How Michael Phelps Learned to Make the Right Calls

From a Washington Post column by Sally Jenkins headlined “How Michael Phelps learned to make the right calls”:

For 20 years, Michael Phelps swam for five miles a day, six and seven days a week, trawling through resistant liquid, staring at a black line on the pool bottom. Phelps swam on Sundays and his birthdays. “Nobody else did that,” his coach Bob Bowman said. When Phelps’s chest began to bloom with gold medals, outside observers attributed it to a genetic gift. But that missed the most important fact about Phelps, one with significance for all of us. “The thing that made him great was the work,” Bowman observed.

One afternoon during a bus ride to a competition with some fellow Olympians, another swimmer asked Phelps a question.

“You train a lot, don’t you?” the swimmer asked. “I guess,” Phelps said.

“But you don’t train on Christmas Day, right?” “Yeah, I do,” Phelps said.

It’s a consistent misunderstanding of great achievers that they come preloaded with some unattainable gift, some far-fetched, advantageous anatomical quality. Scientific American even tried to assess whether there was some freakish, unusual proportionality in Phelps’s 6-foot-4 physique that set him apart. In fact, besides just slightly long arms, Phelps’s measurements fell within predictable ranges for his height. “It couldn’t just be that the guy trained his guts out,” an exasperated sports medicine expert told the magazine.

This is a point too many people miss in their day-in and day-out. Anyone who wants to be consistently excellent at their living must have a more-than-passing acquaintance with conditioning, even those who suppose they work purely above their necks. The tempo of demands in the 21st century has made conditioning a growing requirement — and a topic of inquiry — among great deciders in all realms.

Analysts at McKinsey Quarterly have recognized “the connection between physical health, emotional health, and judgment.” Those who ignore it will find themselves trailing in a wake — just as Phelps’s competitors did over a career in which he won 23 Olympic swimming gold medals, more than double the number won by anyone else.

By 2008, Phelps was an international force, fully in his prime, and he set his sights on an Olympic record. Phelps wanted to go for eight gold medals at the Beijing Games. No one had ever won more than seven in a single Olympic meet, a mark set by Mark Spitz in Munich in 1972. The record had stood for almost four decades.

To break it, Phelps would have to swim in 17 races in just nine days between qualifying heats and finals. It was a daunting prospect. Swimming is a uniquely exhausting trial: It takes every muscle in the body to move through the water, which is 12 times more resistant than air. The exertion is so taxing that a long day of training might burn around 10,000 calories. The Beijing attempt would put an almost inconceivable strain on Phelps’s body — but it would also challenge his mind.

He was likely to face the closest races of his life when he was most tired. Phelps and Bowman therefore knew that they would have to condition him as much mentally as physically.

Without the ability to think and gauge alertly in the moment, he’d be just another disappointed man who had an ambition but couldn’t quite carry it out.

The brain robs your body of the energy to think. Just because you’re sitting in a chair reading or typing, barely lifting your arms above desk level, doesn’t mean you aren’t physically working. You are, quite strenuously, especially after three or four hours of sustained thought. Even in a resting state, it’s estimated the brain consumes about 20 percent of the body’s fuel.

Phelps was lucky to fall under the tutelage of a coach, Bowman, who knew the effect of those seven-days-a-week laps was far more pervasive than merely training sinews. Bowman had an eclectic mix of expertise: He majored in classical music and minored in psychology as a swimmer at Florida State, and he brought both of those experiences to tutoring Phelps in how to perform under pressure. He wanted the swimmer to be like a pianist who practices measures on a piano until they are so memorized that he can play a piece with feeling — and do so even under a bout of nerves while performing in public.

When Bowman first noticed Phelps, he was a promising but thrashing kid in the pool at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Bowman sat him down and explained that he could be a Olympian, but it would depend not on what he did in front of a crowd on race day but on his willingness to do laps when no one was watching on a Wednesday morning. Conditioning “is about building an infrastructure,” Bowman said. “What we were doing on these laps in the early years, we’re trying to build a physiological structure that will hold up to the stresses he’s going to face down the road.”

When people are fatigued, the first thing that suffers is form. During those innumerable laps, Bowman’s aim was to groove Phelps’s strokes so that he could sustain the right rhythm and body placements as he sculled through the water, no matter how exhausted.

“I think the hardest thing to do, the hardest time to do something, is when you’re tired,” Phelps told me during a midwinter conversation in Bowman’s small office just off a pool deck at the peak of his career. Open on a desk in front of him was a training notebook. “I have 170 more days of this,” Phelps said, pointing at it. “Brutal.” But it was worth it, he said, for what it gave him in the heat of competition: He knew that his strokes would hold up better than his rivals’ over the last abdominal-torching few meters.

“When you’re tired, it’s just sort of easy to fall apart,” Phelps observed. “Over the years in the workouts, when Bob’s gotten me to the point where I just can’t move, he’s demanded of me that I still do the right turns, the right stroke. So that once I do get to that stress level, I can still handle everything the right way and how I need to.”

At the root level of confident decision-making is reliability. It’s not enough to decide what you want to do; you have to be able to command your body to do it. Athletes achieve this command through adaptation. When you impose a new challenge or workload on yourself that you have trouble meeting, the stressful sensations intersect at the emotional center of your brain — which reacts by directing your system to upgrade itself, so it doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable anymore. As you repeat and reinforce, your responses under duress become more consistent.

As one influential Russian trainer has observed, the right conditioning for a task creates a “harmonious unity” that allows all of your responses to fire on command in coordination, “psychic, technical and tactical.”

Bowman overloaded Phelps with multiple swims in a day, seeking this upgrade. Phelps would tell Bowman, “I’m so tired.” Bowman would reply: “Let’s do just one more. Let’s see what you got in you.” There were times when Phelps balked at swimming so many events and wanted to skip a race. Bowman said to Phelps: “No. You don’t want to be the person who gave up when it got hard.”

Three times a week they did double workouts, cold early-morning endurance swims followed by technical workouts in the afternoon, fine-tuning his strokes. There were lung-searing trips to Colorado Springs to train at altitude for days at a time, not just because altitude would boost his lung capacity but because “how to do your best in an environment that might be unpredictable or harsh, and how to win a race by a touch, they go hand in hand,” Bowman believed.

Phelps and Bowman began setting milestones in conditioning to see whether Phelps could reach them. Phelps would strive for a world-best time on a particular stroke and distance — and then Bowman would say, “Let’s do five straight repeats of it, just to nail it.” The records began to fall.

As they approached the Beijing Games, Phelps was reaching his physical and mental peak, with rope-thick skeins of muscle and a chest blown wide. Just as important, he was an utterly fluid performer. He had made the almost-musical neurological shift Bowman had long sought, from racing as a conscious operation to a free, unconscious performance. Phelps just knew where he was in the pool, how close or far from the wall, from the rhythm of his stroke. Bowman’s musical training had completely taken hold of him; he was like a musician who had internalized whole measures of a piece.

Phelps didn’t operate on conscious thought, any more than a pianist focuses on individual notes, which would slow down the piece. Yet while Phelps was unthinking, he was sharply perceptual. He had an intense awareness of everything in and around the pool, especially any competitors who might creep up on him out of the corner of his eye. He was so hyperalert that sometimes Bowman was astonished by it. The North Baltimore Aquatic Club pool had a broad open deck with glass lobby doors at one end. Once, Phelps finished swimming his laps and bobbed up and said, “Did my mom just walk into the lobby?” In fact, she had.

Phelps reinforced his conditioning with a totally unvarying, consistent routine at every race meet. Phelps and Bowman would arrive at the pool precisely two hours early. Phelps would do a series of warmup exercises, the same ones he’d been doing since he was 11 years old. Bowman wanted it to be “automated” and as calming as a mantra.

By the time Phelps took off from the starting block, he went like a clock, churning through the water as if he had a mechanical gear train. His pace had become “second nature,” he said. If he followed Bowman’s careful programming — if he did so many 50-meter laps at just the right pace and nailed the numbers five times in a row — he knew he was ready to win. “And then it was my job to just sort of let it happen,” Phelps said.

The challenge in Beijing was not just how to physically manage so many races in so few days. It was also a question of whether Phelps could manage his emotional energies through a bedlam of distractions and pressures. From the Opening Ceremonies onward there would be a crush of media attention on him, interrogations from the media amid blasts of klieg lights, a clamor for his attention from commercial endorsers, all of it potentially draining. Other swimmers would be only too happy to take advantage of even the smallest lapse.

The body-brain loop works both ways. Just as physical conditioning shores up the brain’s performance, the reverse can also be true: A mental drain can impact muscular endurance. Bowman therefore tried to toughen Phelps’s mind to deal with factors that would tax him mentally. It was great that Phelps had such a deeply embedded inner clock — but what would happen if that timing failed or was disrupted by all the distractions? “What if things don’t go well?” Bowman suggested. He asked Phelps to envision a series of distressing situations. What if he trailed on a final lap? How would he respond if his goggles came off? Or his suit ripped?

Bowman and Phelps worked through potential scenarios using visualization. Phelps would imagine a setback and swim it out in his head. He thought about “how I don’t want the race to go” and then saw himself turning it around.

It all counted. Phelps would need every measure of fitness, every ounce of anticipation, every cellular-molecular reaction, in Beijing. Early in the Games, one of those things that could happen did happen. In the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps’s goggles leaked. They flooded with water until he couldn’t see the wall. He stayed calm, relied on his rhythm and won pulling away, though with bloodshot eyes. “I was ready for my goggles to fill up with water,” he said later, gratefully.

For much of the rest of the competition, Phelps looked like he would power through. He won six gold medals without another hitch. He set a world record in the most difficult event, the 200 medley, a muscle-flaming race that demanded all four strokes: the butterfly, breast, back and freestyle.

But that’s when it happened, the moment they had conditioned for. As Phelps touched the wall and bobbed out of the water, he was too fatigued to even throw his arms in the air. Bowman noticed his lack of celebration, watched his expression carefully, and thought, Oh my God, he’s so tired.

It was a bad moment to crash. Phelps was scheduled to swim a semifinal in the 100 butterfly in half an hour.

Bowman hurried to the mixed zone, the area where competitors warm down, and found his swimmer. “I don’t have anything left,” Phelps announced.

“Well, you better fake it, because you’ve got this semifinal in 22 minutes,” Bowman said.

Somehow, Phelps got through the heat. But walking down the back hallway afterward, he said: “Bob, this is the most tired I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I can do it.” Bowman insisted that he could. Phelps had the stamina and neurological firepower, but he also should have gotten something more from all the conditioning, Bowman told him. It should have bred conviction, the knowledge he had outworked everybody and deserved to win.

“You know you can do it,” Bowman said. “Just act like you.”

The 100 butterfly was Phelps’s final individual event. If he could somehow win it, he would be all but assured of breaking Spitz’s record. There would be nothing left after that but a team relay, in which the Americans were heavily favored.

As Phelps took the block, he told himself to treat it as “a normal race, I’m in my normal spot, in the middle of the pool.”

But it wasn’t a normal race, or a normal spot. The gold medal record was on the line. And next to him in Lane 4 was Milorad Cavic of Serbia — the reigning European champion and a blisteringly fast swimmer. Also, a fresh one. Cavic was so set on beating Phelps and preventing him from setting the record that he had withdrawn from another event, the 100 freestyle, to be ready. Meanwhile Phelps was swimming in his 16th race of the meet.

Cavic was renowned for opening fast — and away he went. Phelps knew he had to stay within half a body length of him to have a chance. If he got too far behind, he’d get a wave in his face, and it would be over. As long as Phelps could see Cavic from the corner of his eye, he knew he was in striking distance. Still, Cavic was ahead. Phelps delivered a powerful turn kick and started chasing. When he felt the heavy splashes from Cavic’s own effort, he knew he had drawn alongside him.

The final wall loomed. But Phelps realized his rhythm was slightly off. His last stroke wasn’t enough to get him all the way there — his unfurling body was already slowing. He had a fraction of a moment to make a tactical decision.

He could continue his long glide path and hope to out-touch Cavic. Or he could take one more shortened half stroke — and try to chop the wall, as it’s called in swimming. The drawback to a chop is that the recoil of the water off the wall can actually cost a swimmer fractions. The wall was so close …

Cavic was gliding.

Phelps decided. He convulsed his shoulders and unleashed a last plunging half stroke. Both men reached out, Cavic, fully outstretched and skimming, fingertips seeking, Phelps thrashing.

Phelps all but slammed headfirst into the wall.

Briefly, he thought he had lost the race. He came up for air, sucking in huge inhalations with his mouth in a large, “Ohhhhhh.” He pulled off his goggles to look at the board and heard the roar.

Phelps: 50.58.

Cavic: 50.59.

Phelps had won — by one one-hundredth of a second.

Phelps drove a fist overhead, and then slapped the water with his palms, throwing up fountaining geysers of water. He had tied Mark Spitz’s gold medal record.

After the race, Bowman met his swimmer in a back hallway. “Well, you cut that one kind of close,” he joked.

“I know,” Phelps said, grinning.

A day later, Phelps had his record eighth gold medal around his neck when the American team won the relay. Seventeen races in nine days, sometimes with just minutes between them, world records and fatigued leg-dragging heats, had come down to that one-hundredth of a second in the butterfly and a single decision. The chop was exactly the right call.

“I guess the speed and the tempo of it was perfect,” Phelps said later, sitting in Bowman’s office. “I guess, you know, for so many years I’ve done so many small things that have helped.”

To Bowman, it was simple. It had been, Bowman said, “a conditioned response.”

This story was excerpted from “The Right Call: What Sports Teach Us About Work and Life,” by Sally Jenkins. It will be published June 6 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.

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