A Jack of Many Trades - KAP7 sits down with Coach Jack Bowen

Jack Bowen graduated fromStanford University in 1995 with Honors in Human Biology.He went on to earn a Masters Degree in Philosophy fromCalifornia State University, LongBeach graduating Summa Cum Laude. Following a six-year stint teaching philosophy and ethics at De Anza College, he has settled at Menlo School in Atherton where he teaches philosophy and coaches water polo.

Jack’s debut novel, "The Dream Weaver," achieved great success, making the SanFrancisco Chronicle Bestseller List and Amazon’s Top 500, and has been reprinted in numerous languages. In 2008, Jack published his second book, "A Journey Through TheLandscape of Philosophy"—a college philosophy textbook—and again toured in support of theAnniversary Edition of "The Dream Weaver." Jack recently published his third book, "If You Can Read This: The Philosophy ofBumper Stickers" (Random House) which USA Today calls "Witty" and Michael Shermer of Scientific American deems, "Insightful and hilarious."

Recently, Jack has shifted his writing focus to exploring the philosophical nuances of sport. He serves as the chair of Positive Coaching Alliance’s (PCA) Coaches Council, having also won PCA’s National Award for coaching in 2012 (- WATCH THIS VIDEO! http://youtu.be/Oi1RkkG51zY). And as a board member of Santa ClaraUniversity’s Institute for Sports Law & Ethics (ISLE), Jack writes a weekly blog on sport ethics.He is currently working on his next book in that area. Jack serves as the Senior Lecturer for theGreat Books Program at Stanford University in the summers.

Jack was a 2-time All-American and 2-time NCAA Champion water polo player atStanford, an alternate goalie of the 1996 Olympic Team, and a member of the 2000 OlympicTraining Team. He has coached high school water polo for the past fifteen years, winning the league championship 14 times and the section championship (CCS) in Northern California five times. In 2002 he served as the Assistant Coach of the Men’s National Water Polo Team and has conducted “The Bowen Goalie Clinic” nationwide for the past thirteen years.

Also an avid musician and member of numerous bands, he has been a recording drummer on over ten albums. His most recent band, Amboy Kelso, was a Bay Area favorite releasing three albums and touring extensively. He can also be heard on “The Dream Weaver”book theme song, "Beautiful Colors." Jack lives in Redwood City with Jessica (wife), two sons Jake and Knox, and daughter, Eloise.

KAP7: You have many things going on in your life, as we can see from your Bio above. Why has water polo stayed an integral part of your daily routine?

Jack Bowen: It turns out, water polo is just an amazing catalyst for getting at some real foundational precepts in life. If approached correctly water polo exhibits a perfect balance of rigor and toughness combined with beauty and grace. And there’s a “family” aspect to water polo unlike that of any other sport. A community. Not to mention that it’s just plain fun.


K7: What are some of the most important aspects to being a great water polo goalie?

JB: On the one hand, this is a really difficult question. There’s definitely a sort of je ne sais quoi to good goalkeeping. Good goalies just find a way to block shots. That said, there certainly are some features common to great goalkeepers. It requires a great deal of athleticism which affords the goalie the ability to do something quite difficult: to maintain a very detailed and finely-tuned set of core fundamentals while also being “fluid” in the way they approach shooters.Certainly, too, very strong legs are required. Many young goalies simply aren’t willing to work on this: they all seem to want to hike and ride bikes but, what’s really required to develop a strong eggbeater—from both an endurance and explosive standpoint—is to get in and do the grueling eggbeater work. Lastly, the goalie really needs to be able to take a lot of information in and sift through it quickly, allowing them to anticipate the moves of shooters and the entire offense. This requires a great deal of focus in training, as the goalie learns from the myriad mistakes they make and builds on them in the process.

K7: What style of GK to you enjoy watching play the most?

JB: I personally love to see a goalie who’s inwardly confident, not flashy, and consistently gets the job done. Almost as if there’s a sense of sanctity to the goal he’s protecting. Hockey goalies, on the whole, tend to be like this, maybe because they’re behind a mask or dealing with 100 miles-per-hour shots. But to just see a goalie so immersed in what he’s doing is really motivating. Watching him as he reads the opposing team while his team is on offense, and then begins to set himself while communicating with his own teammates when necessary; seeing him set his angles and anticipate the ensuing passes and moves and then to make that one explosive move to block and control a shot. Then to see the goalie, stone-faced, as though this is what he expected: for the ball not to go in the goal. And then to immediately start to pick up the cues needed to prepare for the next attack: quickly evaluating every attacker in the pool,lurking low in the water, balanced, in anticipation of the next ramp up to shot-block.

K7: What coaches influenced your water polo career the most?

JB: No doubt, my high school coach Randy Burgess had the greatest influence on my water polo career. Not so much in goalkeeping per se: actually, he’d be the first to admit that teaching goalkeeping was not his forte back then. But he helped me establish a strong foundation and,more importantly, showed me how the game should be played within the framework of a team.The goalie position on my high school team was very much integrated into the team-based approach: there were 7 players working in unison to play defense together. And because we were very counter-attack-oriented, he established the importance of quarterbacking the team as not just a passer but a decision-maker and in-water captain.

K7: How does being a GK affect your coaching of water polo? Most coaches will say defense is the most important component of the game - do you feel that is even more important to you than the typical coach?

JB: I suppose I would agree with that. Everything we do as a team starts with our defense.Even our offense starts with defense. And our defense is very team-based and not typically standard: we have every player responsible for something different in every situation and we don’t run a set defense or zone but, instead, implement more of a team-approach. On the one hand, this makes it very difficult to teach and takes a lot of trust in teammates to get it right. But when it does work, it’s very difficult to attack because you’re not attacking a particular defensive scheme. This isn’t just effective as a strategy, but it’s a great foundation upon which to build a team. And that’s not to say offense isn’t important, but our offense builds off of our counter-attack which directly results from where we are defensively at the point of a turnover.

K7: If you could make a few changes to the sport what would you like to see?

JB: I’d like to see the fouls called more explicitly and consistently. There’s still so much guess-work and subjectivity in what constitutes a foul, an ejection, etc. It seems to me that we could create a more objective notion of what constitutes certain transgressions and then implement them. In addition, to find a way to more clearly delineate when a foul outside 5-meters has occurred. Lastly, I’d like to see the center-forward position called more “closely” so as to reduce the overt wrestling that often occurs there and open up the game a bit more.

K7: There are many great GK coaches out there, but you seem to have been consistently been very successful with GK’s that have trained with you. Many college coaches see you as the topGK coach in the country. What do you attribute to your success as a GK coach?

JB: Given the time I’ve spent on this, there’s a very long answer to this question which I’ll try to parse down. First off, I’m extremely passionate about goalkeeping. While at Stanford, I wrote numerous papers on the topic for classes as wide-ranging as Kinesiology to the Biology of Perception and even a Calculus paper. (For the benefit of goalies reading this—in 20pages and a great many theorems, I discovered that the optimal spot for a goalie defending a shooter who’s at 7-meters center cage is 1.91 meters from the goal line.) I even wrote myHonors Thesis on the Psycho-Social Aspects of Goalkeeping. Needless to say, I take the position very seriously and, as alluded to in an earlier question, find a great deal of beauty in proper goalkeeping. So that’s part of it: I’ve made it a life-long pursuit to examine every facet of goalkeeping and to hone in on how it can best be approached. That’s not to say that, when I coach goalies, I disseminate hundreds of pages’ worth of material.Part of the challenge is keeping it simple enough that the young goalkeeper isn’t inundated with an already-overwhelming task. So my approach to teaching goalies is based on one set of core fundamentals. This eliminates a lot of the conscious thought required by the goalie given the very little time available in reacting to a shot. Once this is in place, we can move on to exploring the nuances of the position and the various game-situations that require a goalie to have to get out of her comfort-zone. Lastly, it’s important to help young goalies establish a proper approach to their training, to implementing the core fundamentals, and to learning from every experience. A lot of goalies just train poorly and set themselves up for failure. I remember my first year coaching as an assistant: the head coach had his goalies doing sets of 20 high-corners, the last of which were always done poorly as she was exhausted. This caused her to fall out of the habit of reacting explosively to outside shots. So when she faced a shooter, she more often just went through the motions versus aggressively attacking the shot with proper fundamentals and doing so explosively. This is a case which exemplifies the need to always try to separate fundamentals-focus from conditioning-focus in training. I always reference my goalie coach at Stanford, the Yoda of Goalkeeping, Bronco. He stressed explosiveness daily in our training. “To be good in the goalpost,” he’d say, in his Hungarian accent, “You must be quick, like a cat,” and then he’d make a chomping sound. I was never “explosive enough” until my final training session with him. It’s a reminder of the mental component of goalkeeping: explosiveness certainly has a neuro-muscular facet, but it’s more mental than anything.

K7: Has GK training changed much over the past 20+ years or are most of the fundamentals still the same?

JB: In general, I don’t see that it has. There’s always the ongoing discussion as to how high a goalie’s hips should be in order to maximize shot-blocking with lateral movement. TheEuropean goalies tend to have higher hips while American goalies drop their hips a bit in order to increase their lateral movement.

K7: What is the most rewarding part of coaching HS? What is the hardest part?

JB: It’s immensely rewarding. Actually, my first year 15 years ago was intended to be a one-time shot. Ex-Stanford teammate (and Olympian) Jeremy Laster asked me to do it as a favor because he was signed up to coach but then took a job that prevented him. I was coming toNor Cal after finishing my Masters and ending my time with the National Team in order to play with the band I’d just joined as we were based in the Bay Area. Now, here I am, 15 years later. What really drew me to the group were a few things. The family and community nature of the team was a big draw. But even more than that, it’s a really motivating environment within which to reside. Our team’s goal is to Be Your Best. This is a really high bar as it’s internally motivated, as opposed to setting your sites on beating Team X, or winning a particular division.So I ask a lot of my players, on many levels, and likewise they expect a lot from me. So in a setting like this, there’s the potential for profound rewards, and that has proven to the case ina surprising array of experiences. Basically, I’d discovered that this team could be a setting in which a group pursued the intrinsically valued goal of “Being Your Best” which, by definition,requires a sense of trust, constant pursuit of excellence, empathy, friendship—some of life’s greatest virtues all in one place.

K7: How does your background in philosophy affect your coaching style?

JB: It definitely frames what it is we are doing as a team. From a big-picture point of view, it’s pretty hard to discuss big ideas all day—like the vastness of the universe, the nature of the human soul, human rights issues—and then come down to the pool and scream at a referee for not calling a “ball under” against the other team. I often joke that I’m an expert in keeping a ball from entering a floating rectangle and at teaching boys how to best perform this task. So there’s a certain sense of perspective that results from incessant philosophical inquiry. But,more so, there’s a sense of empathy and humility that one must develop in the face of such monumental issues and when constantly encountering the unknown. This helps more with my relationships with my own players more than anything. To truly empathize with them and to try to understand what they’re experiencing helps me to better coach them. And this is a process for me: something I’m still working on.

K7: You write a sports ethics blog for the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) at SantaClara University. Do you draw on your own team for that?

JB: Absolutely. As I mentioned in the prior question, all of this is still a process for me—I’m certainly not coming at this from the position of having figured it all out. Some of it I certainly have: we shouldn’t yell “Air ball!” at kids for missing the rim; flopping in soccer is unethical (see video HERE); etc. But when I started writing for ISLE, as my initial article I referenced an example from my own coaching experience in which I failed to act in a sportsmanlike manner.At the time of the incident I thought I was quite savvy, cajoling the other team into getting kicked out of a State Championship game. But my players thoughtfully confronted me and on the bus ride home we all agreed that I’d behaved unethically.Some find this an odd starting-off point for an ethics blog, but I think it’s perfect. I not only invite the reader to share the journey with me but, in focusing the lens on myself, it provided a great opportunity to examine a subtle but important aspect of youth sports coaching. (The entry can be readHERE.) And, actually, just last month I posted a piece examining an issue that came up with our team in which one of my players claimed we were behaving unethically. (The entry can be readHERE.) The great thing about combining sport and ethics, though, is that sport serves as such an accessible entry point to getting at typically-abstract, ethereal issues. Because athletes are already passionate and personally invested in their respective sport, they grasp the subtle nuances of that sport and can then delve into the countless ethical issues that arise on an almost daily basis. Then, before you know it, we’re talking about philosophically rich topics as consent, moral relativism, conflict of interest. It’s one of my favorite parts of being around thoughtful, committed student-athletes. I explore this a bit more in a recent post reflecting on just this issue, with my own team during our pre-season training,HERE.

K7: You have played for many successful coaches from Randy Burgess at Coronado to Dante Dettamanti at Stanford. You also played for a few national team coaches as well. Have you taken some aspects from each of your coaches in your coaching tree

or have you created something entirely new in your coaching?

JB: I’ve intentionally blended the two. It’s impossible not to borrow from past coaches one has played for, especially if they were good. And the coaches I’ve played for are some of the best in the history of our country’s sport: Burgess, Dettamanti, Ricardo Azevedo and then Larry Rogers(National Junior Team coaches), Rich Corso and then John Vargas (National Team coaches)not to mention various others throughout my career. Earlier I mentioned Bronco, my goalie coach at Stanford, who really informs a lot of what I do as a goalie coach. Once I got to the National Team, I became more intentional about becoming a student of the game. Admittedly, until then, I was somewhat myopic: I was deeply passionate about goalkeeping and spent a majority of my energies exploring that aspect which directly related to me. Once I got to the National Team, though, I realized how many hours I was actually spending on water polo. I wanted to make sure I maximized those hours instead of tuning out when the team focused on things not directly related to the defense. So I started to bring a bound book of blank pages with me to training every day. I made a point to take notes on offensive schemes, to reflect on those schemes, to look at how drills were being created and which ones best maximized the time of the athletes and, if they didn’t, how they could be improved. So I’ve certainly borrowed from those coaches but have implemented my own focus in all areas of our team’s game.

K7: What made you stay in the bay area instead of returning closer to home in San Diego to settle down?

JB: I came back to the Bay Area to play in a band. As a “day job” I taught philosophy at DeAnza College and coached at Menlo. After our band’s third CD the four of us sat down on the porch of our lead singer’s home and discussed if we were ready to really commit to the band which would mean quitting our day jobs and going on a national tour. Despite the band’s being quite successful locally, none of us were ready to do this. And at the time, I was considering taking the job as the Assistant Coach of the National Team. I eventually took that job and was in LongBeach 4 days each week for 4 months. While amazingly educational and exciting, I realized that solely coaching water polo professionally was not what I wanted. I missed the family-community aspect of Menlo, teaching philosophy, having time to write. So I came back to theBay Area full time.

K7: In a time when most people have a hard time just getting through life, how have you been able to maintain a very high level of success in such varied interests as music, teaching,coaching, family, writing?

JB: I’ll admit, to some extent, that I’ve lucked out a bit. I mean, there are a few things I’m immensely passionate about: goalkeeping, philosophy, writing, music, water polo, connecting with people on a deeper level. It turns out that all of those things together comprise what has become my profession. I do take luck out of the equation and fall back on the adage, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” So I suppose my answer to your question is that I’m profoundly excited about every piece of the profession I’ve created for myself, not to mention always chomping at the bit to get home and play with Jake, Knox, Eloise and Jessica.

K7: If you were not a musician, author, coach, father, philosopher or teacher how would you spend your days?

JB: This is a nearly impossible question to ask! You’ve cut me off at the knees. I did go toStanford initially to become a pediatrician. I majored in Human Biology and then took the MCATin preparation for that. I’m really glad I went the route that I did—see my previous answer—but I suppose, with the options you’ve taken from me, there’s a chance I’d be doing that.

K7: You seem to be a “Jack” of many trades. Do you ever see yourself narrowing your focus to one passion? Such as being a full time author, college water polo coach or being a full time college professor?

JB: I don’t. Though, every now and then I consider this. When coaching jobs open up at colleges where I’d like to coach every 5 years or so, I consider applying and going more into coaching. When I’m out of season I always flirt with becoming a full-time writer or going to the college level to teach philosophy. But I just don’t like the idea of doing one thing as I feelI’d be missing out on a big part of life and of what makes me tick. I’ll happily forfeit writing an extra five books in my life in order to spend time with my family more and to commit myself to coaching in the way I need to for my players. Actually, I’ve explicitly done this. And, in a way,it removes any pressure. My first three books came out in the span of five years. And my next will likely be out in two years, which is 7 years after the last one. I’m writing not because I have to but because I want to. I suppose there’s something romantic about the vision of myself thatI have, sitting in cafes, writing for the sake of the ideas themselves. If anything, I’d like to find a way to integrate music back into my life but there just isn’t any time. At this point, I settle for drumming with my boys: Jake and Knox have their own, smaller drum set in the garage next to mine, and even at age four and two, we have a really fun time drumming together.

K7: What advice do you have for HS students/water polo players?

JB: Follow your passion. Actually, not just “follow” but throw yourself into it. That’s actually one of the main pieces of advice I give when I do writing seminars or go to schools to speak about writing.

In addition, this is a pretty good place to share the tidbit I got from my father off the cuff in high school. I returned from lifting weights in the off-season on a day I really didn’t feel like lifting.My dad asked me how it went and I shared how surprised I was at what I got accomplished given my momentary apathy. And he responded something to the tune of, “It’s the excellent person who pushes themselves when they don’t feel like it.” I really rang true and I fall back on that advice a lot, in every walk of life. Anyone can workout when they’re feeling peppy and refreshed; anyone can write when they’re in the right frame of mind with time and a fresh topic.And lastly, don’t take for granted the opportunity you have. By virtue of even reading this you’re likely in the top quartile of humans who have ever existed as far as good fortune goes: you have access to a computer, you’re literate, and you play water polo on an organized team. I remember having this thought a lot when I was in high school: we had 4:45 AM workout everyday, along with afternoon training, and I’d often feel sorry for myself when I awoke at 4:25am in preparation for getting on my bike to get to the pool. But then I realized how profoundly fortunate I was to have the opportunity to even do that. This too has really stuck with me in my adult life.

K7: What style of shooter used to give you the hardest time blocking? How does your GK background help coaching your attackers?

JB: As a goalie, I just need to figure out when the shot’s coming and then where it’s going.My leg strength and fundamentals will allow me to get to any spot in the cage. Once I started playing at higher levels, these became harder to decipher.So, to answer your question, a shooter with an exceptionally deceptive fake—one that looks exactly like a shot—yet which also leaves the shooter in a good shooting position—i.e. not a fake so convincing that it then leaves the shooter off balance—causes real problems. Because then I’m out of my spring-like athletic base-position and can no longer cover the entire cage. At this point I have to either start guessing and baiting a bit, or concede that I won’t get the corner shot and remain balanced enough to take off the remaining 80 percent of the goal.The other problem arises when the shooter doesn’t fake at all. He just has the ball in perfect,balanced position and then moves laterally. This results in my having to match him perfectly in the goal from a geometric point of view without the advantage of being able to check my posts because he can shoot at any moment. While this strategy often takes some speed of the shot,the deceptive nature of it far outweighs that. I’d much prefer a shooter to get out to his suit,perform some big fancy wind up—i.e. announce that the shot is coming—and throw the ball as hard as possible.

K7: What advice to you have for someone who is the “backup” Goalie on a team?

JB: This is a great question because, on pretty much every team, there is a back-up goalie.First off, the backup needs to treat every training session as though it were a game. Ninety percent of the water polo that players play is in workout, so while the backup isn’t getting game time, they’re getting 90 percent of the water time.

Secondly, the backup needs to accept the position they’re in: backing up the starting goalie.This means two things. First off, doing everything she can to make sure the starting goalie has what she needs, be it a proper warm up, information about various shooters, focus in drills. But this also means that it’s your job to push that goalie. I know of college coaches who recruit a good goalie when they already have a good freshman for the sole purpose of pushing their current goalie to improve.

And lastly, the backup needs to find a way to be mentally prepared to play in every game. This is frustrating because it rarely happens and it requires some emotional investment with little return. But in the case of injury or sickness or an ejection of the starting goalie, you have very little time to prepare. It’s often the case that the backup goes in only against the weaker teams or when the game is already won. While it’s easy to let your guard down at these moments, it’s essential that you don’t. Playing goalie should be a habit of mind, not just something one does well when it “matters.”

Ideally, the backup goalie is younger than the starter, and so he is essentially preparing to takeover once the starter ages up or graduates. If this is the case, then the ideals stated above are true not only intrinsically but also from a utilitarian stand point: they should see themselves as consistently preparing to become the starting goalie the day that the current season ends.

K7: Thank you for so much of your valuable time and good luck with all your endeavors.

JB: Thank you.

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You can follow Jack on Twitter, @1jackbowen.