What Makes Michael Phelps Great

Shortly after Michael Phelps secured gold medal 23, becoming the world's most dominant athlete, I turned into a mediocre sports analyst. "Michael Phelps is so great at swimming because he has long torso and arms, and short legs," I told my girlfriend. "That makes him more efficient." I'm not the only one who was quick to attribute Phelps' success to God-given anatomy. Take, for example, this infographic from Tech Insider:

I wasn't wrong, but I wasn't all that right, either. Yes, certain body types are required to compete at a world class level. You won't find a seven-foot Olympic gymnast, or a 100-pound shot putter. Phelps surely has a "swimmer's body." But you know who else has a swimmer's body? Every other swimmer in Rio, a fact that occurred to me once the athletes exited the pool. In the swim world, anatomically, Phelps isn't all that unique, as H. Richard Weiner—a doctor who practiced sports medicine and was an All-American swimmer—explained in this Scientific American article:

I’m sure if we could measure Phelps as much as we would like, we would find attributes better than average for swimming, but I don’t think we would find any glaring abnormalities. I suspected if we could comprehensively measure all Olympians in finals, we would see significant differences [when compared to non-Olympians], but we would not see them having freakish things like 200 percent more lung capacity, or muscles that can contract at twice the [maximum] force of a normal human muscle. I mean, come on.

So, I wondered, what does make Phelps the GOAT? My conclusion is captured in this photo:


That's the face of a man who has "killer instinct," that intangible competitive force the greatest athletes possess. It allows Phelps to believe in himself so fully that he's become virtually unstoppable. Challenging Phelps and athletes like him is a death sentence, as South African swimmer Chad le Clos learned (read the backstory to the above photo here). A few other athletes with the killer instinct: Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods before the aftermath of the infamous Escalade crash. The question is never if these athletes are going to win, it's by what margin. (Michael Jordan, for example, is so insanely competitive that he's even a Bejeweled GOAT.)

The killer instinct is apparent in everything these athletes do. Take how Phelps trains. During one five year stretch, for example, he was in the pool six hours every single day, according to CNN. That's a total of 10,920 hours, yet it represents just a fraction of Phelps' 24-year swimming career. And during that five-year span, Phelps also worked out in the gym five days a week and paid attention to recovery, which may be why he's stayed mostly injury free through his career. 

Those hours aren't mindless. There's a difference between practice and "deliberate practice," which involves pushing yourself beyond your limit each session, following expert designed training routines, and consistently working on your weaknesses. This kind of practice is what creates true experts, according to the scientists whose paper stemmed the idea of the 10,000 hour rule (which, they say, isn't quite accurate). 

Killer instinct has nothing to do with anatomy. It begins and ends in your brain. Phelps' belief in himself is a state of mind, and his time and attention to deliberate practice is a conscious decision. Phelps' body only gives him an opportunity to be good—his brain allows him to capitalize on that opportunity and be the greatest.