Olympic champions don't do it alone. Behind every top athlete is a coach. For Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, that coach is Bob Bowman. He first coached Michael at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) and later with the U.S. Olympic Team. Bowman has known Phelps since he was just a 10-year-old swimmer. Way back then, Bowman could tell he was a special talent.
Want some tips from a gold-medal coach? We asked Coach Bowman to share his best advice for young athletes.
What would you say are the top three things a kid or teen can do to improve their performance in a sport?
Improve their technique or skill level. I think that's really important. Whatever they're doing they need to really practice the fundamentals and improve their basic skills.
Be a student of the strategies of their game, whatever they are. That comes from looking more outside themselves at the sport as a whole, and getting a feel for what it's like at the top level of their sport, and then they can learn a lot of things that are going to help them at their level, wherever they are.
Take care of themselves away from the field of play or the pool. Proper nutrition, getting enough rest, taking care of their bodies by stretching, and doing some things like that. I think those are the top three.
What can athletes do in the off-season to keep themselves in top shape? What shouldn't they do?
What they shouldn't do is sit around and watch TV all the time. They should remain active. Anything that makes a person a better athlete, in any area, will help their [skills] because a better athlete will perform better in any given sport. If they're a swimmer, and they want to play basketball or run or lift some weights, it's all good for them. Just stay active and use your body.
How should athletes eat so they perform at their best?
Obviously, you want to stay away from junk food. Eat the basics of nutrition. All young people probably need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and most adults. Eat a balanced diet. When you're young and growing, you have a little more leeway than you do when you're older, but the better, healthy eating habits they can get younger, the better off they'll be later.
What did you see in Michael Phelps that made you think he had great potential?
I really 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 can good coaching do for an athlete?
For a swimmer, I'm their eyes out of the water. They can't see what they're doing. A lot of times what you think you're feeling isn't exactly what you're supposed to be doing.
The most important thing a coach does is give feedback. Also, I think we give guidance and motivation and some other things. The coach really is a partner in your activity, and I think it's so much better when you have one.
What's private coaching like?
Private coaching is a lot like private lessons in music; it absolutely helps. If you're a band student at school, and you want to improve your individual skills, working with someone one-on-one is very effective. If that's available to them, I would talk with the coach of their 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." And that's true in every phase of your 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. A lot of the time it's uncomfortable, 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.