Can he win gold?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2008.

Athleticism is a heated topic because it gets to the root of our humanity: are great athletes born or are they made? One’s answer to the question suggests a great deal about his personality and outlook, but the answer boils down to an important topic covered expertly in Carol Dweck’s Mindset: Do you have a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset?

Those with a fixed mindset believe talent is innate; those with a growth mindset believe talent develops. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, people on both sides latched onto Michael Phelps to support their viewpoint.

Those with a fixed mindset argued that Phelps is the prototypical swimmer. Even the Visa commercial featuring the voice of Morgan Freeman said that in the right light, he is dolphin-like. When TV Analyst and  three-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines explained Phelps’ success, he mentioned his big hands and feet, his long torso, his short, powerful legs and his shoulder flexibility. If anyone was born to swim, it was Phelps.

Those with a growth mindset countered with statements by Phelps, Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman, and Phelps’ mother Deborah during various interviews. Phelps’ success did not happen by accident.

First, Phelps’ 8 gold medals were the culmination of a long term development plan. Many experts (Balyi, Bloom, Ericsson) believe it takes 10 years to become an elite performer. In Phelps’ case, the road took 12 years from the time Bowman told his mom, when he was 11-years-old, that Phelps had a chance to be an Olympian to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Of course, these were his third Games, but the others were a prelude to these Games, where Bowman mapped out a plan to win eight gold medals.

In an August 14, 2008 ESPN article titled “Intense? Insane? Maybe, but Bowman is the architect of Phelps’ quest,” Pat Forde wrote:

It’s been Bowman’s game plan — then, Phelps dives in and flawlessly executes it.

The result has been a success of unprecedented proportion. Phelps deserves and receives the vast majority of the credit, but he owes a debt to the 43-year-old taskmaster and teacher who envisioned the big picture, then sweated the small stuff. Bowman’s work with Phelps has been a coaching masterpiece.

“Bob teaches him, advises him, guides him, pushes him,” said American national team head coach Mark Schubert.

Phelps’ stroke mechanics all have been sculpted by Bowman. He’s tinkered for years with every component until Phelps’ form has approached perfection.

Workouts? Of course Bowman is in charge there, too. But also warm-ups, warm-downs, stretching, massages, calorie intake and meal times, too. The daily routine runs on Bowman Standard Time.

He also is in charge of the competition schedule. Bowman selects the meets and decides which events Phelps will swim when he gets there.

Phelps’ story is many things. However, Phelps’ journey illustrates a long term athlete development plan. The 8 gold medals represent a 12-year plan, a coach and an athlete maximizing the athlete’s talent through dedication, hard work and a scientific, systematic approach to training. Phelps may have been born to swim, but he owes his success to his hard work and Bowman’s carefully crafted workout regimen and competition schedule which maximized his talent. His ultimate accomplishment – winning eight Gold medals at one Olympics – is as much a testament to training theory, science, hard work, dedication and coaching as it is to Phelps’ natural talent.

Next, during nearly every lengthy interview in Beijing, Phelps spoke at length about his mother’s hard work and dedication. He said that he and his sisters watched his mother’s dedication to her job and to them, and they learned from her. These comments support research which points to the parent’s example of hard work and dedication as a common theme among expert performers across various disciplines (Bloom, Csikszentmihalyi). Almost all expert performers recount stories of a parent’s effort or dedication, whether at work or in the home. These stories are as consistent as any other piece of research into expert performance and suggest a direct link between a parent’s example and the child’s work ethic, as few people get very far in athletics without dedication and hard work. When young children see these values early and consistently, they adopt them as part of their developing personality.

Finally, Phelps and his mom spoke about his creativity and imagination. His mom said his imagination was his greatest talent. Many kids are told not to dream. We teach kids the importance of following directions at the expense of creativity and imagination. When swimming lap after lap year after year, creativity and imagination provide motivation during an early morning workout or at the end of a grueling session.

Phelps had ADD. His mom put him in swimming lessons to give him some order. He did not enter the pool with grand dreams of college scholarships or gold medals. His mom was not fulfilling her dreams through her child. She searched for a constructive outlet for her son. Phelps found success in the pool, which gave him confidence and spurred his desire to work harder to achieve more success.

While he won age group competitions as a youth, between his mom, his coach and his imagination, he believed in the development of his talent, as he worked harder and pushed himself further. Those who believe talent is innate do not work harder because hard work questions one’s talent; if an athlete must work hard to win, he must not have the innate talent. Instead, Phelps’ initial successes motivated him to work harder to achieve more and Bowman provided the tutelage to make Phelps’ dreams come true.

Unfortunately, I fear that Phelps’ feat will give those who believe in innate talent fuel to add to their fire, as he looks like he was born to swim. However, Phelps is an example of the happy confluence of genes, hard work, opportunity, training and more.

I imagine Phelps’ Olympic success will motivate many new swimmers, especially in the Baltimore area, as parents and kids envision Bowman leading them to the same success as Phelps. I hope it motivates young athletes to dream and use their imagination. However, what happens when the athlete struggles or when the quick victories do not occur? Will parents and swimmers quickly write off Phelps’ success as a gift of nature and blame their lack of success on short arms or inflexible ankles? When young athletes see the work involved to become a champion, will they embrace the challenge and find joy in the journey, or will they believe they lack the tools to win and give up before giving themselves a chance?

A performance like Phelps will inspire those with the desire to be great, just as Mark Spitz’ achievements inspired and challenged Phelps as he progressed. However, for the mass of potential swimmers, an achievement like Phelps’ will question their dedication because they see reasons they cannot be like Phelps. They find reasons to explain their shortcomings and blame their genes because to be great, as Phelps illustrated, one must be built to swim. This is the unfortunate, and often ignored, result of such a dominating performance, especially when television coverage focuses so intently on his physical gifts, which one cannot alter, rather than his systematic training, attitude, hard work and dedication, which everyone has the ability to reproduce.

But, that is the never-ending sports debate. Did Phelps win eight gold medals because of his innate talent or his hard work and training? The answer, of course, is both. Few people have the same potential as Phelps because of his proportions and flexibility. However, a youth swimmer’s goal should be to maximize his own potential and gifts, not to emulate Phelps. If a young swimmer learns from Phelps and follows the same path of dedication and hard work, he might not win eight gold medals in 2016, but he might get there and he might stand on the podium and he might even hear his national anthem.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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