Michael Phelps is probably the greatest swimmer ever. He’s competing in his fifth Olympics this year. He has won more than twenty Olympic gold medals. He holds a slew of records. But there’s something that impresses me even more.
Phelps has been swimming competitively since he was 10. He’s 31 now. That’s twenty-one years of swimming. How many hours of practice do you think Michael Phelps has put in? How many times do you think he’s gagged on the chlorine or gotten a cramp or just wished he could take the day off?
When the Olympics come around, every four years, we see and hear the stories of the winners. Most of the time they talk about their achievements and the people who supported them. They rarely talk about the daily grind that has ruled of their life for years or decades. But, if you want to become a champion, you have to embrace the grind. As Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney says: “Champions are made when the stands are empty.”
Another football coach, this time Alabama’s legendary Bear Bryant, used to tell his players that the vaunted “will to win” wasn’t that important. Coach Bryant put it this way.
“It’s not the will to win that matters. Everybody has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
That’s the grind. In the beginning, everything seems like fun. Getting better is easy. But if you want to become the best you can be, you have to continually push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and that’s not easy. Just ask anyone who’s started a diet or joined a gym right after New Year’s. After a while the hard work is wearing and people begin to quit or settle.
A living example of embracing the grind
My friend Stephen Lynch is now the Head of Strategy and Consulting for the international firm RESULTS.com. In 1993, he was crowned Mr. New Zealand. It took five years of the grind for him win that title. The grind is doing everything that is vital to do and avoiding anything that will not help you achieve your goal. Stephen says both of those are important.
“Saying “No” to some things was just as important as saying “Yes” to other things. Here are two examples.
Yes: Heavy weight training
No: Aerobic exercise and other sports like rugby, tennis, swimming, and hiking”
Yes: Plenty of rest and recovery. Early to bed. Diet soda.
No: Late nights, nightclubs, partying, or alcohol”
Day after day after day after day after day
That’s not the whole story. You can’t embrace the grind for a little while and then be a success. You can’t start and stop. You have to do it every day. So how do people like Stephen Lynch and Michael Phelps keep going?
You need a Great Big Why
You need a reason for doing the boring stuff and doing the hard stuff. I call it “The Great Big Why.” When times get tough and hard, when the going is even worse than you thought it would be, you need to be able to tell yourself why you’re doing it all.
You need to measure your efforts and results
You need a way to measure how you’re doing. You won’t make progress every day, but you need to try. The only way to do that is to be honest with yourself and keep records. Here’s Stephen again.
“Unless you are measuring what you are doing every day it is easy to kid yourself when you are training. To defeat that tendency, I carried a journal and wrote down how many days per week I worked out at the gym. I recorded every set of every exercise I did, how much weight I used, and how many reps I performed.”
You need helpful habits and reminders
Ovid said that there is nothing stronger than habit. That means doing the same things in the same way over and over again.
The first thing in the morning is when most people find it best to schedule important work. Many also find that adding preparation the night before makes it more likely that they’ll do what they want to do in the morning. One of my friends makes coffee in the evening and puts it in a thermos that he sets on the top of the toilet tank where he relieves himself as soon as he gets up. When that little chore is done he heads for his office with the thermos. There’s no pause to make coffee.
Reminders will help you, too. You can put them on your smartphone. Some reminders are physical. One of my writing clients put a note on her pillow so that when she was ready for bed she found herself facing the question, “Have you written your quota yet?”
An accountability partner can help
An accountability partner is someone who understands what you want to achieve and commits to helping you in your quest. For many athletes, their coach is their accountability partner. For some people, their spouse fills the that role. For others, a good friend who understands the challenges is the right choice. Your accountability partner keeps you honest and prods you to do better and reminds you of your why.
The grind is the price of greatness
Greatness does not come easy. The grind is the price you pay. Embrace the grind.