Advice for Athletes From a Gold-Medal Coach
Want to know how to improve sports performance or what makes a good athlete? Ask a coach! Swim coach Bob Bowman has worked with Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps for 14 years. He shares his thoughts on everything from recognizing talent to avoiding burnout.
Talent and Skill
What did you see in Michael Phelps that led you to believe he has a special talent?
I saw a tremendous competitive spirit, no matter what he was doing. The first time I saw him he was playing games with his friends behind the pool, and it was clear from just watching that he loved to win and he hated to lose.
The other thing was, he's built as a swimmer. I saw him swim in a meet when he was 10, and you could tell that he had the physical skills and physical attributes that were going to be necessary.
What would you say are the top three things people can do to improve their performance in a sport?
Number one, improve their technique or skill level. Whatever the sport, you need to really practice the fundamentals and improve your basic skills.
Number two, be a student of the strategies of the game. That comes from looking outside yourself and at the sport as a whole.
Number three, take care of yourself away from the field of play or the pool. Proper nutrition, getting enough rest, taking care of your body by stretching, and doing things like that.
What signs do you look for that tell you an athlete might have the right stuff to really excel in a sport?
The first thing I look for is competitiveness and mindset. How do they approach their sport? That's the first thing I noticed about Michael when he was young.
The second thing I look for is skill level. People naturally tend to gravitate toward activities that they feel comfortable in and their bodies are really geared toward doing. So how do they pick up the basic skills? That would be a good indicator.
The Value of a Good Coach
Let's talk a bit about coaching. What can good coaching do for an athlete?
The most important thing a coach does is give feedback. Also, I think we give guidance and motivation and some other things. A coach really is a partner in your activity, and I think it's so much better when you have one.
Would you recommend looking for a personal coach for athletes who feel like they're not getting the right amount of coaching?
Private coaching is a lot like private lessons in music: it absolutely helps. If you want to improve your individual skills, working with someone one on one is very effective. I advise talking with the coach of your team to set it up, but I think it's very good.
Michael has said in the past that you really push him and you're tough on him and he appreciates that. Why is it important for a coach to push an athlete?
There's a great quote I heard: "There can be no growth without discontent." That's true in every phase of life. Think about it: Why would you change something if you're perfectly happy with the way it is?
What I do is continually raise the bar and challenge my athletes to reach higher and go to a different place. Sometimes that's uncomfortable for people. But it's a great experience for them, because they learn how to handle different situations. They learn what capabilities they have and what things they need to work on. I think that's where it all comes from.
What Coaches Expect
What do you expect from athletes? What do they need to contribute to be doing their part?
The most important thing that athletes need to contribute is an honest effort. If they come in on a daily basis and give you the best that they can on that day, in the long run they're going to be very successful. When they tend to not give a full effort or don't give their full concentration, that's when you run into problems.
What attributes do coaches most appreciate in athletes?
I appreciate when they're really conscientious and making the effort to give their best effort on a consistent basis.
How much do you appreciate them working on things on their own?
I love it. I love it when athletes take the initiative to work on things without being told to do it.
The Rest of Life
Any advice on how best to balance school and a sport?
I think you have to make sure that you're meeting your commitments to both. People can handle a lot of things. What I've found most important is learning to budget your time. If you sit down and plan out your day and what you're going to do with each hour of the day, you can find time to do a lot of different things.
Any tips on eating?
Obviously, you want to stay away from junk food. All young people probably need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat a balanced diet. The more healthy eating habits you can establish when you're young, the better off you'll be later.
What about grades and school?
I tell people this all the time: "Swimming is a great sport. It's good for you and can take you a long way, and you'll learn a lot. But it's not going to be your profession." Unless you're Michael Phelps. And it's not even going to be his profession for much longer.
You need to be preparing yourself for your future, and there's nothing you can do to help yourself more than getting a good education.
Staying at the Top of Your Game
What can athletes do in the off season to keep themselves in top shape, and what shouldn't they do?
What they shouldn't do is sit around and watch TV all the time! Stay active. Anything that makes a person a better athlete, in any area, will help the sport. If you're a swimmer, and you want to play basketball or run or lift some weights, it's all good. Just staying active and using your body.
Is it important for an athlete to choose a sport and focus exclusively on it, or would you recommend participating in a variety of sports?
Early on, it helps to participate in a variety of sports. As student athletes get older, they probably want to cut it down to something they can really sink their teeth into and pursue. But I think they should start out being well-rounded and playing a lot of different sports.
Do you have concerns about burnout if someone focuses on a sport too early?
Not really. Michael didn't burn out, and he focused on swimming at 12. I think burnout comes when you stop improving. If you have a good plan, that kind of keeps you going.