You know Michael Phelps, the most successful and decorated Olympic swimmer of all time who won a record 28 medals, 23 of which were gold.
Well today, meet the coach behind Phelps’ legendary success. Bob Bowman is an Olympic swimming coach, the head coach of the Arizona State swim team, and the author of The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work. Today on the show, Bob shares what he calls “the method,” a system of principles he’s developed over the years to coach his athletes to elite-level success that can also be applied to setting and achieving goals in every area of life. We first talk about how Bob ended up working with Phelps, before turning to some of his golden rules. We discuss developing a “dream big vision” and all-in attitude; the importance of having a daily routine and what his own routine and the routine of his swimmers is like; the need to cultivate a passion outside your main pursuit; and much more.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: Craft the Life You Want — Creating a Blueprint for Your Future
- AoM Article: Visions Over Goals
- AoM Article: Motivation Over Discipline
- AoM Article: Get 1% Better Every Day
- “The Mundanity of Excellence” by Daniel F. Chambliss
- Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers by Daniel F. Chambliss
- The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Connect With Bob Bowman
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. You know Michael Phelps, the most successful and decorated Olympic swimmer of all time, won a record 28 medals, 23 of which were gold. Well today, meet the coach behind Phelps’s legendary success. Bob Bowman is an Olympic swimming coach, the head coach of the Arizona State Swim team, and the author of The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work. Today on the show, Bob shares what he calls the Method, a system of principles he’s developed over the years to coach his athletes to elite-level success that can also be applied to setting and achieving goals in every area of life. We first talk about how Bob ended up working with Phelps, before turning to some of his golden rules. We discuss developing a “dream big vision” and all in attitude, the importance of having a daily routine and what his own routine and the routine of his swimmers is like, the need to cultivate a passion outside your main pursuit, and much more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/goldenrules.
All right, Bob Bowman, welcome to the show.
Bob Bowman: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you were the coach behind Michael Phelps’s record-breaking Olympic success, you also coached a lot of other Olympians. You coached the swim team for the Americans. And you credit part of your coaching success to a system of principles you’ve developed over the years that you call, the Method and we’re gonna talk about some of these principles today. But before we do, let’s talk about your background a bit ’cause I thought this was interesting. You shared this in the book. You didn’t start off your career ambitions when you’re a young man thinking about, “What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?” You weren’t thinking about being a coach, you were thinking about… You were studying to be an orchestral conductor, like the guy who’s with the long hair, going crazy in the tuxedo. How did you go from conductor to swim coach?
Bob Bowman: Well, that’s a great question. I went to Florida State University and throughout high school I was very active in music and I was swimming and I studied a number of instruments and had some very good teachers. And I ended up going to the Florida State University School of Music, which is a very highly-ranked school, and I was swimming on the varsity swimming team. And my intention was to be a conductor, that’s what I had always wanted to be and I thought that I was suited for that and something I might be able to do. And so I started my program in music and I was on the swimming team. And after a couple years, I had to decide which one of those was gonna go because my life was becoming really crowded because the swim team practiced four hours a day. As a music major, I was required to practice the piano four hours a day.
Brett McKay: Oh, wow.
Bob Bowman: I had to go to class a couple of hours a day and go to 20 recitals and concerts a semester for the music part. So there was really not even time to eat. So I was coming to a point where it’s like something’s gotta give here. And there were a couple of other things that sort of happened along the way that sort of pushed me into the swimming direction. I had started doing a little bit of coaching on the side and really loved it, but at the end of the day when I just kind of made the decision to go into coaching and changed my major to developmental psychology, I just liked the people and the routines of swimming better than I did the music. And it’s not that I don’t love music, but I just felt like the things that we did in swimming and the atmosphere that we had with the group that was training was just something that resonated with me more so I ended up going that direction.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good life lesson for any young people who are listening to this show, when they’re trying to figure out, “What should I do?” I think it’s good to have options when you’re beginning.
Bob Bowman: Right.
Brett McKay: But then as you… You’ll reach a point like you did where you realize, “I can’t do everything. What’s the one thing that gives me the most satisfaction?” And then you go…
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: You lean into that. So you started coaching, how did you end up working with Michael Phelps? When did that happen?
Bob Bowman: Well, after I graduated from college, I started working in swim clubs around the country and sort of moving around and trying to learn things and move up. And in 1996, I was hired at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. It was a very famous swimming club in the country, it had a long history of producing Olympic gold medalists and I was very fortunate to get a job there. And after I had been there about a year, there was really a routine kind of reshuffling of the training groups. And this hotshot, 11-year-old Michael Phelps, ended up in my group. It was really rather random. And I just wanted to make sure because at that point I was an assistant coach and Michael was just a kid. And while everyone knew he had ability, it was almost certain that I wouldn’t be coaching him when he was swimming for an Olympic medal. So my goal with Michael was to give him all the tools that he would need to be one of the very best. And so we just got to work and as it would turn out, I ended up staying with him and becoming the head coach and taking him to the Olympics. But that was much further down the line in the beginning. It was just kind of a random occurrence.
Brett McKay: But was there a point when you saw this kid, he has the potential to be an Olympic champion? Did that happen?
Bob Bowman: Oh, day one. [laughter] Michael was already an… He was a national record holder when he came to me. So he was the fastest 10-year-old ever. It’s not like it was hard to see that part. When I knew that he was something really special was the very first practice that he ever did with me. And the way that it had worked is that Michael, even though he was 11, was in a group that I was coaching that was mainly 13, 14, 15-year-olds because the only way we could could challenge him was to swim with older kids. And when he was with the younger kids, he kind of misbehaved a lot, so it was good to keep him moving as much as we could. So what happened was, I thought, “Well, okay, here’s the first practice. I’m gonna give them something really tough so they’ll know we’re gonna work hard,” and all that kind of bullshit, really, but I was trying to make my statement.
And we did this very long practice and it ended up with, I won’t bore you with the specifics, but it was four 100s on a minute. Anybody who isn’t swimming knows that basically, college-aged swimmers might be able to do that on 105 and he swam them on a minute, which no 11-year-old could ever do. And I remember trying to make myself seem not impressed so he wouldn’t think that I was super excited about it. And I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited. I was like, “Man, this kid is the real deal and I better step up my game because he’s gonna need a lot better coaching than I’m giving him right now.”
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about some of these rules you’ve developed. The book’s called The Golden Rules, the things you’ve developed throughout your career, coaching. And the first rule of this method is, a champion sets a dream big vision. So when you’re working with an athlete, like take Michael Phelps or it could be another athlete, they’re young. How do you help them develop their vision? What do you… Is there a process you go through to help them figure that out?
Bob Bowman: There is, and this one’s easy. Your dream goal, your big vision. That’s when you sit down and say… When you sit down and think about the most fantastic thing you could do in swimming, what would it be? And nine out of 10 will say, “Swim in the Olympics.” So it’s a big goal and it’s very far away and it’s very vague. We’re not talking about how you’re gonna do that or anything else. We’re just saying, “I wanna swim in the Olympics one day.” And Michael was… Well, it kind of changed, but when he started, I have a goal sheet from Michael when he was 11 where at the top of the page they had to write their dream goal and his was, “My dream goal is to swim in the Olympics.” And then there were other things under it. But I turned the page over and on the back, he had actually written, “My dream goal is to win gold.” And he crossed that out because I think he thought at 11 years old it was too big a thing to say on his goal sheet.
But what your dream goal is, it’s the thing that motivates you to get out of bed in the morning when times get tough. It’s all about motivation. It’s not really that specific, but it’s the emotional connection to this process that keeps you going. Nobody wants to get out of bed and go to a cold pool at 5:00 in the morning to finish their 200 free in 54 seconds. But that’s probably what it would take to win a gold medal. You know what I mean? It’s like there are some things that you can look at that make the goals possible, but the dream goal is what ignites the process. And part of the… I think a good coach, the first thing you are is an igniter. My friend Dan Coyle would tell you that.
Brett McKay: And how do you know if your vision is achievable? You can say, “Well, I wanna swim in the Olympics or win gold.” For Michael Phelps who was doing crazy stuff when he was 11 years old, that’s achievable, that’s in the realm of possibility. So how do you know? How do you base your vision? You talked about you wanna suspend belief, but at the same time base it in facts.
Bob Bowman: It has to be somewhat reasonable. I think you have good advisors. That’s what my job is. One of my most important jobs is to help athletes set goals which are exciting and challenging but also doable. Because if your only goal is to go to the Olympics, and that’s your big goal, and you don’t have… If you’re like me, I could train all day long for the Olympics and there is no way in a million years this body’s gonna swim in the Olympics. It’s just not happening. And there are a lot of people like that. Very few people are on that level. So it’s my job to say, “Well, it’s pretty cool to say out there that you wanna swim in the Olympics. So what are the steps along the way that are gonna get us there and which ones would we feel good about?” Maybe your goal ends up being swim in the NCAA championships along the way to your Olympic dream. Maybe it’s to win a high school championship. So there are a lot of stops along the way that are gonna have to happen anyway. And you can kind of maybe get them to walk back from that a little bit to one of those goals.
Brett McKay: As a coach, did you have visions, big dream visions for yourself?
Bob Bowman: I had some and I wanted to be… I just have this thing about trying to get the most out of myself and I want my athletes to get the most out of themselves, whatever that is. And in swimming, if you have… If you’re in it long enough and you get to work with the right people, getting the most out of yourself is breaking a world record or winning a gold medal. So for me, that was sort of a standard that I wanted to hopefully be able to help athletes achieve. So I had some goals. Yeah. Those were my goals, coach swimmers to a world record.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then we’ll talk about this later on. One of the rules is trying to figure out what you do after, right?
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And so your vision can change once you achieve the vision. Or maybe you realize, “Okay, my initial vision didn’t happen, so I got to be able to adjust and come up something new. We’ll talk about that here in a bit. But the next rule is adopt an all in attitude, not a get-out one. So what do you mean by that?
Bob Bowman: I mean, number one, all in means you’re completely engaged in what you’re doing and you’re willing to make that commitment and get out means that you’re not looking for things that you exclude. I tell my athletes, I always give them this story because it’s a good illustration of how high-performance works. Let’s say that you’re gonna climb a huge mountain and you’re at the bottom of the mountain and you have this pack full of tools. And you’re gonna have to carry them up to the top. It’s very easy in the early stages when things get hard to say, “I really don’t need this pickax,” and just kinda throw it. And if I get rid of it, it’ll be a lot lighter now and then I can just… It’ll be good. So you kind of discard some of these tools to make your short-term journey easier. But then right when you’re about to summit the mountain, “I need this pickax. Oh yeah, I got rid of that down at the bottom. Don’t have it.” So you have to have the discipline and engagement to carry all of your tools with you and not eliminate things because it makes your short-term life easier. You want things that are gonna make your short-term life harder and your long-term life better and easier. It might not be easier but better. So I think that’s what I’m talking about.
And I think all in just means you’re willing to stick with it when it gets hard because it will be hard, it will be frustrating. So much of Michael’s journey, people just see the eight gold medals or just all of the Olympics that he swam in and those are wonderful moments, but they don’t see all the days and weeks where we were just working beyond hard and frustrated and doubtful. Will we get there? Is this even working? Are we sure this is gonna do it? What happens if it… You have all these kind of doubts. Everybody has them, but if you’re committed to what you’re doing and you’re committed to taking the next step, it keeps you on the path that eventually allows you to get there because the people that get there are the ones who can go through those kind of things.
Brett McKay: And you talk about that this all in attitude, it’s not just an attitude. You have to display the attitude with action, right?
Bob Bowman: Yeah. For sure.
Brett McKay: ‘Cause a lot of people, they love the motivation stuff. They watch the videos and they feel like, “Oh yeah, this is great.” And then they don’t do anything. And that’s not really all in. And I love the story. Yeah. You gave the example of Yannick.
Bob Bowman: Yeah.
Brett McKay: He was from… Was he from France? Where’s he from?
Bob Bowman: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. This French swimmer, he just Twitter DMed you and said, “I wanna swim with you.” And you’re like, “Uh, whatever.” You just kinda blew it off. And then he emailed you and then you’re like, “Okay, well I’ll be in Colorado Springs at such and such date. If you wanna meet, let’s meet.” And the guy flew from France on short notice to Colorado Springs.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Use that example. That’s a guy who shows all in attitude through actions.
Bob Bowman: Yeah. He’s serious about it. Yeah. So yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. We’re just all about your actions speak louder than words. Let your swimming do the talking and if you wanna do something, speak less and act more. We talk about that all the time.
Brett McKay: You had this idea too in that, the chapter about an all in attitude, about avoiding people with negative enthusiasm. What’s negative enthusiasm?
Bob Bowman: Somebody who really likes to complain all the time. People that suck the life out of you. We don’t allow that. One of the things that I have come to learn, and I’m sure you have, and anybody who’s lived a little bit knows, you get back to that, you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. Right? And if those people that you’re spending the time with are all in, in their pursuits and they are healthy and motivated and encouraging, you’re gonna have all that positive energy going for you. If they are energy vampires and suck the energy out of you and complainers, you’re gonna become that. So you have to be very careful who you choose to spend your time with.
Brett McKay: Were there instances in your career as a coach where you had to boot people because they had that negative enthusiasm?
Bob Bowman: Oh, yeah. Yeah, many times. I don’t wanna name any specifics, but many times. Just like John Gordon, right? You have to have the right people on the bus and to do that sometimes some people have to get off the bus. Not only do you have to get the right people on, but you got to get the wrong people off. So I’m a big believer in that.
Brett McKay: Right. It could be hard. No one likes to fire people or get rid of people.
Bob Bowman: No. Not at all.
Brett McKay: But sometimes you have to do that for the good of the group.
Bob Bowman: For sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. So adopt an all in attitude, not a get-out one. The next rule is short-term goals lead to long-term success. And so this is all about breaking down that big vision into actionable steps. And this is really interesting ’cause you have a process, this is very meticulous, it’s not just sort of ethereal. You actually, you break it down through how you develop this game plan for each one of your athletes.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: So let’s say an athlete’s goal is to medal at the Olympics, how do you develop a game plan for that?
Bob Bowman: Well, what we’re gonna do is start at the end. The Olympics are here, this is the result that we want. Where are we now? And it’s usually four years ahead, we kinda do this. So you have four years. And then we’re gonna start working backward to where we are. And, really, when you’re talking about years, you can’t be super specific four years down the road. You can be very specific about what you’re gonna do this afternoon. So as you go from your end goal or your… Whatever that big goal is, back towards where you are now, things become more and more specific. And when you kind of zoom out looking towards that goal, they’re more vague. So the year before, the two years before, they don’t get crystallized until we’re kind of closer to it.
But what you do as you set up benchmarks, you say, “Well, if you want a medal in that, we know that the statistics say that people who medal in the Olympics are in the top six in the world, or top 10 at the slowest, the year before. So at the world championships before, number one, you have to qualify and be in the top 10 in the world. That would be almost a guarantee that it’s gonna happen. And then you’d work back the year before that and say, “Well, what are the steps I have to take? Right now I’m four seconds away or three seconds away from making that time. How am I gonna drop three seconds in this 400 over the next two years?” And we say, “Okay, well, we’re gonna have these competitions where we’re gonna try to do it at the end of each season.” And within each season there are gonna be meets that lead up to that. And at each one of those meets, we’re gonna try parts of this race to try to put it together. Maybe one’s gonna focus on breaststroke and one’s gonna focus on backstroke and one’s gonna focus on another part of your race and one’s gonna… You’re gonna swim a lot of events. And one you’re only gonna swim a few events that will kind of prepare you for that intermediary step.
And then we’re gonna work even closer to where we are today, and we’re gonna say, “Okay, in the next three months we’ve got these meets coming up and these are the things we’d like to change about your nutrition, and these are the things that we wanna do about sleep and maybe help you do that better. And we’re gonna work closer and closer and closer till you get to the most important thing that’s gonna happen.” I call it the immediate goal. And that’s what are you gonna do right now? What are you going to do right now? Everybody has decisions to make all day long. And what we want our kids to do is walk in the door every day into that pool with the mindset and the intention that they’re gonna get a tiny percent better at something. And it doesn’t have to be, maybe it’s something that’s easy to do, maybe it’s something that’s difficult to do, but every day you leave that pool knowing you got a little bit closer to your goal and then you start building momentum towards these intermediary goals, and that ultimately builds the momentum to your big goal down the road. So that’s how we would set it up.
Brett McKay: So, okay. You start off from your big, big goal, work backwards, and you’re gonna get more granular as you get closer to the process.
Bob Bowman: Exactly. And one of the things that, since I wrote this book, it was 2016. I’m really big into Eckhart Tolle and The Power of Now has like really changed my life, is one of the most important things that I’ve read. I’ve read it 10 times probably. But being in the present moment is the most important thing I think that any of us can do. And that speaks to the what are you doing right now? I think once you have your game plan in place and you have your goals down the road, you have to then change almost your entire focus to what do I do today to take today’s step? And then you don’t… And every now and then you look up and look down the road and say, “Okay, yeah, it seems like we’re on track. Seems like we’re moving towards it.” But your key focus is on what you’re doing right now and what you’re gonna do today and what you’re gonna do tomorrow.
Brett McKay: And one thing you do too to keep this concrete for your athletes is you actually, you print out a piece of paper for them with these intermediary, like, here’s your game plan for four years.
Bob Bowman: Yeah, exactly. Here’s your deal.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s really useful. Don’t just keep it ethereal.
Bob Bowman: Yeah, for sure. And it’s the kind of thing where I look at, like I have a… I only do mine for a year because I have so many decisions to make that I can only process one year at a time. But I have the whole year’s general plan on a paper and I have it and I just kind of look at it every day and I don’t like in-depth. I’m just like, “Okay, today we’re here. All right, we still have this much time.” And just by doing that, it just sort of stimulates some thought about something, “Oh yeah, I should probably start adding this in because I wanna be ready for something in two months.” It just kind of helps you stay on track.
Brett McKay: Well, another thing you did for yourself to keep you, when you were doing the Olympic coaching, you had, I think, an app on your phone where you put in a countdown to the days until the Olympics. You said, I got a thousand days to the Olympics. What am I gonna do to help these athletes get one step closer to their vision? And that creates a sense of urgency on a day-to-day basis.
Bob Bowman: Definitely. And at our… We don’t have one yet at ASU, I’m working on it. We’re outside in the sun where everything gets killed. But in Michigan I had a big countdown where it counted every day for the whole quad down to the Olympics. And when it started, it was all these days and people were like, “Why did you put that up there?” I was like, “This thing will be gone before you know it.” And sure enough, like a week before the Olympic trials they were like, “Man, you’re right, as time flew.” So it just kind of keeps you, lets you know that time is fleeting.
Brett McKay: And this game plan, it’s not set in stone. You adjusted as needed. So maybe if an athlete…
Bob Bowman: 100%.
Brett McKay: Yeah. If an athlete gets injured, maybe you have to adjust things a bit, but you maintain the game plan, big picture.
Bob Bowman: Exactly. It just kind of gives you a direction. And it lets you know if you’re really far off track, ’cause you’re gonna be off track a little bit and you just kind of gear it back towards where you wanna be.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break, a few words from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. All right, so rule five is, live the vision every day. And this is all about establishing routines so how do routines help us live out our vision.
Bob Bowman: Routines are, I think, important for a number of reasons. Number one, I’ll speak to myself, I like to do daily routines because they reduce the number of decisions I have to make. It kind of automates some things in my life and that allows me to use my real energy on the decisions that are important. I’ll give you an example. Every day I get up at the same time, my alarm is set at 4:10, but I get up at 4, usually 3:56. It’s kind of weird, I don’t know, I’m always up at 3:56. I lay there for a second, get up, I make my bed right away in the dark, open the windows so that when I come back, the sun’s coming in my room and I’ll immediately go and I’ll make a cup of coffee and I will read the day’s installment of the Daily Stoic, which is very important to me. I think I’m on my third or fourth time through it. But it’s a passage every day of stoic philosophy that just allows you to kind of think about how you live your life and how you wanna be. And that’s my little moment where I drink a cup of coffee, read the Daily Stoic, and just have a kind of a, sets my intentions and my sort of tone for the day.
And then I either go to the pool and coach practice or I go and swim myself at another pool near my house and then that’s done, ’cause exercise is super important. I eat the same things most days. And so by the time I get to 9 o’clock, I’ve already done a whole lot of things that have set me up to have a great day and be the best person I can be. I’ve exercised, I’ve had some kind of healthy food, I’ve fed my brain a little bit with something that’s good. And then I can tackle the problems of the day that come up and kind of be my best self doing it. So I really like that for myself. And I think anybody who gets into that, it’s a good thing.
Brett McKay: Walk us through the routine for an elite-level swimmer ’cause it’s pretty… It’s intense.
Bob Bowman: It’s very intense. So what they would do, they’re gonna get up relatively early, practice starts at 6:00 in the morning, they’re probably up 5:00, 5:15. They’re gonna have some sort of nutrition. They’re gonna go to the pool and we’re gonna have our training session that’s probably an hour and a half to two hours depending on the time of the year. They are going to then probably eat a real meal, pretty big breakfast. Some days after that time they’re gonna be doing strength training. So they’ll go in the gym for an hour and do strength training which is pretty demanding. And then they’ll go home, have another meal, they will probably nap and then they’re gonna come back for the main practice of the day, which is at 2 o’clock. And that one is gonna be a real challenge.
So by the time they’re done with that, they’re probably gonna right after do some sort of recovery routines that they have. There’s some stretching or some ice tubs and stuff like that, cold tubs that they like to do right after the swimming. And then they’re gonna go home and they’re gonna eat again. They eat a lot. This a big part of their deal. And somewhere interspersed in the day are gonna be other things that they might need to do. Like swimmers do dry needling, they do things to keep their shoulders intact. They might do some kind of physical therapy because the demands are pretty great physically. Some might meet with a psychologist, a lot of our people do, I think it’s important. And then they’re in bed. So it’s a full day of activity and it’s very demanding.
Brett McKay: And then you point out too, for spectators, when you watch swimming, it looks intense and exciting and it is, it really is. But then you point out that for a swimmer it is one of the most monotonous sports you could do. ‘Cause all you’re doing is you’re swimming, you’re looking at a black line beneath you, counting your strokes, and you’re doing that every day for years. So how do you help your athletes not get burnt out by that monotony?
Bob Bowman: That’s a great point. I always tell people it’s like watching grass grow, watching some of these practices ’cause they’re just going up and down a lot. But what I tend to do is, number one, everything that we do in training has a purpose. It has a physiological or a technical purpose. And I try to make that very clear to them before we start so they know why we’re doing it. I think people get burned out when they’re doing this stuff and like, “What’s the point of this?” So at least they know what my thought about what the purpose of it is, so I think that’s important. And number two, I try to focus them on specific things that are unique to them that they should be working on while they are doing it. Let’s get your right elbow up a little bit higher or focus on this turn in a certain way, and that gives it a little more meaning as well. So I think that keeps them engaged and it also ties it to what we’re trying to do in the races which ultimately helps them achieve their goals.
Brett McKay: Okay. Okay. So put purpose behind the routine that’s important.
Bob Bowman: Yeah, for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s a good point. Do you think someone’s susceptibility to burnout and how readily they’re able to bounce back from it, does it have anything to do with whether or not they’ve chosen the right goal to pursue or the right area to work in?
Bob Bowman: 100%. If you have somebody who is, “burned out” a lot of times they either don’t have goals that are reasonable and exciting, they just don’t feel like it’s worth doing or they’ve lost track of what their goals really are. Somewhere along the line they’ve gotten distracted, gotten off track, and it’s easier to get off track than you think. And I think a big part of a coach’s role is to help keep people in contact with their goals because fatigue makes cowards of us all. You get tired and it’s like, “I just don’t want to do this.” I’m like, “Well remember our goal is to win a medal in Paris and to do that we’re gonna have to fix this part of your race and this is how we’re gonna do it.” They’re like, “Okay, I’ll give my best. Okay.”
And you could kind of go back to the thing of, I also think that what we preach a lot is progress over perfection. I think people who get burned out expect a 100% perfection and you just can almost never get it. But what you can get is progress. And some days, we talk a lot about money in the bank. They’re like, “Well, that wasn’t very good.” I was like, “Yeah, well that’s a few pennies in the bank. We’ll have it later.” Some days you’re putting 100 bucks in the bank, some days 1000. But try to every day put a little bit in there and you’ll get the compound interest down the road. So I think a lot of it is how you frame it and then how they sort of perceive what their effort’s actually doing for them.
Brett McKay: Yeah. This conversation we’ve been having about making sure you have the right goal or remembering your goal, it reminds me of some research done by this guy, Daniel F. Chambliss. He did a study on the nature of excellence and he examined competitive swimmers.
Bob Bowman: Great book.
Brett McKay: He wanted to figure… Yeah, he wanted to figure out why there’s so much stratification at the competitive level, why some swimmers became Olympians and others didn’t. And he found this, his conclusion, he said, “At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the sea-level swimmers finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring, swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging or therapeutic. They enjoyed hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30 AM practice at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that the top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it. Does that finding line up with your own observations as a coach?
Bob Bowman: 100%. I think Dan Chambliss calls that the mundanity of excellence. I think that’s a chapter at the end of his book about that and it’s so true. They find meaning in these things. And you kind of go back to another quote that we use with the kids. It’s like, “Successful people are willing to make a habit of doing things that unsuccessful people aren’t willing to do.” And that’s what these people do. The high performers make a habit of being uncomfortable. They make a habit of getting up early. They make a habit of giving their best effort every day. And the lesser performers will not do that. Maybe occasionally they do it, but usually they don’t. So I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And they don’t make it a habit because maybe they don’t enjoy it, like the swimming isn’t a good fit for them. We’ve had David Epstein on the podcast talking about his book Range, he had that great line. He said, “What looks like grit is often fit.” Right? The people who just seem like they’re just like robots about whatever pursuit they do, it’s not that they’re overly… They have discipline but it’s not like they’re not relying only on that. They just found the thing that fits what they’re meant to do.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: I mean, I think, Michael Phelps, like Michael… You talked about Michael Phelps, he loved practice and he would even practice on Christmas ’cause he loved it so much. And there’s some athletes who they might have with some grit and some discipline, they could’ve done all right, but they’re never gonna get to that Michael Phelps level ’cause it’s maybe swimming at the elite level is not a good fit for them.
Bob Bowman: Exactly. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean I’ve noticed that in my own experience. So I do power lifting and it’s a boring sport ’cause all you do is just lift weight up and down every day. There’s no variation. But I’ve been doing it for years and I haven’t… I work out on holidays, I work out on vacation and it’s not because I’m just super disciplined and gritty and I’m just, whatever. I just, I really enjoy power lifting. I enjoy doing, I couldn’t imagine missing it.
Bob Bowman: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Okay. So another rule is, stay motivated for the long haul. So this is sort of a continuation of talking about warding off burnout. I mean, so your athletes, they’re pursuing goals that are perhaps years, could be four years out, for some athletes it could be eight years out. How do you keep them motivated throughout that long duration?
Bob Bowman: You just find the intermediate thing so that almost every day there’s something that in practice that you can reward them for doing well. So they are tiny little goals, micro goals within every session. And you’re like, “Okay, today when we’re doing these hundreds free, I want you to try to hold 55 on everyone and see if you can really use a six-beat kick through the whole set.” And if they do that, which may or may not be difficult for them, you say, “Awesome. We’re right where we wanna be.” Moving on to the next stage, so they feel good about it, they wanna come back the next day. They feel like they got something out of practice. So I think being engaged in practice and finding ways to see progress in the very short-term is the way that you keep it going for the long-term. It’s just, you just add those up. You just keep adding those little wins up and before long you’ve made some big progress.
Brett McKay: Well, another thing you encourage your athletes to do, and you’ve done this in your own life, is developing a passion outside of your key passion. What does that look like and why is that important?
Bob Bowman: Well, I think, number one, if you wanna be excellent at something like what we do, you’re not gonna be perfectly balanced. You can’t be. But in your life, you could be balanced. Right? When you’re done swimming, you’re gonna do a lot of other things or maybe when there’s a time when the training’s not as much, you can do some other things. And honestly, when you are in the hard training, you can still take your mind away to do something else that kind of gives you a break from the never ending kind of what’s at the pool. So I encourage everyone to have things that they’re interested in, that they love to do that are different from the swimming. And it just, it’s a complete break from that environment. And I think that helps you stay going for a long time too. I have a lot of things I like to do. I have a garden now, I kind of got into that a little bit. I love to cook. I cook for the family every Sunday, a big meal. So there are things that sort of take my mind away from the swimming and then when I go back to it, I feel a lot fresher. And I think I encourage all of them to have something like that as well.
Brett McKay: Well, you were actually involved with horse racing. You own some racehorses. Are you still doing that?
Bob Bowman: I kind of got out of it. It got too expensive for me.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Bob Bowman: But I was. Yeah, I did that. That was awesome.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That was one of your passions outside of your passion…
Bob Bowman: For sure.
Brett McKay: For a little bit. And you even talked about when you were out with the horses, by taking your mind off of swimming, you would actually find yourself thinking about it, but sort of indirectly and it gave you…
Bob Bowman: Exactly. You just kind of get… Yeah. You just kind of get a… I think when you’re in a different environment, instead of sitting in my office at the pool or standing on a pool deck, you’re thinking about something else primarily but in your brain things are kind of, you’re mulling over things. And since for me, most of my life is swimming, it’s kind of in there and they’ll just kind of surface. I’m like, “Wow, I got to make sure that I do that drill next week because that would really help someone get better on their backstroke.” So I think that’s a very important thing is that when you quiet your brain, and a lot of times when you’re doing these things, like I’m out working in my garden or I’m cooking, I find it super relaxing and then I’ll just kind of get new ideas about what is happening in the swimming. So yeah, that’s very true.
Brett McKay: And that’s another thing that will help you avoid the burnout.
Bob Bowman: Oh yeah, for sure. Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Brett McKay: So rule eight is, adversity will make you stronger. And Phelps had some very public adversity in his career. How did those experiences though turn him into a better athlete and eventually a better person?
Bob Bowman: Well, I think they made him appreciate the swimming a little more. The opportunity to do it and it just… I think it’s all in how you approach it too. It very easily could have broken him, and we just decided that when these very tough situations came up, instead of just throwing our hands up and saying, “Well, that’s it, we just took a step back, took a breath and didn’t do anything for a minute.” Let’s just think. Don’t do anything. And then as I always do, come up with a plan and then just start taking one step. Let’s just take one step forward. Okay, let’s do another one. That seemed to go okay. Let’s take another one.
One of the things that really was a big hurdle for Michael was in 2007 at the world championships, he had had his best meet ever. Probably still is his best meet in many ways, in the world championships, and he had won seven gold medals and he would have won eight, but the relay go DQ’d in the morning. He didn’t get to swim on it. And we came out of that and I was certain that he was 100% on track for Beijing to win eight gold medals. And he was training beautifully in that fall, and then he actually slipped on the ice in Michigan and broke his wrist in November.
Brett McKay: Really?
Bob Bowman: No, October. October 7th. I remember the date as a matter of fact. And that was a huge thing. I remember going over to his apartment when I heard about it, and he was sitting there basically cry and saying, “I just gave up three gold medals. It’s all over now.” And I was kind of thinking that myself. I was like, “Wow. We’re kind of screwed.” Right? But then I said, “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. Number one, let’s just take a breath, and I’m gonna talk to these doctors and we’re gonna figure out what the options are.” And the options were two options. Number one, being in a cast for six weeks, number two, have it repaired surgically with a plate and he’d be back in the water, as soon as the stitches healed which is about 10 days. So the next day he had surgery to say the least, right. We’re gonna go do that. And what seemingly was like this impossible obstacle or something that was gonna completely crush what we’re doing, ended up not being that bad. Two weeks later, he was back swimming. A month later he was back swimming well, and then we just sort of continued on our way, but it would have been very easy to just say, “Well, it’s all over now. We can’t do it.” We just decided to sort of stick with it and just take it a step, a step, a step and work your way through it and I think that’s an important part of this.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think too maybe you do this with your athletes is… Say they do get injured, I think the focus and says, where all is lost. You got to think about what can we do.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Right.
Bob Bowman: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So you do that with Michael. Okay, we can get the surgery. If surgery is not an option, you imagine, you probably think, “Well, how can we adjust your training?”
Bob Bowman: Exactly. Maybe you could just kick or do whatever. There are things you can do 100%. There are things you can do.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s a good… Never ask about what you can’t do, think about what can you do.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: That’s a good mindset. And what do you tell an athlete who they follow the game plan and then they go to the moment, the event and they fall short? What do you tell an athlete who’s trained for years for the Olympics and they don’t even medal? Like that’s a big setback.
Bob Bowman: Oh, yeah. Well, if they made the Olympics, you’re part of 0.01% of people, so you got that to fall back on. That’s a good… When they don’t make the Olympics is the hard one. What I need them to know ahead of time is that the only thing that really matters in this whole process is that you gave your full effort when it was required because at the end of the day that’s all any of us can do. John Wooden has a great quote from him, “All I’m asking you to do and all we can ever ask of anybody is to do the best you can.” Some of us are gonna do the best we can and not win a medal, but if you know you gave your best and you know you’re prepared the best way you could, that’s the real value of this whole thing anyway, and because you didn’t get a certain outcome, you still have all of the amazing things that you put into that process. So I think it’s important ahead of time that they know that they gave their best effort and that we’re training so that they can give their best effort when it’s needed. Now, if they don’t give their best effort when it’s needed, they’ll just have to live with that but in general, I think you can coach them so that whatever happens at the end, they’re gonna be able to live with it.
Brett McKay: So the next rule is… This is related to what we’re just talking about. Rule nine is, when the time comes, perform with confidence. So I’m curious, as a coach, when you look at an athlete, what causes them to not compete with confidence? Maybe they’re doing great all through practice, maybe the smaller meets, they’re doing great, but when they get to the big event, what causes athletes to choke?
Bob Bowman: It’s generally a focus on the outcome versus the process. It’s like Nick Saban, like don’t look at the score board, play the next play. We control our process, we control how we train, we control the standards we hold ourselves to in the pool, out of the pool. We control our strategy, we control the way we compete in terms of the energy we put into the races. What we don’t control is other people who have a big part in the outcome. What we have to do is focus on what we control and not worry about what other people are gonna do or what’s gonna happen if we don’t get a certain time or win a certain medal. And I think people who choke that’s what has happened.
And if you looked at physiological activation, it would be a bell curve and over on the left hand side, you’d have low physiological activation and you’d have pretty low performance. And then as physiological activation rises, there’s a point at the peak where you’re getting your maximum performance level and you’re at an appropriate physiological activation state. As you continue to activate, you get more into fight or flight and performance decreases on the other side of the bell curve. And the people who choke are over on this right-hand side. So there are some things that I can do to help refocus them on their process goals, and we constantly try to keep them focused on how they’re gonna swim the race, tune out the noise, focus on some specific thing to get the race started, maybe have some keywords that they tell themselves at different parts of the race and focus their energies on the things that they control, namely that, not what somebody two lanes over is doing or not what’s gonna happen if they don’t get this gold medal. So I think that’s how you combat it and it has to happen well in advance and still sometimes it doesn’t work.
Brett McKay: You talked about this experience with Michael where you started focusing on the process, so I think it was the London Olympics. He came back, it was the medley, and they placed fourth. And that was the first time he’d never medaled in eight years [0:44:18.9] ____.
Bob Bowman: Yeah. It was terrible.
Brett McKay: And he was just like, that sucked. It’s awful, and I didn’t train enough, blah, blah, blah, and you’re like, yeah, you didn’t train the way you’re supposed to, but what we’re gonna do now is we’re gonna focus on… We’re gonna improve your breaststroke for the next event.
Bob Bowman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: You got detailed focus on the process.
Bob Bowman: Yeah. And it worked out. He won the 200 IM, swam really well. He actually finished that up pretty well. And I think any time you can take their attention to something like that, it’s gonna be good for them because everybody’s gonna be excited in the competition. There’s already the level of excitement. There’s very few people I’ve ever coached that I had to raise their activation state during a meet. You’re usually trying to lower it or you’re trying to get them to stay relaxed so that they can get up on the block and do what they’re trained to do. So yeah, I think keeping it specific is very important.
Brett McKay: All right. The rule 10, is celebrate your achievement then decide what’s next. I think people may have heard that Olympic champions often experience post-victory depression or they just feel blah after they notch an achievement. Would you think it’s counterintuitive? You did the greatest thing that an athlete can do and you’re depressed, what’s going on? Have you seen that with your athletes?
Bob Bowman: Yeah, I’ve seen it with Michael. Every time. Every time he’s had an issue, it’s kind of after the Olympics. There are a number of reasons that go into that, but I think the main thing is the nature of Olympic preparation or preparing for any kind of sports’ main event is that we don’t look beyond. You look at where you are right now, so your whole focus is on the training today. It’s on what you’re eating, it’s on how you’re sleeping, it’s on how you’re gonna fix your hurt shoulder, it’s on everything that we’re doing to… And there’s a lot of stuff and it fills up your whole life. And we don’t wanna be thinking about what we’re doing after the Olympics because we want our focus to be on the process that we’re on. So what happens is they go through this process, they go to the Olympics, there’s an amazing result, and then the day after, there’s no more training, there’s no more, “What am I doing today?” You have all this time and you haven’t figured out how to spend it, and you kind of miss that knowing what you’re gonna do every day. And I think that leaves a lot to it, right. And the thing, maybe you just had… You achieved your life goal and you’re like, well, what’s next? I don’t have any idea. I think that was Michael’s thing.
And to my detriment, along the line, I didn’t help him think what might happen after eight gold medals in Beijing, ’cause we didn’t… I couldn’t see past it, that’s the only thing I thought about was how I could get him ready for that. I couldn’t even see past the day after. So once he achieved it, both of us were like, “Well, what do we do now? And that’s a big void. So, yeah, you see it all the time, and I think that what we have to do is, well, in advance of these events, start helping them figure out what their game plan is gonna be beyond those, so that there’s a natural transition after and there’s something they can work towards.
Brett McKay: And personally, how has your vision changed over the years? You’re still an Olympic coach, and I imagine each new swimmer you coach it feels like a new experience, a new goal, but how else have you found new goals to work on and fresh motivation after your huge success with Phelps?
Bob Bowman: What I’ve done is I knew that when Michael was finished and that was in 2016, I was too young to really retire. I was like 51, and I wanted to do something different, and I hadn’t really done a lot of NCAA coaching. So I took over the program at ASU and started building it up. At ASU, the program was really kind of in disarray, but I felt like it had good resources. And so since 2016, I’ve been building this thing up. So last week, we got second in NCAA championships. We’re almost there. We’re almost about to win. So for me that’s a new and exciting challenge. And we’re still working on the Olympics, we got a lot of great people now. We have a lot of Olympic firepower for the next one, so I just kinda try to use all the knowledge that I had in the first phase, in the second phase to help these guys succeed.
Brett McKay: What do you do with someone like Michael Phelps? They hit a really big achievement. What do you do after that? What’s the next thing you work on? It’s like someone who walks on the moon, I walked on the moon. What do you do after you walk on the moon? What do you do after you hit the record for the most gold medals won?
Bob Bowman: Well, we tried to… It was hard. And in reality, Michael didn’t do a best time in any of his events after Beijing. And he swam two more Olympics, so it’s kind of hard to keep going. But what kept us going were, number one, we kind of wanted to keep adding to the gold medal total and the medal total. So Michael has 23 gold medals, second place has nine. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Bob Bowman: So I think he’s safe for a long time. I think we’ll be gone before somebody else probably gets to that level, so you try to find another goal that just sort of keeps him motivated because it was his job, for Michael unlike other swimmers who’s making a significant amount of money, so we wanted to keep it going. He couldn’t just quit after Beijing as he was too young, like me, and we wanted to kinda keep it going for a while. So we just found other ways to motivate him, and honestly, the best one was… I think we did a terrible job of dealing with the time between Beijing and London because we just came back and I just tried to put him back in the same program we did before Beijing, and both of us knew there’s no way in hell he’s gonna win eight gold medals again. It just doesn’t happen. We thought about how he was gonna do it, he didn’t come to practice a lot, he wasn’t that prepared, I just doubled down on, you’re throwing away your life by not coming to practice. It was the worst thing I could do.
But after London, when he took a year off, ’cause he thought he was gonna retire and I took a year off, he kinda decided he wanted to come back and I said, “Okay. If we do it this time we’re gonna do it the right way and I want you to end up your career loving swimming.” And he did. That was by far our best thing, was in Rio, he absolutely loved swimming again like he did when he was 12, regardless of whether he broke a record and he did win the gold medals that we wanted, but it was just a fantastic way for him to kinda come tie it up, but we just sort of shifted our focus to that. Our main focus is that you enjoy this process and then you put your best effort into it because you love it, and then you just love the racing at the end, and then leave the sport kind of in love with it and move on to your next phase. And I think that was quite successful.
Brett McKay: What’s his next phase? What’s he doing now?
Bob Bowman: He does a lot of work with his foundation, Michael Phelps Foundation, which teaches healthy lifestyles and water safety to kids. He’s still doing a lot of appearances and endorsements and things like that, so he stays busy. He’s always busy.
Brett McKay: And it seems like this is great advice. This is something that someone has to think about when they hit mid-life or maybe retirement or you achieve the thing you wanted to achieve, you got to figure out what’s next. It might not be you’re not gonna win gold medal, you’re not gonna have that. But you can find satisfaction in maybe mentoring or doing things behind the scenes or coaching or things like that.
Bob Bowman: A hundred percent. Yeah, for sure.
Brett McKay: Well, Bob, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Bob Bowman: My social media is @Coach_Bowman on Instagram and Twitter. You can email me if you need to at [email protected]. That would be a good way to do it. And the book’s on Amazon, Audible, all of those things.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Bob Bowman, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Bob Bowman: Thanks, Brett, really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Bob Bowman. He’s the author of the book The Golden Rules. It’s available on amazon.com. Check out our shownotes at aom.is/goldenrules, where you’ll find links to resources when we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS to checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, helps us a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.