WOOP: Planning to Fail

By Will Carlin

The build-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver saw the focus fall on one athlete more than just about any other. Already considered one of the best skiers in history, Lindsey Vonn had just won three consecutive World Cup overall championships (2008, 2009 and 2010), and she was the prohibitive favorite in the Olympic downhill in Vancouver. In the months leading up to the Games, the international press had increasingly stepped up their coverage of Vonn, but in the two weeks before the race, it got crazy. Almost every day, there was a new article. One day, she was injured; another day, she was training on all cylinders.

Although she tried to hide it, there was truth to one of those stories: Vonn had injured her shin fairly severely in training. At first, it seemed unlikely she would even get to ski, but the weather worked in her favor. Unseasonably warm conditions led to delays in the ski schedule and gave her a couple of precious extra days to rest and recover. When the course finally opened, there was only time for one training run, and when Vonn skied fastest, the expectations reached a fever pitch.

Scheduled last out of the gates on medal day, Vonn felt the pressure increasing almost by the hour. When the race was underway, Julia Mancuso, an American friend and rival, had the run of her life and moved into first place by over a second. When it was Vonn’s turn, Mancuso still had the lead, and Vonn knew she had to do something special. More pressure.

When Vonn was in the gates, but not yet in the ready position, she did something odd. She moved her hands up and down, bobbing her head, and shifting her weight back and forth. “I always visualize the run before I do it,” Vonn later said. “By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.”

With the world watching (and still in pain from the shin injury), the beeps counted down, and she was off.

Rehearsing seems to work, particularly for refining technique, practicing repetitive actions like putting in golf, and for anything with a course (skiing, bobsled or kayaking, for example).

Recent evidence, however, suggests that spending a lot of time thinking about a desired outcome or a good result may inadvertently trick your mind into thinking it has already happened, allowing you to relax a little too much.

In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps won his first two races and was going for his third gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly. He was expected to win and perhaps set a world record. But when he dove in the pool, disaster struck. Almost immediately, his goggles started to fill with water. “I dove in, and they filled up with water, and it got worse and worse during the race,” Phelps told reporters later. “From the 150-meter wall to the finish, I couldn’t see the wall.”

Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, was a believer in visualization, and he had slowly gotten Michael to use it. But Bowman also wanted Phelps to be ready for challenging circumstances, so he regularly did things at practice to try to disrupt the swimmer. One time, for example, Bowman “accidentally” stepped on Michael’s goggles before practice, cracked the lenses, and didn’t tell Phelps.

Phelps, without Bowman’s knowledge, started to combine what he learned: he began to visualize things going wrong. After the practice with the water-filled goggles, Phelps rehearsed what he would do if it happened during a race, and he realized he needed to know exactly how many strokes it was to a turn.

With this thought in mind, he started working on perfect stroke length during practice, and he sometimes closed his eyes to see how close he was to hitting the wall without looking. He got good at it.

When this exact situation happened in Beijing, Phelps thought: “Count your strokes. Nineteen to the wall.” The wall was there. On the next lap, too. And then for the final touch, it was right where he thought it would be.

Gold medal. World record.

New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, the author of the 2014 book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, combined the Vonn and Phelps approaches and put them together into one practice she calls WOOP.

WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. You start with something you truly want (W); you imagine the best possible outcome (O) and what it feels like to achieve it; you imagine various obstacles (O) that could get in your way; and you devise a plan (P) to overcome each of those obstacles and see yourself implementing them one by one. By imagining tricky situations ahead of time, it makes it more likely you will be able to go to your plan under stress.

Imagine you are about to play a match, and all you have done is imagine yourself playing well and winning. Holding the trophy, even. Once you start, though, things go wrong: a bad call from the referee, your strategy not working, your nerves getting in the way. If you have rehearsed each of these, you have a game plan, and you’re more likely to be able to shift to it. If you aren’t ready, then you may feel the match slipping away.

It didn’t slip away from Vonn. Making each turn just the way she imagined, she skied an incredible race and won the gold medal. When she looked at the scoreboard, she raised her hands in triumph and let out a primal scream.

You might even call it a whoop.