Unlocking Your Inner Champion

Bob Bowman knows what it takes to mold a champion. After all, he coached Michael Phelps to Olympic history.

When I heard he would be speaking on “The Characteristics of Champions” at a CEO Club of Baltimore event, the “swim mom” in me knew I had to attend. Yes, it is a moniker that carries good and bad connotations, but one I freely embrace after raising two competitive swimmers and following their athletic accomplishments for nearly 20 years.

Bowman’s insights, delivered with equal parts humor and the wisdom borne of coaching at the sport’s most elite levels, transcend the pool and offer us all the opportunity to be champions in school, at work and in life. With that in mind, I share my take on the points he made.

First, Bowman says, set goals. Yes, it’s okay to select the ultimate goal – “I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics” ­– but be sure to set goals for today. In setting and meeting these short-term goals you grow as a person and benefit from the motivation smaller successes build. Even if you never make the Olympics – or the front office – you have created a better version of yourself. Champions set short- and long-term goals.

He emphasized it’s important to focus on the process and not the outcome. There will be times when the effort invested will not seem to translate to the result desired. That doesn’t mean the investment is not worth it. Focusing on the process prepares us for the chaos that is inevitable in life and gives us the means to adapt and overcome. Bowman recalled Phelps’ 200 butterfly in Beijing where his goggles filled with water on the entry dive. Even though he could not see his competitors, the wall or the finish, he knew his stroke count from years of practice. He relied on that count – or process knowledge – to know where he was and guide him to victory. Notably, in spite of winning, Phelps was disappointed with the outcome because he missed his goal time. Champions focus on the process and rely on it to thrive in spite of chaos.

Embrace challenges, he adds. People who play it safe will be safe, but not extraordinary. Of course, in setting challenges you run the risk of failure 50% of the time, but when you succeed the feeling is beyond compare. Champions take themselves to the very edge of what they believe themselves capable of doing and then go beyond.

Bowman feels it is important to anticipate difficulties. Here is where routines are important, as is the ability to adjust when routines go awry. He recalled a young Phelps and Olympic gold medal backstroker Aaron Peirsol roomed together in the Olympic Village in Sydney. They decided it would be fun to trade credentials. While both separately made it to the pool, neither was admitted. They each returned to the Village and were likewise barred from entry without proper ID. Ultimately, Michael made it inside the venue a mere 30 minutes before his swim. His pre-race routine was gone, yet he had the coping skills to move forward. Champions rely on routines, but learn how to manage difficulty when it arises.

Not surprisingly, Bowman is a great proponent of visualization. Not just visualizing oneself achieving that ultimate goal of being awarded a gold medal, but also seeing every second of every race to be swum to achieve that result. In the heat of the battle there is no time to think about the mechanics of the dive, the turn or the finish. They must already be part of your psyche. Bowman says that the unconscious mind does not distinguish between a vivid visualization and an actual experience. Both are perceived the same. Mastering visualization techniques is a core competency of champions.

Last but not least, champions do what no one else is doing. They persist and endure with a single-mindedness few of us can imagine for the sake of the goal they pursue. He recalls that Phelps trained 7 days a week, including Christmas, in the intense 16 months leading up to Beijing. When they arrived at the Olympics, they knew no one had prepared as Michael had. Champions are willing to do what others are not.

One key characteristic Bowman did not address is having a coach or mentor who believes in you and who, either by example or instruction, gives you the tools and self-belief to become a champion. He took no credit for Phelps’ success, yet it was he who taught Michael visualization techniques, created routines, focused him on process, helped him set goals and gave him the tools to deal with chaos on a world stage. No one does it alone, so I would add that behind every champion is a great mentor, teacher or coach.

We are not all destined to be champions at the level of a Phelps, a Michael Jordan or a Roger Federer.  We may never be as successful as a Steve Jobs, a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates. Still, in fulfilling the destiny we were born to achieve, there are lessons we can borrow to make ourselves “champions,” or the very best versions of ourselves.