Road to #London2012: Willpower is Overrated

London-2012-Olympics-torch-3It’s 6:30am on August 13, 2008…

Michael Phelp’s alarm clock went off, he rolled out of bed in the Olympic Village in Beijing, and he began his routine. He’d already raced and won three gold medals earlier that week and had two more that day. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a sweatshirt and walked to breakfast in the cafeteria. By 7am he was eating his regular race day menu of eggs, oatmeal and four energy shakes, and enjoying the company of his team mates. Just an ordinary day.

His first race that day was his strongest – the 200metre butterfly. It was scheduled to begin at 10am.

At 8am he began his usual stretching routine, starting with his arms, then his back. Eventually he worked his way down to his ankles, which were so flexible they could extend more than most ballerina’s ankles can.

At 8:30am he slipped into the pool and began his first warm up consisting of 800 metres of mixed strokes followed by 600 metres of kicking, 400 metres with a pull buoy between his thighs, 200 metres of stroke technique drills, and a few 25 metre sprints to elevate his heart rate and get him into performance mode.

By 9:15am he exits the pool and starts the arduous process of putting on his LZR bodysuit. After 20 minutes of tugging and adjusting it fits like a glove. He then put on his headphones, cranked up his pre-race hip-hop mix, and waited.

The Value of Rituals to High Performance

Phelps, like Ryan Cochrane and many of Canada’s athletes understand the importance of routine and rituals for high performance. Each element of their pre-race routine is crafted to help them get into the right performance state physically and mentally on race day. Beyond helping them manage anxiety, the routine is critical to helping athletes manage their most precious resource on race day – attention.

Months before arriving in London athletes create performance routines that will set them up for success at the Games. Some of them are physical, but perhaps the most important ones are the mental routines. When done well, rituals and routines help athletes conserve one of their most powerful, but quickly depleted resources – willpower. Done well, it creates a considerable advantage come race day.

One thing is clear from over 30 years of research conducted on habit formation and willpower at Stanford University – our capacity to self-regulate our thoughts, emotions, decisions, and ultimately our behaviour is smaller than we realize. Only about 5% of our bahviour is consciously self regulated. Yep… 5%.

On top of this, it’s a resource that is slowly depleted over the course of a day each time we use it. Even small decisions such as deciding what to eat for breakfast, or what route to take to get to work, use up our willpower reserves. The more things we need to focus on, or self-regulate ourselves on, such as saying no to a fifth pancake at breakfast, the faster that willpower reserve is depleted and we begin to make decisions, or behave in a way that is not in alignment with our intentions.

What does this have to do with high performance? The less an athlete has to think about before a race, the more he relies on routine, the more willpower he has to apply to the race itself. It may seem like

a small factor. But if an athlete is dealing with a new environment, media pressure, expectations of coaches and family, comments from other competitors, they need a lot of willpower in their tanks to focus their attention on performance relevant cues. If not, the race will be over for them, before it even begins.

So what are some of the ways we do this?

Pre-Olympic Visit to London

As part of the preparations for the 2012 Games last month, I accompanied several Olympic athletes to London. The main purpose of the trip was to orient the athletes to the athlete’s village, their training facilities, the competition venues, the Olympic arena, broadcast centre, and various protocols they needed to become familiar with before returning to London again for the Opening Ceremonies. The ultimate benefit of this was to help the athletes use this information to begin fine tuning their pre-race performance routines, and strategies to deal with potential distractions during the games.

Coaching at #London2012 Velodrome

This could be as simple as knowing the path they will take from the village to their venue, or what the room will look like where they stage before entering the arena. Each of these then becomes one less thing to manage in the moment. One less unknown for race day.

Coaching at #London2012 Olympics Track and Field

Valuable Take-aways

How is this relevant to you?

Whether you look to science or your own life for evidence, it is clear that we all have a tendency to run out of willpower when we need it most. Like a muscle, willpower, whether conscious decision making, managing our attention, or regulating our behaviour, is depleted slowly every time we use it over the course of a day. Routines and rituals can help you conserve this resource, and use it strategically to ensure you are able to think and act clearly when you need to most.

One week Challenge

Keep track of your self-control strength this week. When do you seem to have the most willpower, and when are you most likely to give up to impulses or emotions?

How could a routine for those moments make it easier for you to stay focused and make sound decisions?

What are the activities you need the most mental focus to be successful at? How can you ensure that you minimize potential stressors leading to up to that activity, and ensure your capacity for self-regulation is high?

Like any muscle, willpower can be strengthened, and used strategically to ensure you have power when you need it. In future blog posts we’ll discuss how to create a performance ritual to eliminate the need for willpower when under stress.


I will be heading to London with the Canadian Olympic Team in under a week. I would love to know what topics around achieving high performance would you like to learn about from these athletes? What translations from the athletic world to the business world would you like me to look for? Please leave me a comment below this post, or connect with me on Twitter @RussHunter. I would love to hear from you!


Russell Hunter