"Just Be You" - Life Advice from One of the Greatest Olympic Athletes

Toby Hazlewood

A successful life is about more than focus, grit, and determination.

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Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett are an impressive duo, not just for their achievements as Olympic swimmers, but as human beings too.

Phelps won 28 Olympic medals during his career, 23 of them Gold. Hackett won a more modest but still impressive 7 Olympic medals in the same era.

I’ll admit that I came to the podcast expecting to hear about the insane training regime that’s required to achieve such dominance in a sport. I believed it might offer me a little boost in commitment and motivation regarding my own modest efforts towards sports and training. I got those things, and a whole lot more too.

My biggest takeaway was to feel awestruck by how much adversity each had encountered and overcome in regard to their mental health in the years following retirement. The years of success hadn’t been without consequence for either. It was plain to see that behind the medals, sponsorships and adulation, both had suffered greatly.

As is so often the case, those who achieve dominance and mastery in their chosen field have to maintain discipline and focus in their daily lives for so long, that it takes its toll on other aspects of their life and wellbeing. The effects of these only emerge in later life when the competitive pressure is no longer a factor.

It was most apparent when each shared their parting thoughts at the end of the interview, in answer to the question: What message would you put on a metaphorical billboard for the world to see?

Their responses:

Phelps — “It’s okay not to be okay” and “You are not alone”
Hackett — “Be you”

These weren’t the gung-ho messages that I was expecting.

They weren’t proclaiming the need to work 10% harder than the other guy if you want to win.

They weren’t labouring the (albeit true) cliche that success lays at the end of a path strewn with obstacles and disappointments, nor were they preaching that these can only be overcome with grit and tenacity.

Theirs were messages of hope and encouragement for the mere mortals amongst us:

  • A reassurance that to struggle in life is inevitable and unavoidable.
  • A reminder that when we feel ground down, depressed or demoralised that others are going through the same.
  • A plea for us to be satisfied with being our true, authentic, vulnerable selves and to embrace ourselves as good enough.

The message was all the more striking coming from two such high achievers and speaks to how much effort it has taken them to work through their individual trials and how prized it is by them both to have done so.

On a personal level, it felt relatable too. I have a real tendency when hearing the stories of anyone else’s successes on any scale, to immediately feel inadequate. It’s easy to buy into the notion that those we put on a pedestal for their accomplishments are flawless, and their lives without hardship.

The truth though is usually quite different — they are humans after all, just like us.


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The Years of Work and Practice

The backstories of many who’ve achieved greatness teaches that the supposed overnight successes come as a result of many years of grinding out the reps. There may have been a lucky break that signalled the start of big things, but this doesn’t usually happen until many years into the journey.

The same is certainly true of Phelps’ and Hackett's successes — they were hard-won.

The pair shared insights to their training regimes — rising before dawn on six or seven days per week, 8km morning swims, conditioning sessions in the gym, more swimming in the afternoon and in-between times, consuming 7,000 calories of food and getting 12 hours of sleep thanks to regular naps and early nights. Ice baths, massage stretching were a routine part of daily life to enable their recovery.

Phelps once maintained a streak of training every day for over 500 days in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. These guys are animals.

The obvious tension comes in such lifestyles when so much is devoted to a singular cause — every other aspect of life becomes inconsequential and gets pushed to one side.

There simply isn’t time to service relationships, to meet one's own needs for mental space or down-time to relax. Life becomes a process of every single decision being taken in service of the bigger goal. Balance is sorely lacking.

The same story repeats for many high achievers, whether they rose to the top in sports, business, art or any other field. Success is a product of singular focus and complete and relentless commitment. It comes from putting in all available time towards achieving goals. Anything else is just fluff — a mere distraction.

Such commitment is what differentiates those who succeed from the wannabes who merely talk a good game. The results speak for themselves in the success that’s forthcoming.

Sadly, such successes are often accompanied by burnout, failing relationships, mental health issues and fundamental dissatisfaction and boredom in later life.

“On The Podium” for Compartmentalising

Most enlightening was the admission from Phelps that in the course of his career he’d become a master of compartmentalising things to preserve his focus — as he put it, in a compartmentalising competition, he’d be on the podium.

It seems that when a thought, conversation or emotion didn’t serve him in pursuing success as a swimmer, rather than process it or deal with it in the moment, instead he would compartmentalise it. He would push it down and keep it within.

As many of us have learned painfully over time, shoving thoughts and feelings down, burying them deep within and trying to avoid processing or resolving them may work as a short-term salve. It may help us move past the things that cannot be resolved, and help to maintain focus.

But with enough time, and enough things compartmentalised within us the usual course of events is that the pressure builds to the point of explosion.

Even if the pressure doesn’t blow-up, many of us find that seemingly trivial conversations and innocuous events from the past that have been pushed down, still cause unreasonable levels of anger or sadness many years later when we recall them.

The toxicity caused by carrying these inner burdens around can be significant.

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As Phelps and Hackett know — carrying such corrosive thoughts and emotions within rather than rationalising or processing them, has a lasting detrimental effect on one's inner peace. Who knows how many times I lost my temper at seemingly trivial and unrelated events when these toxic and unhelpful thoughts bubbled to the surface?

Fuel for the fire

Competitive types are often able to use those bottled-up feelings as rocket-fuel to propel them onwards in their mission.

Even if they manage to harness such feelings for competitive good, the pain often lingers years later, unresolved within them.

In the Netflix series The Last Dance’ we follow basketball legend Michael Jordan in one of his last seasons with the Chicago Bulls. As an insight into the mind of the greatest basketball pro of all time, it’s spectacular. What’s also apparent is that during that time things were far from rosy within the team, with tensions between the players and the club’s management.

Jordan would take such tensions and use them to supercharge his efforts, achieving ever-greater feats on the court.

When we cut away to hear Jordan’s perspective on landmark events years later though, it’s clear that he still carries the resentments within and they still frustrate him today. In spite of harnessing them in the moment, they’re still festering within him, for not having been processed.

That cannot feel good.

Mind Games

Both Phelps and Hackett have faced their trials since retiring from competitive swimming. Mental health struggles replaced the physical trials of competition and both have suffered greatly.

In the podcast, Phelps described how a second drink-driving arrest in 2014 towards the end of his career sent him into a spiral of depression which progressed to thoughts of suicide. He shared a tendency for getting extremely angry to the point of rage. While this may at one time have served him in competition, without such an outlet the anger had become a destructive force in his life. To overcome these issues has demanded a great deal of work, along with seeking support from therapists and from his wife, to who he’s clearly devoted.

Hackett has also had his share of difficulties since retiring from swimming. A messy and high-profile divorce, incidents of drunken aggression onboard commercial flights and other arrests for disorder eventually prompted Hackett to confront mental health issues and overcome a dependence on sleeping pills.

It seems that the Type A personalities and extreme determination possessed by Phelps and Hackett gave them the commitment and desire to put in the work that was necessary to achieve what they did in the pool. I wonder if it was also part of what made them podium-standard at compartmentalising unhelpful thoughts and distracting emotions that weren’t helpful towards achieving their goals?

I imagine it also contributed to the mental health issues that each experienced after retirement, and equipped them with the determination to overcome them, no matter what it took.

I'm certainly no Olympic athlete or even an accomplished amateur. But I’ve been through a divorce myself and know how depression can impact severely on ones ability to carry on through life having experienced it post-divorce.

I think it’s impossible on some level to strive to get the best out of life be that a fulfilling career, a happy relationship or to raise kids in a stable and loving home without testing the boundaries of our innate mental stability. In each significant endeavour most of us steps repeatedly out of our comfort zone. With time and the inevitable setbacks that come now and then, we’re all pushed to the brink of our mental fortitude from time to time.

Mastering a sport is a mental game. Mastering a business is a mental game. Playing an equal role in a happy relationship requires mental strength too.

A Healthy Outlet

We cannot just compartmentalise and shut off the things that are too painful to contemplate or not helpful to our cause in the moment — at least not forever.

When we get too used to pushing things down, or rely on distracting ourselves from pain rather than processing it, then we’re seeking a short-term fix and potentially creating a long term problem to be resolved later in life.

When we immerse ourselves in work to avoid showing up to our relationship problems, we’re diverting ourselves from confronting the issue.

When we put off the difficult conversations at work, we’re delaying the inevitable.

When we delay unpleasant or uncomfortable decisions and bury the need to make them deep within us, we increase the burden within us, storing up trouble for later.

Sometimes we have to look in the dark corners to uncover and deal with the problems upfront instead of hoping that they’ll fade away on their own. Not all of us have the alternative channel of Olympic competition through which to divert such energies. And as we’ve seen in the cases of Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett, it’s often not a long-term solution to the problem anyway.

Final Thought

For Phelps and Hackett to have confronted their mental health challenges has likely demanded just as much resolve, grit and determination as was required to deliver their Olympic successes.

We can learn a lot from them about the effort, commitment and determination that truly enduring success requires. But their stories also demonstrate that without balance in life and a healthy outlet for emotional and mental tensions, there’s a real danger that such a singular focus will likely have painful side-effects too.

If we bury thoughts, feelings and emotions too deeply simply because they don’t suit our agenda or support in our goals in the moment, then we could be setting ourselves up for trouble further down the line.

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