Skip to main content

Bob Bowman uses Michael Phelps to explain how to achieve excellence

ASU swim coach reveals success secrets of his most famous pupil to crowd of hundreds of students at First-Year Success Center talk

Coach Bowman lectures
January 30, 2017

Michael Phelps had a dream of winning Olympic gold medals, so when he dove into the pool in one race in Beijing and his goggles filled with water, blinding him, he still managed to set a world record.

It happened because he spent years on the small details of training and learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, according to Bob Bowman, his coach.

“There can be no growth without discontent,” said Bowman, who now is the head coach of the Arizona State University swim and dive team.

“Michael learned skills so that under pressure, he could perform. Don’t try to make everything perfect for yourself — be tough on yourself.”

On Monday, Bowman addressed several hundred students on how they can work toward achieving excellence in a talk sponsored by ASU’s First-Year Success Center. He frequently used Phelps as an example of someone who embodied excellence through planning and hard work — plus talent. Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals. Besides coaching Phelps, Bowman also was the men’s coach for the U.S. National swim team at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and was the assistant coach for the American men in the 2012 Olympics in London. He also has coached at the University of Michigan and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

“It isn’t a straight line to success,” Bowman said of his collaboration with Phelps, whom he coached since he was 10 years old. “We didn’t just have an idea, a dream, and then just go directly toward it. Success has a lot of ups and down, backward and forward. Over time, you move in the direction you want to be.”

Bowman said the three phases of personal development are imagination, challenge and high performance.

“Imagination is where you use your noggin and heart to come up with something that drives you,” he said.

Dreams are emotional and should be the catalyst for the hours of sometimes excruciating work that’s needed for success, he said. Then you set short-, medium- and long-term goals with clearly defined time frames.

“Write down your specific target. If you write something down, it’s more meaningful,” he said. “You don’t have to post it on Facebook. It can be very private.”

A crucial part of goal setting is visualizing success, in which you see yourself in a different place.

“You’re running a movie in your head of yourself attaining your goals,” he said. It’s a powerful tool he uses with his athletes.

“I want them to visualize in the most vivid way possible. I want them to smell the chlorine and see themselves swimming exactly the way they want to. Because the brain cannot distinguish between something that’s vividly imagined and something that is real.”

Phelps was so adept at visualization that he would have recurring dreams predicting his success, Bowman said.

The challenge phase is about the process — the daily practice and refinement of details.

In one Olympic race, Phelps was behind another swimmer, but ended up winning the gold medal by one-hundredth of a second because he had his palm outstretched and touched the wall before his opponent, whose hand was flexed. It was a detail that Phelps had practiced endlessly.

“Details matter. He went back to 12 years of me yelling at him about his finish,” Bowman said.

The high-performance phase is a natural outcome of the process that led up to it, Bowman said, and includes attitude and the ability to work through adversity, including the example of Phelps winning the gold with his eyes full of water, which he did by counting his strokes so he knew when to flip at the pool wall.

“You’ll have to adjust your plan,” he said, and that’s why coaches are important.

“The journey will be circuitous. It won’t be what you mapped out, but your coach is your GPS,” he said.

The freshmen and sophomores in the First-Year Success Center are assigned peer coaches to help them adjust to college life, excel in their classes, get involved in activities and clubs and find out about financial aid. Seventy-five upperclassmen and graduate students serve as the peer coaches.

Bowman told the peer coaches in the room to personalize their approaches.

“When I first started coaching, I only had a hammer so everything looked like a nail. That is incredibly effective, but it will wear you out. You cannot be other people’s motivation,” he said.

“I now have hammer, but I also have logic, I have a pat on the back, and I have empathy. So you want to add to your toolbox because it takes different tools to reach different people.”

Now in its fifth year, the free program works on all four campuses, according to Marisel Herrera, director of the First-Year Success Center.

“What we know from the coaching profession, whether it’s life coaching or athletic coaching, is that highly successful people in every walk of life employ coaches,” Herrera said. “It’s the smart thing to do. Celebrities do it, athletes do it, and we do it here at ASU.”

Top photo: Sun Devil Athletics head swimming coach Bob Bowman talks about how to achieve world-class excellence at a First-Year Success Center talk before more than 250 freshmen and sophomores at the Memorial Union on Monday. He gave insight into the mental game that gave his protégé Michael Phelps the ability to become the best Olympic swimmer. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

More Sun Devil community


Woman speaking into a microphone at the front of a classroom full of students.

Psychology professor named president-elect of international research association

Engaging in and strengthening psychology research at Arizona State University and globally is a priority for Ashley K. Randall. In recognition of that commitment, Randall, an associate professor in…

President Barack Obama speaks at Arizona State University's 2009 spring commencement.

Obama Scholars Program celebrates 15 years of championing accessible education

Arizona State University has played host to many highly regarded commencement speakers throughout the years, but none quite as prestigious as that for the class of 2009, when graduates were joined by…

Portrait of Benjamin Taylor.

Providing access to justice

When Benjamin Taylor completed a financial internship with a major Phoenix corporation in the early 2000s, he realized he was in the wrong field. “One day, I was in my cubicle crunching numbers and…