Just swim, Michael

This morning, out of the corner of my ear, I heard the CNN sports commentator saying, “Now the pressure is REALLY on. If Michael Phelps wins gold tonight, he’ll get a million dollars. . .”

I hope that Michael Phelps is not like the rest of us. OK, clearly, anyone with 11 career gold medals, eating 12,000 calories a day, is already not like the rest of us. I hope that Michael, at age 23, possesses the self-mastery most of us lack.

B.F. Skinner, the founder of the theories of Behavioral Psychology, has influenced our thinking today. Reward what you want. Win another gold medal, and you’ll get a million bucks. Punish what you don’t want. No gold, no cool million for you! All sorts of parenting techniques, classroom management plans, employee incentive programs, and foreign policy decisions are based on a Skinner model of stimulus and response. To reduce all human action to reward-seeking or punishment-avoidance is simplistic, manipulative, and dehumanizing.

I hope Michael Phelps swims because he loves to swim, and because he’s good at it, and because it’s fun. I like to think that he doesn’t care at all about the medals, but they are nice icing on the cake. They symbolize his achievement, they don’t cause it. Of course, the money would be great. But adding in the reward/punishment dimension is a sure way to sabotage brilliant performance.

Moshe Feldenkrais observed that when one is striving to meet an externally imposed goal, the spine shortens, muscles tense, and the body (and mind) actually works against itself. He called this “cross motivation,” and it occurs when one forsakes one’s internal truth to maintain external equilibrium. There are lots of examples of this: the child stops doing what she’s doing because of the fear of losing parental approval, love, protection. The employee cooks the books to keep his job. The candidate delivers the sound bite, and dies a little inside. Feldenkrais attributed most of our human mental and physical difficulties to the problem of cross motivation.

If you watch Michael Phelps swim, you can’t help but notice that he makes it look easy. He is clearly strong and powerful, but all of his strength and power are focused on moving him through the water with the greatest speed and efficiency. There’s no wasted effort, no struggle, no straining. He is free of cross-motivation! Would straining make him faster? Of course not. Unnecessary muscular effort would make him less buoyant, less mobile, less flexible. Will dangling a million dollars at the finish line make him swim faster? Probably just the opposite, unless Michael Phelps has some great inner resources to draw upon.

The young Mr. Phelps has already learned how to tune out a lot of the hype. He’ll need to rely on “the cultivation of detachment,” the ability to care without caring. Tonight, he needs to swim like it’s just another day at the pool. Of course we project our own hopes, dreams, and foibles onto Olympic heroes. Of course we live in a material world that can be difficult. But let’s not weigh him down with expectations and judgment. Leave him alone, and let the guy swim.

One of my great friends, an actor in Chicago for many years, had this advice about auditions: “You already don’t got the job.” His point is this: go ahead, audition, compete, give it your best shot. What have you got to lose? If you don’t get hired, then nothing changes. You can’t lose something that you don’t have! I hope Michael Phelps has someone keeping him steady and light-hearted. You already don’t got the million bucks. This is one of the best ideas I know of for staying in the present moment. Whatever you wish to accomplish, go for it. The worst that can happen is that nothing will change.

I’ll be cheering today, and I’ll be thriled to watch him. If I could give Michael Phelps some advice, I’d give him a maternal hug and say, “Just swim, Michael.” It’s a reminder of something he already knows and practices. We can learn from him.

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