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Mental Health

Podcast 171: Michael Phelps Talks Swimming Career, Mental Health & Being the Best Version of Himself

May 3, 2022

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, joins the WHOOP Podcast for an in-depth conversation about his career, high performance, and mental health.

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Michael Phelps discusses his journey to winning 28 Olympic medals over the course of five Olympic Games, as well as the mindset and dedication needed to reach the heights few athletes have ever reached. Michael also talks openly and honestly about his struggle with depression and anxiety, and shares how he overcame the lowest moments of his life and is now on a mission to help others struggling with their own mental health challenges.

Additionally, Michael explains why WHOOP is a critical part of his daily life and how it helps him be the best version of himself. He shares his thoughts on sleep, training, and recovery, and details the benchmarks he tries to reach in his WHOOP data every day.

 

Michael Phelps Podcast Episode Chapters, Quotes & Highlights:

1:52 – First Memories of Swimming. Michael shares his first memories in the pool and how his teacher helped him overcome his fear of being on his stomach in the water.

3:37 – Swimming as a Therapeutic Process. “I could get lost in my own head. I [felt] like I was free in the water,” Michael says of swimming. “It’s kind of like therapy in a way. It’s the only time where my mind is completely silent and nothing is going on.”

9:42 – Dealing with Expectations. “I knew that I was the most prepared person out there. I knew I was the best swimmer out there. If everything went well, if I did all of the training that I needed to do, then the results were going to come.”

10:05 – Winning. “I wanted to win every single time I got in the pool. I don’t like to get second. I don’t like to get third. I don’t like not making the podium. So, for me, it’s one place: It’s winning, that’s it. And if I don’t win, how can I make sure that never happens again?”

13:31 – First Gold Medal. Michael shares the story of winning his first gold medal in Athens in 2004, and says he barely had time to enjoy it and soak it in because of having to focus on his next race. “It’s crazy looking back at it now because I don’t think I’ve fully been able to comprehend and understand everything that I went through in my career because of that [mindset], ‘What’s next?’ That’s what we were always chasing. Where can I go next? How much faster can we get? How much more can we push the limit?

16:47 – Sacrifices. “I didn’t care about the sacrifices that I was making because I always thought, ‘What if?’ What if I have the chance to do something great? That’s all I wanted. I didn’t care that I was missing out on a party or a dance or this or that, or hanging out with my friends. For me, I thought what I was doing was normal.”

19:36 – Pursuit of Perfection. Michael tells the story of his 200 fly performance in Beijing and how his preparation helped him overcome his goggles filling up with water. He also explains why he was upset with his performance, despite breaking the world record in the process. “I was pissed. Honestly, I thought I could go 1:50 in that race. I was so prepared for that race. I truly thought I could’ve gone a second-and-a-half faster. … I fell short of [meeting that goal], even though I won and broke the world record. I’m still upset because that’s me. I want nothing but perfection.”

23:25 – Love of Competition. “I loved competition more than absolutely any part of what I did. I wanted to swim as fast as I could. And I knew that if I didn’t train, there was no way that I was going to have the chance to break a world record or compete against the best people in the world. [Ryan] Lochte and I competed against each other for 15 years, and we were one and two every single time. I had to keep my game up. And if I [didn’t], there was somebody else that was going to pass me.”

25:04 – Feeling Lost. Michael details the emptiness he felt after the Beijing Olympics. “After you’ve accomplished your lifetime dream and goal, where are you supposed to go? Like what’s next? I was a baby. I was 23 years old, I had just won eight gold medals in 2008. At that point, I basically just hung on because I felt like I had to.”

27:48 – Recovery. “I’m a numbers guy. I’m a data guy. I can wake up and basically tell you what my [WHOOP recovery] score is going to be, based off how I feel. I’ve had a couple of one-percenters in there, and those are painful. Recovery is important. I hold myself to a high standard and I want to be able to do so much throughout the day. And if I’m not taking care of my body, I don’t have the chance to do that.”

28:38 – Sleep. “I want to know my data. I’m big on sleep. I want to know my percentages, REM, deep, light, I want to know. I want to try to hit those 20% barriers. If I’m 20% [in the restorative stages] every night, I know I’m the best me every single day, no matter what.”

LEARN MORE: How Much Time Should You Spend in Each Stage of Sleep?

29:41 – Why WHOOP. “I want to be able to give myself the best chance to be the best me. I like looking at the WHOOP dashboard. I think the dashboard tells me everything that I want to know in an easy way. I absolutely love it. I’ve looked at the ring and all this stuff, I think the WHOOP dashboard is the best. I like the simplistic view of it. I get every piece of information that I need, like 23% deep sleep last night, these little things for me are big. They’re important. I’m somebody who’s worked in hundredths of a second my whole entire life, that was my benchmark. So for me, how can I be the best me today? I need sleep, I need to make sure everything inside is going well, and [WHOOP] gives me that.”

34:02 – Mental Health. Michael talks about getting his second DUI in 2014 and how he believes it likely saved his life. ”I think throughout my career, I had a lot of cries for help and didn’t really know what to say or how to do it. I was taking the express elevator down and the spiral staircase straight down and I got to the point where I didn’t want to be alive. And I got to the point where I learned to ask for help too. These moments that I’ve gone through, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly, they’ve all been learning experiences for me. And honestly, going back to that moment in 2014 when I got my second DUI, without that night, I don’t know if I’d be here today.”

35:04 – Loving Yourself. “I used to hate who I saw in the mirror. I used to hate it. The only thing I saw was a swimmer. I didn’t see anything else. I never saw myself as a human being. So now being able to see myself as a human being, it’s a completely different outlook on life. And I love myself. I like who I am. Now I’ve been able to accumulate a few tools to help me get through those dark times.”

36:45 – Tools to Cope. “Therapy is something for me that put me here. … Writing things down is something that helps, the ‘good, bad, ugly,’ so I can go back and see ‘Why was this day so bad, why was this day so good, how can I have more good days?’ And self care. This is a time when we need to spend more time on self care.”

LEARN MORE: Therapy Sessions Can Help Your Sleep and HRV

38:18 – Compartmentalizing. “We can pile things up and compartmentalize and I’ll be the first to admit that’s not good and it’s not healthy. That put me at a very dark spot, in a very uncomfortable spot for me in my life. So I would urge everybody just to communicate, however that looks, whether it’s a friend, whether it’s in person, whether it’s texting, whether it’s writing stuff down, communicate, get stuff out in the open. That is the one biggest thing that I think really frees us up because the more we carry this stuff along, it just puts more and more stress and weight on us. We just start hunching over.”

39:37 – Being Your Authentic Self. “I remember when I was in treatment just saying, ‘I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of me. I’m going to show them me. I’m going to show them the real Michael Phelps.’ I remember once I said that, that’s all I’ve done. You’re going to see the good, the bad, and the ugly … cause that’s me. I don’t want to hide anything. I am who I am. And what you see is what you get.”

40:40 – Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. Michael says he’s proud of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles for publicly sharing their own mental health struggles. “It brings me so much joy. It really does. Because for them, or for anybody to really open up and to talk about struggles like this, it’s so freeing.” Michael also shares that he reached out to Biles during the Tokyo Olympics to offer his support to her.

45:56 – Lowering the Suicide Rate. “One of the things that I really want to do is I want to lower the suicide rate. That number scares me and it crushes me. I know what it feels like to not want to be alive. And I want to be able to help as many people as I can to get through that, to get through to the other side.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

48:22 – Getting In the Zone. “It’s like you’re in the matrix. It’s like time slows down. It’s crazy. It’s hard to put it into words exactly what it’s like, but you feel your senses are heightened. It’s wild.”

55:17 – Diet During Training. Michael talks about his diet and how he could eat “anything I wanted” for 20 years, because he needed to consume so many calories to maintain his weight. “It was a full-time job,” he says of eating.

56:55 – The Michael Phelps Foundation. Learn more about the Michael Phelps Foundation at MichaelPhelpsFoundation.org

 

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