I can light a fire under somebody
By Aimee Berg
FINA World Aquatics Magazine Correspondent (USA)
When you spend 20 years coaching the greatest Olympian of all time, you learn a few things about excellence. And Bob Bowman is still learning because the 53-year-old coach didn’t quit after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where his protégé Michael Phelps finished his career with an unprecedented tally of 28 Olympic and 33 world championship medals.
Yet Bowman will forever be tied to Phelps, the phenomenon he coached from the time he was a hyper 11-year-old until the day he retired at age 31 – including six years when neither man took a day off. The consistency and improvement Phelps developed during that non-stop stretch, Bowman said, made Phelps great – more than his wingspan, foot size or anything else.
Today, the two men remain in close contact. Phelps lives nearby with his wife, Nicole, and their two sons: 2-year-old Boomer (whose middle name, Robert, honours Bowman), and Beckett, who arrived in February 2018.
“Boomer calls me grandpa,” Bowman said, ‘and I have kind of assumed that role. I’m sure Beckett and I will be close, too.”
On the pool deck, however, Bowman has new goals at Arizona State University (ASU), where he is the head swimming coach, on contract through 2023,* and where he continues to train eight-times Olympic medallist Allison Schmitt on the side. But did you ever wonder where Bowman’s coaching instinct came from? Or whether he could have extracted even more out of Phelps? Or whether Phelps would have been as successful without him? He answers those questions, and more, below.
“Accountability – my favourite word”
After six Olympics (including your first one, in 1996, four years before Phelps’s debut), do you have any desire to go to another Olympics as a coach?
Oh, absolutely! Yeah! For sure! It’s my main reason I coach.
After coaching Phelps to 28 Olympic medals – a feat that might never be replicated – how and when did you figure out what to do for an encore?
After Michael retired – well, supposedly retired in 2012, I started thinking about it a lot. I knew I wanted to coach. I was definitely too young to stop. ASU gave me the perfect environment to start over. In some ways, I feel like I’m back in the beginning of my career. I’m really-REALLY coaching every day now. I’m not just kind of managing somebody that we’ve already developed over a period of years. It’s exciting.
Now that you’re ‘really’ coaching, are you still using any of the systems that you used with Michael?
Everything. The method is absolutely the same. The principles are the same. And they’re the same for any pursuit. Successful people are good at using their imagination to set goals and coming up with plans to reach them. But, of course, the most important thing is how you work toward them on a daily basis.
What are four or five keys to being a good coach?
At the beginning of every season at ASU, I have a team meeting to go over things that are most important to us. I think if you’re a coach and have all five of these, you’d be a pretty good coach.
No. 1 honesty. You can’t have a sound foundation for anything unless you’re willing to be honest, to give honesty back, and to hear it. Face the facts. You’d be surprised at how few people like to do that.
No. 2 accountability – my favourite word. You’re accountable for your decisions and how they affect what’s going on in or outside of the pool. Every decision you make is going to have a consequence, and you need to get good at recognising that.
No. 3 competitiveness. I want all my athletes, my staff, everybody around me to find ways to be competitive and to appreciate competition – not just in races or in practice. My athletes will compete to hit a trash can with a wadded-up piece of paper. People think competition is a zero-sum game but generally, in swimming, competition means racing people to better yourself.
No. 4 resiliency. No matter how good you are, your journey to the top has not been a straight line up the graph. Embrace the fact that you’re going to fail. Be willing to take risks on the way to your destination. And when you do get knocked down, get up and keep moving forward one step at a time. The most important part is learning from your failures.
No. 5 respect – for your team-mates, your coaches, your competitors and, most of all, yourself. What you put in your body [matters].
“We never played games”
What about the X’s and O’s? How did you keep finding new ways to extract excellent performances from someone as accomplished as Phelps?
With Michael, it was easy to get overconfident at first because almost everything we did worked. Not necessarily because the training plan had been perfect. For the first eight or ten years, he was growing physically all the time and he was improving at this crazy rate. Once you’re the best, you grow another two inches, you gain another 10 pounds, you get better and better. But we also planned his training programme judiciously. I wanted to be able to add things later. Michael never practised twice a day, I think, until he was 14. He never did any strength training or weight lifting until after the 2004 Olympics. He was in two Olympics before he ever lifted a weight.
You mapped that out six or seven years in advance?
Yeah, I wanted to hold that back. We were doing enough work on land with body-weight exercises and medicine balls that I felt he was fit. I wanted to add that piece of the puzzle later so he would have something different going into Beijing. It really paid off, too, because he got STRONG. We tried to keep a long-term view and see things as a step-by-step progression – not try to get it all at one time.
Michael Phelps wrote in the foreword of your 2017 book, “The Golden Rules”, that without you, he had “no shot” at achieving the records or winning the medals that he won. Do you think that’s true?
I think he absolutely would have broken world records and won some gold medals. However, I do think our relationship allowed him to do it over the long term.
Because I was able to see him as a young boy, teenager, college student, man, father, the whole thing. We were so much a part of each other’s lives that his career was much more prolonged and consistent. But if you really want to know why, it’s because we were 100% truthful with each other 100% of the time. We never played games. He always knew where I stood. I always knew where he stood. Sometimes we didn’t like where we stood. Many times I would say, ‘Please walk out that door and never come back.’ That happened on MANY occasions. Or he would say, ‘I’m out of here. I’m NEVER swimming for you again. I’m never going to see you again.’ I’m like, ‘All right, I can’t wait to NOT see you anymore!’
Sometimes you’d prepare a practice for him and he wouldn’t show up at the pool, right?
That happened all the time. That’s why I wanted to quit after 2012. From ‘08 to ‘12, he probably came to 60% of the practices. He was caught in a tough spot. He had just done this ridiculous accomplishment in Beijing [winning eight gold medals in eight events]. He and I both knew there was no way that’s happening again. Too much went into it. Too many things had to fall into place. But of course, he was too young to quit swimming because you make all this money – and had to make his money NOW, because that’s [money he’ll use for] the rest of his life. So we had to try to come up with goals for London that were meaningful – and there weren’t any. And of course, once Beijing was done, he was like, ‘I gave up all this time. I feel like I’ve missed a lot of stuff and now I want to do some of it.’ Then I freaked out because he wasn’t coming to practice. I handled that terribly. I immediately accused him of being undedicated, of throwing his life away, of ruining the sport – all kinds of stupid stuff. And of course, when I would do that, he would go away for a week or two. Then, when he did come back, instead of saying, ‘Hey, welcome back; let’s work on this today.’ I said, ‘Well, just missed two weeks. Guess we’re never ever going to get anything done, so just do whatever you want.’ I could not have handled it worse. Finally, finally – after about two years of that, I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and it really changed how I coached. I think that’s why we actually got something out of him in London. I learned that I could not control when he was here. I couldn’t control his motivation. But when he walked in the door, I could give him the best practice I could. Once I started doing that, he started showing up more. If I had done that a couple years earlier, he probably would have not been fourth in the 400 IM in London.
“I was always analysing myself”
Another little-known tidbit: you used to swim for Florida State University. But you once said you weren’t very successful because you were always coaching yourself. What did you mean by that?
I’m very analytical. I always wanted to understand why we were doing something. What would we get out of it? Did it make sense? What’s the theory behind it? And I was always analysing myself.
Where did your coaching mindset come from?
Not my parents. They wanted me to be an accountant, go into business, or some safe job. But I had some good coaches growing up, and I had teachers who ignited a passion in me for excellence. Have you ever read “The Talent Code” by Dan Coyle? He studied hotbeds of talent – like a broken-down place in Russia that produced more top-10 women’s tennis players than the US for a while. There’s a place in Texas where a bunch of people like (singers) Jessica Simpson and Demi Lovato learned to perform. He says that each of these places has someone who’s an igniter. They ignite the flame. That’s critical. And I definitely had some teachers who really ignited a passion in me for excellence and trying to strive how far you could take something.
Tim Franklin, my high school band director in Columbia, South Carolina. I played trombone and piano and music came very easily to me. I would go to auditions without practising and they’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, he gave a professional performance.’ But [Franklin] had an unbelievable work ethic. I lived across from the school and every day during Christmas break, I’d go to the band room and he’d be in there working from 6 in the morning till 9 at night. I learned what it’s like to really immerse yourself in something you love.
So he ignited your work ethic?
A work ethic and a passion to go for what you love.
So you use a bit of Tim Franklin when you coach swimmers?
Without question. I can light a fire under somebody. I would not hesitate to challenge somebody to try harder. I can do that in a VERY demonstrative way if I need to. He taught me that it’s okay to do that. I don’t feel ridiculous.
“I felt like I pushed him over the edge to make that change”
Have you done that with Michael?
Oh, a thousand times!
When Michael was 15, in March 2001, he broke his first world record, in the 200 butterfly – youngest male swimmer ever to break a world record [in 1:54:92]. But he was still swimming it the way he swam
it in the Sydney Olympics, meaning that he would start very slowly and finish very fast. He would get really far behind and it would be close in the end. But sometimes he wouldn’t get there, like in Sydney. If he had two more strokes, he probably would have won a silver medal. He got fifth. So I was trying to get him out of that, but he was so comfortable – and now he’s breaking world records. That summer, in 2001, we went to the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, and in the second semi-final, Tom Malchow and Franck Esposito almost broke his world record, both of them. He stood there, watched it and had a temper tantrum. And he wouldn’t shut up. He was like, ‘Oh my God! They’re going to break my record! Wa-wa-wa-wa.’ He just would not stop. Finally, I was like, ‘SHUT UP! Get in the pool right now, swim 1500, get on the bus, go to the hotel, go to sleep. I don’t want to talk to you till tomorrow night at finals. Just shut the hell up and do what I tell you.’ Before finals, we had the team meeting. I was the last person to get there and the first one out the door. All of a sudden, I hear someone running behind me. He’s like, ‘Bob! Bob! Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m coaching; I’m going to the finals.’ He just stood there. Finally, he’s like, ‘Should I take it out tonight?’ I turned around, said, ‘HELL YES!’ walked into my room and shut the door. I didn’t talk to him again until after the race. He took it out, was first at the 50 and shattered the world record [in 1:54:58]. That’s where his career took off in the 200 fly. That’s how he swam it for the rest of his career. But he needed a real impetus to make a change. I felt like I pushed him over the edge to make that change. It took a big upset – and me kind of playing a mind game – to get him to realise what he should do.
Just wondering: do you ever see other swim coaches doing things that drive you crazy?
All the time. One is the term “we”. I like to give all the credit to the athletes. I don’t say, ‘Oh, we were so happy to win that gold medal.’ I didn’t win a gold medal. I stood there and watched somebody that killed themselves for years win a gold medal. I helped them, maybe. That drives me crazy. When you get into that mode, then you’re too closely connected, emotionally. You can make bad decisions. I’ve seen that happen, where coaches’ emotions affect the swimmer negatively.
“You have to practise hiding your nervousness”
It drives me crazy when coaches don’t have their athletes prepared with a routine at the critical moment. I actually had an athlete come up to me at the Olympics before the prelims of her only event. She’s like, ‘Hey Bob, what do you think I should do for warm-up?’ And I’m saying to myself, ‘I’ve never worked with you but I can tell right now: you have no chance at doing anything good.’ And I was right. She didn’t make the semi-finals. That drives me crazy. Her coach should have had [a routine] drilled into her. Instead, she’s thinking about the warm-up and some stupid detail instead of centring herself to get the best effort of her life. Take all that off the table. Teach them exactly what they need to do. That way, it’s automated. When Michael was 11, I taught him to do a certain warm-up. It’s the same warm-up he did at every race, every meet, from that moment until he quit in 2016. We get to the venue exactly two hours before the event… and we never discuss it. There is not one bit of emotional or psychological energy that goes into it. And because he’s done it a million times at every meet, it’s solid, it’s calming. It’s like a mantra. I feel that’s critical for any athlete. Chase Kalisz and Allison Schmitt don’t do the same thing that Michael does, but all of my athletes have their thing they do. When my athletes get off a plane, same thing: we go to the pool immediately. They all dive in. They have a routine. They can all recite it to you. We do it after every travel, all year, their whole career. It’s like Steve Jobs wearing a black shirt and jeans every day. You don’t get decision fatigue from making a million decisions that aren’t necessary.
What other coaching mistakes have you seen?
At the Olympic level, I see people having intense talks with swimmers on the pool deck on the day of their event. I would never do that. The information part comes in practice. By the time you get to a meet, it’s too late to do anything about your training. We script the races. We rehearse them to go a certain way and if we’ve trained correctly, they go exactly like we want them to. If you have to talk that much at that point, there’s a problem. A lot of coaching is staying out of the way [at meets]. What you do is: you engage them like: ‘Hey, how’s it going? Everything good? Yep?’ You don’t talk about anything that’s not good. Keep things light. That’s hard for me. I used to get really intense and super-nervous, and the swimmers would sense that. You have to practise hiding your nervousness. On the outside, just be smiling, confident, relaxed, and then they’ll be relaxed.
Why would you, the coach, be nervous? You don’t have to swim.
I know. It took me a while to get that perspective. By the time I got to London and Rio, it didn’t affect me as much. But when Michael Phelps swims at the Olympics, there’s a fair amount on the line. I mean, when he swam the final relay in Beijing, the Baltimore Ravens showed the relay live on the giant LED board at their NFL pre-season game and the whole stadium went insane. After Beijing, I’d go to the grocery store and five people would thank me for our service to the country. After that, I realised what it meant to the whole community – not just swimming people. I felt a strong responsibility to help him be at his best every time, because it meant something to everybody.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger than just the swimming”
What do you think is the hardest thing about coaching swimming?
Honestly, the hardest thing is the routine – because if you really want to get good at it, you need to do it continuously over a long period of time, and you are locked into that schedule. It pretty much determines everything you will do all day, all week, all year, all decade. You know, I love a routine but there are times I wish, ‘Wow, I’d love to take three weeks off and go to France.’ I can’t do that.
Have you ever wanted to quit coaching completely?
Before the 2012 Olympics, I decided London was it for me because things were SO bad with Michael. In the lead-up, sometimes I would get physically sick when I got to the pool because I was so frustrated about a hundred different things. And I had the [financial security] – thank you, Michael – to stop coaching if I wanted to. So after the London Olympics, I was going to take off a whole year, then decide what to do. I ended up taking about eight or nine months off, then I promised Allison Schmitt and Chase Kalisz that I would do an altitude camp for them in Colorado in May. Also, Frank Busch offered me the head coaching position for the  World Championships in Barcelona at the end of that summer. It was only going be about six or nine weeks of coaching so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll just do the camp, coach these guys through to the World Championships, stay and do vacation in Barcelona, and that would be it.’ But for some reason, when I got back to the camp after eight months off, it reignited me. I realised that I didn’t want to quit. I’m glad I didn’t.
So the only time you’ve ever stopped coaching was that span of eight or nine months in 2012?
Yeah, for sure. Before that, the most I had ever taken off was maybe two weeks. When Michael was in his heyday, it was almost none. There were six years where we went every day. That was kind of crazy. But he was younger, you know.
Now that you’re coaching a college team: what do you get out of it? Was there a void that coaching a college team fulfils?
I wanted to be part of something bigger than just the swimming. At ASU, I feel like I have a real impact as an educator. I have a lot of avenues to work with other parts of campus that don’t have anything to do with athletics. I speak to 400 freshmen who are not athletes about goal setting. I gave a lecture at the honours college. It’s a chance for me to be more than just some guy who stands by a box of water and gets people to go up and down it – which, at the end of the day, is what I do. It’s a high aspiration, I know. Somebody’s got to do it.
I like to give all the credit to the athletes. I don’t say, ‘Oh, we were so happy to win that gold medal.’ I didn’t win a gold medal. I stood there and watched somebody that killed themselves for years win a gold medal. I helped them, maybe.
- Under Bowman’s tutelage Michael Phelps won an unprecedented 23 Olympic gold medals.
- Phelps’ tally in numbers – Olympics: 23 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze – FINA World Championships: 28 gold, 6 silver, 1 bronze – Pan Pacific Championships: 16 gold, 5 silver
- Phelps set 26 world records in individual events and 10 in relays. His global marks are yet to be beaten in the 100m fly, 200m fly and 400m IM.
- Bob Bowman was head coach in North Baltimore AC (1996-2005, 2008-2015), in Michigan (2005-2008). Since 2015 he has been the head coach of the university swimming team of Arizona State.