How to be like Michael Phelps and Elizabeth Beisel


Michael Phelps after the 100m free at 2014 Nationals. (Medium)BY JIM RUSNAK//Director of Media Properties

IRVINE, Calif. – OK, so you’re at a big meet, going for that cut you’ve been chasing, or that championship title you’ve had your eyes on since the beginning of the season.


You take your mark. The starter goes off, and your feet slip out from under you. Or you miss that crucial turn at the final wall.


It can happen to anyone, even some of the best swimmers in the world. Superstar Michael Phelps and Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel suffered similar setbacks this week at the Phillips 66 National Championships.


Phelps says he missed the turn in the men’s 100m freestyle on the first night of competition and finished seventh in the finals. Beisel slipped at the start of the women’s 200m backstroke and finished sixth.


Not only did they not achieve the times they wanted and give themselves a chance to compete for a national title, they failed to qualify for the U.S. Pan Pacific Championships team – for the time being, anyway. Both swimmers will have another chance to qualify in other events later this meet.


But while both were obviously disappointed by the setbacks, it appeared they didn’t let it bother them too much. Phelps eventually shrugged it off in his press conference, and Beisel could be seen laughing it off with her competitors after the race.


How an athlete deals with setbacks early in a competition often determines their success later in the meet. In an interview today, sport psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg of competitivedge.com says swimmers can learn a lot from Beisel and Phelps in how they handle disappointments.


Based on your experience, how might a typical swimmer react in this situation? What thoughts might be running through their heads?

Goldberg: What usually happens is people tend to hang on to a mistake, and not in a good way. They typically go back and forth between from the past (and the present) and set themselves up for the next race to self-destruct.


Thoughts slow us down. You need to be distracting yourself from thoughts by concentrating on the feel of your race.


How might a champion like Phelps or Beisel differ from a typical swimmer in this respect? How do they deal with setbacks and disappointments?

Goldberg: People who achieve at that level don’t like setbacks any more than all the rest of us. They see it as an opportunity to grow, and then they let it go. That’s if there’s something to learn. If not, then they just let it go.
The setback is not a problem, it’s how they deal with the problem that’s the difference. They let it go. They’ve developed a mental toughness to do just that.


What are some things swimmers can do to bounce back from setbacks like these?

Goldberg: When you have a setback, figure out what you can do better next time. Get curious, not furious.


Keep a bigger picture in mind. Whatever your goals are, you have to know there will be disappointments. If I let every failure devastate me, I’m finished. That’s just part of the scenery along the way. Like I said, it’s not the disappointment that’s the problem, it’s always the swimmer’s reaction.


Put it in a box and deal with it after the meet. It’s an old cliché, but you have to stay in the now.


On a semi-related topic, Phelps mentioned in his press conference before the start of the meet that he has tensed up in a couple races since coming back to the pool after his one-and-a-half-year hiatus. This is something both he and his coach said has never happened to him. Do you have any idea what might be going on in these situations? 

Goldberg: That’s a very interesting question. It’s very unusual for an athlete to never have any nervousness. This stuff often happens when an athlete has an extended illness or something that has kept them out of the pool for a length of time. They were always calm under pressure, but when they get back, they’re dealing with a loss of confidence and nervousness.


Usually when a swimmer is nervous about a meet, they are frequently worried about the competition and outcome. I’m shooting from the hip here because I haven’t talked to him, but Phelps was the best swimmer in the world. He has a lot of expectations heaped on him, and maybe a part of him is competing with that.

Note: As I was in the middle of writing this story, Michael Phelps turned in the fastest time in the world this year in the prelims of the 100m butterfly. His time was 51.17. He will be seeded first heading into tonight’s finals.