Some of the most powerful images for me so far in the Olympics have been in the pool.  The rapid turn over of races, the excitement and the beauty of some of the slow-mo’s is quite gripping. The commentary and punditry on the BBC is also top-class. The other day we were told how Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all times, trains using his imagination. In a previous games he had won a gold medal in a race in spite of his goggles leaking.  Obviously this would seriously affect your vision and could upset your concentration. When so many races are won by hundredths of seconds how did he cope with this distraction and still win?  We were told that his training covered all bases including this eventuality. In fact a key part of his training was to use the power of his imagination, and totally immerse himself in the race-day atmosphere. He trains to hear, feel, the water. the atmosphere with incredible detail – so that when something unexpected happens, i.e. leaky goggles, it has no disruption and those vital split-seconds aren’t lost.  I was watching this with two other Jesuits, and as he said this, we all turned to one another and simultaneously said ‘Composition of Place’ .

‘Composition of Place’ is a technique that Ignatius uses in his imaginative contemplations and we are trained in.  When you enter a contemplation, usually from a scene in the Gospel, you imagine yourself in the scene, either as a bystander or a protagonist. You ‘apply the senses’ so that you can smell, hear, see as much detail in your imagination as possible.  This allows a deep entry into the contemplation and often ends up in a conversation or a ‘colloquy’ with Christ, or whoever is in the scene.  The power of  ‘visualisation’ is often banded about, ‘visualising success’ etc – and I think a lot of it is nonsense and can lead to complacency, as sense of entitlement and under achievement.  However Phelps was using ‘composition of place’ as part of an incredibly thorough preparation.  Surely a coincidence? Well maybe not – yesterday I was sent this article from an American journal the Catholic Review – called  ‘Jesuit schools influence Olympic Swimmingclick here.  Written before the Beijing Games – the gist of it is, that the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC), where Phelps began training and has now returned to was created by two alumni from Loyola Blakefield, Towson, and then Loyola College in Maryland. The article suggests that the rigor applied by their Jesuit education is reflected in the training environment that has turned Phelps into what most experts agree is the greatest swimmer of all time. “The Jesuit schools thought that they were more mentally and physically up to the task than some of the competition,” said founder Murray Stephens,  “We were dedicated to the sense of skill and hard repetition that it took to master something.”  The motto of the NBAC :

The awards of youth are soon forgotten, but the qualities learnt through the disciplined pursuit of excellence will last a lifetime. 

Who said spirituality wasn’t practical?

P.S. Whilst I am on the Jesuit educated swimmers theme – Missy Franklin (Regis Jesuit High School, Denver) also seems to be doing well – and claims that her Kairos retreat experience early this year was one of the best experiences of her life  click here