Olympic fever has reached full pitch in our house. It’s inspiring to see the best athletes compete spectacularly on the world stage. Yet, what we don’t see are the years of training and sacrifice it took for these athletes to become Olympians. I was struck by the story one commentator shared of how Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s long-time coach, would purposely step on Phelps’s goggles so that they would leak during a race. It taught Phelps how to maintain his composure under pressure and adversity. Sure enough, when Phelps’s goggles filled with water during the 200m butterfly in Beijing, it didn’t stop him from winning gold and setting a world record. Nor did Phelps panic in this Rio Olympics when his swim cap ripped as he was about to anchor the gold medal winning 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
Bob Bowman was building Michael Phelps’ mental toughness. It’s defined as the ability to maintain the focus and determination to complete a course of action despite difficulty or consequences. It’s a quality that researchers say defines top performers. And just like Bowman’s goggle breaking, mental toughness can be built over time, especially by placing oneself in situations outside your comfort zone. A favorite quote of mine is: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” (Neale Donald Walsch). In athletics, this applies to interval training which is a work-out where you alternate between periods of high-intensity exercise and low-intensity recovery. Fitness is increased by pushing your limits, for example by running a little longer or faster than usual. This also applies to life and work in general. The process of seeking new challenges teaches problem-solving and critical thinking, which give you a greater ability to handle stress of all kinds.
When Phelps’ goggles filled with water in Beijing or his cap ripped in Rio, he’d been in similar situations before. He had trained for it, so he knew how to handle it. How do you practice mental toughness?