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Chapter 2 – Mindset Lessons From My Toughest Olympic Moment

I’m writing a book called Reinventing Mindset: A rapid, evidence-based guide to manage stress, improve performance and play your infinite game.

And I need your help.

For this book to have the impact I want, I’m releasing each chapter as I write it for feedback.

So please, as I share these, let me know:

What do you love? What do you hate? Is there something missing? Is there something to be removed? Do you have any questions?

Here are the previous chapters:

  1. Start Here

Thank you in advance! Let’s jump into Chapter 2.


It’s 2004, Athens Olympics.

I’m playing in the Australian Water Polo team – my dream come true.

It’s game 3: Australia vs Greece.

The indoor stadium is packed.

I’m in the middle of the pool and up on my right are 6,000 Greeks going berserk. It’s a seething mass of Hellenic blue and white. The sound is deafening.

In the crowd are islands of green and gold Australian supporters decked head-to-toe in wigs, face paint and t-shirts. My family are there: mum, dad, my three sisters and brother. Friends have flown from Australia to watch.

It’s a medal critical game. The winner stays in medal contention, the loser misses out.

We’re 30 secs from half time and leading by a goal.

The Greeks miss a shot down our end and I start sprinting up the pool.

My goalkeeper launches the ball down the field.

It sails over my head and lands on the water in front of me.

There’s me. The ball. And the Greek goalkeeper, eight metres away.

I’m exhausted from already playing half of the most intense game of my life. At the same time I’m absolutely jacked on the adrenalin and excitement of the moment.

This is the culmination of a roller coaster of 11 years of training, games, rejection, selection, injuries, recovery and chance.

All of which has led me to this opportunity to put us two goals ahead going into half time…

My question for you is:

What do you think goes through an Olympian’s mind in a moment like this?

……

Let me share.

Get me out of here.

I always miss these shots in training.

I always miss these shots in games.

I wish someone else was taking this shot.

I try to turn it around.

Hang on. You have to think positive.

This is your turn.

This is the Olympics.

Your family’s in the stand.

You can do it! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

I sprint in.

I pick up the ball.

I baulk once.

I shoot…

This story doesn’t have a happy ending.

The Greek goalkeeper saves it.

I sink to the bottom of the pool, mortified I’ve missed this shot. I can’t believe it. In water polo, this is one of those situations you’re supposed to score.

As I come back to the surface, I look to my left and see one of my teammates. He’s four metres away. He’d been screaming at me all the way up the pool but I hadn’t heard a thing.

To make matters worse, I watch as the Greek goalie launches the ball the full length of the pool to one of his players.

They pick up.

They shoot.

They score.

Instead of being two goals up, we’re now even.

Any athlete will tell you about momentum. What it means to have it and what it means to lose it.

You may have experienced it yourself in different settings like in work, relationships or health. Of the wind being sucked from your sails.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those rise-from-the-ashes stories where I scored the winner later on. We lost the game and ended the Olympics in 9th position.

Did it all boil down to that one shot?

No, of course not. There were many moments of many games.

But some days it still feels like it.

…….

Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about how we can operate in those kinds of high stakes moments. And, equally importantly, make the everyday choices that compound over time in invisible increments.

On reflection, I had such little control.

There was so much going on outside of me – the crowd, the referees, the Greek goalie – that I couldn’t control.

I’ve also learned that we experience thousands of thoughts, feelings and sensations inside us every day.

I’ve come to understand that I cannot possibly control all of them either.

In the intensity of this moment, the highs and the lows of this experience felt like they were running around and through me at a million miles an hour.

If I zoom out to the two weeks of the Olympics, I can see this pattern again.

The day I arrived in the athlete village I thought I had a stomach infection. It stopped the day I left. I nearly missed the high of walking in the opening ceremony – an intense, a near out-of-body experience.

At the Olympics, the highs felt high and the lows felt low.

If I zoom out even further and consider other areas of my life, the pattern continues:

  • Why do I feel such love as a parent and yet experience anger like I’ve only felt before when I was punched in the head in a water polo game?
  • Why do these tough internal experiences NOT show up when I’m washing the dishes and making lunches?
  • Why does the excitement of launching my own businesses get matched with a cashflow squeeze that feels so intense?
  • Why did the decisions to resign from two businesses I’ve started, feel both liberating and brutal?
  • Why do I not sleep well for the week leading up to a new speech at my old school in front of my nephews?
  • Why is it hardest to have difficult conversations with the people I care most about?

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that this is the truth of the yin/yang circle. The two tear drops of black and white with the opposite coloured dot in each to show us that these experiences are inextricably linked.

There is no high without low, no triumph without trial, no love without suffering.

The fact that the tough stuff shows up doesn’t mean that we are weak or broken or inadequate or something is missing.

It is because we care.

In fact, the more we care, the more likely it is to show up.

……

So what can we do?

Let’s go back to that Olympic moment.

Clearly the “negative” thoughts weren’t useful to me. Criticising myself or focussing on the physical exhaustion wasn’t going to help me score the goal.

But nor was thinking about my family in the stand or trying to cheer myself on. In terms of maximising the chances of a successful outcome, the “positive” thoughts was as much of a distraction as the “negative” thoughts.

So my question to you is:

Where do you think my attention should have been?

……

If you said to yourself “in the present”, “in the moment”, “on the process”, “on the task at hand”, you’re spot on.

It’s called task focussed attention.

If I’d had it at that time, I would have recognised that the very same process I was taught as a 13 year old, first learning to play water polo and take these kinds of shots, is the exact same process that applies at a medal critical moment in an Olympic Games.

The first step of that process?

Lift your head up and look around. Assess the situation. Then make a choice.

If I’d taken just that first step, I would have seen my teammate. It would have been the simplest of passes for the simplest of goals. It would have taken the odds of scoring for the team from 60-40 to 99-1.

But if we have such little control of what is going on around us and if we have such little control of what is going on inside us, how can we learn to bring ourselves back to the present to recognise that we still have a choice?

And how can we make that choice to lead us towards what truly matters in that moment?

Enter the science of psychological flexibility.


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