When Greg Harden watches the 1,600-yard freestyle unfold from the pool deck at Canham Natatorium, the precise technique and blistering split-times are of secondary importance. In Harden’s eyes the real game goes beyond physical strength, stamina and streamline.
“Just imagine being in that pool, lap after lap, back and forth and back and forth,” Harden said. “A distance swimmer, probably, is one of the most fascinating personalities you’ll ever meet in terms of looking at peak performance in the mental game.”
Despite the flurry of activity around the pool — teammates cheering, coaches giving commands through whistles and hand signals and fans oohing and aahing as the lap times get faster and faster – the swimmer is all alone. There is nothing but the solid black line and the unforgiving walls to remind her that she’s in the middle of a race.
It takes every ounce of her mental strength to stay focused on the task ahead – just 49 more lengths.
There are 15 more minutes before she will reach her goal, but there is no time to think about her upcoming midterm or the freestyle relay she will swim later in the meet.
As she nears the halfway point, the mental race has just begun.
On the pool deck, Harden, the general of the mental war, smiles. He already knows the outcome. She will win the mind game, because victory was sealed months ago, far from the pool and the pressure of the season. For Harden, the game is all mental.
As an associate athletic director in charge of sports counseling, Harden’s job is to help Michigan athletes master the mental aspects of their game, and for him a distance swimmer is the ideal student.
It’s clear from the clutter of Harden’s first floor office in Weidenbach Hall that he’s truly invested in dissecting the mental aspects of athletics. Plastered all over his walls are Hardenian gems – “it is not the critic who counts, my friend”; “I do not accept second class behavior from myself or others” – motivational quotes, some are his own, some are attributed to historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, others quote athletes Harden has worked with.
Harden uses the gems to help get his message across to athletes. They are much more than empty clich