10 Golden Rules for Success from Michael Phelps’ Coach
“All I ever wanted to do was compete at the Olympics. Bob Bowman made sure that dream came true — along with many others.” Michael Phelps, Greatest All-Time Olympic Gold Medalist
I recently read The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work by Bob Bowman, who has been Michael Phelps’ swim coach since he was 11 years old. Over that period, Phelps has amassed an astounding 23 Olympic Gold Medals in his sport, and Bob Bowman (not exactly a household name) has been there for every single lap along the way. The book isn’t just a collection of anecdotes, although there are plenty of juicy behind-the-scenes stories about the trials and triumphs of his protégé. In its pages, Bowman reveals what he calls his coaching “Method.” Let’s get to it stroke by stroke:
1. A champion sets a “dream big” vision Bowman’s Method “begins with one essential ingredient: A vision of where you want to go, what you want to do, who you want to be someday down the road.” Helping people to define their purpose is the foundation of all great coaching, whether in sports or in business — unless you have a vision for where you’re going, your career will be dead in the water. And Bowman has his swimmers write down their vision. This brings Napoleon Hill’s classic book Think and Grow Rich to mind, where he urges readers to write out their “statement of definite chief aim, or major purpose” — what you want to achieve, by when. A big vision with a deadline, in writing, is the start of all high achievement.
2. Adopt an “all-in!” attitude, not a “get out!” one Bowman seeks out individuals with “an inspired, what-more-can-I-do” attitude who are self-motivated by the desire for excellence. He sees his job as helping swimmers stay positively engaged throughout their work together to turn their vision into reality. This is right in line with the late, great Earl Nightingale, who said, “The magic word is Attitude.”
3. Take risks — and then enjoy the rewards Bowman: “To my mind, the magnitude of an achievement is limited by your aversion to risk.” It’s OK to be in a comfort zone, but if you stay there too long it becomes a rut. Taking the risk to do something different or better will be uncomfortable at first. But it’s only when we struggle to master a difficulty that we grow to eventually reap the reward of improvement.
4. Short-term goals lead to long-term success When Bowman was named head coach of the US swim team in 2013, he handed each of his 15 swimmers a “blueprint” for the 1,068 days before the Rio Olympics. Each individual got a step-by-step plan of what they needed to do over the upcoming three years to prepare to win gold. Ideally you’ve broken down your vision into quarterly, monthly and weekly goals to achieve it.
5. Live the vision every day Bowman is big on rituals. “Here’s the deal: If you want to have success, you need to wake up each day with that mission near the top of your agenda.” He knows that sticking to a positive routine is how you can go from so-so to good, then good to great. In the same vein, I help each of my clients craft a Daily Success Ritual, having them start each morning by reviewing their Mission Statement and empowering affirmations along with mentally visualizing their goals as having already been achieved.
6. A team approach can inspire individual success More Bowman: “To successfully reach your vision, you will need supporters — friends, family members, coaches, bosses, co-workers, colleagues, teachers.” I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever been successful accomplishing much alone. You’ve gotta have people on your side who are willing to help you, guide you, pull for you, even call you out if you’re off base when needed.
7. Stay motivated over the long haul Bowman says, “One critical ingredient you’ll need is passion — that intense interest or affection that starts to develop once you hit upon something you’re drawn to.” Success is a marathon, not a sprint, and the endless preparation to excel can get tedious. I like to talk to my clients about handling “the boredom of success” — doing the right things over and over again until unconscious competence develops. Without an intense interest or affection for your objective that is fueled by a passion, you risk dropping out.
8. Adversity will make you stronger According to Bowman, “Resilience does not come naturally; it has to be nurtured.” I maintain that if it were easy to succeed in any career, especially sales, then everyone would do it, and then it would be worth the equivalent of flipping burgers at your local McDonald’s. Getting to the “gold” in your career is designed to be hard so it can separate the pros from amateurs, who thrive when the going is good but fizzle when things get tough. Pros know that the resistance they encounter builds the muscle for winning.
9. When the time comes, perform with confidence Bowman tell his swimmers that “when they step on the starting block, they’re on their own. They must rely on the confidence they have earned through training.” Confidence is an inside job, and through your commitment to make a strong effort day after day after day, the confidence battle is won.
10. Celebrate your achievement, then decide what’s next “As much as celebrating is central to the completion of your vision,” says Bowman, “so, too, is the inevitable question ‘What’s next?’” If you’ve done the work to reach your goal you deserve some kind of reward, so take time to savor it. But then you’ve got to ask yourself what is the next level in your current situation, or, especially if you’re feeling burnt out, what might be a new worthy challenge for you. (Bowman walks his talk: In 2015, he took on a new challenge as head swim coach at Arizona State University to help the team become an elite college program.)
Worth noting This book came out before the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Bob Bowman was a first-time coach for the US swim team. If the swimmers had bombed, Bowman might have had egg all over his face. Instead, the team went on to win a record number of swimming medals in Rio, cementing Bowman’s stature as the greatest swim coach of all time.
As a coach myself, I couldn’t help but be inspired by Bob Bowman’s straight-shooting Method. I will certainly encourage all of my clients to get this book so I can help them apply these 10 rules to their own career. You don’t need to be a swimmer to appreciate the wisdom of his Method — all you need is a desire to excel and a willingness to give a sustained effort that will win the Gold Medal in any endeavor you choose.