Michael Bohl’s St Peters Western team had an incredibly successful Australian Olympic Trials in April placing seven athletes on the team. The seven include Mitch Larkin, Madi Wilson, Emma McKeon, Madeline Groves, Bronte Barratt, Grant Irvine and Georgia Bohl.
Like many of the best coaches in the world how he has achieved success is no secret or is it some complicated formula. It is simple have clarity in your expectations, treat athletes as individuals and hold them accountable.
“It is all about communication,” Bohl told SwimSwam. “You have to communicate with the kids, the kids have to know you care about them and that you have got their backs. At the same time they have to know the training standard you are setting for your group has got to be a high one. If you want to compete internationally you have to be an international level trainer.”
Bohl has had a great deal of success since his coaching career began in 1987. Since the 1992 Olympics he has had an Australian on every Olympic team except in 2000. He also coached Stephanie Rice to double gold in 2008 along with world records in both the 200 and 400 IM.
He believes that over the years what he does with the athletes in the water has not changed a lot, but how he approaches building relationships with them has, “I think a lot of the sets we do are very similar to what we have been doing for quite some time, but I think where I have developed a little bit more is having an understanding of the person. Now I am training the person first and then the athlete.”
“Try to build character. You want them to make good decisions you want them making those good decisions themselves, you are trying to empower them. Not standing over top of them with a stick. You let them know ‘You have made that decision, here are the consequences, if you do that you get this.’”
One of the ways he communicates this consequence to action is with an example from everyday life example, “It is like driving a car. If you go through a red light you might get away with it number one. Number two you might die and someone else will collect you. You might get a ticket and a big fine or you might lose a limb. There are a whole lot of consequences when you go through that red light, you better be aware of those consequences. You might get to that place a little bit faster or you might end up dead.”
“Those types decisions are thrown at every person in life. The people who go the right way set themselves up for success and the ones that take the other way don’t.”
When talking about empowering athletes to make their own decisions he refers to a scene from ‘The Matrix’ where Morpheus tells Neo, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
“That is exactly what you do as a coach. You can show the way, but they have to have the attitude and the commitment, the consistency and the persistence to be able to do it day in and day out and keep performing in training at that high level.”
One of the ways he empowers the athletes is by empowering other professionals, “I might go to the gym twice in a season. I just give that to other people, I don’t want to be in their face all the time.”
“I meet with the gym coach fairly regularly. I am asking how their going, but I try to give them ownership with their gym coach to try to get them better. Same thing with yoga. It is those kids showing the initiative to try to do that little bit extra.”
A big part of Bohl’s success is due to his level of curiosity, his desire to learn from others and his willingness to ask for help. He will often bring up things he has learned from different talks or what he has picked up from observing other coaches..
One of the coaches he appears to have great respect for is Bob Bowman and has learned a lot from observing how he and Michael Phelps approach competitions. Those lessons are something he passes on to his athletes, “One of the examples I use is Michael Phelps. We used to go down to that Santa Clara meet quite often. Michael used to always go. I used to sit and watch him with Bob and you would see Michael for the finals walk in, he had his earphones in his ears coming into the pool and you could see he was quite serious.”
“He did the same thing every night. He would walk up and say hello to Bob, go off with his teammates for five minutes and have a laugh then he would go to this one section where you could see him getting himself ready for his event. Limbering up, doing a bit of stretching, doing some activation just on his own with no one around him. Then he would hop in, do his warm up, hop out and go talk to Bob again. Go talk to his mates, put on his suit and get back in the pool and do a second warm up.”
“Whether it was the Santa Clara meet or whether it was the Olympic Games I saw the same thing. Everything he did at those Santa Clara meets he would do exactly the same procedure when he got to the Olympic Games.”
“It was all rehearsed. There was nothing new he was trying to do at the Olympics. The way he goes about preparing himself it is very, very professional and it is no surprise to what he has achieved. When he is ready for the big dance he is ready.”
This is something that has helped Mitch Larkin transition from having success at the national level to achieving that same kind of success internationally, “In 2012 Michael Bohl made me get to the pool early and watch almost every final session. He told me to watch how the ‘best’ conduct themselves around the village. How they warm up, socialize when the time is right then switch on when they needed to and how they manage the warm up pool just to name a few examples.”
“The best thing I noticed is that not everyone is the same. Stick to what works for you, don’t just change your plan because your competition does something different,” explained Larkin. “The Olympics is all a ‘big circus’ flashy lights big crowds. It’s important not to get caught up in it all, it can be overwhelming. Stick to what you usually do and what works for you.”
Another thing Bohl has done to prepare his squad for Rio is to bring in athletes such as Stephanie Rice and coaches Laurie Lawrence and Bill Sweetenham to educate the group on what to expect and how to approach the competition.
Can Bohl’s group repeat the type of success they experienced at the trials at the Olympics? No matter what the result one can be confident that their coach has taken the necessary steps to prepare them. He has shown them the door and in Rio it will be their time to decide if they are ready to walk through it.