In a chat with SwimVortex.com on the cusp of a question and answer session with coaches at the American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic in New Orleans, Bob Bowman explained why he and his team in Baltimore are in the process of rebuilding the age program that gave rise to Michael Phelps and how and why the North Baltimore Aquatic Club is a success
The North Baltimore Aquatic Club is in the process of rebuilding its age-group program after head coach Bob Bowman felt “embarrassed” by rates of attendance and a lack of goal-setting through the ranks of junior squads at the pool where Michael Phelps honed his skills from learner to keen 9-year-old with an abundance of energy to burn before carving out a career as the greatest Olympian of them all.
Beyond Phelps’ Olympic swansong in London, Bowman had a big decision to make while taking time off the deck away from coaching. He confirmed at ASCA in New Orleans that he had indeed contemplated moving on to pastures new in life and leaving coaching behind. “I decided I still loved it,” said Bowman. But passion comes at a tempo more Vivacissimo than Andante with the music scholar who fund into an aquatic signature when in his boyhood h was taken by his father to a meet starring Tracy Caulkins.
Bowman looked around his program, saw four post-grads and the gulf between them and the youngsters coming through the ranks – in physical, mental and emotional development terms – and then delved a little deeper down through the stages of a pathway (each journey unique) once travelled by the likes of Phelps and Chase Kalisz, the silver medallist in the 400m medley at the world-championships this summer. What he wanted was to convert more potential to swimmers who stack up well against peers, local, national and international in competition.
He didn’t like what he saw. For a little detail on what Bowman did next and what’s happening at Baltimore, see the question and answer session below from the ASCA Clinic, at which the coach also spoke about an important aspect of safety for all swim programs.
In the midst of the questions from coaches at the ASCA clinic was one that raised the debate about whether the US should be placing more focus on Americans. Before the session with coaches, SwimVortex.com raised a similar theme in a slightly different way. How’s Yannick Agnel? “He’s doing great,” said Bowman of the French Olympic champion over 200m freestyle who decided to leave his long-term coach since boyhood, Fabrice Pellerin, this spring.
“He’s what you seek in a swimmer,” added Bowman, explaining: “He’s a hard worker and a very kind person, great to have around.” Another of Pellerin’s recent charges, Denmark’s Lotte Friis, will spend the next few months in Baltimore as she prepares for a home European s/c Championships in Herning from December 12 to 15, the program in Nice – and Olympic 400m free champion Camille Muffat – targeting the European l/c Championships in Berlin next summer.
Before Agnel came along, Baltimore found it hard too recruit top US seniors to the program. Now “they all want to come,” joked Bowman, noting that the presence of big international names had indeed been a catalyst for a change in thinking among some American swimmers.
If Phelps, whose foundation forms part of the Olympic great’s current path in life, ever decides to make a comeback, he would have Agnel to keep him company. The rumours come and go; Bowman says “I know nothing”. And if that is genuinely the case from a man who sees his former charge regularly and dines with him from time to time these days, then we can take the constant knock-backs from Phelps when speculation puts its sneakers on as all the more meaningful. If Phelps ever makes a return, we will hear it from him. For now, golf is the club of his sport, NBAC the club of his investment, including the swim school that now bears his name and has gone national across all States United.
Present in all, the school has boys and girls divisions in 35 states. That work, and not the mountain of medals, was the “real reward” for swimming and Phelps, said Bowman. “Its what he can put back in and he has chosen to do that,” said the coach, his former charge the catalyst for health, safety, fitness, excellence and ultimately more swimming success for the US.
And so to the Q and A with coaches (questions are expressed in thematic terms and are not the precise words used by the coach asking the question) and a taste of why the ASCA clinic is well attended year in, year out:
Q: What makes NBAC different to other clubs in the country?
BB: What makes it special is the team culture: its been cultivated over a very long time throughout the span of the club’s history. I’ve been involved for 20 years and since 1996 in a pretty serious way. One of the key goals I have is to continue the club’s culture of development. We’re about the disciplined pursuit of excellence.
“We’re basically rebuilding our age group programme from 10-year-olds upwards. Its a long process.”
He note that to build “a Michael of a Chase” you have to take the right decisions in building the right environment and you had to be, as Baltimore was “very careful with the athletes”.
Some things made Baltimore unique:
- control of own facility
- a wide base of participants
- a summer team with more than 300 kids on it
- a stroke clinic with 100 kids on it at a time
Bowman note that Baltimore has just 200 swimmers across all ages in its competitive squads, compared to some US programs that cater for 800 and more.
“We’re our own feeder system … we can control our program and the rates at which we move swimmers through it. We can control the environment and therefore we can be more efficient in the decisions we make.
His role was clear: “I’m an educator: of parent, athlete, and in coaching”. The coach to coaches added: “We’re here to help people to learn and when you get people who buy into the system, that is what makes the program great.”
The are also strong links to programs beyond NBAC. Coach Jack Bauerle, with a string of success in his own stable, is now working with Baltimore, while the club, said Bowman, “has good relationships with college coaches to help map a better way out for swimmers”.
Bowman noted that he makes clear to athletes and staff what is expected of them: “They have to be accountable in practice and in meets.” As to the parents: “We coach; we let them parent.”
Where the rest of the world turns to the US to lawn lessons for their own programs, Bowman notes that he looks the other way:
“We are constantly studying top programs around the world; we study them and see how the things they do could fit into our program. And the foundation of that is distance work … a bad word these days.”
Laughter follows but there is a seriousness in the underbelly at Baltimore: the distance base will remain even as the age range of swimmers in their prime rises: around 27 for men and 22-23 for women in international waters, Bowman estimated.
Q: Why and how are you rebuilding the age-group program?
BB: “It is all about dealing with expectations,” said Bowman. “We went through a period of time, maybe when I was at Michigan (cue chuckle), when I don’t think we valued the process of age groupers.
“Somewhere along the way we got lost: we thought, perhaps, that swimming fast might not be good for their development.
“My view is that if we wait until later, we will not have national age group record breakers – and the ranks of [world-class seniors winning and making podiums] … are full of pool who were winning and breaking records throughout their development [Phelps being a prime example].”
Further, Bowman added, a culture had developed in the age ranks at Baltimore of placing great store in “being on a team” at the same time as a “disconnect in the whole process” had developed in terms of the flow from youth to senior programs.
“I’m embarrassed to tell you that some groups had 65% attendance; now its back to 95%,” said Bowman with a glint his eye. “They have to be there all the time if the goal is to be better.”
A subsidiary question from the coaching ranks focused on the mechanism for moving youngsters up through the ranks.
“We don’t have a set process to move from group to group,” said Bowman. “When I see that there are kids who are mentally ready to step up from one or two sessions a week, that’s when a move is made. We don’t have to make the wholesale jump [whole squads at once] to the next level. I don’t believe in setting standards for groups.” He explained:
“You might have a kid who can go 10x100m on 1:10 but may not be ready emotionally. Some kids fall behind on that type of work but they might have something that makes us believe they’re ready to move up.”
Q: I feel that the head coach in my program is holding back development by sticking to some rigid structures… etc
BB: “You need to find a new team and a new job.”
Q: How do you improve attendance rates?
BB: “We had to have something [aimed at raising attendance]. What to do is to focus on the things people like to do: they like to go to meets – but they can’t go with us unless they have 85% attendance.”
Baltimore published its attendance figures so “everyone knows what people are doing”: the whole club can see where folk fit in the picture of dedication, regardless of other commitments beyond the world of swimming.
Bowman one gave grades 1 to 5 for attendance but would also give low grades for those who did show up but “didn’t do well” in practice.
“That was back when I was mean,” laughed Bowman, who moved gradually to a system in which the seniors “graded themselves as a way to get them to think about what they did in practice”.
Q: What emphasis do you place on nutrition?
BB: “Not enough. Its something we’re trying to target systematically. We’ve done a good job with the senior swimmers … I think we need to do it more with developmental levels.”
Q: a question along the lines of whether the US focus ought not be all about Team(s) USA.
BB: What you’re basically asking is ‘why are you coaching that French boy, right?’ [laughter]. I don’t think there’s a concern. Colleges have been doing it forever. From a personal stand point, I learned in the last quadrennial … that we have four professional swimmers and to train them with the high school kids didn’t work. Did it work in terms of practices? Yes. But the social environment didn’t mix. It was not motivational.”
Bowman noted that Baltimore’s attractiveness has risen since Agnel arrived. He smiled broadly as he said: “As soon as we got ‘the French boy’, Americans wanted to come and swim with me.” As he often does, Bowman follows humour with serious point:
“Yannick Agnel is No1 on attitude and preparation and work ethic. That is what fits with us: he wants to do it the way we do it.”
As as for having overseas athletes in the program, Bowman noted: “If everyone is getting better, we [the US] will get better.”
Q: On the subject of NBAC’s staff structure and coach interaction with Bowman
BB: “I am constantly putting the coaches on the spot, urging them to contradict me. We discuss all kinds of things and none are afraid to raise anything and share their opinion. They love it. I am always trying to stimulate individual thought.”
And the thing that underpins it all? “If you don’t like to hear truth don’t be on our program. Any process is only valuable if there is an honesty at the heart of it.”
Q: What’s your take on the state of world swimming?
BB: “I didn’t think we would catch up to the suits so quickly,” said Bowman.
[For the record:
- Men: 4 world records stand in textile suits, with 16 world marks surviving from the shiny suits era (2008-09)
- Women: 9 world records stand in textile suits, with 11 world marks surviving from the shiny suits era]
“And I think backstroke will get a little bit better with the ledge [new starting block equipment developed by Omega that will allow toe to be hooked on to a small ledge and reduce the risk of slipping on the pad at the start], not hugely but a little.
“We are still making technical improvements and working smarter: we have a long way to go on training smarter and more efficiently,” added Bowman. He note the big leaps in performance and attitude in some young swimmers of late (Ledecky, Meilutyte etc) and added: “If some of those young swimmers keep developing in the way they are, they will even exceed our expectations.”
[Much has been made of the storm of teenage progress of late and while swimming history is stacked with young folk exceeding the expectations of others, there has been a notable upward trend in age-group swimming at national and international level that has raised concerns such as those considered by research conducted by reporter Amy Shipley and ASCA coaches in a talk given in New Orleans by the association's executive director John Leonard.
Q: How do we sell long-term development to parents?
BB: "Twice a year we have a general meeting where I get to do some general talking. Every month we put out a blog and then we also hold smaller meetings at which we can interact with parents. We are always talking about the value of process: learn the basics, learn how to use your time well in practice; learn how top [develop] physical and self-learning skills; be engaged in everything we do.”
He added: “We want every level of our program to be at the top of what it is doing, for the kids and coaches to be the best at every level, whatever that is. I heard somewhere that if you look at the [historic] world top 10 age groupers, the No1 and the others up there have never become Olympic champions.
“Well, excuse me, we had two: Michael Phelps and Beth Botsford.”
Bowman’s view is backed up by legions of examples in swimming history where Olympic podium placers have shown their potential as podium placers at regional and continental age majors, such as European junior champs and even European senior champs (especially since Bill Sweetenham persuaded LEN to mov to a system of four entries per country, with only two from any nation allowed through to finals) and Commonwealth Games (3 per nation).
Q: What new technologies do you use?
The answer was fascinating and merits a separate article – some meat on the bones first…
Q: How do you handle club growth and what structures do you have in place?
BB: “Our approach with all kids coming in is that we have to grow gradually and slowly,” said Bowman, noting that while Baltimore is looking to build anther pool as part of its provision, “we don’t have enough space and w have to set standards high – and some kids have to go.”
Baltimore has four main squad divisions: Discovery; Imagination (9-12s or so); Challenge; and High Performance
“Each individual coach has free rein in what they are doing,” said Bowman. “I encourage them to experiment and within that do the core things we value but put their own spin on it.”
Q: And what happens if there is an issue with a parent?
“If we have a serious problem, then it will eventually come to my office,” said Bowman. The last word world include:
“We want everybody to be happy and if you can’t be happy here, we’d like you to be happy somewhere else.”
Q: What’s your personal schedule like?
BB: My typical week includes a day that goes:
4.45am… up, breakfast, get myself together
5.45 (at latest) at the pool
5.45 ’til 7am: finalising, organising
7am – coach to kinda 9ish
Then workout personally – I think that important – and then get cleaned up and eat lunch
2pm to 4pm is the main practice [for the seniors]
By 5pm or so I’m out’a there
Q: What recommendations have you got for tapering?
BB: “Tapering for me is very easy to do if you’ve done the work: swimmers never miss the taper, they miss the work. The taper is something you can do and hit well if they have a strong foundation of consistent work but the key is to only change one variable at a time.
“Intensity has to stay the same even when you drop the volume (and you have to monitor that),” added Bowman before explaining his favoured course: “… stay with the volume, decreasing all the way through and only drop the intensity at the last moment.”
In addition, he noted the difference between men and women, saying: “Certainly you see it with the older guys: our men will do much less strength training [during taper]. I keep the women on weights until five days out.”
Q: What is the age and gender breakdown in your program?
BB: “Its an interesting stat: we have about 50:50 boys and girls.
“In Baltimore every boy thinks its cool to swim.
“Before Michael we had 75% girls, 25% boys. We’re a little heavier on seniors than i would like: the 14 and overs account for 40% of the program.”
Q: How do you handle your dryland program?
BB: Keenen Robinson [Director of Athlete Services at NBAC] runs the strength program. “You have to have someone other than the [swim] coaches do that,” said Bowman, explaining that he insists in at least two coaches being on deck at any one time, every swim coach that spends time with dryland time spent off the deck. “Our dryland coach is separate and part-time.”
Q: How do you describe your work?
“Motivating, exciting and fulfilling. Helping a kid to do something they didn’t think they could do: that’s it. To make a breakthrough, gain a confidence, that’s what I like to do.”
Q: What is the fee structure of your program and how do you budget for it all?
BB: coach Bowman ran through some rough figures that ranged from $4,500 a year for a senior athlete through to $3750 at high-school level to around $2,700 for the Challenge group and $8-900 for the beginners in the Discovery group.
Asked what he paid coaches, he said “what they’re worth”, qualifying “within the budget … it has to add up.”