When Michael Phelps's alarm clock went off at 6:30 on the morning of Aug. 13, 2008, he crawled out of bed in the Olympic Village in Beijing and fell right into his routine.
He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and walked to breakfast. He had already won three gold medals earlier that week – giving him nine in his career – and had two races that day. By 7 a.m., he was in the cafeteria, eating his regular race-day menu of eggs, oatmeal and four energy shakes, the first of more than 6,000 calories he would consume over the next 16 hours.
Phelps's first race – the 200-metre butterfly, his strongest event – was scheduled for 10 o'clock. Two hours before the starting gun fired, he began his usual stretching regime, starting with his arms, then his back, then working down to his ankles, which were so flexible they could extend more than 90 degrees, farther than a ballerina's en pointe. At 8:30, he slipped into the pool and began his first warm-up lap, 800 metres of mixed styles, followed by 600 metres of kicking, 400 metres pulling a buoy between his legs, 200 metres of stroke drills, and a series of 25-metre sprints to elevate his heart rate. The workout took precisely 45 minutes.
At 9:15, he exited the pool and started squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required 20 minutes of tugging to put it on. Then he clamped headphones over his ears, cranked up the hip-hop mix he played before every race, and waited.
Phelps had started swimming when he was seven years old to burn off some of the energy that was driving his mom and teachers crazy. When a local swimming coach named Bob Bowman saw Phelps's long torso, big hands and relatively short legs (which offered less drag), he knew Phelps could become a champion. But Phelps was emotional. He had trouble calming down before races. His parents were divorcing, and he had problems coping with stress. Bowman purchased a book of relaxation exercises and asked Phelps's mom to read them aloud every night. The book contained a script – "Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away" – that tensed and relaxed each part of Phelps's body before he fell asleep.
Bowman believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. Phelps, Bowman knew, had a perfect physique for the pool. That said, everyone who eventually competes at the Olympics has perfect musculature. Bowman could also see that Phelps, even at a young age, had a capacity for obsessiveness that made him an ideal athlete.
What Bowman could give Phelps, however – what would set him apart from other competitors – were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. He didn't need to control every aspect of Phelps's life. All he needed to do was target a few specific habits that had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with creating the right mindset. He designed a series of behaviours that Phelps could use to become calm and focused before each race, to find those tiny advantages that, in a sport where victory can come in milliseconds, would make all the difference.
When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and "watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up."
The videotape wasn't real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart.
During practices, when Bowman ordered Phelps to swim at race speed, he would shout, "Put in the videotape!" and Phelps would push himself, as hard as he could. He had done this so many times in his head that, by now, it felt rote. But it worked. He got faster and faster.
From 'small wins' to big wins
Once Bowman established a few core routines in Phelps's life, all the other habits – his diet and practice schedules, the stretching and sleep routines – seemed to fall into place on their own. At the core of why those habits were so effective, why they acted as keystone habits, was something known within academic literature as a "small win."
A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. "Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage," one Cornell University professor wrote in 1984. "Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favour another small win." Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
For example, when gay-rights organizations started campaigning against homophobia in the late 1960s, their initial efforts yielded only a string of failures. They pushed to repeal laws used to prosecute gays and were roundly defeated in state legislatures. Teachers tried to create curriculums to counsel gay teens and were fired for suggesting that homosexuality should be embraced. It seemed like the gay community's larger goals – ending discrimination and harassment, convincing the American Psychiatric Association to stop defining homosexuality as a mental disease – were out of reach.
Then, in the early 1970s, the American Library Association's Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay-liberation movement from HQ 71–471 ("Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes") to another, less pejorative category.
In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 ("Homosexuality, Lesbianism – Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement"). It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was electrifying. News of the new policy spread across the nation. Gay-rights organizations, citing the victory, started fundraising drives. Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for political office in several states, many of them citing the Library of Congress's decision as inspiration. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, after years of internal debate, rewrote the definition of homosexuality so it was no longer considered a mental illness – paving the way for the passage of state laws that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
And it all began with one small win.
"Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal," wrote Karl Weick, a prominent organizational psychologist. "More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up."
When habits take over
This is precisely what happened with Michael Phelps. When Bob Bowman started working with Phelps and his mother on the keystone habits of visualization and relaxation, neither Bowman nor Phelps had any idea what they were doing. "We'd experiment, try different things until we found stuff that worked," Bowman told me. "Eventually we figured out it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers. We worked them into a routine. There's a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory.
"If you were to ask Michael what's going on in his head before competition, he would say he's not really thinking about anything. He's just following the program. But that's not right. It's more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he's more than halfway through his plan and he's been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension."
Back in Beijing, it was 9:56 a.m. – four minutes before the race's start – and Phelps stood behind his starting block, bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, as he always did before a race, and then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was 12 years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance and, when the gun sounded, leapt.
Phelps knew that something was wrong as soon as he hit the water. There was moisture inside his goggles. He couldn't tell if they were leaking from the top or bottom, but as he broke the water's surface and began swimming, he hoped the leak wouldn't become too bad.
By the second turn, however, everything was getting blurry. As he approached the third turn and final lap, the cups of his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn't see anything. Not the line along the pool's bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn't see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic.
Phelps was calm.
Everything else that day had gone according to plan. The leaking goggles were a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared. Bowman had once made Phelps swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the videotapes in Phelps's mind had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require – 19 or 20, maybe 21 – and started counting. He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength. Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At 18 strokes, he started anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring, but since he was blind, he had no idea if they were cheering for him or someone else. Nineteen strokes, then 20. It felt like he needed one more. That's what the videotape in his head said. He made a 21st, huge stroke, glided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. He had timed it perfectly. When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said "WR" – world record – next to his name. He'd won another gold.
After the race, a reporter asked what it had felt like to swim blind. "It felt like I imagined it would," Phelps said. It was one additional victory in a lifetime full of small wins.
From The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, published by Doubleday Canada.