American sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis achieved greatness, with nine Olympic Golds and various world records, through looking at the whole picture. He built a blueprint in much the same way as he put together the physical mechanics and components of a sprint.
‘I see a lot of athletes now and they are all about the big gesture in a race,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it’s the start, the push midway, the changeover, perhaps it’s even just throwing it all at one race and burning out afterwards for the rest of the season.’
‘When I was competing I could never structure like that. I didn’t want to control just a split-second, a moment; I wanted to control the whole process because I was fixed on the bigger picture.’
His approach to the sport is the big reveal on a golden decade that saw him relentless in pursuit of 100m, 200m, relay and long jump success – and by success we mean world records as well as gold medals. RSNG spoke to him to find out his tips for success, in whatever you do…
RSNG What does Carl Lewis do now he is retired?
CARL LEWIS, SUPER COACH ‘Well, it’s really interesting because my life is always busy and it’s really funny because I always say that I had a plan to figure out a way to use the brand of Carl Lewis to try and impact the world, earn a living and all of that.’
‘So, between being a United Nations ambassador, on the board of a number of foundations like Best Buddies International, Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis and Greenpeace, I am also a coach at the University of Houston and I also have a relationship with Nike.’
‘I have a website which I launched a couple of years ago for training fitness and exercise called ‘The Perfect Method’. So, I am staying really busy and I am really excited about where I am in my life right now.’
RSNG At the beginning of your career you were thought of as the small skinny kid. How did that transition take place?
CL ‘My mum was a coach, a mentor, a parent and a teacher – yeah, I had my mom as a teacher growing up. That was really my introduction into track and field and my thing is that I was a late bloomer.’
‘I am six foot three inches tall now, but I didn’t even hit about five foot five or six inches until I was in eleventh grade.’
‘The great thing about that was that I had to learn how to be successful without winning and my parents really encouraged me to focus on being my best, even though I was only finishing about seventh or eighth place or didn’t even make the final.’
‘I was doing it with a cheer in my heart: “Oh, I got a personal best, today.” I worked hard to get to my best all along.’
‘It’s your personal best – you can’t control who wins, you can only control what you can do’
RSNG You talk in your conferences to audiences across the world, about trying to be number one and trying to be your best. So, which is the most important?
CL ‘Well, here is the thing. I tell my student athletes now and I tell everyone who I work with the same thing: It’s your personal best – you can’t control who wins, you can only control what you can do, so you can only focus on what you can control.’
‘For example, if you say that you want to be an Olympic Champion in the 100 metres, part of your research will tell you what you’re going to have to run. If it’s going to take 9.80 seconds, then my focus would be on running the perfect race, which I hope would lead to me hitting 9.80 seconds.’
‘So, another example is that I won nine gold medals, but I also have one silver medal from the 200m race in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. I went into those Olympic Games telling myself that 19.80 seconds would win the gold medal.’
‘I was in the 100m, 200m and the long jump and I got to the 200m and I was tired, but I told myself that I could still do this. I said that I could do 19.80 seconds and I can win it, because no-one else in the final that year had ever broken a time of 19.90 seconds – and that was it, I set the goal.’
‘Well, guess what? My team-mate in that final, Joe DeLoach, goes and runs 19.75 and I ran 19.79. So, when I turned to look at the times, I said: “All right…” because what can you say? I did what I had set out to do and it was just that somebody else had an amazing day, that day.’
RSNG What athletes inspire you both from the past and in the present day?
CL ‘The ones who inspire me are an interesting dichotomy of different people. Jesse Owens was someone who I really admired growing up, he embodied a lot of the things that I wanted to do. He went through a lot of the same struggles and we were both born in Alabama so there is a synergy there.’
‘I was very fortunate to meet him later on in his life, when I was a teenager, and I loved the fact that he did so much across so many different pursuits – that’s the kind of athlete I wanted to be.’
‘There was a sprinter called Steve Williams who was someone who I really, really admired and who I really looked up to. He was this tall, lanky sprinter back in the 1970s.
‘Now, my inspiration really comes from the athletes who I work with, not just the fact of me wanting to see my guys win. Being a coach of young men and women who are 18-23 and older, now I have a different mentorship situation to just being a coach.’
‘I am a father to some of them, I am a big brother to some of them. I like that, not only just coaching and working with them, but I also like seeing their personal development as people as
‘My goals were to do as much as possible, and whether I won medals was secondary – I was always pushing to do more’
RSNG You seem to be a very goal-orientated person – when you aim for something, you do it. Where does that internal drive come from?
CL ‘I would have to say that it was because I came from an interesting background and also because of the way that we were raised. My parents were both the first in their family to go to college and to graduate.’
‘When they got out of college and a friend of my mother’s was Rosa Parks. They got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and they began fighting for what was right, they were drivers in the bus strike, Dr (Martin Luther) King baptised my brothers and we were in that church. They were all in their twenties, because Dr King and my mother would have been the same age.’
‘My brothers and I were born in the 1960s and my parents would be in their thirties, they raised us in New Jersey with that sense of importance outside of yourself. “If you see something wrong, then do something about it. Don’t stand there and take it.” So that was it from then on.’
‘Especially as I was an athlete who wasn’t successfully early on, so I had to focus on my own goals. The goals became what was important, not the wins and the performances.’
‘My goals were to do as much as possible, and whether I won medals was secondary. I was always pushing to do more, and that’s how I became so adept across multiple disciplines. And as I have gotten older, I have just kept the same philosophy.’
RSNG How did you become more than just an athlete?
CL ‘For me, I knew what I wanted to accomplish from as early as the age of 18, I wanted to take advantage of the talent that I was fortunate to have – but something that I really worked hard to achieve – and exploit it as a brand, Carl Lewis. Even at the University of Houston, I did things to prepare for that such as taking speech classes.’
‘I started going to the Grammy events because I had friends there or the Emmys, the American Music Awards. I went to these events to ask artists how to present myself, what to do and how to create a brand. Because in those days – and we’re going back 35 years here – we just didn’t have social media, we didn’t have managers, we didn’t have all of this stuff that we have today.’
‘These are really ideas that you had to make up yourself and I was really clear of what I wanted to accomplish. I was using my career to build a brand that I would be able to leverage for the rest of my life, and fortunately for me it has been successful.’
RSNG If you were to give advice for someone who is trying to excel as an athlete or in their degree, maybe just in their life in general, how would direct them?
CL ‘I decided in 1979 when I was 17 years old, what my alternate goal was. I wanted to jump 29 feet, I wanted to be a global brand, I wanted to be a millionaire – these were all of the things that I established at 17 years old.’
‘So, all of those things I wanted to do, I told my coach that they were my ultimate goals and then what you do is you start setting mini-goals in between, but the ultimate goal never goes away.’
‘So, what I say to these young students is that when they go to college to get a degree, you can’t just do that – you have to go beyond it.’
‘What do you want to be at 40? What do you want to do with that degree? What do you want to accomplish? You may not get there. But that is the goal and it makes it easier to move through this phase in life and when you get to the next phase, you keep you going, you keep pushing, you keep doing it.’
‘So, decide things really early when you’re a freshman, for example, and then allow yourself to focus on getting there all the way through. In some cases, you may get there when you are 30 and then you can readjust. Because a lot of my goals were ahead of themselves, but you have to live it and I will tell you something: you are going to be old a lot longer than you are going to be young, in life.’
‘Therefore, plan the time to make all of that part of your life being older, easier. The greatest gift that I have right now in my life – other than my son and my grandchild – is the fact that I am 58 years old and I do whatever I want, I can make my own choices.’
‘That is down to the fact that I worked hard, set goals when I was 19, 21, 23, 31 and I really worked hard to be in this position. But to understand that, you have to give up something somewhere and so what I did is that I gave up some of the childhood and in my twenties people saying to me that I missed the parties and events, and I did give up some of that stuff.’
‘But I always say to people that I missed a lot of the stuff and you guys were having the good times and all of that stuff, but guess what: now you’re coming to all of the parties that I host!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Carl Lewis clinch FOUR gold medals at the 1984 LA Olympics’