When swimmer Michael Phelps began training for his Olympic career it meant hours training in the pool. But when his coach Bob Bowman wanted to improve his coaching, he headed to the horse stables.
Bowman, coach of the Michigan men’s swimming and diving team, learned the ins and outs of coaching from Hall of Fame coach Paul Bergen when the two worked together in the early 1990s. Bergen had recently started coaching again after taking time off to breed and train thoroughbred racehorses.
“I always wanted to learn from him,” Bowman said. “But the only way I could pick his brain about swimming was to go the horse’s barn, because that’s where he spent most of his time.”
Today, Bowman spends his time at Canham Natatorium training Michigan’s varsity team, as well as Club Wolverine, a group of post-graduate and professional swimmers. His own accomplishments as a coach could someday earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Bowman has coached swimmers to Olympic gold medals, World records and World championships. He has been coaching since he graduated from Florida State in 1987.
Before working with the Wolverines, Bowman was the high performance coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland, where he began working with Phelps. Currently in his fourth year at Michigan, Bowman has a dual meet record of 30-8-1 and has coached three individual NCAA champions, nine Big Ten champions and 13 All-Americans.
Clearly Bowman understands how to physically train his athletes, but he also stresses the importance of his responsibility to mentally prepare his swimmers for success.
While his demeanor with each swimmer may be slightly different, Bowman uses the same goal-setting techniques to motivate every individual, whether a member of the collegiate team or an elite swimmer like Phelps.
“Anyone can give these guys workouts to make them physically fit,” Bowman said. “But what I have to do is when a swimmer has a really good swim is to go back and say to him, ‘OK here is where you are now, but what’s the next level for you?’ “
Bowman has learned the key to coaching is finding the right motivational tool to get each athlete to give their best efforts every day. These motivational techniques can include yelling and swearing, but also a positive pep talk and a pat on the back. To spectators his motives might appear harsh, but his swimmers understand.
“If he’s going to yell at you, it’s only because he sees a lot of potential in you and you’re not giving him a full effort,” sophomore Scott Spann said. “In this sport, pressure is necessary and he’s obviously been to the highest level. So he knows exactly what kind of pressure to put on you.”
Kaitlin Sandeno, who won three medals at the 2004 Olympics including gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay, has known Bowman since 2000 and began training with Club Wolverine in 2006. After moving to Ann Arbor from a more lenient program, she’s glad that Bowman won’t accept anything but her best everyday.
“He’s pretty hard on me in the pool and that’s what I need,” she said laughing. “At a training camp in Colorado, he and I got into it before practice and then I had one of my best practices, and he said it was because he had yelled at me.”
Bowman has become best known for personally coaching Phelps since he was just 11 years old. Phelps became the first American to win eight medals in one Olympiad, taking home six gold and two bronze in 2004. Eddie Reese, head coach for both the 2008 U.S. Olympic swim team and No. 1 Texas, thinks Bowman’s ability to motivate Phelps to continuously break records is his most impressive attribute.
“Michael is so fast that getting him to swim even faster may be the hardest job in the world,” Reese said. “In a lot of events, Michael can win without going faster but he doesn’t make that choice, and Bob just won’t let him.”
Bowman understands finding new ways to push an unrivaled swimmer can be a tough challenge but is adamant that Phelps still uses the same goal-setting process as everyone else.
“It’s hard to do when you’re already the fastest,” Bowman said. “So for Michael it’s things like being the first man to break 50 seconds for the 100-meter butterfly or trying to be the first one to swim a 1:50.00 in the 200-meter fly when he already holds the world record at 1:52 and nobody else has ever swam under 1:54.”
Bowman describes his relationship with Phelps as “very complicated.” He says it’s unlike his relationship with any other swimmer because the two have known each other for so many years. While Bowman admits their history together can lead to arguments, ultimately the great passion, drive and energy both men share for the sport has produced world records and Olympic gold medals.
“In a lot of ways it’s more of a parenting relationship which really complicates the coaching relationship because we know each other very close personally,” Bowman said. “We’ve been through many, many things, good and bad, and we’re both trying really hard to achieve something that’s never been done.”
This summer, before the 2008 Olympic games begin in Beijing, Bowman hopes to be named an assistant coach for the U.S. team. The assistants are chosen from the coaches who produce the most Olympic swimmers at the Olympic Trials held June 30- July 7. Bowman was an assistant at the 2004 Olympics in Athens with swimmers like Erik Vendt, Peter Vanderkaay and Phelps competing for him. It’s likely he will be chosen again.
With the Olympic games now just six months away, the anticipation and pressure surrounding swimmers like Phelps and others grows daily. Despite all the excitement, Bowman’s focus remains on getting each swimmer to meet his high expectations. By now, his swimmers are used to him demanding their best.
“Its hard to go past your limits unless someone helps you get there,” he said. “Sometimes my job is to say, ‘Wow you did such a great job. You tried really hard.’ And sometimes my job is to say, ‘That’s just not good enough.’ “
Whatever the results of these Olympic games are, it seems those coaching lessons in the barn have already paid off.