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A CHAMPION’S PURSUIT
Sometimes, when you stop for a moment to look ahead, the pause only keeps that list of things you need to get done from getting shorter, and it does little to shrink the number of people who are depending on you for something, and it certainly doesn’t make all the bills that have piled up go away, because, well, the pause might also keep the checks from coming in. And when all this happens, when the twin monsters of Anxiety and Stress start pounding at your door, it’s easy to put your hands up and say, “You got me, fellas. You win. I give up.”
But on a gorgeous summer night back in 2013, with a setting sun skimming the white sand of the Delaware shoreline and an easy breeze whistling off the Atlantic Ocean, those monsters had no chance of catching me.
How could they? Just weeks earlier I had finished taking a few months off from work and competition and the daily grind. In a sense, I had taken off from life, and I was still feeling the rush. I had needed the break. For the better part of sixteen years, I had let the quadrennial Olympic cycle all but consume me—preparation for one Summer Games (Sydney) turning into preparation for the next (Athens), and that turning into the next (Beijing), and then the next (London). Oh, for sure, I loved the opportunities the Olympics brought me. The travel, the TV appearances, the passing out of Olympic pins in the different villages, the tossing back of the local brews—Foster’s in Sydney, Tsingtao in Beijing, Newcastle in London. Great fun that came with enormous rewards.
But to achieve these magnificent moments I had to be willing to expend exceptional amounts of psychic energy. Understand, I’m not complaining. It’s the deal with any job—banker, CEO, computer programmer, mother, father—where there are demands and deadlines and you’re pursuing excellence while others may be content with “good enough.” I knew that that kind of pressure was part of the formula for success: To achieve, and to achieve with distinction, sometimes you need to push harder than you had ever planned.
Now, though, with the next Olympics—Rio 2016—not that far away, I wasn’t yet ready to let Anxiety and Stress get to me, even though I could feel them closing in as the to-do list got longer each day. Instead, I felt inspired by the challenges this cycle would bring me. New athletes to coach, new records to chase. Plus, after having gone through the quadrennial so many times, I knew what to expect and how to deal with just about anything the work brought.
And one more thing: I would be doing all this without the pressure of making the greatest Olympian of all time even greater.
So, as I looked out onto the Atlantic on this August evening, with a couple of teenage kids goofing off on their surfboards, and with some toddlers on the boardwalk smearing ice cream all over their parents’ clothes, I realized one thing: That mounting pile of stuff on my desk and in my head had no power to break me.
And then my phone buzzed.
Hmm, I thought, looking down. I wonder what he wants.
“Let’s have dinner soon. MP”
Simple, to the point, just like so many other messages he had texted me in the nearly two decades we had known each other, a period during which we had pushed each other to break records, win medals, and achieve greatness—and pushed our friendship to extreme heights and, at points, to severe peril.
But, as I had also come to know over that time, nothing is ever that simple when it involves MP—Michael Phelps.
* * *
A few days later, I met Michael at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. He had made a reservation for the two of us at Wit & Wisdom, one of the finest and priciest restaurants in the city.
“You’re paying,” I told him as we sat down.
I hadn’t seen much of him of late; in fact, our paths had crossed only a few times since the conclusion of the London Olympics the previous summer. At those Games, Michael cemented his stardom for all time by winning the last of his record-setting twenty-two Olympic medals, then told the world he was retiring to go make Subway commercials, travel the world, and play a lot of golf. You know, the typical life of every twenty-seven-year-old. Me? I had a mortgage still to pay, a payroll to meet, and some more athletes who wanted to see if I could coach them to become the next superstar. I was forty-seven years old and in no position to retire. But I also knew that I needed some time away to refresh and assess where I was and where I wanted to go next. So, for nine months or so, I hung out at the racetrack watching the thoroughbreds, I relaxed at the beach, I read a lot of books, I watched too much Food Network, and, most of all, I paused and looked ahead.
During that post-London period, Michael and I called each other now and then and we’d see each other at the occasional Baltimore Ravens football game or at a charity event. But after being together through four Olympics—which meant thousands of hours of preparation at our “office” (our training pools in Baltimore) and crisscrossing the world to compete at swim competitions—we needed a break from each other.
By no means, though, was this a breakup.
We were business partners, and we had plans to open swim schools around the world in the coming years. We were also in talks with a manufacturer to design and develop a new type of racing suit. Big jobs, for sure, but not so deadline-driven that they couldn’t wait a bit. Plus, the way I saw things, those jobs had nothing on my previous one: making Michael the greatest Olympian of all time.
While Michael and I waited for the sommelier to arrive, we small-talked. He asked about my latest misadventures in the kitchen; those Food Channel shows had hooked me on trying to become an amateur chef. He told me about his latest trials with his putter. “Bob, I’m driving fine, chipping perfectly,” he said. “I just can’t read the greens. It’s driving me crazy.” I knew the feeling. Our last few years of Olympic training had tested our friendship, and my sanity. And the memories were still raw. We wanted to end Michael’s Olympic run with a flourish, and we eventually did. Getting there, though, took a physical and mental effort on my part that I couldn’t imagine ever repeating.
But tonight, I told myself, I wouldn’t dredge up the past. I took a breath and, with my glass filled with a nice Merlot, sat back and relaxed … for maybe half a second.
Michael leaned forward and his eyes narrowed. He looked at me and said, “I’m thinking about coming back.” I stared at him. He smiled a bit. “Yep,” he went on, “I’m thinking about the Olympics one more time.”
I wasn’t sure if I should jump for joy or start crying. “You want to come back?” I asked, a bit shocked and confused. He sort of grinned and nodded.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. A few months earlier, while he was on vacation with some buddies in Cabo San Lucas, Michael had called me late one night and started blathering on about making some sort of return. At the time, I didn’t think much of the call; I simply took it as a late-at-night-Michael ramble and told him, “Absolutely not,” and hung up.
But on this night, as he sat across the table from me, I could tell he was serious. And I wondered, Why? Why would he want to go through all the effort of another Olympic cycle? Michael had legendary status: eighteen Olympic golds among his twenty-two total. He’d broken dozens of world records and made millions of dollars along the way. The press had scrutinized nearly every angle of his short life; a comeback would put the media back on his trail. Plus, had he forgotten the run-up to the London Olympics and how miserable both he and I were?
“Do you remember those last four years?” I finally asked him.
“It won’t be like that,” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ve heard that before.” Then I shook my head.
There was silence for a minute or so. I thought about what his decision would mean, for him and for me. Then I said, “If you’re making a comeback for your sponsors, or if you’re doing it because you don’t have anything better to do with your life, or if you can’t figure your life out, then you should not do it. Michael, I mean it: You should not do it.”
He nodded. And waited. Then he said, “Bob, I can tell you, those aren’t the reasons.”
I came at him again. “Let me be clear, Michael. Unless you’re doing it for the right reasons, and those reasons have to be that you’re doing it only for yourself, then you should not do this.”
Now, for the first time all night—in fact, for the first time that I could remember—Michael looked at me with the face of a wizened young man. And he said, “That’s the only reason I want to do it. For me. I love to swim. I want to swim.”
He paused for a second. “And I have more things I want to accomplish.”
That’s when I knew for certain that he meant what he was saying—and, better yet, that much of what I had sought to teach him over the years, beyond an explosive freestyle stroke or a killer flip turn, had taken root. Yes, in a matter of a few minutes, my life had suddenly become more complicated. I knew that along with Anxiety and Stress, Michael would be making a comeback, too. But that was okay, because it meant that I was once again in the business of working with someone who knew how to dream big and also knew what it took to make such a dream real.
Michael wasn’t coming back to win medals; he was coming back to achieve something. And, as we had so many times before, we would do it together. One stroke, one kick, one race at a time, a partnership in pursuit of excellence.
GETTING GOLD OUT OF EVERY DAY
Like a lot of the great teams and enterprises in sports, in business, in science, in music, in life, Michael Phelps and I have worked together to envision markers we wanted to reach in our careers and in our lives and then pushed damn hard to attain them. While others have done the same thing in laboratories and backyard garages, in high-rise office towers and small shops along Main Street, USA, we just happened to do much of our work within the confines of a pair of 50-meter pools on the outskirts of downtown Baltimore.
And one more thing made us somewhat unique: We followed a process that I call, simply, the Method.
It’s a ten-step plan that I first started testing when Michael wasn’t yet a teenager, but I guess you could say it worked out pretty well. And I believe it can work just as well in the boardroom, in a retail shop, in the family kitchen as it did in our swimming venues. Anywhere achievement and excellence are sought, the Method can work. And it can work even if you don’t have Olympic dreams or a Bob Bowman charting your day-to-day efforts.
Sure, you might be saying, the Method works because this guy Bowman coached the greatest natural-born swimmer ever. Well, Michael may be a freakishly talented athlete and he may be the most prominent swimmer I’ve ever worked with, but come visit me in Tempe, where I now head up the Arizona State University swimming program, or the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center, my pool in Baltimore. You’ll see plenty of photos spotlighting the other Olympic-medal winners who have worked through my process. And I’m confident that my system works out of the pool as well as it does in the pool. It’s not intended simply to turn a good swimmer into a gold medal–winning one. It’s meant to motivate a person to pull greatness—to get gold—out of every day. In the pages that follow, I’ll lay out the Method and show you how it can work for you.
To be honest, the Method uses a simple formula. Together with an athlete or one of my employees, I break things down, then look to build them up. We set plans to follow by the day, the week, the month, and the year, along with desired outcomes. We butt heads. Lord knows we butt heads. (There are lots of stories about how Michael and I yelled and screamed at each other along the way to twenty-two medals—and you know, some are even true; I’ll share a few of them shortly.) But most of all we focus on a target, and we never let that target out of our sight.
In Michael’s case, for this process to take hold he had to realize that he could be more than a good swimmer; he could be world-class. And I had to realize that I needed to work even harder to take him from respectable to wondrous. No shortcuts permitted by either of us.
Here’s one snapshot of how the Method works: It’s the story of how I helped transform Michael’s sloppy butterfly stroke into the greatest one ever. Now, don’t get hung up on the tactical, “insider swimming” stuff. What this story reveals is how the use of a carefully orchestrated yet adaptable plan can bring success, whether you’re a swimmer with the potential for Olympic greatness or someone just seeking greatness out of day-to-day life. It’s the story of staying focused—something we all need to do to succeed.
It starts one day in the spring of 1997, when Michael was eleven and he was practicing with a group of kids about his age. That morning I immediately spotted a major flaw in his butterfly. It had to do with his breathing—specifically, the timing of when he took a breath. Sure, Michael may be an amazing physical specimen, but even he needed to get air into his body when racing 50 or 100 or 200 meters of butterfly, perhaps the most strenuous stroke in the sport. In Michael’s case, he had a sort of a hiccup when taking a breath. He’d lift his head too far out of the water. I would tell him, “Don’t pick your head up until your hands are under your waist. That will keep you from lifting your head too soon.”
Think about that for a second. Seems doable, right? That is, until you jump into a pool and have a go at it.
And there was more instruction to come: “Michael, when you do go for a breath, just set your chin on top of the water and put it right back down.”
In a way, these were small tweaks that the typical sports fan would never notice. In reality, they were absolutely altering his stroke. The changes took weeks and months of practice to perfect. Through the Method Michael would get tired of hearing me repeat the commands. I would see him lift his head too far out of the water and scream, “No! Michael! Remember, Michael, just lift the chin!”
Like any eleven-year-old, he’d get frustrated. “Oh, yeah!” he’d blurt out, and then bang his fist on the surface of the water.
I’d prod; Michael would push back. I’d nudge; Michael would practice. The instruction came in a loop. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But it was through that cycle of instruction and repetition that success finally came.
And then greatness.
Within four years, by the time he was fifteen, Michael had set the world record for the 200-meter butterfly. Think about it. In the decades during which swimming records have been kept, decades that featured such stars as Johnny Weissmuller and Mark Spitz, no man had ever swum 200 meters of butterfly faster than this fifteen-year-old. How come? Because he took a plan and worked it.
I believe that’s the power of the Method: everyday pursuit of excellence to achieve long-term greatness.
But Michael didn’t just become a world-record holder on that day. Too many athletes and performers, and people in general, think the court or the stage or the podium in front of a sales team is where they really shine. The fact is, your most critical performances must take place away from the crowds and the lights and the expectant public. Michael produced that first world record—the first of thirty-nine he would set—because of all the mundane workouts he put himself through during the early-morning swim practices at an off-the-beaten-path pool in Baltimore. We practiced twice a day, at 7 A.M. before school and again for three hours after classes ended, in a pool where the only thing to focus on was the black lane line running its length. Swimming isn’t like baseball or golf, where you’re out in the sunlight and checking out the views across the field and getting a nice tan. No, with swimming you’re wet, underwater, and using lots and lots of raw muscle power. And any improvement you make comes in milliseconds, not minutes. (Sound familiar? Anyone who has logged time in Cubicle Village, developing and then redoing PowerPoint presentations or monthly sales forecasts, can understand the swimmer’s slog.)
Michael struggled through many of those practices; I know, because I was with him for nearly every one. I saw how his breathing would be right one day but then fall apart by the next. And I would remind him and pester him, and he would look at me in disgust. But he never stopped listening, trying, and hoping to perfect.
Finally, when he got the stroke, when his breathing was just about right, I assured him, “Michael, you now have it in the bank forever.”
And I was right. Over the course of his first four Olympics, Michael competed in sixteen events in which he swam butterfly. He won a medal fourteen times.
But I will say this often in the pages that follow: We were not chasing medals; medals were just the tangible rewards. We were chasing excellence, and we achieved it often, and, in the process, gained even more: an appreciation for each other that would sustain itself long after his swimming career ended. Here’s what I mean: Just before Michael’s final race in London—at the time, we thought it would be his final Olympic race ever—I saw him in the practice pool, warming up, psyching up. He was aware of what was approaching, and so was I. I walked over to the side of the pool where he was now just hanging out. Through his goggles he must have seen me coming. I bent down, but before I could say a word Michael whispered through the din of the aquatic center, “Bob, I wanted to be like Michael Jordan in basketball and change the sport. Bob, I wanted people to know about swimming. We’ve done that, Bob. We’ve become the best ever, but we got here together. Bob, thanks. Thank you so much.”
He caught me off guard, and I started to well up. “That’s not fair,” I said seconds later.
“I know,” he said. “You can’t see my tears, but yours are streaming down your face.”
You see. That’s an achievement that will last forever, one that doesn’t need a medal to commemorate it.
ALWAYS SEEK EXCELLENCE—EVEN WHEN CHALLENGED
I’m frequently asked by companies to talk to their employees and to share the Phelps-Bowman secrets of success. Essentially, what I deliver is a condensed version of what’s to come in the pages ahead. One thing I make clear in these talks is that the Method does not work overnight; it requires sustained effort. That said, it also challenges you every day, pushing you to improve on something, to set intermediate goals on the way to the big kahuna, and, most of all, to not settle. A few months back, one high-tech company—it’s No. 1 in its category—invited me to talk to its best salespeople. They were the Michael Phelps of salesmanship. What could a swim coach tell them about selling? Well, this: “Whatever you do, avoid complacency. If you’re already number one, set the bar higher, every day.”
And that’s where the parallel between Michael and you—the everyday man or woman—comes in. You might not stand six feet four inches with a wingspan that can gobble up water by the bucketful. You may not even have Olympic dreams. You might just want a promotion at the office, with a raise that will get you closer to owning that summer cottage in the woods. Or you’re after an A in organic chemistry, which will look awfully good on your application to Harvard Medical School.
You have ambitions you want to realize, just like Michael.
The Method will do for you what it did for Michael. Compel you to raise the bar every day, a little or a lot. To shoot for excellence whenever possible.
I know. Achieving excellence every day sounds impossible. In fact, it’s incredibly hard, mostly because of all the other stuff that gets in the way. Michael would be the first to agree with you, and here’s proof: After the acclaim he received at the 2008 Beijing Games—remember, he won eight gold medals, the most ever by one person at an Olympics—he suffered a letdown; he needed to find something that would excite him, to recharge interest in a sport he’d been a part of since the age of five. As a result (and as I mentioned earlier), our relationship became contentious while he searched for this “something.” For weeks and months, I didn’t know when he would be ready to focus on the next big thing—and that’s because he didn’t know what that thing was. He avoided the pool, and when he did come by I couldn’t help but nudge him about the upcoming London Games and the need to focus on it.
He took my prods like a bull reacting to a red cape.
“Nothing’s good enough for you!” he barked at me more than once. “I had to win eight gold medals to get a ‘Good job’ out of you. Lay off, would you?”
To a certain extent, he was right. I would never accept anything less than his very best, and when he gave it I would reset to the notch above. That’s the Method at work.
But I also knew that there comes a point in everyone’s life when he must set his own course and plan his own process. The best coaches, the best bosses, the best parents, the best leaders are the ones who show their people not just how to get better but how to motivate themselves to get better.
Part of the Method—a very important part—is teaching people to deal with the inevitable challenges that come along during their daily lives. When I work with my swimmers, many of whom are teenagers or young adults, I give them daily obstacles to contend with. I challenge the men, for instance, to swim a hundred yards of freestyle in under fifty seconds when they’re already exhausted from fifteen minutes of brutal sprints. Part of the exercise is to make them more physically ready for competition. But the training also prepares their psyches to handle the monsters—Anxiety and Stress—when they’re either on the starting blocks of a major race or, more important, when they face an unforeseen hurdle in their personal lives.
Again, my relationship with Michael has provided me with a front-row seat for viewing the challenges he has had to confront outside the pool. As websites and the tabloids are more than happy to report, Michael’s “real world” record hasn’t always been golden. One too many times he’s victimized himself with terrible judgment, leading to regrettable incidents that threatened to victimize others. I’m not about to condone some of his actions; the potential for harm they could have caused is without question. But I also know that his mistakes are reminders that there’s perfection in gold, not in gold-medal winners. He has accepted the consequences of his lapsed judgment and is now using his experience to modify his daily life. In the coming pages, I’ll show you how. The examples are as telling as any victory from his days at the Olympics.
GET PUMPED UP ABOUT YOUR PURSUIT
At that dinner when Michael told me about his comeback, he kept saying that he wanted this next Olympic cycle to be fun. Yes, he had goals to achieve, he told me, and he promised to work his tail off. But he also said that he wanted to enjoy the process as much as possible. I looked at him and smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said.
Achieving excellence should not be drudgery. It should excite you; darn, you’re going after something you want—savor every moment. As you’ll see, the Method wants the process to be as satisfying as the reward is lasting. After nearly three decades of coaching athletes and other people, I’ve assembled strategies that, I believe, can lead anyone to personal fulfillment on the road to achieving his dream vision. Yes, effort is required, along with careful planning, the right attitude, teamwork, and a mentality that combats those monsters, Anxiety and Stress, when they close in. But they shouldn’t diminish the joy of the chase.
The Method has worked for dozens of world-class swimmers—and I’m confident that it will work for non-swimmers as well, including you. It’s part of my personal mission: to help people realize that the best moments in our lives are built around achieving everyday, and long-lasting, excellence.
So are you ready to pursue something special? Excellent. Let’s go.
Copyright © 2016 by Bob Bowman with Charles Butler