to look for it.