So before interviewing Olympic champion, Kieren Perkins, I was not sure what to expect. Would he be washed up? Would he be old and burnt out? The answer is neither. Next to Tony Robbins I believe he is one of the most inspiring, motivational geniuses of our time.
He is not someone you want to underestimate. He has success oozing from every part of his being, and he knows every form of motivation and personal development skill you could imagine. If you want to know what it takes to be successful, and you have been looking for the answer, then the only thing you need to do is listen to Kieren’s advice!
This interview will stay with me for a very long time. There were so many a-ha moments, and so many quotes (thank god I recorded the audio). I almost had to make the entire article just quotes because there was no filler to anything he said. Everything he learnt by being an Olympian he still uses today, except he does it in the corporate world, not the pool.
For Kieren, he was attracted to swimming and not team sports like Football and Soccer, because his whole life was about beating himself and improving every day, it was not about looking good or trying to be what everyone else wanted him to be.
Below are the thirteen lessons you can learn from Kieren’s life and Olympic success.
1. You know you will win before you even start
If you stand up on the blocks in an Olympic games, and you think you can’t win, you won’t. If you do win, it’s because you knew you would, you prepared, trained, practised, stressed and pushed yourself to your absolute breaking point.
You repeated this process again and again until you got to that moment in your preparation, which aligned with your strategy, that meant that when you stood on the blocks you were ready to go.
2. Develop the mental toughness ingredients
Kieren never worried too much about his competitors. One of the things he got taught when he was very young was that if someone tries to psych you out before a race, that’s great because there worried about you, you need to ignore them and worry about your race.
This thinking was part of the manifestation of the mental toughness that evolved in him. You need all the ingredients such as:
– Being able to stay calm and rational
– Understand what matters and what doesn’t
– Have clarity around what you’re trying to achieve
– Being willing to deal with the issue, not the circumstance so you don’t get caught up in the emotion of a problem
These destructive emotions are usually not particularly real or helpful; they’re just perceptions that are your reality for that moment in time. If you don’t let that reality dominate you, and you can control it, your chances of being successful are much higher and the resilience you have in moments of stress will be greater.
3. No matter how you’re feeling just get started
No one wakes up every day of their life jumping out of their skin saying, “my life is fabulous, I’m so excited, I can’t wait to get to the pool and swim.” No sane human being is like that. We all have days where we think we’re tired, it’s cold, we can’t be bothered, or we want to just stay in bed.
Inevitably Kieren says, you get to the pool, and you start the activity of training. Within five minutes of starting you are engrossed, engaged, you’re there doing it, and all of that negativity or self-talk that was undermining your reasons for starting the process, disappears, and you get it done.
Next time you feel like you can’t do something, imagine what Kieren went through swimming in a pool every morning, and then just get started on whatever it is that you need to complete. You will be surprised how quickly you can push through any type of negative feeling.
4. Find something more engaging in what you’re doing than just the end
When Kieren used to train, he would see people that were only motivated by competition and winning at all costs. He would think to himself, “how do you drag yourself out of bed every day when your competition is four years away? You have got a lot of training to do between now and that competition. How do you wake up every day absolutely engaged in a sustainable performance mindset when the end goal is so distant?”
To Kieren, you want to have something that’s tangible, every single day that you can grasp, feel, touch, and taste that’s pushing you and motivating you to try and continue to improve, to be better, and get you to wherever you’re going.
Kieren has a view that if you want to be sustainable in your performance, if you want to have long-term out-performance and success in your career, you have to find something in what you’re doing that’s far more engaging and motivating than just the end.
If it’s only about the end, if it’s only about the competition, if it’s only about the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal, the next time you have to start that process again and you stand on the line of day one, of the next four years of work, to get to the opportunity to try and win the next gold medal, Kieren says “Mount Everest looks pretty bloody big from there and pretty much unattainable.”
Kieren has seen it many times before (athletes who have treated the Olympics like a mountain) and when they have to climb the mountain for the second time or fourth time, they just can’t comprehend pushing themselves through the struggle ever again.
If you have a bit more of a sustainable mindset about those smaller chunks, (eat an elephant one bite at a time kind of an attitude) your chances of being sustainably successful are a lot higher.
5. Dealing with extreme pressure is a skill, unlike fitness
Throughout the interview, I wanted to know how Kieren’s mentors had influenced his success. The lesson Kieren told me that had a profound effect on him was from his swimming coach Mr Carew.
Mr Carew was very technically focused and believed that what made a great athlete was firstly the human being, the values, beliefs and attitudes, but then secondly, their technical ability. His view was that anyone could be fit, and that fitness was not mysterious or difficult.
His coach believed that to be technically perfect, under immense pressure, in an extremely hostile environment, and to challenge yourself and push yourself to do something extraordinary, was where the real skill lied.
This lesson doesn’t just apply to athletes; it also applies to life in general. Most skills and professions can be learned, but the one thing that will determine your success is the way you think and your psychology. Luckily all of this can be learned, and your brain has the ability to evolve.
“Every human being you interact with has got something to teach you and that they know something that you don’t know. The challenge about whether or not you learn anything from them is your capacity to actually listen and ask the right questions”
6. Let someone else show you what’s possible
A lesson we can all learn from Kieren is that often we have no idea what is possible until we see someone else achieve what we think is impossible. These experiences are invaluable and provide us with a blueprint for success.
The moment for Kieren, which showed him what was possible, was seeing Glen Houseman swimming in the 1989 Commonwealth Games Heats, in the 1500m freestyle. As Kieren was talking to his coach in the stands after his own event, he began to hear this amazing noise building from the swim centre which was uncommon for a 1500m swimming race at the time.
800m into the race, the commentator worked out that Glen was under world record pace. Back then, half a dozen records would be broken globally a year, on average. To see a world record at this time was just incredible, and it barely ever happened.
The 1500m race was one that nobody believed a world record could be broken because it was set by an extraordinary Russian athlete that was five generations ahead of his time in terms of what he achieved in the pool.
As Glen touched the wall and broke the world record, it shattered all the beliefs of what Kieran thought was possible, and broke down all the things that he took for granted about what could and couldn’t be done.
It really opened his eyes to the fact that if you think differently, give yourself a chance and dream high, who knows what you might be able to deliver.
7. Your state of mind shouldn’t change no matter how big the event is
For Kieren, one of the things he learned in his sporting career was that when that moment of truth comes, and you’ve got to stand on the blocks and deliver your performance, your capacity at that moment in time is physically set.
At that moment, you’re not getting fitter, stronger or more technically proficient. The struggle for anybody in that moment, when the questions being asked, “how good are you?” is to have the capacity to be realistic about the challenge that’s in front of you and control the emotions that inevitably come with it.
When you’re ten years old, the consequence of failure is nothing. Being able to balance out the reality of the situation versus the emotion of the perceptions that can be created, versus your experience, is really where the skill comes in.
The nerves and the emotion that you feel standing on the blocks, racing in your first school carnival, shouldn’t be any different to the state of mind you’re in when you’re standing on the blocks defending your third Olympic title.
If there is a big variance in your state, then the chances are that variance is going to lead to mistakes and bad performance.
8. In moments of unease, get some perspective and do your best
One of the hardest parts of being a champion is dealing with the huge expectations that are placed on you. These expectations can sometimes create unease and a feeling of sickness. The irony is it’s not about pushing through the sickness it’s about stepping back and getting some perspective.
In the lead up to the swim at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (the final), Kieren started to panic and get incredibly nervous. There was a moment in time where he recognised that the physical state he was in was going to lead to a guaranteed bad performance.
He was smart enough in that moment, to recognise the reason he was in that physical state was because of his emotions, but he recognised that if he stayed in that physical state he wouldn’t be able to perform well.
It shocked him into stepping back and saying to himself well “you never used to get this nervous as a ten year old, what did you used to do, what was the process, what were the skills you utilised to put yourself in a position as a ten-year-old where you were far more in control and relaxed than you are right now?”
Just breaking it down into chunks and thinking about the things he had control over, and controlling them in the way he had learned over all those years, brought him back to a space where he was really able to get some perspective and unburden himself from the consequence of failure, and of not winning an Olympic gold medal.
It enabled him to bring it back to the thing that had always been the most important view in his life which was saying to himself “if I do my best, it doesn’t matter whether I win, lose or draw as long as I know I have done my best, and I couldn’t do any better, I will be proud and satisfied with my performance.”
9. Allow the adrenalin to dissipate during stressful moments
For Kieren, the main skill that he learned about controlling his emotional state during stressful moments was being able to distract himself. When he felt it getting out of control, he would distract himself and allow the physiological impacts to dissipate, which is essentially the adrenalin.
When you get stressed, adrenalin is produced by your body. Your body needs to first stop producing more adrenalin, and then secondly process the adrenalin that’s in your system, and once that’s been processed, you will be calm and rational again.
What helped Kieren was to distract himself and be able to step away from the pressure of the moment to allow himself to calm down, to allow himself to process that adrenalin, to then build some rational perspective – mentally that was the key. While training for the Olympics, Kieren would experience this phenomenon throughout the entire process.
It might happen while eating, doing stretches or in the middle of a warm up. What helped Kieren greatly was to work hard to focus on the here and now, and focusing on what the most important thing that had to be done, at that moment in time.
10. You’re always in control; there are no lucky charms
One concept Kieren says to drop is the idea of lucky charms. Some athletes have lucky charms like wearing red undies on the day of competition, and they believe that if they don’t, they will lose. When an athlete says “I ate a certain meal on the day of an event, so I knew I was going to win,” Kieren says that’s feeble-mindedness.
If you really think that your success is predicated on what you’re wearing, or what you’re eating, or other external circumstances, then you aren’t in control of what you’re trying to achieve, and that’s madness.
The real skill in being able to deliver your potential is always being in control so that when things go wrong, when you wake up in the morning arrive at the pool, and realise that you didn’t bring your favourite red undies your response isn’t hysteria, or “oh my god I am not going to win.”
Your response needs to be “who cares, it’s not going to make any difference, I am going to do what I need to do today.” You don’t actually control, the whole process; there will always be stuff that goes wrong.
11. The ultimate feeling of success is pride – replicate these moments
During my time with Kieren, I wanted to know what it was like to achieve the impossible Olympic gold medal dream, what feeling came from it, and what lesson I could learn – I got a great lesson. The lesson he gave me was an analogy that is his blueprint for success and can be used as a winning strategy for anybody’s life.
The analogy Kieren gave is, think back to being in primary school when you got the first assignment that you actually cared about. It was a subject or a topic that you really loved, were curious about, interested you and intrigued you.
When you got that assignment, you were excited. The thought or possibility of what you could achieve was real, and it was tangible because it mattered to you. Then you went through this process of working hard to get the result.
You focused, concentrated, and put in effort to deliver that assignment better than any assignment you’ve done before because you cared about it, and you engaged with it. When you got to the end of that process, and you had finished your assignment – after you had put in more work than you had ever put into anything you had done before in your life – there is a moment of huge anticipation when you hand it to the teacher.
You think to yourself “is it good enough, is it the best I could have done?” You know you couldn’t have worked any harder, and you wait with bated breath for the result to come through. Inevitably, the mark you get is fabulous. It’s a better mark than you could have anticipated.
In that moment, when you receive that mark, you get a swelling in your chest where you feel your heart pushing on your rib cage, and there is a buzz that goes through your core at that moment in time.
That sense of pride, in knowing that you set yourself a task, you were engaged, motivated and committed to achieving it, you were focused on delivering the result, you worked as hard as you possibly could to get it done, and you have received the rewards for your effort.
That moment of pride is exactly what it’s like winning an Olympic gold medal. If you can find an experience like this in your own life, and break down the components to the things you did that enabled you to deliver that result, you can apply this strategy to anything you want.
12. Understand how to come down from a major high
The only time Kieren had to come down was the day he retired. He describes it as horrific and awful, and it took him a decade to get it through it. It wasn’t about the buzz of victory or the thrill of competing in the Olympics; it was about the lifestyle, a sense of value, belonging and being, that had disappeared overnight.
Kieren knew he would never have access to that again because the reality of sport at the highest level is that you are surrounded every day by people who have the same level of commitment, motivation, positivity, self-focus, determination, and attitude around what it means to be successful, and an understanding of excellence and what it looks like.
“You have to be able to pick and choose the bits you allow to infect you and the stuff you want to engage with. Try and hold onto those things that make you happy and engage you, and not let other people’s perceptions, values and beliefs drag you down”
Unfortunately, these things just don’t exist in a broad environment. You can’t expect to work in a large organisation with thousands of people, and have everybody turn up knowing with complete clarity, focus and an unwavering spirit to deliver success at their absolute edge of potential and excellence every single day. It’s unnatural, it’s not normal, and it isn’t replicable.
13. Step back from the emotion of not achieving a goal
During Kieren’s career, he admits that there was no doubt he didn’t achieve all of his goals. There were times when the performance was not at all what he wanted to achieve. He says the skill in those moments is to be able to step back from the emotion of it and say, “what worked, what didn’t and what am I going to do better next time?”
If you have got that sense of hope and possibility that it can be done, you can reassert yourself, you can focus, you can adjust, adapt and act, and keep pushing yourself forward to deliver the result.
At the end of the interview with Kieren, I only had one last question for him, which was, “what is the one quote that you have lived your entire life by?” Kieren replied by reciting a poem his father gave him when he was young that really resonated with him.
To Kieren, it was one of the things that enabled him to think beyond what everybody else told him was possible; it enabled him to step outside of the norm. IF YOU EVER WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE ONE INFLUENCE WAS THAT MADE KIEREN A WORLDWIDE HERO, THAT WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN, THEN HERE IT IS!
The Man Who Thinks He Can – Walter D Wintle