Swimming Technique January - March 2005 Feature Article
Michael Brooks interviewing Bob Bowman, October 2004.
Michael Brooks: What are your greatest strengths as a coach?
Bob Bowman: I think probably, honestly, my greatest strength as a coach is that I can work harder than anyone else.
Brooks: May I offer an answer, based on having watched you for several years? You hold up the very highest standards, and you tell your swimmers, "You are going to reach up here." And, I believe, you are very, very prepared.
Coaches are always saying that they learn more from their swimmers than their swimmers learn from them. If that's true of you, you have learned from the best, what has Michael (Phelps) taught you?
Bowman: You need to be patient. It used to be that as soon as something would go wrong, or wouldn't go the way I thought it should, I would jump down his throat and accuse him of being lazy and not wanting to work hard. But every time I would do that, we would find out later that there was a reason for why things were going the way they were, and those reasons had nothing to do with his not wanting to swim fast.
Brooks: Did the reasons concern his physical status (wiped out from previous workouts) or the structure of the set or something else?
Bowman: Both, or just asking too much at the wrong time. Also, he was growing, going through growth spurts that I didn't recognize, and I was insisting on this high level of performance that he couldn't meet. And then when he wouldn't meet my expectations, I would beat my head against a wall to try to get it to happen. I should have backed off a little bit, and I think we would have been better off in the long run.
Brooks: After practices like that, did you go home and stew about it all day?
Bowman: [laughing] Of course: all day, and all night, and until he did one that was good.
Brooks: Who have been the most important swimming influences on your coaching?
Bowman: Paul Bergen, of course. Murray Stephens. David Marsh. Really everyone I've had the opportunity to coach with, all of the coaches that I've worked with have taught me something.
Brooks: What did you get from these big influences?
Bowman: From Paul & Murray, that stroke technique was the most important thing. That doesn't mean you don't condition your swimmers, but without the technique the conditioning is meaningless. And from David, I saw how to build a group of people into a team and motivate them towards a goal. David is a master motivator. He's a technician as well, and all three share that, but he's more of a freethinker, more intuitive, whereas Paul and Murray are more structured in their approach, particularly Paul. I tend to be more structured in how I do things, but from David I learned that you get a feel for where the kids are on a certain day and that's how you coach them.
Brooks: Is there anything in particular you appreciate more about Murray now that you aren't with him on deck?
Bowman: Murray is a true visionary. He can look at the sport and see things that no one else sees. He can look down the line and see what will be coming up and how we can be ready to take advantage of it or how we could direct our program towards it. That's one of his greatest strengths.
From talking with both Murray and Paul, I am most impressed with their ability to boil down the wisdom of the world (and forty years of coaching experience) into a little snippet you would find in Bartlett's Quotations. I am constantly saying, "Wow! That's exactly right." Exactly. And I like that. I think partly that comes with experience. I hope that in fifteen years I'll be able to do that. Also, I miss having Murray push me. Paul did that, too. They're always pushing you. Here I'm the one doing the pushing, and sometimes it's hard to motivate yourself to do that. But I think it's a good thing, a natural progression.
Brooks: Who have been the most important non-swimming influences on your coaching, and what did you learn from them?
Bowman: My parents, of course. They taught me the value of work and setting high standards. When I was in school and I brought home a 95 on a test they would ask, what could you do to raise this to a 100? [laughing] And they never paid me a dime to do it, because that was what I was supposed to do. I wasn't ever bribed, and I wasn't treated like that was special, doing your best was expected.
Brooks: Influences from other sports?
Bowman: Aside from the obvious, like Vince Lombardi or John Wooden, I'm very interested in horse racing and I've studied a lot of the famous horse trainers. I admire D. Wayne Lukas for the way he runs his operation. And talking of high standards, Lukas is the epitome of that. And I've looked at Bob Baffert, who works a completely different way from Lukas but gets similar results. I've read everything I could find about the old time trainers like Preston Burch and Frank Whitely, Jr. I don't know how much this study pertains to swimming, but it directly pertains to me and to how I run my life.
Brooks: Is your new pool at Michigan as clean as D. Wayne Lukas' barns?
Bowman: It is. The deck is so clean you could eat off it.
Brooks: How are you most different now from 4 years ago? 8 years ago?
Bowman: I have a much more realistic perspective about what it takes to reach the top of the sport and to succeed there, about what things are important and what are not.
Brooks: What are some of the things you've changed your mind about?
Bowman: The most important factors leading to high performance may not have anything to do with training: the mental, emotional, psychological aspects are far more important than just the training program. I think eight years ago I would have told you that if I could just have enough pool time, or the right set to do, I could have accomplished any goal.
Brooks: Do you think that's common among younger coaches, that they think if they can only get the magic sets from established coaches that their swimmers will take off?
Bowman: Yes, I think it's very common: if they just get the right set, or the right drill, or the right gadget, that will make the difference. They've got to get the right swimmer first, that helps. [laughing] A lot.
Brooks: What is most challenging about club coaching?
Bowman: The parents, definitely. You are coaching them as much as you are coaching the kids. It's difficult to find, or create, a situation where you can do the best coaching job without interference from parent groups or anything like that.
Brooks: What are the biggest challenges as you transition from club to college coaching?
Bowman: Recruiting. It's basically a full-time job on top of your coaching job. At least it is in the early part of the year. I think it can't go on like this too much longer, at least I hope not. Also, here I am a very small part of a very big institution, and there are many layers of administration that need to be dealt with for everything. Obviously that's different: at NBAC I had one layer, of one person: Murray. But the coaching feels the same.
Brooks: How do you take a program that has been enormously successful with adolescent swimmers in a club setting, and adapt it for a college program?
Bowman: It's very challenging. Kids come in with varied training backgrounds, and they've had very different sets of expectations from their previous coaches and from themselves. They are for the most part specialized in certain events when they get here, so I can't treat everyone like a 400 IM'er as I could in Baltimore.
Brooks: You've been on several national team coaching staffs over the last few years and have been in contact with and watching closely the best in the world. What factors distinguish the swimmers at the very top from those near it?
Bowman: Those at the pinnacle can take care of the myriad of little things that go into performing at peak over and over throughout a long and stressful meet like the Olympics. Michael has been learning since he was 11 & 12 how to take care of himself: how to prepare physically and mentally for each event, how to race, how to warm down sufficiently, when to take his sports drink to jumpstart recovery, when and how to rest for maximum recovery, how to get to bed early and avoid the distractions of most kids his age, how to deal with getting drug tested countless times, etc. The parts of his life all point toward swimming fast. He "practiced" traveling and how to maintain his form through time-changes and long flights. He didn't wait until the Olympics or the Trials to learn these things, he's been learning them since he was 12.
This sounds very similar to the idea in motor learning that you make a motor pattern automatic through repetition, then that frees the mind to focus during a race on tactics and racing instead of on the minutiae of the stroke. It's exactly the same, in a different context. I just think that Michael has learned over a long period of time, step by step and fairly systematically, a very detailed and successful plan that goes with his swimming and it's part of who he is, so that he doesn't even have to think about the details. He has become so habituated that the routine is sub-conscious, so he can focus on the races ahead and how he wants to swim, instead of constantly being worried about whether he did this or that, whether he forgot this or that. He now gets into a zone he is free to focus on higher order performance issues.
Brooks: Do you think that there were swimmers on the Olympic team who weren't on Michael's level in this respect, and whose performances were hurt because of it?
Bowman: No question about it. I'll give you another example of Michael's habituating. Part of the plan for Michael was traveling quite a bit the two years or so before the Olympics, around the globe. And there were quite a few people who thought that was foolish, as well as detrimental to his training program. It was neither. While it may have caused him to miss a session here or a session there, it taught him how to travel and to travel well, because on every one of those trips we followed a protocol for what he would do before the trip, the way he would travel on the plane, what he would do when he got off the plane, how he was expected to perform right after that. And this summer when we flew to Athens, there were swimmers on our Olympic team who took as long as a week to adjust to the changes. Michael got off the plane and had one of his best training sessions of the whole summer, the same day we got to Athens. The next day he had another very good practice, and by the third day he was on fire. Most of that had to do with his understanding of sleeping on the plane, at the right times, and what he did when he got off the plane. You have to immediately get in the water to acclimatize yourself. We followed a protocol he has followed for every travel meet since he was 12 years old, so he knows exactly how his body feels after he does the preliminary part of that warm-up, and then I adjust the main series according to that. And then based on how he performs on the main series, I have an indication of what needs to happen the next day. He has a lot of those things ingrained that free him up to not worry about whether he can adjust to the time, because he just does things that make all that happen.
Brooks: How has Michael changed how we think about IM at the elite level?
Bowman: Most importantly, he's brought speed to the event. And that's an obvious improvement he's made over the last four years. He's much speedier now. The first 200 of his 400 is devastating. He goes out in 55 in the fly, easily, and very few others can do that and be under control. I think that's what separates Michael from the Dave Whartons and Tom Dolans of the world. They were great swimmers and fantastically fit; Michael is fit and has speed.
That sounds similar to what Kieren Perkins brought to the mile: bringing a middle-distance speed to the longer event and taking the record to a new level. Exactly. Anyone interested in competing with Michael must have speed, and they've still got to take on his endurance.
Brooks: There had seemed to be a trend over the past couple of decades toward specializing in one or maybe two events; Michael turned that trend completely around, do you see more top swimmers in the future following Michael's lead in expanding their event programs?
Bowman: Unfortunately, I don't. It's just too difficult given the high level of competition worldwide these days: you're swimming against specialists every time you step on the block. It takes too much training at certain key years in a swimmer's development. But I hope the example of Kaitlin Sandeno and Michael can entice some coaches and swimmers to train for multiple events.
Brooks: You spent over a decade coaching talented high school aged swimmers, and now you are trying to recruit talented high school aged swimmers. When looking for talent, what are you looking for?
Bowman: Six foot seven [laughing]. Obviously we're looking for certain physical traits: we like big, tall guys with big hands and feet, lean, strong (or at least could be made strong). And obviously we're looking at performance in the water. They don't necessarily have to be top ten in the world, but they need to exhibit some stroke skill and show they have the potential to be that good. I would much rather take someone with better stroke technique and maybe a bit lacking in conditioning or meet times than someone with poor technique and swimming pretty fast.
Brooks: Do you see someone with fairly terrible strokes as dead ends?
Bowman: In some respects, yes. You have to weigh, can you bring them into your program and change them, what will the cost of that be, and how long would that take?
Brooks: Your predecessor, Jon Urbanchek, has said that once kids got to his program, there wasn't much he did or could do to change strokes. Do you agree?
Bowman: You can't change them. At this stage of the game it's really tough. You can refine some things, of course, but we like them to come in with the best strokes possible.
Brooks: Do you spend the first part of the year on refining those strokes?
Bowman: Yes and no. What I found this year was that some of the guys were in such poor condition that it didn't make much sense to work stroke. I had to spend time getting them into shape before they could even do the strokes properly. So it's a balance.
Brooks: Do you find that the priorities, or at least the proportions within your training program have changed as you've gone from club to college?
Bowman: Maybe a little. I think the priority here is a little more on strength. I place a higher priority on strength and the dryland training here than I did in club, because I think in the developmental progression it fits better here. Whereas we probably have less emphasis on volume or mileage than we did. Maybe not with the distance swimmers, but with the others.
Brooks: Does all this mean that Bob Bowman, famed worldwide for having his kids NOT lift weights, is having his kids lift weights?
Bowman: I am. Coach Bergen would be so proud of me.
Brooks: Do you think there are more Michael Phelps out there, undiscovered or undeveloped? If so, what is being missed or ignored, what mistakes are being made?
Bowman: Yes, they're out there. I don't know what's being missed or ignored. The problem is, they are going to other sports. Michael had a strong tie to swimming through his family; we were able to get Michael excited about high level swimming early in his life because his sisters had swum on that level; and he happened to be at NBAC where that level of performance happens. I think those are main reasons Michael Phelps stuck with swimming and didn't go on to become a great soccer or lacrosse player, which he had the talent to do. Those other Michael Phelps are going to be good at other sports, too, they are great athletes. Maybe Michael is going to help some of those talented kids stay in swimming through what he's accomplished, they can see what's possible.
Brooks: Do you have any earth-shattering ideas on how to get those talented athletes into swimming and to keep them there?
Bowman: Not at the moment. I'll work on that.
Brooks: What are Michael's greatest strengths?
Bowman: His greatest strength is his ability to relax and focus under pressure. Clearly he has the ability to train in a wide range of events and disciplines, so that's important. He has the ability to set very specific goals and to tie the individual practice sessions to those goals.
Brooks: What are his greatest areas for improvement?
Bowman: Probably maturity, growing up, handling things. He has a lot of good habits, and he handles so many things already with great perspective, but he does have a few things that stop him. He gets very frustrated when he can't do something quickly and easily. He tends to avoid it and not focus on it. I think just working through some frustration with technical changes, that is his biggest weakness.
Brooks: What are some technical things you are working on right now?
Bowman: Turns. How he approaches and comes off walls is really key for him. At the Trials, Aaron Peirsol just killed him into the walls, though coming off of them Michael and Aaron were about even. And working on some stroke changes. His breaststroke needs to be improved quite a bit.
Brooks: Would Michael have become who he is in another program?
Bowman: Probably not exactly the swimmer he is. He probably would have reached the top level, but not in as many events. North Baltimore's focus on IM swimming really helped him a lot.
Brooks: Did any aspects of the Olympic experience catch you and Michael off guard?
Bowman: I don't know if they caught us off guard; I think it was a situation that until you go through it, you don't fully appreciate what's involved and how it will affect you. We knew there would be a lot of media and there was, but we didn't understand just how time-consuming it would be. We didn't know about the drug testing taking place at two different places, blood and urine. So while we knew all those things would be in the mix, we didn't fully understand how they would work.
Brooks: Have you systematically attacked Michael's weaknesses since 2000, or since the beginning (i.e., 1996)? How have you decided priorities?
Bowman: Yes, definitely. In the beginning, we really worked on freestyle. I thought he would do quite a bit of his training freestyle; in the early years doing a lot of distance freestyle would be good for his overall development. Then we moved on to butterfly, because I thought he had the most natural potential in fly. We tweaked that. We did breaststroke next, because that made the IM's go. And then finally, we worked on backstroke.
Brooks: Would you spend a season on each focus, or a year?
Bowman: Years. It took two years getting his breaststroke to a point where it was respectable. He went from being never ranked in the Top 16 as an 11-12 year old to being ranked #1 as a 13-14 in the 200 breast, in two years. That's quite an improvement.
Brooks: To what does Michael owe his versatility?
Bowman: Number one, to his natural talent. Number two, to a program that encouraged, and basically required, him to swim and train and race all the strokes.
Brooks: To what does Michael owe his recovery-ability, and hence his ability to swim overwhelmingly demanding event programs at major meets?
Bowman: He gets that from setting up good habits as a youngster. He's always had an appreciation for sleep. He's followed the guidelines that we gave him for nutrition, for hydration during training, for massage and physical therapy, for spa and hot-tub, everything that we've set up he's bought into and uses, and a combination of those factors is where he gets his ability to recover.
Brooks: Bud McAllister has said that Janet Evans, too, had this remarkable ability to recover. Other kids would take a day or two between hard sets to recover, while she was able to hammer every single day. But other kids on her team had done approximately the same program as she had in the developmental years, just as Michael's teammates have followed the same program, but those other kids aren't on the same level as Janet and Michael. How much of this ability do you think is genetic, a sort of talent that can be developed but must be there to begin with? Or does a coach want to see "the reason" as the swimmer's having followed the coach's program to show that the program is working?
Bowman: [laughing] I'm sure there's some sort of combination there, I wouldn't want to put percentages on it. I do want to see evidence that my program is working, and Michael's results are pretty good evidence. But it is certainly the case that Michael has done the program, and I think that has mattered.
Brooks: What do you see as the greatest opportunities for Michael in the next two or four years?
Bowman: I'm most looking forward to focusing on some specific events and seeing how far he can push those down.
Brooks: I'm curious about the effect of this focusing. I've been impressed watching Michael swim event after event at a high level, from sessions at local age group meets to world championships and Olympics, and do so with his lactates extremely low. And everyone has said, just wait until he starts doing more "anaerobic" work, he's really going to go crazy then. Well, if he does start going more anaerobic, to what extent do you take away much of what makes Michael special?
Bowman: Well, that remains to be seen. It will affect it. My philosophy is, you're greatest strength is your greatest weakness. Clearly the thing that kept Michael from breaking more world records in Athens was that he was swimming all those events.
Brooks: Do you see Michael at future Nationals or World Championships swimming a more restricted program and trying to put those world records into the stratosphere?
Brooks: How have Michael's strokes changed as he has grown? I mean by that, not only the little particulars that you've worked on, but also how he has changed as he has gotten bigger and stronger?
Bowman: The main change has been his underwaters, and his ability to use that. His distance per stroke has improved while maintaining stroke rate. He always had really good stroke rate.
Brooks: How are Michael's strokes specifically tailored to his body?
Bowman: This is a question about thoroughbred conformation. I think that Michael's fly is so good because he can ride very high in the water without a lot of energy. Part of this comes from the way he's built: long torso, wide body but narrow hips. Also, he doesn't have a big heavy musculature, so that enables him to swim a long, smooth stroke at a high stroke rate; he's also got an ability to accelerate. He's tall, he's lean, and he's narrow, but he's also strong. Per pound of body weight he's very strong, and he's pretty well built for every stroke. Except breaststroke. Michael has a "man-made breaststroke" instead of a "God-made breaststroke", as Jon Urbanchek told me one time. That perfectly true.
Brooks: What's missing?
Bowman: His kick. He can't turn his feet out at the right angle. That's a combination of ankle, knee, and hip flexibility.
Brooks: Did Michael present any special problems or challenges when he was younger?
Bowman: YES! He couldn't focus on anything. Maybe a better way to put that is, he had a lot of energy and he was always busy expending it in extraneous ways. So we had to adapt the way that we dealt with him to that. I would always start practice with something that would tire him out, then when I wanted to focus on something technical his energy level would be down enough that he could focus on what I wanted him to.
Brooks: How does Michael's personality contribute to his progress/success?
Bowman: I think that the greatest thing his personality does is that he is really able to have fun during most of the stuff that we do. He doesn't love all of the training, but he loves being around the people on the team, and he loves swimming, so that creates a good environment for him to improve.
Brooks: What do you see as the strongest aspects of each of Michael's strokes?
Bowman: In butterfly, he has the continuous kicking motion throughout a whole race; he's the only person who does that at 200 meters. His kick the last fifty meters is devastating.
In back: probably his legs, but I think he can also swim with a longer stroke than most people. He can tempo it up, though I don't like it when he does that. He can generate high speeds with very low stroke rates, and I think that's the key to why he's so good in backstroke. I think he can be a lot better when he mixes that with a better tempo, or at least a more controlled tempo. He has a really quick stroke or a really long stroke. I like his long stroke.
In breast, he has the ability to use his body action better than most people, and that's good, because he doesn't kick well. At all. He doesn't pull particularly well, either.
In free, it's clearly his kick and his ability to use the underwaters.
Brooks: What do you see as the biggest opportunities for improvement in each?
Bowman: Well, in butterfly he needs to go back to an old-fashioned training program to build a base for the 200. I think the 200 fly is the event where he could probably improve the most. In the backstroke, like I said, building a longer stroke with a fast stroke rate, and managing it better: instead of either over-tempoing his stroke or under-tempoing it, being able to have a range of tempos with better control. Breaststroke: improving the pull and the way his arms recover and initiate the stroke, he's very inefficient there. And in freestyle, more balance, improving his elbow position underwater, especially his right arm as he tends to slip water.
Brooks: What traits separated Michael from the crowd as an age grouper?
Bowman: Competitiveness, fierce competitiveness. He was by far the most competitive kid around, he wanted to win everything.
Brooks: What separates him from the rest of the best now?
Bowman: Competitiveness is still one of them. And like I said, his attention to detail. His ability to relax when the pressure is on: as the pressure increases he gets better.
Brooks: How do you integrate the best swimmer in the world into a club training group, even an elite one like NBAC?
Bowman: Well, it was easy at North Baltimore because he had always been there. He had always been a part of the group, and everyone swimming at Meadowbrook understood who he was. I think one of the main ways when they are young swimmers is you treat them just like everyone else on the team. Even if they are very good, you don't treat them special. Even when Michael was breaking NAG records all over the place, we didn't treat him like he was a boy wonder. There was not one thing different or special about the way I handled him or his parents until maybe the season leading up to the Olympic Trials: not until he had done 1:59 flat as a 14-year old.
The program was a constant, though from time to time there may have been some tweaking to give him what he needed, and I may have had him in mind when designing some of the sets. But by and large he developed by doing the North Baltimore program, not the Michael Phelps program. I think you always need to gear your program toward the top kids, at least if you want them and the program to be any good, so of course we needed top end intervals that would challenge Michael. Sometimes that meant that he got a lane to himself to train in, but the other kids knew that if they could hang onto his interval they could jump under the lane line and join him. He didn't own the lane; the interval owned the lane. I don't think this situation is unique to Michael; every program deals with it to some respect.
Brooks: Most coaches accept the idea that having kids race each other in practice makes them better. Who did Michael have to race against?
Bowman: That is tough. He races the clock all the time. That's something he learned coming up. Unless he was 11 or 12 and racing the 17 year olds, he had to race the clock. I kept setting the bar higher and asking him to do harder and harder things, and he started building this really strong relationship in his head between practice times and performances in meets. I think those tied together and ended up being a really good way to train. You know, Michael likes to train in a lane with a lot of people. He doesn't like to train by himself. He doesn't mind swimming around people.
Brooks: Do you think Michael's dominating in training has been a main reason for his being able to form that tie between practice times and meet times?
Bowman: Definitely. He had to have something to push him and motivate him. And that tie is one of his strongest traits now. He sets goals in practice that link directly to his competition goals, and he gets motivation from knocking off those goals every day.
Brooks: Michael has had one coach and one program for an extended period. How important is this?
Bowman: I think it's different. I don't know how important it is. I think any number of people could have coached Michael and helped him progress. But I've gotten to know him VERY well: how he works, what works with him and what doesn't in training, how to motivate him. I think that's very important. And I think it goes with the kind of swimmer Michael is. He's always been out there in terms of performances. He needs someone who understands every aspect of him because he tends to really have some specialized needs as far as getting to the very top and reaching his enormous potential. Not that other people don't have specialized needs, but I do think that our long-term relationship has helped that.
Brooks: How important was the environment at NBAC in Michael's early years?
Bowman: Oh, it was critical to his development. Just the overall attitude, the commitment to work, the performance-orientation of the team. I don't think he would be the same swimmer without it.
Brooks: Can you elaborate?
Bowman: At NBAC there is very strong discipline as far as the coach's word is the law. Michael needed that. At a young age he needed to be in a situation where he had very strong guidance. And it was important that both he and his parents buy into that. And I think that was very important. Number two, there was a very strong emphasis on long-range career planning for these swimmers. When we looked at Michael at 9 or 10, we were thinking about what he could be like at 17 or 18. That was very important. And the things we did with him when he was very young were geared toward helping him achieve those levels when he was older. Finally, I would say that a key was the whole belief that reaching the highest levels of the sport was not just possible but expected. Part of the great aura of being on NBAC is that Michael knew teammates who had been to the Olympics and won Olympic gold medals and broken world records. So it wasn't just something we were theorizing about or dreaming would happen. It already had happened and he was seeing it happen. That was important.
Brooks: Looking back, what were your particularly smart moves at critical points in Michael's development, where the bullet train could easily have come off the track?
Bowman: I taught him to six-beat kick in freestyle. More precisely, I forced him to 6-beat kick. That was absolutely critical. And I decided to spend his 11 & 12 years working on his strokes more than on his speed in the pool. He improved in those years but not at the rate that might have been expected from someone with his talent. And I didn't push him into a work load that he wasn't ready to handle, instead very judiciously adding work as he was mentally and physically ready for it.
Brooks: Do you think that his physical ability to handle the work was far ahead of his mental ability when he was younger?
Bowman: In some ways, yes. It took awhile before he correctly handled competition, for instance not throwing his goggles when he lost or throwing tantrums. Those sorts of things took time.
Brooks: What about smart moves over the last few years?
Bowman: The smartest move I made was hiring Peter Carlisle as his agent. Also, his mother and sat down with our advisors and assembled a team around him that has allowed him to continue to improve in the pool and at the same time promote swimming and make what will be a very nice living from swimming. That will be seen to be the best move we made.
Brooks: What do you see as keys to developing super-talents?
Bowman: Long range planning. Definitely. Having a real sense of where this is going to end up and how you want to get there. I don't think that you can proceed season by season and just hope that everything works out. You need to have a plan. Second, you need to understand that their needs are going to be different in some respects but that the basic thing you can do that will help them the most is to get them to realize that they are a part of your team and they aren't special. They do swim faster than the rest of the kids, but they are a part of your team. I think that's critical. Finally, I think that you need to build a team of people around them each of whom is going to be in charge of one aspect. For instance, we have Scott Heinlein in charge of physical therapy, Doctor Rowe for any medical concerns, Peter Carlisle for the business aspects, Marissa for his scheduling, Debbie is in charge of the home life, and I am in charge of his swimming and of coordinating all these other members of his team. I think it's important as a coach that if you have a relationship with a swimmer on this level that you are building a team of people who can support him. You can't do this by yourself.
Brooks: On that long-range planning, can you give me an example or two of what you mean?
Bowman: You need to start looking at the talent that you have. You never know for sure what is going to happen, but there are coaches around the country working with 12 year old girls who are thinking, this girl may be ready for the 2008 Olympics, and we'd better start making the right moves right now to see that that can happen. That's the way we think at North Baltimore. You start looking down the road, and then start working backwards. Or even start by looking at the world records. If we have a young man who we think might be capable of swimming 14:30 for the mile one day, and he's 13, what are the steps we can start initiating now that are going to help him get there. He can't get there today, but what are we going to start with, and probably the answer is stroke technique. Then how are going to manage his overall training plan: when is he going to start doing doubles, how often and how much volume, what are the expectations of intensity versus volume of the work? Then we start looking at how he handles competitions: what is his mental demeanor, how are going to help him learn to be a peak performer? That's how I would go about it. It's not like you would have to have it all written out, though some people might, though I would probably have a fairly detailed plan for the year. The closer you get to the present, of course, the more precise you can and should be. You just need to be looking down the road at where a possible destination is, then work backward to how you can reasonably reach that goal.
Brooks: Do you see any common mistakes made by coaches of talented kids?
Bowman: The main one is swimming them too much and too hard when they are young. Every coach, especially the young go-getter, wants his kids to swim fast, and you can get kids to swim very fast if you beat them to death. Back in my younger days I had a small "elite" age group training group going six to seven thousand yards a day, pretty hard, and I had a couple of 10-year olds in that group. I wouldn't do that now.
Brooks: What would you do? Can you outline the "Bob Bowman ideal developmental training plan for talented swimmers"?
Bowman: Well, obviously it's going to vary a lot, but I can give you a general outline. With 10 & Unders, I would do lots and lots of technique work, but also do some longer swims to get an aerobic bump. Kids are ready and willing to do it and their bodies are adapted to aerobic improvements. Watch kids out on a playground, they are not running for fifteen seconds then stop, fifteen seconds then stop, but keeping moving for hours. Kids are aerobic sponges. But the focus should be on building stroke skills. And on kicking. Kick often and hard and fast.
With 11 & 12's it's most important to build volume, especially with girls, though you shouldn't forget the short fast speed work occasionally. Boys are usually developmentally behind, so they should probably be treated more as the 10 & Under girls are. If I had a group of pretty good 11-12 girls who had a good background in stroke and endurance development, I would be pushing them, particularly on the endurance aspect. I just think they're going to get the benefit of increased heart and lung size, increased maxVO2 potential, that they can use later in life, but that they can only get before puberty. You have to take advantage of that window. Once you do that, after they go through puberty they can sprint, they can do anything you want them to, they can swim until they're 35, but they're going to have something to work with.
Brooks: Do you think, then, that 11-12 is the key age group in determining what kind of an athlete a girl is going to be?
Bowman: Yes, I think it is a very important period, maybe between 11 and 13.
Brooks: And for boys?
Bowman: Probably 14 to 15 are the crucial ages. And with the same emphasis: endurance. I think the big difference between the girls and the boys at that age is that the girls are going to be very receptive to a big training program. You'll get so much effective training done because of where they are psychologically and physically. They want to please the coach, they're very goal oriented. I think the boys from 13 to 15 are more variable. You have to get the work done but you may have to get it done in a different way, or at least package it differently. Make it more fun, more racing. Boys are going to sold on acquiring a new skill, or feeling like they're learning something, or racing each other and pounding on their chests, while the girls will be much more into putting as much effort as they can into it, being much more serious when they're in that critical period.
With 13 & 14's, the girls should begin some kind of strength training, they should be getting some good hard work in, and their volumes should be building towards their maximum. By 15 or 16, more aerobically-oriented girls should probably be at full volume, though girls who are obvious sprinters can wait a bit.
At 15 to 16? With the women you want to keep going, but at some point they're going through puberty and you're going to have to pay very close attention to their bodies and how they change. Hopefully you can put a dryland program into place that will minimize the negative effects of puberty. That's the ideal time. And since once they go through puberty it's also an ideal time for strength training, you hit two birds with one stone.
Brooks: Do you agree with Paul Bergen that in order to keep control of body composition you need either an hour straight of hard aerobic dryland work like running or riding an exercise bike, or else weight training?
Bowman: I do agree with that. I don't think girls are going to lose much weight swimming, no matter how many miles they swim, if that's what you're trying to do.
Boys at 15 to 16? They're a step behind the girls. You need to continue with your program but not step on them too hard. They're pretty serious by that point, and you can start to get them focused on senior-level swimming and what their real goals are going to be. But at this age, boys aren't going to be able to compete with the 20-year old men, whereas the 15- or 16-year old girls are going to be better than the 20-year old women, that tends to be the rule. The boys are much more developmental. You're still saving that serious strength training for down the road.
Brooks: What are some important subjects that never get discussed but should be?
Bowman: For one, career planning for talented swimmers. And by career planning, I mean not only the topics we've already discussed, like teaching the swimmers when they are young the things they are going to have to know and do when they are older, but also, and especially, things like meet scheduling and the cycling of events swum at meets. Over and over you see coaches of talented kids having the kids swim in way too many meets and swimming their best events over and over, it's no wonder the swimmers' progression is stunted. We didn't do that at North Baltimore. For instance, the first time Michael ever swam the 200 fly he qualified for Juniors, we held it back and didn't have him swim it until he was ready to do it well. And the summer he broke the American record in the 200 IM , he hadn't swum the 200 IM long course since the year before. I think it's not a good idea to have swimmers race in their best events very often: save it for special times when they are going to swim fast. That way they keep progressing.
Second is the marriage of biomechanics and physiology. This is something Murray and I are very passionate about. You always hear about what the heart rate should be during different kinds of sets, or what the lactates should be, but there is never any discussion of exactly what the stroke should be like during all this. The stroke modulates during a race: it's not the same from one part to another. The third 25 of a 100, or the 3rd 50 of a 200, is the key and tells you a lot about what the stroke is like and how the swimmer trains. We do a lot with lap speed, getting not only the final time on a 200 repeat, for example, but seeing the smaller parts of the whole: how the swimmer maintains or doesn't maintain a pace, and what kind of stroke count and stroke rate he is holding.
I think one thing we do best is design sets to use a spectrum of energy systems. Swimmers get a feel for how the stroke changes and develops as they go from aerobic to top end speed. I think this is very important for stroke control and much more true to how strokes develop during a race. The majority of our stroke training, in all four strokes, is geared toward this kind of spectrum training.
And the descending series would descend not only to "race pace" but also to race lap speed, race stroke count, and race stroke rate? Exactly.
Brooks: Given that you are not an East German coach focusing on a few swimmers, how do you do all that with a reasonably-sized training group?
Bowman: It's not easy, but it's also not impossible. You don't need to check every single parameter on every single swimmer on every single repeat, but you do need to keep a handle on everything that's going on. You need to be actively coaching, paying very close attention, and you need to know your swimmers and their tendencies. You can't do it sitting on your rear reading a newspaper.
Brooks: How do you incorporate this descending to pace kind of training into your training year?
Bowman: The majority of our stroke training year-round is done with this kind of spectrum training, but the emphases change. Maybe in general phases of the season it would be more IM-based, with the whole group switching off fly one day, back the next, breast the next, etc., and in more quality phases the swimmers would do their specialty stroke more frequently.
Brooks: Do you still structure a season around six-week phases?
Bowman: Yes, I am doing that again. We start with a gradually buildup of volume for the first six weeks. Then we would do six weeks emphasizing quality work, but more general. Then we'll probably get a smaller dose of endurance, sometime around the Christmas break, but maybe only three weeks. Then we'll come back to a phase of mixed training, but it will be very specific to specialty stroke and specialty race. Then we'll rest and have our big meet.
Brooks: It sounds like you don't accept Bill Sweetenham's contention that the volume should be stable but the intensity should fluctuate?
Bowman: Not at all. I think the fault in the logic of maintaining that you can build to these huge volumes and then change intensity is that you can only take so much intensity. Can you do 10,000 meters of anaerobic work? Can you even build that to 5,000 meters in a workout? I don't think so. And the remainder is going to be low level endurance swimming, by necessity, or you will slaughter your swimmers. I have a feeling that it just starts regressing toward the mean, towards what they can actually handle despite your planning.
I think when you manipulate both the volume and intensity you have a lot more options for giving them a variety of adaptations. Paul [Bergen] used to talk a lot about maximum variety of endurance adjustments. Ultimately just about everything we do in swimming is an endurance adjustment. There's a little power, a little immediate energy systems, but by and large it's an endurance game. If you manipulate the volume and the intensity you will get the best results
Brooks: How long do the adaptations take to make?
Bowman: I don't think they take three, or four, or six weeks like some coaches so. In fact, when I was at Birmingham Swim League I worked out a system with Paul Bergen's help that we called "waves", with one week of transition, one week of high volume, one week of faster swimming, and one week of transition at the end of which was a meet. We would cycle through those waves four or five times during a season, and it worked very well. And with Paul in Napa we would work at a certain volume up until three weeks before the fairly important December meet, then have one week of very high volume, going from 65,000 up to 90,000, by dropping dryland and swimming as much and as hard as we could for a week; then one week back to "normal"; then one week dropping volume as we went into the meet. During that second week, the "normal" week, the kids had made obvious adaptations during the super-volume week, and could swim fast and easy. A few weeks later during the Christmas holidays, they would again raise their volume drastically, but this time they would maintain their dryland, so they would get even more of a bump.
Brooks: Now, in the old days at North Baltimore, we had a reputation for not resting much yet still swimming fast. Has your thinking changed much now that you're dealing with men and not boys and girls?
Bowman: Yes, it has, particularly when we have a big meet short course. I'm even coming around to this thinking regarding long course. For example, with Michael's tapers for Trials and the Olympics, I rested him as I would have if he had swum a normal program as opposed to his very heavy one: the same taper whether he was swimming seventeen events or swimming four. I learned a lot last summer. We did a full taper for the World Championships, and he did very well in Barcelona. Then we spent the two weeks between Worlds and Nationals doing only about 4,000 meters a day. Off of that, he went to College Park and swam very well again (one world record and a couple of American records). That taught me that he wasn't really losing fitness despite the drop-off in volume and work.
So I would say that for the Trials his volume was pretty normal until about ten days before, then we cut it down, but again as we would have normally done. I may have pushed him a bit harder on the intensity of the work just because I thought he needed to stay in contact with pain, for lack of a better word. Psychologically.
Brooks: How much can you reduce the volume when he's swimming 65,000 meters during the meet?
Bowman: Well, I did the week prior. No matter what they're doing at the meet, they need to rest. Michael is swimming less in practice that last week than he ends up swimming during the meet, because I've noticed that he races just as fast and doesn't lose conditioning. He's built up his aerobic capacity over ten years, remember, so he's not going to lose much by a few days of reduced volume. I think you have to drop the volume, you have to drop something, if you're going to get the quality swimming at the meet. In the last three weeks before the meet you have to make sure they are recovering, supercompensating. I don't think that means you have to cut the volume drastically, but it does mean that you have to cut enough to enable them to do the fast swimming, make the neuromuscular adjustments, and get the psychological confidence that they are going to swim fast. That's why you manipulate the volume, so you can get the speed you want and rehearse the racing stroke.
Brooks: Did you notice any change in the amount of time Michael took to recover and get his lactates down through the meet at Trials, or through the meet in Athens, or from Trials to the Olympics?
Bowman: No, not much at all. At Trials he had a harder time recovering, but he also swam a harder program. The one night when he swam three events just crushed him. After that he could barely walk the next day for the 100 fly. That's why we gave up the 200 back. At the Olympics I thought his program was very well balanced: he was able to do a good job in every race without getting destroyed.
Brooks: Now let's change gears a bit. What do you see as the key aspects of each stroke?
Bowman: In butterfly, maintaining body position and rhythm throughout the whole race. I think butterfly has evolved into a rhythmic stroke and not a power stroke. In backstroke, the key is the tempo, how you control it, and how that affects your stroke length. The best backstrokers manage their tempo. The key to breaststroke, I think, is striking the balance between gliding off your kick and using your arms. At what point is the long stroke not effective? How do you balance the arms and legs to get the best combination for each swimmer? Maybe each swimmer is simply one or the other: an arms-breaststroker or a legs-breaststroker.
Brooks: With my kids, my rule is, whoever has a great kick is allowed to glide out front; the rest have to get the tempo up.
Bowman: Right. Exactly. Michael wants to glide like Mike Barrowman, but he doesn't have a kick. Mike Barrowman could jump over this building [University of Michigan pool], he didn't have to pull.
Brooks: In freestyle, the key aspect nowadays is the six-beat. Can you do it for a mile, for a 400, for a 100?
Bowman: I have a feeling that the girl who goes an 8:10 for the 800 is going to do it with a six-beat kick.
Brooks: I was going to ask you whether that "rule" applied to girls as well.
Bowman: Definitely yes. Something's going to have to give. What can these girls do differently? Can they do more aerobic work better than Janet Evans? Probably not. Can they improve the quality of the work and add the six-beat? I'm going to say that that's where any improvement will come from.
Following that line of thought: why would Sippy Woodhead still be winning, or at least highly competitive in the 200 free, 25 years later? Even in the 400 free, at the 1980 Olympic Trials we had a couple of girls go 4:06 or 4:07, times that would still be considered super. And that doesn't even consider Janet's records, which are seen as way out there. What aren't we doing right? You got me. I think that, honestly, we don't have any women out there, Brooke Bennett was the last one, who set their sights high enough that that was even on their radar screen. We think an 8:30 is a good swim; as long as we think that, 8:30 is going to be a good swim, and 8:10 or even 8:16 will be seen as impossible. Also, I'm not sure our girls now have the same sort of training background those girls had. That gets back to developmental planning. If I had a girl I thought could swim an 8:10 some day I'd be doing things right now to help her get ready.
We need a trailblazer. It's going to be like Larsen Jensen's breakthrough in Athens. I guarantee you we're going to have four or five guys over the next couple of years go under 15 minutes in the mile. And I hope to be coaching a couple of them. They know it's possible. I saw Larsen train over the Olympic camp, and he did some amazing things, but he only has two arms and two legs. There are plenty of people who have the ability, and they just needed to have someone show them that it could be done, and they will follow. It's like Michael in the 200 IM. When he went 1:58, only he and Sievenen had been 1:58. Now a bunch of people have been 1:58, just in the last year. Now that he's gone 1:55 it opens the door for some of those others to think, well, maybe I can go 1:57 or 1:56. They'll follow, I hope, Michael needs people pushing him.