How Olympic Swimmer Melinda Harrison Optimizes Her Mind & Body For Peak Performance

Sport is a terrific platform through which to explore all aspects of yourself. Every day you will have an opportunity to try and execute your best effort. Some days are harder than others. You learn that “can’t” turns to “can” with hard work. And you quickly realize that success is a process of small steps. Take a step today and watch for an opportunity to open up tomorrow.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melinda Harrison.

Melinda Harrison, an Olympic swimmer (1984), is a professional certified ICF PCC Level Executive Coach and author of the book Personal Next: What We Can Learn From Elite Athletes Navigating Career Transition. Having personally navigated from Olympian to businesswoman and from volunteer to community leader, she is now devoted to helping individuals and teams move from one level of success to the next through inquiry, self-awareness, goal discovery and being accountable to agreed-upon pathways.

Harrison is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was a 2-time captain of her team and was the first woman swimmer to be inducted into their Hall of Honor. She is a 6-time All-American, 4-time Big Ten champion and silver medalist at the NCAA. Her book was released April 21, 2021 and is available at all major booksellers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up as the third of four siblings in London, Ontario, a small city about two hours from Detroit, Michigan. My dad owned the local lumber store and my mother was a typical stay-at-home mom. We had a cottage for a few years on Lake Huron so I was always in and out of the water. But I didn’t start competitive swimming until I was thirteen years old. I had taken swimming lessons the summer before Grade 8 and the instructor said she thought I’d make a good competitive swimmer. That small piece of encouragement was enough to make me ask my parents to sign me up for the London Y Aquatic Club. To my excitement first, and later my chagrin, I was placed in the “C” pool, the bottom tier of the swimmers. But I worked hard and also managed to win a trip to an intensive summer swim camp, Camp Ak-O-Mak in northern Ontario, by raising money in a swim-a-thon.

At the time I was there, Camp Ak-O-Mak was run by RoseMary Mann Dawson and Buck Dawson. Buck was the founding director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale. RoseMary was an Assistant Coach at Pine Crest School also in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A few days into this week-long camp, they asked if I would be interested in attending Pine Crest. They could see I had physical potential and the work ethic to develop my talent faster than I could in London. My answer was an immediate “yes”! But I knew my parents wouldn’t be so quick to agree. At the age of 14 I didn’t understand the implications of such a decision, but I was determined and somehow, I managed to convince them I was serious about doing this. Ten days later, my Dad and I were on a plane to Florida so I could take the entrance exam. That was the true beginning of my swimmer’s life until I changed course in 1985.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

My initial inspiration was the environment that I found myself in when I arrived at Pine Crest. In London I was training three times a week for about forty-five minutes a session. At Pine Crest I trained eleven times a week with each session taking around two hours. On top of that jampacked schedule was dryland training, not to mention schoolwork! When I got to Pine Crest I could see clearly that I was at the bottom of the talent “pool” so I got to work immediately. By the end of that first year, I was no longer the worst swimmer.

My parents were also an inspiration. I wanted to succeed for them as much as I wanted to for myself. They sacrificed a lot to send me to Florida, but the only condition they asked of me was that that I commit to Pine Crest for the entire school year. Quitting was not an option. Between the richly competitive environment at Pine Crest, and the promise I made to my parents, I was all in!

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

First, I need to give a huge shout out to that first swimming teacher who sparked my interest in competitive swimming. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that encouragement. I would never have raised money for swim-a-thon and won that trip to Camp Ak-O-Mak. Rosemary and Buck helped fulfill my dream of being a competitive swimmer, and my parents had the courage to trust that I would honor my commitment. Athletes never stand alone on the podium. We are blessed to be supported by so many individuals. My success was the result of the efforts of every person who touched my life during my journey.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The Commonwealth Trials in the summer of 1982 were definitely a trial for me, but in an unexpected way. The Commonwealth Games were to be held in Australia in September, 1982. Assuming I made the team, my friends and I were planning to stay on and travel through the country after the games. We had the itinerary completely planned. But then I missed qualifying for the team by milli-fractions of a second. That’s when I realized I wanted to travel in Australia more than I wanted to make the team. As I watched my friends go to games that fall, I questioned if I really wanted to keep swimming. The failure of not making the team hurt. But that lesson also provided the fuel for my future successes because it forced me to examine my commitment to swimming.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Sport is a terrific platform through which to explore all aspects of yourself. Every day you will have an opportunity to try and execute your best effort. Some days are harder than others. You learn that “can’t” turns to “can” with hard work. And you quickly realize that success is a process of small steps. Take a step today and watch for an opportunity to open up tomorrow.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

High on my list right now is promoting my book, Personal Next, which was published in April. I’m excited by the all the positive responses I’ve received to it so far. All the interviews that went into my book focused on high performers who have moved positively through big change to find their personal next. The book is written as a narrative with some powerful coaching questions at the end of each chapter to guide the reader through their own transition. Now I’m working to create an online platform specifically aimed at athletes who cannot afford one-on-one coaching, and that will guide them through post-sport transition. I start filming later this month.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Building mental strength is as important as building physical strength. Just like physical strength it takes time to develop. It is great to dream big, but if you want dreams to become realities you need to prepare for those dreams.

Work on relaxation techniques. All high performers needs to learn how to put themselves into a hypnotic state so that they can tune out the noise that can interfere with focus. Find what works best for you to achieve that mindset. It could be listening to a mediation app or sitting quietly tuning out the world around you.

Get crystal clear on what you want to accomplish during that state of focus. I used that relaxed, alert state of mind to swim the race I knew I needed to qualify for the Olympics. Others elite athletes I know use it to tune out the crowds.

Ask for help when you are struggling emotionally and mentally. Although you are coached on the technical aspects of your sport, you also need to be trained in the mental aspects of performance The two go together and are a key to success.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Now that I’m a golfer I have some different ways of optimizing my game compared to swimming. When I notice the fear of embarrassing myself by flubbing a shot, or anxiety from pressure to win creeping into my psyche I consciously separate myself from my fellow players and take deep breaths. I inhale deeply, but, more importantly, my exhale is longer than my inhale. That simple change in the length of breath tells the fight or flight area in my brain that I am physically in control and safe. Conscious breathing helps to control your physical response and can enhance your performance.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I concentrate on the feeling of my feet on the ground, which helps me narrow my focus. It is a simple but highly effective hypnosis technique that helps me eliminate the distractions both around me and in my head. I learned how to focus on my feet when I trained for a couple of marathons after retiring from competitive swimming. A marathon begins with one step and that starts with my feet. The last few miles of a marathon are tough so acknowledging every push off from my feet shifted my mind away from the pain toward the objective of finishing the run.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

An athlete’s body is a machine that is prepped to perform. But peak performance is a result of all of the things that you do prior to the day of competition. Peak performance is so much more than just the volume of physical training. Some strategies for keeping your body where it needs to be are simply common sense such as staying hydrated, eating a nutritious diet, and getting enough sleep. But pain management is a big issue for elite athletes and it’s important to address this in healthy ways by keeping up with your physio, and using massage and ice baths to reduce discomfort rather than turning to alcohol or drugs. A consistent approach to of all of these strategies will support your peak performance.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

Structure is very important to me and I’ve learned that I require systems because there is always an excuse to not do something I need to. When you compete at a high level you have a system that makes a lot of decisions for you. But when you leave the world of sport you must learn how to create that system for yourself, and that can be a shock initially. I had to learn how to structure my own fitness schedule and workday but now it is habitual. I always work out in the morning before I start work. Then I drive to my local coffee shop to get coffee, and that signals that my workday is beginning. I also have habits around what I eat, how much alcohol I consume, and what time I go to bed. Structure, routine, consistency, these all keep me going and, step by step, they build a solid platform for success because I’m ready to perform when I need to be.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Habits should be autopilot actions, like brushing your teeth in the morning. As I mentioned, creating a routine and structure is one way to create habits but keeping to that routine is what will make it become a habit — and that’s just hard work. Consistency is key here. But if I am trying to break a bad habit, such as looking at my phone in the middle of the night, first I ask myself why I am trying to break it. I know it disturbs my sleep, but the question is does it disturb me enough that I change the habit. If you notice yourself using the word “should” about doing something, I always recommend getting curious about why that is. When you question your habits, you force yourself to make a choice between various actions. Then when you get off track you can ask if the answer to that “why” question still matters. I am also careful to not berate myself for getting off track. It does happen! In those times I just acknowledge this so-called “bad” day was not an optimal example of how I want to live my life.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

In his 1990 book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

When I was training there were some practices that were so challenging that I had to let go of how painful they were and just exist in that state of full exertion. As an athlete these are the magic moments that you live for. Today when I go out for a run, occasionally I can recreate the state of flow, also known as a runner’s high. But although flow cannot be forced, you can create opportunities for it. Have you ever lost track of time because you were so absorbed in an experience? If you are curious about how to create flow, make the effort to journal the circumstances that created it after you have experienced it. What were you doing? Was it challenging? Did it require your complete focus? Were you doing something that you love to do? Did it require physical exertion, mental exertion or both? How each of us create flow is different. But if you can figure out some of the elements of your state of flow, it’s more likely you’ll be able to repeat that state.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I don’t do a formal sitting meditation. What works for me is a moving mediation, like my nightly thirty-minute walk when I am present in that time and space. I do not listen to music or talk to others during my walk. Instead I listen to my breath and feel for my feet pushing off the ground. When I have a thought, I observe it and let it go. This walk grounds me and is a wonderful way to end a busy day.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

In my book I refer to this as the “itty-bitty-shitty-committee.” The voice is deeply rooted in our DNA and it has a purpose. Originally it warned us that there was danger, but we no longer need to worry about the danger of predators chasing us down on the savannah as we hunt for food. In today’s environment this voice of preservation is now an inner critic. It takes over our thoughts when we perceive emotional threats to how we view ourselves such as embarrassment, incompetence, failure, criticism, guilt, or perfectionism.

They key to gaining control over an inner critic starts with awareness. The first step is to figure out what the inner critic is protecting you from. Then it becomes your choice: do you want to overcome these negative thoughts? Or, do you want to live with them constantly influencing your daily actions.

If you want to change these thoughts, I recommend two ways to bring awareness to this inner critic because you cannot change what you are not aware of. Try wearing your watch (or ring, bracelet, a hair tie) on the opposite arm you usually wear it on. This will feel awkward and bothersome and you will wonder why you are doing this, but it will remind you that something is different and that is the point. Your brain will link to the uncomfortable physical sensation and you’ll find yourself thinking, why is my watch on the other arm? The frequency with which you ask that question brings awareness to how often the inner critic filters into your headspace. A second approach to this strategy is to set a frequent alarm on your phone for every hour.

Whenever you catch yourself in the process of thinking negative thoughts, ask yourself, is this thought true and does it serve me when I am trying to achieve my goal?

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Goodness to the world is extremely important to me. I wrote my book Personal Next to help people understand how to move from a high point in your life, a personal best, to another high point, your personal next. This is a transition I know well as a former elite athlete. In between those two points, all of us experience the challenge of what I call the messy middle, and that phase is often rife with self-doubt and troubling emotions. That’s when you need to understand it’s a process that you can’t and shouldn’t try to avoid. This messy middle is the necessary prep for getting to your personal next. You’ve already been successful and so you have the tools to do it again. This book is a culmination of seven years of work and countless interviews on my part, and it is designed to help anyone going through a major life transition. But the one message I would like readers to take to heart is that they are not alone. There are lots of people out there willing to help. I have allocated some space on my coaching roster to offer pro-bono coaching for individuals who cannot afford it. And later this summer I am launching an online coaching program for athletes that will also offer scholarships. If I can’t share what I’ve learned, then my experience is static. I want to keep it dynamic and moving and flowing into the world in a positive way.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

One of my favorite quotes originated in a 1963 essay titled “Behavioral science and guidance: proposals and perspectives.” Steven Covey also cites this quote in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It is often attributed to Viktor Frankl who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” but the quote is not to be found in those pages.

“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Living in that space between the stimulus and response is an incredibly challenging task. It means when I am triggered, I do not react. It means when my inner critic gets in the way, I let it go. It means when expectations creep in, I stay present and focused. This quote reminds me that I do have a choice. It may not be easy, and sometimes making a choice takes an immense amount of courage, but I still have an opportunity to make that choice. There is magic in knowing that.

Lloyd-Jones, E. McDonald., Westervelt, E. M. (1963). Behavioral science and guidance: proposals and perspectives. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Covey, Stephen R. (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 69–70

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Without a doubt it would be LeBron James. He continually strives for excellence but he also profoundly cares. He is positively shifting the lives of so many individuals. If I could add but a sliver of value to peoples’ lives the way he does, I’d consider that a complete personal best and next all rolled into one!

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