Harkening back to my Boy Scout days, I think the motto of “Be Prepared” is a good one for life in general. I have certainly done my share of preparation when it comes to competition. Having spent such a large chunk of my life as a competitive athlete, and then as a coach, it has served me well. This mindset transferred very nicely over to my sales career and now also my Public Speaking career as well.
I saw a TikTok video the other day where someone was giving a great example of this. I really need to pay better attention to who is posting these things so I can give credit where credit is due. Anyway, the woman was talking about a story she’d heard about Michael Phelps and how he prepared in a similar fashion. As the history-making story goes, Phelps had won gold in 7 of the 8 races so far in his quest to set an Olympic record. The last event was his strongest, the 200 meter butterfly, and as the current world record holder, it seemed destined for victory. Anyone who participates or even watches sports knows that nothing can be taken for granted, and sure enough, adversity reared its ugly head about a quarter of the way into this race.
Phelps’ goggles began to leak, blurring his vision of the pool, making it difficult to judge how far from the end of the pool he was. This would make the crucial turns much more difficult, and if he missed short of the wall, he would lose ground to his competitors. After the second turn, his googles were full of water, and he could barely see what was ahead of him. But also after the second turn, his preparation training kicked in. Phelps had been in this situation before, this was not a first time occurrence in dealing with this exact issue. These races are won and lost by fractions of a second, there is no margin for error. Phelps’ trained with this in mind, and he and he coach PRACTICED situations like this just in case they ever occurred. Turns out, the one time that the practice paid off was the crowning moment of his Olympic career. Nice timing, huh? See, that’s the thing, its called adversity for a reason. It is unexpected, you don’t get to pick and choose when things get sideways. It just happens. If you have prepared for moments like this, you can still prevail. If you have not, and this new development catches you off guard, you may be in serious trouble. Phelps’ coach would make Michael take off his goggles in practice sessions, rumored to have even taken the goggles and broken them so he had no option but to swim without them. This allowed them to devise a solution for all types of possible adversities that could pop up before or during a race. What was the solution for this particular issue?
He counted his strokes from end to end
Sounds simple, right? Normally, there is no need to count your strokes and therefore it is not typically done as part of a swim. You look at the wall, you aim for the wall, and you hit your turn as you’ve practiced thousands upon thousands of times. But Phelps could do it “blindfolded”, an advantage that allowed him one more trip to the top of the podium, another gold medal, and to set the Olympic record for most gold medals in one single Olympic Games. Victory comes in the management of details in advance.
You cannot leave much of anything to chance when you wish to perform consistently at a very high level. You may not be the most talented person on the court or in the pool, but if you are close, AND you manage the details in advance, you have an excellent chance for success. A certain level of proficiency is implied, as you and everyone around you in an Olympic pool swimming for a gold medal is proof of. But when you look at the microscopic differences between first and last place, these attention to detail ahead of time may be what actually makes the difference. You cannot rely on talent alone when you are competing on a level playing field. EVERYONE is talented at that level, you need more to rise above. You need to practice without your goggles on, you need to count the turns.
I took this same approach in my competitive racquetball career. I learned from others, through good examples and bad, what I needed to do to be truly prepared for battle. I loved the book by Brad Gilbert entitled Winning Ugly, as he contributed quite a bit to this approach for me. Gilbert was a famous Pro Tennis player, achieving a career high rank of #4 in the world at one point. He went on to a highly successful coaching career, playing an instrumental role in Andre Agassi‘s comeback and Grand Slam wins after his fall out of the top 100 at age 29. In my opinion, Winning Ugly is the consummate professional’s handbook. Gilbert left nothing to chance, and show you how to do the same. The odds of me breaking a shoelace during a tournament were very slim, but I had an extra pair with me anyway after reading his book. I took notes on competitors, I had contingency plans for every foreseeable outcome or situation. Control what you can control became the motto. I may have been outgunned on the court plenty of times, but NO ONE was more holistically prepared than I was.
In my sales career, I have reached a similar level as I did in my racquetball career. I am one of the best at my craft in my little niche world, just like I was on the Pro Racquetball Tour. When I travel for business, I approach it in the same manner as I did getting ready for a tournament. I have my gear inspected and ready to go. I have a thumb drive back up of the presentation and any other documents I want to present. I have my own connection pieces for HDMI cables, projectors, etc. and I always have my own clicker and laser pointer. I bring my own WIFI hotspot, just in case there is an issue with the guest WIFI at the office of my prospective client. I do the same presentation over and over, regardless of the prospective client size. I inflect client specific ideas and notes into this, but the PowerPoint is ALWAYS the same. I can do it without the PowerPoint in front of me. I CAN SWIM WITHOUT MY GOGGLES when I need to.
While life doesn’t allow you to control every single detail, you need to take care of the details you can control. As I said above, VICTORY COMES IN MANAGING THE DETAILS AHEAD OF TIME. Are you saving for the future? Do you have cash on hand for an emergency repair of your car? What if you lose your job, do you have money to keep you afloat for a while? How much food is in the house for that same situation, or a different issue like a pandemic? Of course you cannot have everything thought out in advance and purchase a solution for, but there are some absolute basics that you NEED to have covered. These should take priority over things like a fancy watch or a car payment that is stretching you thin every month. You should ASSUME that something is going to happen that is less than ideal at some point in the near future, and you should also have a solution for it as best you can. If the government has a contingency plan for things, and your employer has a business continuity plan, my question for you is: what’s yours? Be ready to count the strokes if life forces this upon you. If you were prepared, you, too, may end up with gold hanging around your neck.
I wish you luck in your endeavors.