As the Ryan Lochte debacle has unfolded, I've had several people ask me, "How could someone who is so mentally strong do something like that?" And it's a good question.
In case you haven't caught the latest news story about the incident involving Olympic swimmers in Rio, here's the gist of it--Lochte told the Today Show that he and three of his teammates were robbed at gunpoint after they went out for a night on the town. According to Lochte, the robbers were dressed like police officers and they put guns to their heads.
The Rio police released surveillance footage of the gas station where the incident actually took place. The police concluded that the swimmers had actually vandalized the bathroom while they were intoxicated. Security guards detained them and made them pay for the damages.
Initially, Lochte defended his version of events. He also flew home to the United States while the other swimmers had their passports detained.
Lotchte has since apologized for 'exaggerating' his claims. But his dishonesty may have cost him millions of dollars in endorsement deals and could actually put an end to his career.
So why would a 12-time medalist mess up so badly over something so bizarre? Here are three things this incident reminds us about mental strength:
1. You can be mentally strong in some areas of your life, but still really immature in others.
An elite athlete practices self-discipline every day. He has to push his body further than it wants to go. He has to work out on days when he doesn't feel motivated. He has to maintain a strict diet and must forgo many of life's indulgences.
But, as Lochte showed, just because he exhibits mental strength in the pool, doesn't mean he's mentally strong in all areas of his life. Away from his coach, and outside of the pool, he got drunk, vandalized property, and lied repeatedly to cover his tracks.
2. Your mental muscle needs to be bigger than your ego.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. And the way a person recovers from a mistake is often a test of their mental strength.
Lochte, however, chose to lie. He fabricated the story and painted himself as somewhat of a hero as he claimed he refused to get on the ground when the gunmen ordered him to do so. But rather than humbly admitting he lied, he continued to try and cover up his tracks, even as his version of events proved untrue.
Rather than come out and admit he messed up, he offered only a hint of remorse once the video footage was released. In his apology he said he "exaggerated the truth."
Had he come clean, and acknowledged he was trying to save face to cover up for his initial mistake, his reputation wouldn't be so tarnished. But he was focused on acting tough--rather than becoming mentally stronger. No matter how mentally strong you are, your ego can get in the way if you're not careful.
3. Mental strength is an ongoing battle, no matter who you are.
If you decide that you're already mentally strong enough, you'll let your guard down. And it's at that point that you may be most vulnerable to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that will rob you of mental strength.
No matter who you are, or what you've accomplished, mental strength is an ongoing battle. Just like athletes need to continue to train their bodies to prevent their muscles from growing weak, you also need to keep training your mind.
There's a big difference between confidence and arrogance. If you recognize your weaknesses and take full responsibility for your mistakes, you can grow stronger. But, if you declare yourself unstoppable and immune to the pressures of everyday life, you may find yourself in a downward spiral of mistakes.
Turning Setbacks Into Comebacks
No one other than Lochte himself knows what led to his poor decisions that night. Perhaps it was his ego. Or maybe, he just put too much energy into building his reputation, without putting enough effort into considering his character.
At this point, Lochte's future remains uncertain. But one thing is for sure, the most mentally strong individuals turn their biggest setbacks into their best comebacks. So perhaps he'll invest some energy working on his mental strength outside the pool and redeem himself down the road. After all, most people forgave Michael Phelps for smoking marijuana.