Few have ever reached the top of their respective sport. It takes a combination of work ethic, talent, mental fortitude and an obsession with greatness. Milorad Cavic had just that in a remarkable career that produced: 4-Olympics, 3-World Records, 1-Olympic Silver Medal, 2-World Championship Medals, and 6 -European Championship Gold Medals.
The Champion’s Mentality
In this interview, Restoic probes the mind of what separated Milorad from the competition and uncover valuable insight for current athletes who dream of becoming the best of the best. He will share the specific tools that helped him overcome struggles, reach peak performance, and mentally prime himself for high pressure situations. Now, without further ado, let the fun begin.
Restoic: How were you introduced to mental skills training and when did you begin implementing them?
Milorad: As a teenager, the extent of my mental skills were limited to my competitiveness and unwillingness to settle. It wasn’t until later, on the international level, when I began racing athletes much better than me, that I needed to hone in on controlling my emotions, stress levels, and excitement, all of which were sure to affect my physical performances. My college coach, Mike Bottom, who is now the head coach of swimming at the University of Michigan, has a Master’s in Sport Psychology, ran visualization sessions every week for our team. We learned to control our breathing and to block out the noise we didn’t want or need.
Restoic: Did you find that any specific skill (relaxation, goal-setting, imagery, concentration, self-talk) worked better than others? If so, why?
Milorad: Guided imagery, or visualization, was the most important skill that I had. By doing it, I was constantly running simulations of my races, from walking out of the tunnel to the starting block, to the dive, turns, and how I wanted races to end. All of these visualizations included vivid imagery, concentration on the little things that needed to be executed on, and talking myself through the pain at the end, to finish my races. What’s important wasn’t which tool I used, but the level of desire to achieve my goals. All mental skills were equal in potency, but visualization is what I identified with most.
Restoic: How much time did you spend training your mind?
Milorad: It was something that became a lifestyle, not by choice. My heart wanted what it wanted, and as a result, in everything I did, I saw an opportunity to train my mind toward that goal. In the morning, I would swing my legs out of bed and then start swimming with my arms toward the bedroom door, as if it was the end of my race. I dreamed about the perfect finish. Above my bedroom door and bathroom mirror, I would write quotes or words that resonated with me that week or month. Quotes like, “Leave your ego here,” “What will be your legacy?” and words like, “Smile!” helped me get through difficult moments and stay motivated.
Restoic: Describe your mental preparation prior to a big race?
Milorad: I would do more visualization before my races, but I also utilized the same pre-competition playlist that I had spent my entire career putting together. Rarely did I add anything to it, but what was important is that every song had a specific position within the playlist, to correspond how I knew I needed to feel. The first 3 songs were rap songs that were in some sense, a battle-cry, or call to “war,” which always put me in the zone for battle. It was followed by metal music, which helped me deal with the thickness of air and pressures of meeting my opponents at the starting blocks. As soon as I visualized myself diving into the water, I went on to listen to house (techno) music which was thoroughly enjoyable because of the positive energy it provided me, and I always finished with something which just made me happy. These happy songs always helped bring myself “home” mentally, when I knew it’d be tough.
Restoic: Describe a time when you effectively overcame a disappointing race or performance.
Milorad: In swimming, you pretty much always know that you won’t swim a best time during the regular season, so we would always set vague benchmarks on what we would like to do at that point of the season. Before the “big dance” would come, I made sure to treat every opportunity for what it was – an opportunity to learn, or as a rehearsal. Things did not always go according to plan, but I made sure to identify whatever that thing was, and to learn from it. I fought to make every big race the “best performance in the history of myself,” but to do so, I needed to regain enough experience along the way. In overcoming disappointing performances, I came to terms with it and understood them only when I identified what all didn’t go right… and then made sure to do whatever I could in preparation to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.
Restoic: What did it feel like to break your first world record?
Milorad: It’s a special feeling to know that no one in the history of mankind has ever been better at something. To push the limits of what is humanly possible, was incredible, and justified the many years of training and times I questioned the point of all that work.
Restoic: What advice would you give young athletes who dream of becoming Olympians or reaching the professional level?
Milorad: Be honest with yourself through the process. Do you really want this? Are you accountable for your results? What more could you have done? Once you’ve answered those questions, and realize what more you need to do, ask yourself again, do you really want this? Another very important thing is, never forget those who really care for you because their support will carry you through the inevitable highs and lows of sports.
Restoic: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Milorad: No matter how good you are, remember that it takes a team of people to get you to where you need to go. I started off being very self-centered, believing that I knew best, and that “if it was to be, it was up to me.” The truth is, surrounding yourself with people that care about you and having a knowledgeable staff around to support you, is everything, under the condition that you reciprocate everything that they offer you, too. A supportive team will keep you level headed when you’re flying high, and keep you from self-destruction when you’re at your lowest.
Restoic: Thanks for sharing and we look forward to taking a deeper dive during our podcast.
Milorad: My pleasure!