What Teachers Can Learn From Michael Phelps

A little more than nine years ago, Michael Phelps stood ready to break his own world record in the 200m Butterfly Final at the Beijing Olympics. He had no idea what was about to happen to him. That didn’t stop him from being prepared for it.

Already the winner of nine Olympic gold medals, Phelps was the heavy favorite to win his tenth when he hit the water in his strongest event. He struggled early, but had pulled away by the halfway point. As he started his final lap, the only drama that remained was whether Phelps would set a new world record. He reached for the wall and touched just ahead of the superimposed green line that represented the record for television viewers. Phelps turned to the board, and seeing his time, offered no smile. Obviously annoyed, he tossed his cap and goggles and began wiping at his eyes. The viewers had no way of knowing that Phelps had swum the final 75 meters with water-filled goggles.

But you couldn’t exactly call it swimming blind. Phelps had already seen the race, more than once, in his head the night before.

Phelps first started visualizing his swims when he was 12 years old. Lying in bed at night, he would relax each part of his body until he achieved a meditative state. Then, he followed his coach’s instruction to “play the tape.” The tape was detailed and shot from many angles. Phelps watched himself swim the entire race, every stroke, from both his own perspective and from the vantage point of those in the stands. He visualized the best and worst-case scenarios, deciding ahead of time what he would do if his suit ripped or his goggles failed. It was this rigorous nightly routine to which Phelps gave credit for the new world record he set that day in Beijing, saying, “If I didn’t prepare for everything that happens, when my goggles started filling up I’d have probably flipped out.”

As Good As the Real Thing?

The powers of visualization have been known for a long time. In 1967, Australian psychologist Alan Richardson gathered a group of students together in a gym and had each shoot 100 foul shots. He then split them into three groups. Group A practiced free throws for 20 minutes, five days a week, for four weeks. Group B was told to do nothing basketball related. Group C wasn’t allowed to touch a ball, but were instead guided by a professional in visualizing foul shots for the same duration as those in Group A. After four weeks, the students all shot another 100 free throws. Group A, those who had practiced, improved by 24%. Group B stayed the same. And Group C, the students who hadn’t laid hands on a basketball in four weeks and only shot free throws in the minds, improved by 23%.

Visualization in the Classroom

Teachers can also benefit from visualization.

Perhaps the best use of visualization is seeing yourself respond to the predictable conflicts  you have in your classroom. Take a moment before school to think about what’s likely to set you off. If you can’t abide blurting, picture a student continually disrupting your lesson with ludicrous remarks that turn your class into a circus. If defiance is a problem, visualize yourself handling the defiant student with calm confidence and cool composure.

To get the best results, do as Phelps did. See yourself handling the situation from both a first- and third-person perspective.  Imagine as much of the environment as you can. Richardson wrote that the most effective visualizers include multiple senses. So see yourself responding to the problem behavior, but also feel yourself gaining control over your emotions. Picture yourself calmly approaching the offending student, and also hear yourself speaking in a controlled voice. Make the scene in your head as vivid as you can.

A Gift For Your Students

Teach the technique to your students, too. When I introduced my problem-of-the-day routine last week, I taught it and modeled it. But before I asked my students to demonstrate, I had them close their eyes and picture themselves executing each step of the routine as I described it. Only after they’d visualized themselves performing the procedure did I have them practice. You can use this to teach any routine in your classroom, from when and how to sharpen pencils to how to respond during an emergency drill. You might also have students take a minute to visualize themselves following the directions you just gave before they do it for real.

Visualization is a technique that works and one teachers should add to their bag of tricks. Anyone can do it. It takes no special training. It doesn’t cost a thing. And it can be done in a just a few minutes. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

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Sources:

The Telegraph

Day in the Life: Michael Phelps

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