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What Can the Psychology of Michael Phelps Teach You About Hiring?

August 24, 2016

Michael Phelps has dominated his sport like no-one before him. Why? First, he’s anatomically and physiologically made to swim. But, honestly, so are most elite swimmers. When you get to the Olympics, physiological testing of the athletes would show only the slightest differences between the top competitors. So what differentiates those on the podium from all of those who aren’t?

In many respects, it’s psychology. Here’s an interesting story about an Olympic rower who, while competing at a high level, was definitely NOT on track to make the Olympic team until he made what seemed to be a minor change to how he looked at goal setting. He was talented and had been working hard, but so was everyone else. He changed his view of his motivation and in six weeks made strides that landed him in the Olympics. That’s the power of psychology.

When you are dealing with a small pool of people with comparable, elite physical skills – either at the Olympics or in major league baseball or the NFL, what are the variables that predict success? Certainly, it’s complicated, but pure physical ability is definitely NOT the definitive predictor.

At this level, mental toughness, the ability to thrive under pressure, to respond when challenged, the mental approach, work ethic, and discipline in training make all the difference in the world. Not surprisingly then, professional sports teams and elite coaches take advantage of proven, sport-specific psychological tactics. Tools like the Sports Competition Anxiety Test, the Human Resources Tactics test, the Baseball Athlete Success Evaluation, and Test of Performance Strategies (“TOPS”) are widely used. In fact, the TOPS was shown to successfully predict medal winners in certain sports at the Sydney Olympics. These tools were designed by psychologists to measure the extent to which individuals possess the desirable mental characteristics of elite athletes.

Notice they are not using standard “generic” personality tests like the Predictive Index, DISC, or Meyers-Briggs. While these tools have a purpose, it’s not the ability to measure the specific personality skills required for a specific task. It’s no different when the psychologists at PSI build personality tests for our clients. 

Back to Phelps. We are watching history. We’ll be telling our grandkids about watching him. One of his coaches, Bob Bowman is his sports psychologist and recently outlined his approach with “The Method,” a 10-step plan outlined in his book, The Golden Rules. They sure seem like they can be applied to any area of life, including success at work – both individual and organizational. Take a look: 

1) Establish a "Big Dream" vision 

You may have to suspend belief to see your vision clearly, concedes Bowman:

Write down your vision and tell people about it. It will make it real for you.

2) Adopt an "all-in" attitude

Cultivate a "positive, inspired, what-more-can-I do?" outlook and make sure it remains engaged throughout the pursuit of your vision. This is essential to attaining - and enjoying - success, partly because it will make everyone around you feel better. 

3) Take risks - then enjoy the rewards

Bowman himself took a big chance on Phelps, who could just have easily burned out as succeeded. But in living the highs and lows of Phelps's career with him, Bowman says he has learned to appreciate risk as an educational tool. 

4) Short-term goals lead to long-term success

One day in 2013, Bowman handed his athletes a meticulous schedule for the next 1,068 days - the road to Rio. This was their Game Plan: a practical strategy for getting them where they wanted to be. Everyone needs a game plan, he says.

5) Live your vision every day

This means waking up with your "Big Dream" vision at the top of your agenda and carrying it with you all day.

6) A team approach leads to individual gains

Surround yourself with a team of people who know more than you, whose brains you can pick and who will give you honest feedback.

7) Stay motivated over the long haul

"There have been times when even Michael Phelps has been incredibly unmotivated," says Bowman. The cause, he believes, is that your goals are no longer meaningful to you or you have lost track of those goals.

8) Adversity really does make you stronger

Whatever hardship you face "you're going to have to decide either to deal with it or let it set you back and stop you", says Bowman.

9) Perform with confidence

Confidence won't simply come to you, says Bowman. "You build it over time by taking on smaller challenges and succeeding." It all goes back to your Game Plan and preparing yourself for success. The more "real" we make the mental picture of success in our minds, the stronger it will be when we go for it. 

10) Celebrate your achievement

"If you're not careful, you're going to be constantly running the race and never crossing the finish line," cautions Bowman. Celebrating the milestones on the way to achieving your Big Dream is vital because you don't know if/when the next one might come along.

I still find it interesting when healthcare recruiters and talent professionals question the role of psychology and, specifically, well-designed behavioral assessments. Clinical psychologists use assessments to understand and treat patients. The military has used behavioral assessments for decades. Law enforcement uses psychological profiling. Psychology is a science and patterns of behavior are real. Expert psychologists can predict behavior based on assessments. We have reams of studies showing, for instance, that our tools improve the odds of selecting candidates with the attributes you desire. The tools cited above, tell athletes and coaches about their potential, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to maximize their training.

Need to help convince someone in your organization? Point to their favorite center fielder or running back, and tell them that the team didn’t leave that player’s behavior to chance – they used a sport-specific behavioral assessment. Similarly, those amazing elite athletes we watch, every four years? Think about the psychology behind their performance and consider how you can put those principles to work in your organization to achieve your goals.

Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.