Originally posted on Forbes by Carmine Gallo
Spend some time with U.S. Olympic men’s swimming coach Bob Bowman, as I recently did, and you’ll understand why some people go from good to great in a chosen field, while others, like Bowman’s longtime student Michael Phelps, go from good to record-shattering.
Phelps’ record is extraordinary. His 22 total medals and 18 gold medals is the greatest medal performance in all of Olympic history. I caught up with Bowman to speak about his new book, The Golden Rules, and to learn how his years of coaching superstar Michael Phelps can help everyone-especially business leaders-reach peak performance in their chosen fields.
In my conversation with Bowman it became clear that raw talent alone is not enough. Champions like Michael Phelps practice three daily habits to achieve excellence.
Habit No. 1: Vision
“Not one of my athletes has a problem understanding why we’re in the pool and what we are there to do that day,” says Bowman. The vision, according to Bowman, is to swim a time that will be fast enough to win a medal. Bowman’s strategy is to help his athletes focus on the process, not the outcome. You can’t control or predict who will win a medal in any given race, “but if you’re fast enough, the outcome will take care of itself.” Medals are tangible rewards, but Bowman believes that—as a leader and an individual who wants to achieve peak performance—it’s more important to pursue excellence every day and to remind yourself (or remind your team) of the ultimate vision. This daily habit will result in long-term greatness.
Habit No. 2: Mental Rehearsal
Vision and mental rehearsal are two sides of the same coin. “You must program your internal viewfinder,” says Bowman. He’s speaking of visualization and no one, in Bowman’s opinion, does it better than Michael Phelps. “For months before a race Michael gets into a relaxed state. He mentally rehearses for two hours a day in the pool. He sees himself winning. He smells the air, tastes the water, hears the sounds, sees the clock.” Phelps take visualization one step further. He sees himself from the outside, as a spectator in the stands. He sees himself overcoming obstacles, too. For example, what would he do if he fell further behind in a race than he intended? Phelps practices all potential scenarios.
According to Bowman mental rehearsal is a proven, well-established technique to achieve peak performance in nearly every endeavor. “ The brain cannot distinguish between something that’s vividly imagined and something that’s real.”
Bowman believes that all of us—regardless of our field—have a strong belief in who we are today and who we’d like to be tomorrow. When we set goals in business, sports, or any area of achievement, there’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be. “The most strongly held mental picture is where you’ll be… so get really good at mental rehearsal,” Bowman advises. “If you can form a strong mental picture and visualize yourself doing it, your brain will immediately find ways to get you there.”
Habit No. 3: Practice
A person can be blessed with raw talent (or an 80-inch wingspan like Michael Phelps), but nobody can achieve excellence without putting in hours and hours of practice. To prepare for the 2004 Olympic games, “Michael Phelps trained 365 days a year for six years,” says Bowman.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said in astonishment.
“I know because I was there for all of it,” Bowman responded. “For Christmas, New Year’s and birthdays. Michael worked harder than I’ve seen anybody work in any endeavor.”
An excellent performance in any field can be deceiving. The audience often assumes the performer is naturally talented because they make it look easy. I’ve seen the same reaction among great public-speakers. Brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor delivered one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. She told me she practiced her presentation 200 times. Most business leaders I’ve met haven’t practiced 200 times for all of their presentations combined, and then they wonder why they’re not making a sale or connecting with an audience.
The wonderful result of practice is that you have literally programmed your brain for peak performance. On the day of the event you can clear your mind and your body and trust that they will do what you’ve practiced dozens, hundreds, or in Phelps’ case, thousands of times before.
Bob Bowman doesn’t get the public glory that his famous student does, but make no mistake—there is no Michael Phelps without Bob Bowman and his daily habits. “Without Bob I have no shot at achieving the records I’ve achieved or winning the medals that I’ve won,” writes Phelps in the forward to Bowman’s book.
Practicing these three daily habits might not take you to the Olympics, but you’ll be more likely to outshine your competition when the race counts.
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