If you’re going to make waves, the real starting block is in your mind. 44’s Phil Parrish enjoys the perfect swim with the most decorated Olympian of all.
“Get the videotape ready,” whispered the coach into the young swimmer’s ear as the start time for the race drew ever closer.
These were four words the then 23-year-old had heard before. In fact, they’d become an automatic step in the ‘Baltimore Bullet’s’ warm-up routine, along with his stretches, the hip-hop playlist on his iPod and the swinging of his arms in three huge circles while on the starting block.
Such habits had accumulated gradually over time, an iterative process which first began when he was a lanky, hyperactive seven-year-old with inordinate amounts of energy to burn off. And it would be continual refinement of the process over the next two decades that would bring him to the apex of his sport, and his fourth Olympic final at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre in August 2008.
As Michael Fred Phelps II walked to poolside that day, the videotape was playing in his head. It was a mental projection showing the perfect execution of the 200m butterfly, a positive visualisation exercise that was the brainchild of his coach Bob Bowman.
In the minutes to follow, Phelps would need the videotape more than ever. Midway through the race, the already nine-times Olympic champion realised something was wrong. Water was seeping through his usually skin-tight goggles, gathering in the sockets and reducing his vision.
For the last final 100 metres he couldn’t see a thing, unable to clock his competitors or the black T at the bottom of the pool that meant he had to flip, turn and push out with all his might.
Yet the videotape was playing, and it meant Phelps could choose acceleration over hesitation. He sensed where he was in the contest, intuited how many strokes he was from the side, judged the turns impeccably and timed the final, monumental lunge to perfection. This last stretch brought gold and two letters next to his name which every athlete dreams of seeing: WR. Did the videotape show that too, I wonder?
But what lessons can communicators draw from Michael Phelps’ 200m butterfly victory in August 2008? Practice makes perfect, naturally. Preparation pays off as well – but there’s more than that. For Phelps’s story is an example of how words and pictures can be a potent combination in any kind of performance, whether you’re looking to excite an audience, motivate employees, inspire a team or achieve your own personal best.
In their own way, Phelps and Bowman proved themselves exceptional communicators. Four simple words were all that was needed to trigger the right behaviours in the athlete, a call-to-action par excellence that would ramp up the adrenaline and spark a sequence of vivid, positive imagery in his brain. And the powerful visualisation exercise would in turn become self-fulfilling, showing both desired action and outcome to become the very definition of the term ‘best practice’.
To the greatest performers, success is not a distant, far-off goal, more the final step in a process that has already been conceived, crafted and completed in their heads – and a means of staying cool under pressure when it matters most.
Like Phelps, we all get knocked off course at some point. Briefs change, deadlines are missed, people make mistakes and life gets in the way. But when you’re in choppy waters, swimming blind and need to know what good really looks like, it all comes down to who has the clearest vision.
Get the videotape ready.