Too many athletes mistakenly believe that when you compete, your focus needs to be on the competition and what they're doing. There is no better example of this than watching Phelp's semi-final and final races in the 200m Butterfly at the 2016 Olympics against South African swimmer, Chad le Clos.
Le Clos had stung Phelps in 2012 at the London Olympics by beating him in this race, delivering one of the more emotionally painful blows the decorated Olympian had ever experienced in his swimming life. Being the intense competitor that he is, we can only assume how Phelps used the pain of this defeat on a daily basis over the last four years to fuel him to work even harder than ever in his training.
Before the semi-final race, le Clos stood directly in front of Phelps, starring him down and shadow boxing in his face. It was an obvious attempt by the South African to distract and intimidate his famous opponent. What le Clos didn't realize at the time, was that he was making a fatal concentration mistake that would ultimately cost him a medal.
If you want to really beat an opponent, then you need to focus on YOU and what YOU are doing, and NOT on your opponent. Attempts to intimidate your competition is not only poor sportsmanship, but will ultimately set you up to fail!
As Phelps did, it's fine to use an opponent and thoughts of them in practice to motivate you to work harder and focus even more on what you need to do. However, when you do this at race/game/competition time, you are distracting yourself from your event and sabotaging your own performance.
In the semi-final race, le Clos even looked over at Phelps DURING the race (you can see a closeup photo in the comments here), which is a huge performance "NO NO" for swimmers that will slow them down every time! Phelps, both before the semis and finals, didn't even acknowledge his opponent and instead, controlled his focus of concentration. Behind the blocks before the finals, he deliberately turned away from le Clos as he mentally prepared for HIS race, while the South African tried to stare him down once more.
The race results speak for themselves. Phelps, at 31 years old, won his 20th gold medal and le Clos finished fourth. Phelps taught us all a very important lesson:
Only use your concentration to motivate you to work harder in practice. To perform your best when it counts the most, you must stay focused on your game and what you are doing!
You can check out my other blogs on mental toughness at competitivedge.com.