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Learning from Michael Phelps on how to stay motivated

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With 21 golds and counting, Michael Phelps is one of the finest athletes in the world. The American swimmer first competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics at the age of 15. While he did not bring home the gold that year, Phelps has gone on to set a number of world records, including most Olympic medals held by one person.

He may not have won in 2000, but his list of accomplishments since then is proof that it’s sometimes worth trying again. Apart from his record-breaking Olympic wins, Phelps also has 27 World Championship gold medals, and currently holds 7 world records. So what can Michael Phelps teach us about determination?

Start With Small Goals

Phelps first got involved in swimming at 7 years old, when he joined a team with his two sisters. Too afraid to put his head underwater, he decided to swim around on his back. A few years later, the first stroke he ever mastered was the backstroke. Michael may not have set out to become the greatest swimmer in history, but his achievements certainly would not have been possible had he not overcome his initial fear.

One of the main reasons we can lose our determination is that we set ourselves goals that seem impossibly large, and abandon them when we get intimidated. It’s okay to dream big, but if you want to achieve that dream, you have to break it down into smaller tasks. For Phelps, that would go along the lines of first beating the best time in his team, then the school, then the county, and so on. He may be an Olympian now, but he never could have become one without first beating those records. Identifying these smaller goals not only makes our dreams less intimidating, it also keeps us on track and makes them more realistic.

Show Discipline

For most of us, work and home life are two separate entities, and rightly so. We have discussed at length the importance of getting away from work, and how resting properly can actually improve your performance. But there is a big difference between relaxing and not showing discipline.

Phelps practices up to 6 hours a day, 6 days a week during peak training season. When he’s not training, he’s relaxing and letting his muscles rest. But he still shows discipline by getting up at the same time each day, closely monitoring what he eats, and following a strict schedule. Phelps understands that, even though he’s not technically on the clock, his actions will still affect his abilities. The same is true for all of us. We may not be required to read up on our industry, attend networking events, or use reports to monitor our performance, but the people who do are more likely to move forward on their paths. While you shouldn’t allow work to dominate your life, you should recognise that your actions outside of work will affect your performance. Whether this is establishing a proper sleep schedule or taking evening classes, discipline helps us maintain our determination.

Unrelenting Perseverance

When Phelps qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he was the youngest American Olympic swimmer in 68 years. That itself is quite an achievement, although Phelps ultimately lost in Sydney. He did, however, break his first world record 6 months later. In the 2004 Athens Games, he failed to beat the record for most golds won in a single game. He beat that record in 2008. Phelps’ biography is filled with examples like these. Stories where he lost a race, failed to hit his target time, or had another one of his world records broken. But he has always stayed focused on his dreams, and has bounced back every time to continue his record of success.

Arguablhy the most influential factor in Phelps’ success is the simple fact that he is determined. Competitive swimming is something he has devoted his life to, and not something he is happy to settle on. If he doesn’t win, he tries again, only he has to wait 4 years. The reality is that goals and targets can help us achieve our maximum potential, but only if we’re determined to do so. 

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