This is the third in a series of four articles written by Matt Michel that discuss what we can learn from the accomplishments of one of the greatest Olympic athletes of our time, Michael Phelps.
11. Support Your Team. Team comes first with Phelps. When he was giving his last interview at the 2007 FINA World Championships, he appeared slightly distracted. He kept looking at a television set hanging from the wall. Finally, he interrupted the interview so he could watch teammate Katie Hoff in the 400-meter medley. He cheered her on and fist pumped when she won, earning her first world record. Phelps apologized to the assembled media saying, “Sorry. Didn’t want to miss that.”
In 2004, Phelps made a play for eight gold medals. The dream ended when South Africa and the Netherlands beat the U.S. freestyle relay team. The South African team was more than a second faster. Phelps didn’t blame his teammates. In fact, he was quite supportive.
“We wanted to do better,” Phelps admitted, “But this is what we had. These are the four fastest guys we had. This is only the second time in history we got beat.”
The 2004 Olympics wasn’t bad for Phelps. He swam into the spotlight by winning five gold and two bronze medals. Then, he stepped out of the spotlight and he pointed it at teammate Ian Crocker. Phelps stepped aside from the 100 meter medley, giving up his place to Crocker.
This was all the more amazing because Crocker’s slow leg in the freestyle relay kept the team from gold and Phelps from equaling Mark Spitz’ record (and collecting a $1 million bonus from Speedo) in 2004.
Eddie Reese, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Coach said, “If someone had told me Crocker was going to go that slow there's no way I would have believed it. You can't go that slow.”
Phelps was giving Crocker a chance at redemption and a chance at his only gold medal for the 2004 games. Crocker said “It's a huge gift that is difficult to accept, but it makes me want to go out and tear up the pool.”
Phelps recalled giving Crocker the news. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ He goes, ‘So, we’re going to have to talk about this later.’ And I said, “OK, but tomorrow night, I want you to get out there and I want you to show the world what you’re made of.”
Crocker did. The U.S. team took the gold with a world record performance. Because Phelps swam in the qualifying rounds, he was awarded a gold medal as well.
After Lezak made his miracle come back in the 2008 freestyle relay, propelling the U.S. team to victory over the French, Phelps declared, “We're a team. We went in as a team and now we're exiting as a team - and we're going out with that gold that we needed to get back.”
When the medley relay team huddled together after winning gold, Phelps’ teammates were expressing congratulations on his eighth gold medal. Phelps told them, “Guys it couldn’t have been done without you guys. You guys were a huge part of my success this week.”
Does your team cheer for each other? Do you avoid pointing the finger of blame when there’s a disappointment? Do you give people a chance at redemptioni? Is there someone on your team you can shine the spotlight on?
12. What Goes Around Comes Around. In an interview with Bob Costas, Phelps noted how his popularity improved with every athletic achievement. He remembered peers who picked on him and bullied him as a gawky kid. They flicked his ears. They snatched his cap and threw it off the bus or out the window. They were cruel in the crude manner of kids. And Phelps remembered. “There was always something that I was picked on, made fun of for,” he said.
“It’s funny now. I know sort of who my real friends are and who are just jumping on. It’s funny. On Facebook, over the last few days I’ve checked on it a few times and I’ve seen where, ‘Oh yeah, I went to high school with him. Oh, he picked on me or made fun of me or never talked with me.’ And now all of a sudden he wants to be my friend.”
Debbie Phelps, Michael’s mother, recalled an incident at the 2000 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. She said, “A former swimmer from the Maryland area came in to talk to Michael and congratulate him on making the Olympic team in 2000. And Michael was sitting there very nonchalantly saying, ‘You know, I don’t seem to place your face. I don’t know who you are.’”
“I’m sitting there kind of watching Michael,” she continued, “After he said congratulations and left the area, I said, ‘Michael you knew who that kid was.’ He said, ‘I know, but I know how he tormented me at a swim meet and I’m not going to acknowledge him.’”
“I remember things,” Phelps added.
Phelps doesn’t return cruelty in-kind. But he doesn’t let people who were cruel once, maneuver into a position to take advantage of him now that he’s successful.
Are you treating everyone as well as you would a superstar? Do you try to treat everyone well, even when no one’s looking and when it doesn’t matter to anyone else?
13. Don’t Put Up With Prima Donnas. Phelps and Bob Bowman’s arguments are legendary. For some coaches, it might be tough to discipline a superstar. Bowman has an advantage. He remembers Phelps as the 11-year old kid he practically taught to swim. Bowman doesn’t take crap from Phelps and it made Phelps a better swimmer and person.
For example, when Phelps was a 15-year old Olympian and new Butterfly world record holder, he started arguing with the coach, challenging Bowman during a workout. Bowman kicked him out. He refused to coddle Phelps.
Some coaches might have feared their prize pupil would run off or seek another coach. Instead, Phelps won’t swim for another coach. He followed Bowman to Michigan and is now following him back to Maryland.
Do you coddle prima donna technicians or salespeople? Do you set the boundaries, defining the field of play and the behaviors you will and will not accept? Do you stick to it?
14. Give Back. As a student, a high performance athlete who spends four to five hours working out every day, and a celebrity with millions of endorsement deals, time is one of Michael Phelps’ most precious commodities. Yet, he still finds time to give back.
Phelps is a volunteer board member and spokesman for the Boys & Girls Club. He also volunteers for Pathfinders for Autism. His coach commented that Phelps is no-nonsense when it comes to practice, but once practice ends, he spends time with the younger swimmers, offering kind words and encouragement.
How do you give back in your community? How do you give back in the industry? Who can you help?
15. Set Goals. Phelps is famous for setting goals. He set his sight on Olympic gold at age 11. For eight years he worked toward the goal until he achieved it in 2004.
“Ever since I was a little kid every day I woke up hoping to win Olympic gold,” recalled Phelps.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman set goals at the start of every year. There were big, overarching goals that required years to achieve and shorter, nearer term goals that are steps along the way. Phelps writes his goals down, keeps the paper on his nightstand, and never shares them until he’s accomplished them. Even his mother didn’t know his goals.
When Matt Lauer tried to get Phelps to reveal what changed from one year to the next all Phelps would say was, “The times are faster.”
Phelps set goals for how fast he’ll swim. “Bob takes care of hopefully getting me to those times in training,” he adds.
While he doesn’t explain why he never shares his goals, I think it’s to keep others from trying to kill his dreams. As long as everyone’s knowledge of Phelps’ goals is limited, they can’t beat him up for falling (temporarily) short and they’re unable to tell him they’re unrealistic.
By winning eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics and setting seven world records, Phelps proved his goals are realistic. Moreover, the goals kept Phelps on target. The goals kept him in the pool when he would rather be elsewhere.
All of us have days when we would like to stay out of our pools, when we would like to take a break. Clearly written, positively focused goals will keep us in the pool while we pursue our version of Olympic gold.
Do you have clearly written personal goals? When was the last time you updated your goals? Do you keep your goals to yourself and your most trusted relatives, friends, and colleagues?
Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable www.ServiceRoundtable.com, an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com
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