“Everybody is put on this earth with certain things they’re good at,” Phelps said. “Certain things they can do. Obviously, I’ve been able to handle pressure pretty well . . .Throughout my career I’ve risen to the occasion when obstacles come my way. That’s something, I guess, I was given.”
‘Simplicity and certainty’
Mental strength can be broken down into two key components, McCann said. The first is an unyielding desire for victory and superiority in competition regardless of the pressure, which is known as an offensive mental aptitude, he said.
This allows an athlete to use the energy surges or adrenaline produced from high-pressure situations to enhance concentration, strength and execution — rather than to produce nervousness, panic, muscle tightening or over-exertion.
The second component, McCann said, is a defensive skill, a resilience that allows an athlete to roll with unforeseen circumstances such as a bad lane assignment, a poor night’s sleep — or a head-to-head collision just before racetime.
Only some athletes, he said, possess one of the two. Very few, he said, display both.
”The easiest thing for me is to predict the ones who will fail,” McCann said. “The ones who are weak mentally never succeed at the Olympic Games because their vulnerabilities are exposed . . . For the absolute best performance, what you need is simplicity and certainty.”
When Phelps arrived in Beijing in 2008, he was nothing short of the centerpiece of those Games. Speedo had offered a $1 million bonus if he could achieve eight gold medals in eight events. NBC had requested that the swimming schedule be turned upside down — finals in the early mornings, Beijing time, instead of evenings as is customary — to accommodate the interest in Phelps’s quest for the U.S. prime-time television audience.
McCann called the expectations Phelps faced to be “so outsized they were almost at an unfair level.”
“That’s part of what’s so unique about that story,” McCann said. “That’s probably one of the most spectacular mental efforts” in sports history.
‘Under stress, you just focus’
Bowman saw a deep drive to win in Phelps even before he coached him, though the trait did not display itself admirably in his pre-teen days. Bowman recalled watching Phelps, who took medication for ADHD throughout elementary school, playing an invented game with a tennis ball — the children named it “wall ball” — outside of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
“He was ‘out,’ and I remember him just pitching a fit,” Bowman said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this kid, who cares whether he’s kicked out of ‘wall ball’ or not when there’s going to be another game in five minutes?’ ”