Bottom's beliefs key to Michigan's success

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By Sylvanna Gross, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 27, 2015

Frequently, athletics and philosophy don’t overlap. Yet Michigan men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach Mike Bottom has defined this juncture in a sport where athletes are under immense pressure to execute, and winners and losers are determined by hundredths of a second.

Professor Kim Cameron of the Ross School of Business is a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at Michigan and a proponent of positive visualization as an important tool for a team’s success.

When teaching others his beliefs, Cameron encourages others to imagine three competitors standing arm’s length away from each other. The first is an underperforming athlete, the second is average and healthy and the third is an accomplished Olympian.

In order for the first athlete to become as good as the second, constructive criticism and negative feedback are used.

And in order to make the second athlete the Olympian, both Bottom and Cameron believe in positive affirmations of an athlete’s ability.

Adapting this approach has given Bottom an opportunity for a more holistic approach to coaching.

“We’re trying to grasp the best of the human condition, the highest aspirations an athlete has for themselves,” Cameron said. “There’s nothing brand-new or novel about this except for the most part we ignore it, because it takes cognitive effort to switch to a positive bias.”

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Bottom, a longtime believer in positive attitude, invited Cameron to lecture his athletes about the correlation between affirmative thinking and an athlete’s performance.

Cameron spoke to the athletes about the benefits of having gratuitous thoughts, which allows a person’s physical well-being to strengthen with a more affirmative mindset. To get to that point, he suggested keeping a gratitude journal.

“Numerous swimmers keep gratitude journals,” Bottom said. “But we don’t enforce it, they do it because they want to.”

And Bottom’s unorthodox methods are paying of.

Now in his sixth season with Michigan — his second as head coach of both the men and women’s teams — Bottom has led both teams to a nearly perfect dual-meet record (49-3-1), coached in the past five Olympics, and was named Big Ten Swimming Coach of the Year four times.

“The word humility is often equated with meekness or weakness,” Cameron said. “The real definition of humility is opening to learning, openness to feedback from others in order to approve. So humility and improvement are very closely aligned. Mike is a very humble guy in that sense.”

This characteristic hasn’t gone unnoticed by his swimmers, either.

To senior and co-captain of the men’s team, Richard Funk, Bottom was a large part why he committed to Michigan.

“Bottom is a great leader and a visionary, not just in the pool but in academics and in the community. He surrounded himself with a great staff,” Funk said. “(He taught me that) in order to be a leader you need to know first how to be a follower. You need to understand where the team is and how to approach a situation.”

Added freshman Tristan Sanders: “While (the coaches) are teaching you how to swim, they’re teaching you about life, about how to be a leader. We’re protective of each other and of Michigan.”

Forgiveness, compassion and thankfulness are the three pillars of what Bottom considers the values it takes to be a Wolverine, a role that also comes with the responsibility of protecting this code of conduct.

Swimming is one of the most mentally draining sports, and many swimmers say they are unmotivated by the grueling practice schedule that accompanies the sport. Yet the positive team atmosphere is a reason his team continues to fight through early morning practices.

“He reminds us on a daily basis to think positive,” said junior Marni Oldershaw.

Cameron cited research that shows that for an athlete to flourish, three to five compliments should be given for every negative criticism of their performance.The coach is the single most important figure to make sure this happens.

Bottom believes a coach should not only help their athletes achieve greatness now, but also lay the foundation for it in their future. He understands that every single one of his swimmers has a life outside of Canham Natatorium, encouraging them to push through their personal problems.

“For me, my passion to win has nothing to do with my ego. It has to do everything with wanting the athletes to internalize the things we’re teaching them here,” Bottom said. “Excellence is an important part of not just winning, but excellence is an important part of life.”

Cameron and Bottom both recognize the extraordinary outcomes that might come with this focus on positive affirmation. Already under Bottom’s tutelage, the Wolverines have shown great success, especially since the integration of the men’s and women’s teams.

Positive visualization could be an opportunity to extract excellence not only from Bottom’s swimmers, but also from all athletes across campus.

“It’s an opportunity for Michigan to be Michigan,” Bottom said.