Mind Of A Champion: Chris Froome and Michael Phelps

Mind Of A Champion: Chris Froome and Michael Phelps

I am a fan of Chris Froome and Michael Phelps. Every year I sit down and watch Froome methodically work his way through the Tour de France, and although these days are past, I loved watching Michael Phelps overcome his competition and bring the gold back home. Since then, I decided to channel them by reading about them so I could understand the mental aspect of sport, something I think is important to reaching your peak level.

My own journey this year to racing in my first sprint triathlon has included an abrupt change in direction from my normal lifestyle. My diet and my daily workout routine have been altered and optimized in order to fit my preparation for the race into a 120 day window.  Instead of short weight training sessions I focus on long cardio workouts on elipticals, rowing machines, and spinning bikes. Instead of leisurely lap swimming using a breast stroke I now time myself free styling 500M distances to insure that I can get the swim portion completed within a respectable time frame. All of this is done on a diet that’s shifted away from fatty meats and refined sugars to whole wheat ingredients and lots of vegetables. The combination of food and training has enabled me to reduce injuries and increase my training pace.

Beyond the long workout sessions, being able to mentally push myself long enough to see results has required finagling. I’ve been able to overcome the actual time constraints by shifting workouts within the work day and after my son goes to sleep at night, but mentally I’ve had to distract myself to get through the sessions in and of themselves. I typically listen to audio-books or watch videos downloaded to my iPhone but I wanted to know what drove elite athletes to accomplishing their goals by getting the necessary work done. I decided since I was training for a triathlon, I’d pick a great cyclist and a great swimmer. Luckily, both published autobiographies!

The first book I read was “The Climb“, by Chris Froome. For whatever reason I have become a fan of the Tour de France, although I know very little about professional bicycle racing in general. The last couple of seasons I’ve watched highlighted Chris Froome and Team Sky and their utter domination of the Tour. Froome himself is an incredibly interesting person. I enjoyed reading about his boyhood in Kenya riding through the Rift Valley and trying to succeed in a nation plagued by ineffective government bureaucracies and underfunded national teams, as well as diseases long eradicated in the first world. I also learned a considerable amount on bike racing in Europe and the breadth of the sport. To be honest, I had no idea they raced as often as they did throughout the year as I thought it was only a few big events. Bike racing is taken very seriously in Europe, whereas in America it’s probably seen more as a hobby.

Chris Froome displays a deep drive to improve and persevere through the long bouts of suffering required to race at a very high level. I don’t know how you could do what he does and not like it. Reading this book, I also found that him and I share commonalities. We both seem like introverts who possess laser like focus and can detach themselves when needed. Another broader theme I picked up from his story that I see in other sports biographies is the presence of either a coach or mentor who recognizes the tenacity and enthusiasm of an athlete and gets involved in their lives on a personal level. For Chris, it was David Kinjah, one of Kenya’s most decorated cyclists who let Froome onto his local team and train with him in the backwoods of Nairobi. Of course, Froome had other coaches and trainers, but it was Kinjah who first discovered him and introduced him to competitive racing.

The second book I read was “Beneath The Surface” by Michael Phelps. I think all of us know who Phelps is and are aware of his many accomplishments at the Olympics. I was glued to the television for Rio so I could see him dominate the field and rack up more gold medals before he retired for good. There’s no question, he is the greatest swimmer in the history of the world. I’m just glad he competed for the USA!

Many writers attribute Phelps’ success to his physical gifts. His big feet and hands, large lung capacity, and long torso get a lot of credit but I don’t think you can entirely credit those items alone. Although he seemed like a reluctant trainee in his biography, he possessed an uncommonly focused mind that allowed him to visualize his success and improve his technique during long workouts that happened on almost every day of the year in between Olympics. His deep need to win motivated him to train harder than the rest and push himself to victory. I’m not overplaying this here, he really, really likes to win!

A parallel in Phelps’ life to Chris Froome’s was his chance encounter with Bob Bowman, a coach who worked with him to reach his full potential over many years. Without Bowman, Michael Phelps would have had a successful career as a swimmer, more than likely in college with an Olympic visit at some point. With Bowman’s intervention though, we get the greatest swimmer of all time. Unlike Froome, he seems like an extrovert who makes friends easily so that portion of personality probably doesn’t parallel well to who and what makes a champion. So which begs the question, what does?

If I were to compare the lives of these two men, I’d say their success boiled down to three common touch points.

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Focus
  3. Mentors

Enthusiasm: you can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do. In fact, they’ll just quit when given a chance or sabotage the process so people give up on them. Both Phelps and Froome seem to have lots of enthusiasm for what they do. For Froome, it was enthusiasm at becoming a professional bike rider that helped him forgo the pain and suffering of long mountain bike climbs. For Phelps it was knowing that he could beat others and satisfy his deeply competitive nature to become a champion. Enthusiasm helps bolster one through the hard times and see them through obstacles. You see this in other top level athletes like Mike Tyson in boxing and Kobe Bryant in basketball. They are willing to do the work because they want to do it.

Focus: being able to zero in on improving performance, even at the minuscule detail level, can set people apart as champions. Focus consists of both pursuing a goal and a commitment to excellence. Focus keeps a person swimming one more lap or getting one more half mile in before they call it quits. With focus I think also comes visualization, which is something that keeps nerves at bay during large competitions and helps power them through it. You saw a lot of that with Tiger Woods who visualized each hole and how he’d play it before he even got to the course.

Mentors: mentors and coaches help athletes get through roadblocks and work past mental fatigue. Sometimes having someone who can motivate you and help you get better is the step between quitting and seeing it through. Good coaches and mentors use encouragement and try to set a good example. Mentors are very good and everyone should seek them out. In fact, I’ve heard that a majority of successful people in business attribute their advancement to a mentor who took their time to teach them the ropes and help them through problems.

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