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Michael Phelps: Psychological Anatomy of Success

written by Timothy T.C. So 18 August 2008

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

“The truth is that all of us attain the greatest success and happiness possible in this life whenever we use our native capacities to their greatest extent.” Dr. Smiley Blanton, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst (1882-1966)

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps

One of the most impressive scenes of the Olympic Games may have been when U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps shed tears on the medal podium when his sight met his mother’s on the spectator stand after achieving his unparalleled goal of winning 8 gold medals in the Olympic Games.

It is not difficult to trace the anatomy of Phelps’ unprecedented success. It came from three concepts that are well-discussed in positive psychology:

  1. Engagement in strength: Not many people are able to find their own strength and talents, and even fewer are able to engage in and develop them like Phelps has. Phelps was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when he was young, so you can image that he was regarded as a problematic children before he found his world in swimming. “When I was in high school, one of my teachers said I am never going to be successful,” he recalled. Realizing his ability over other people in the pool, Phelps was willing to commit his career to the area in which he is gifted. This serves as the first step to his success. His passion and commitment also demonstrates that utilizing our strengths in the main areas of our lives will bring us gratification and authentic happiness, as proposed by Martin E.P. Seligman (2002). As Phelps shares with the public media after achieving his goal in Beijing, it has always been his dream to make history using his strengths: “Thinking about how much I have devoted and what I have gone through before I am here, that is the reason for me to be so happy and touched.”
  2. Phelps with gold medal

     Phelps with gold medal

    Goal-setting: Phelps has made it very clear that his goal has been to get 8 golds in the Beijing Olympics. It is important for us to set goals and strive hard for them, similar to what Phelps told the media: “The greatest thing is this proves that nothing is impossible and goals are what it takes, this is what I have learnt.” Michael Phelps keeps a list of his swimming goals on top of his nightstand, near the alarm clock that gives him an early wakeup call he must heed almost every morning. (Source: Phelps’s personal website) “It helps me overcome those stresses and obstacles”, he once said. Indeed, his story demonstrates my favorite quote in goal setting by Charles Noble“You must have long range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short range failures.”
  3. Positive relationships: Michael has close relationships with his coach as well as his family, especially his mother. These close relationships offer him social support and motivation to his endeavours. According to James Gross (2001), social support fosters positive emotions and can serve as buffer against stress. An injury in his wrist last year brought a trough in Michael’s career, thinking that his Olympic dream would fade. However, Michael got over his injury with the assistance of his coach Bob Bowman and eventually made history in Beijing (Source: AFP). During his journey toward getting 8 gold medals in the Olympic Games, there were many voices saying that he was too arrogant and many people thought he would not succeed. The supports he got from his coach as well as his family probably granted him the motivation and persistence, and now he has proved to the world his ability and greatness with these supports. Just after winning his eighth medal, Phelps said, “There’s so much emotions going through my head, so much excitement. I guess I just want to see my mom.”

Michael Phelps Anatomy of Success Timothy T.C. So

With these three components, Michael has found his meaning of life and is able to shine in Beijing. With these three components, his story touches my heart (and probably the hearts of many others) and triggers positive emotions from me when I shared his happiness with great appreciation.

The quotes of Michael Phelps are captured from AFP and CNA online.



Gross, J. J. (2001). Emotion regulation in adulthood: Time is everything. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 214-219.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Images: Reuters, MSN

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Dominic Son 19 August 2008 - 4:38 am

Seems like the key to success is for someone who matters tell you that you suck. Then with that pain, you do it to prove them wrong.

Timothy T.C. So 19 August 2008 - 6:41 am

Thanks Dominic. In the other way round, apart from focusing solely on inadequacies, I personally believe that encouragement and support are something we can never neglect. Of course criticisms and feedback that are constructive is crucial as well (I am always curious to know how to present criticisms or suggestions on improvements positively).

Have you read the article Who Do You Run To? by David J. Pollay? It is one of my favorites, in which David mentioned how people should respond to good news of others, and how to be there for those you care about. Without these caring by significant others, the road to success would probably be rough.

Jeff Dustin 19 August 2008 - 12:18 pm


Your Olympics pieces helped me solve a problem. I’m one who usually gets frustrated by short-term circumstances. They often seem insurmountable. “You must have long range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short range failures’’. The quote itself is mnemonic but can you think of a shorter, more slogan-like version?
Something along the lines of “No pain, no gain” but obviously different in content.

Other examples:
“Haste makes Waste”
“We make Change”
“HEAD-ON: Apply directly to the forehead”
“E=MC squared”
“Did somebody say McDonald’s?”
“Have it your Way”
“Its not fast food, its Wendy’s”

Non-verbal examples:
Any kind of vivid cartoon or picture that captures the idea.

I think a small mnemonic “chunk” is easier to mentally digest than a longer sentence. Television commercials understand that their product competes with so many others. Maybe the same is true for PPND articles?
Pollay’s “Who Do You Run To?” and “The Garbage Truck” stick out. Senia’s “APE method” and image of the Black Dog. These titles are sweet little memory chunks.

Some other cognitive memory researchers suggest that varied repetition is the price of knowledge. That’s what I like best about Kathryn’s article map. You can find articles along the same theme and mull over the contrasts.

Thank you for your patience with my feedback.

Senia Maymin 22 August 2008 - 9:28 am

Hi Jeff,

I know what you mean about balancing the immediate and the future. That short-term and long-term Olympic quote that you like reminds me of the concept in Tal Ben-Shahar’s book – that we should choose activities based on how they move us forward both to current happiness and future happiness.

As a shortcut word, perhaps you’d like the word that book author Karen Salmansohn uses regularly for herself: “forward.” Does this thing move me forward or doesn’t it?


Senia Maymin 22 August 2008 - 9:31 am

Timothy and Caroline,
I am very much enjoying these articles in which we take news stories and examine what positive psychology practices people live in their lives. I love research-based things, so to me, it’s a little bit of a surprise how much I enjoy reading the character descriptions relating to positive psychology tools – like Timothy for Michael Phelps and Caroline for Dara Torres.


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