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What has made Phelps great? And what could help the Bronte sisters and every Australian until we end up with a much better economy?

How all Aussies can get the Phelps factor

Peter Switzer
15 August 2016

By Peter Switzer 

This week, we get the latest key reading on the overall economy and Malcolm’s progressive report card, with unemployment numbers out Thursday. However, after being wowed by Michael Phelps at Rio and viewing the movie Everest, I want to focus on this question: how do we raise the greatness of as many Aussies as possible?

Phelps equals human physical greatness but I believe there’s another greatness he’s mastered, better than any other Olympic athlete and 23 gold medals proves that. I believe his competitive advantage is self-belief and that explains why he consistently comes up with extraordinary wins, while our great Cate Campbell came up short in her pet event of the 100 metres freestyle. (For those pondering Switzer’s newfound expertise in swimming, I have swum 24.8 for the 50 metres freestyle, was the swimming coach at Waverley College when I taught there, and, like all Aussie armchair experts, I’m an expert on Rio and what has happened!)

So let’s get back to Phelps’ greatness and then see how his qualities could help Cate when she swims again in Tokyo. She has to climb that Everest but next time I hope she does it right because this young woman can swim! But let’s not leave it to only Cate. Her sister Bronte — she’s been a world record holder and champion — is a beauty bottler and needs what Cate needs as well. And so does every Australian.

And what’s all this got to do with Everest? Apart from the courage, yet craziness that explains why people risk their lives to climb that mountain, the movie reminded me what Sir Edmund Hillary once replied when asked how he did the climb. He simply said: “One step at a time.”

What has made Phelps great? And what could help the Bronte sisters and every Australian until we end up with a much better economy because we have greater individuals? I know it’s a big dream, but as Hillary said on another occasion: “You don’t have to be a hero to accomplish great things — to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”

Getting everyone setting goals and working on them is a great idea for an educational system and a country full of parents. But what should the goal be? Well, let’s go back to Phelps.

It has long been argued that Michael’s disproportionate longer arm wingspan and his double-jointed body gave him a physical advantage over his normal rivals but www.scientificamerican.com discounted this theory in work done by Adam Hadhazy, a science writer who competed against the former ‘freak’ of Olympic folklore, Mark Spitz.

He concluded: “I’m sure if we could measure Phelps as much as we would like, we would find attributes better than average for swimming, but I don’t think we would find any glaring abnormalities. 

“I suspected if we could comprehensively measure all Olympians in finals, we would see significant differences [when compared to non-Olympians], but we would not see them having freakish things like 200 percent more lung capacity, or muscles that can contract at twice the [maximum] force of a normal human muscle. I mean, come on.”

Phelps has done little talking about himself, but in an ABC story in 2008, he did say to an AFP news journalist: "You guys talk about it," he says. "I don't talk about it, I just get in the water and compete."

In the same piece, he gave us a clue to his competitive advantage when he said: "This is the thing I love the most," Phelps said. "I love to race."

But it’s easy to love something you love to do and where you nearly always win. So how does he do it? My best guess is he has mastered, better than anyone, a thing called self-belief.

If you want to see what self-belief can do, then look at the story of Wilma Rudolph, who was born prematurely, caught pneumonia, then scarlet fever when she was very young, only to become a polio victim. She ended up in a wheelchair and doctors told her she would never walk again but her mother told he something different. She said she had to believe in herself as she had beaten death three times already. She walked again and then she ran, winning three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Without self-belief, Wilma might have been anchored to that wheelchair! (If you want to tear up, go here.)

Phelps has this same self-belief and we need to teach it to everyone we can influence, from our life partners to our children to our staff members to our students.

Australia has a good level of self-belief. I’m always fascinated how high Australia is on the gold medal tally board. I’ve noticed how much the Brits have improved in recent years, after looking like ‘also rans’ for a time there, before they secured the London Olympics. I believe good coaching from Eddie Jones — an Aussie — and his instilling of self-belief explained why the Poms beat us 3-0 in the Rugby this year. That team exuded self-belief!

Last Friday, I teased media guru, Harold Mitchell about a great piece he wrote in Fairfax newspapers about how we need a minister who is in charge of raising productivity. I think we need a Minister for Self-Belief. He or she could start to give Malcolm Turnbull a refresher course because the PM job looks like it has rattled him a little. Self-belief has been his strong suit in the past and it explains why he got the top job.

Getting his self-belief back, then pumping up the country’s self-belief, one person at a time, could be a unique but innovative economic solution to our problems.

However, he needs to discover the Phelps inside of him and then, as a nation, we have to go long self-belief.

Need convincing? Well, let me finish off with some pearls of wisdom from Sir Edmund:

  • “With practice and focus, you can extend yourself far more than you ever believed.”
  • “People don’t decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” And;
  • “Strong motivation is the most important factor in getting you to the top.”

I know what I’m asking is a lot — to motivate a whole country. However, as Robert F. Kennedy told us: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why ... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

This hasn’t been the way I’ve thought forever, but it's high time that it’s the way I should from now on. And I have Michael Phelps, Wilma Rudolph and a few other heroes very close to me in my life to thank for getting me here. Go Australia!

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