Michael Phelps’ Training Strategy Is a Blueprint for Any Kind of Success

Foreshadow failure to win big

Emily Balcetis
Forge
Published in
5 min readMar 5, 2020

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A photo of Michael Phelps swimming the 2008 Beijing Olympics 200m butterfly semi-finals.
Swimmer Michael Phelps powers along in his 200m butterfly semi finals on Day 4 of the swimming heats at the Beijing Olympics 2008 on October 14, 2008 in Beijing, China. Photo: Phil Hillyard/Newspix/Getty Images

ByBy the sixth day of the 2008 Olympic Games, the swimmer Michael Phelps was on the cusp of making history. He’d already won three gold medals that year, and winning his next race, the 200-meter butterfly, would set him on course to become more decorated in a single Games than any other athlete before him. But right as he dove in for the start of this race, his goggles started leaking. By the 150-meter mark, they were almost completely full of water and he couldn’t see.

But he didn’t panic. He was prepared.

Despite his unprecedented dominance in his sport, Phelps is a doomsdayer of sorts. During training, he imagines each possible failure, crafting a vivid, concrete, and tangible scenario of how his plan might go wrong. Then he takes it a step further and devises the solution.

So, when Phelps’ goggles began leaking in Beijing, he calmly switched his concentration to his stroke count — which he could do because he already knew exactly how many strokes would get him across the pool as fast and efficiently as possible. Because he’d practiced both visualizing success and troubleshooting solutions to major obstacles, he knew exactly what he needed to do when disaster struck at those Olympic games — and did it, to win his fourth Olympic gold medal of a record-breaking eight that year, adding to the six he’d already won four years earlier in Athens. Eventually, he’d have nine more — an astonishing 23 in total — and hold the record for most gold medals won by any single athlete in Olympics history.

Phelps’ habit of materializing obstacles and solutions doesn’t just benefit elite athletic prowess. Scientists have found that people who incorporate this tactic into their daily routine accomplish more of what they set out to do.

In one 2015 study, a team of psychologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Cologne set up the smartphones of 110 people to ping them four times a day for a week. Each time, respondents jotted down a description of one thing they wanted to get done that day: something fun, like reading a book; an obligation, like an assignment for school or work; health and fitness activities. Every so often, they…

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Emily Balcetis
Forge
Writer for

Emily Balcetis, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World