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If It Ain't Broke...Practice Breaking It

April 3, 2015

 

Swimmer Michael Phelps, now retired, is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes of all time. Of his 22 medals, 18 are gold. Phelps trained in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under swimming guru Bob Bowman.

 

Swimming is a highly repetitive sport, involving long hours in the water, perfecting the efficiency of every stroke. The tedium of doing laps can be meditative, but over-reliance on routine can lead to complacency.

 

Tiger Woods's father Earl was notorious for creating all sorts of distractions while his young protege was practicing a difficult putt. Earl reasoned that in an actual golf tournament, the players would need to fight for focus, and therefore, the harder he made practice, the more he could prepare Tiger for the glare of TV cameras and noise of the crowd. Earl was attempting to wire Tiger's brain for a deeper level of focus.

 

Along the same vein, one day in practice, Bob Bowman purposely stepped on Michael's goggles, ensuring they would leak. A pair of cracked goggles meant Michael would not only have to ignore the sting of of chlorine in his eyes, he would also need to operate with very limited vision.

 

A championship swimmer needs to know exactly where their body is in relation to the pool wall; it's how they judge when to turn. A few microseconds lost on a badly timed turn can literally spell the difference between a gold medal and a consolation prize. Phelps would instead have to count, memorize, and feel the number of strokes from end to end—in essence, swimming blind.

 

Practicing in intentionally extreme conditions is sometimes known as 'bookending'. Instead of preparing yourself to attack a goal under the best case scenario, you seek to understand what could possibly go wrong and factor that into your training.

 

In the 2008 Olympic games in China, Coach Bowman's leaking goggle strategy paid off in a big way. During his 200-meter butterfly attempt, Phelps's goggles failed and began to fill with water. Phelps, of course, knew exactly what to do. He kept his focus and ended up setting a new world record.

 

Having what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, where talent is seen as inborn and predetermined, and effort feels like a sign of failure, is a huge drawback in this respect. If you are too invested in proving to yourself that you are one of those special skilled few, obstacles become terrifying. You begin to avoid risks, skipping out on things you're not entirely confident in. Trying to putt against distractions or swim with chlorine in your eyes sound like a nightmare, but life has proven a fixed mindset to be a hindrance and struggle a necessary part of improving.

 

Taking a hard look at an established routine can lead to a new level of understanding. Unfortunately, as Michael Phelps can attest, sometimes it might sting.

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