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Business, Olympic Edition The Head Coach Role: It’s all about team

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By: Jacco Verhaeren •  4 years ago •  

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I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN THE NETHERLANDS, AND HAVE ALWAYS BEEN PASSIONATE ABOUT SPORT. AS AN ATHLETE, I WASN’T GREAT AT IT. I THINK I LACKED TALENT, BUT I DID LOVE IT AND PLAYED A LOT. THE COMBINATION OF MY INTEREST IN HUMAN BEINGS AND THE PHYSIOLOGY BEHIND SPORT TOOK ME TO A SPORT ACADEMY IN THE NETHERLANDS. EVEN AT AGE 14, WHEN I WAS STILL SWIMMING, I WANTED TO BECOME A COACH, SO EVEN THEN I STARTED TO WORK TOWARDS IT.

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t the academy, the first year is very general, studying a lot of sports like athletics, gymnastics, hockey, football, and I chose judo as well. In the second year, it is a choice, and I chose swimming and judo, because I was active in both sports myself. In the final year, I really decided to go for swimming. So at 19, I was on deck being mentored by another coach and still studying at school at the same time.

I was very lucky to get a job, and not a full-time one at that, because at that time in the Netherlands, full-time jobs in swimming didn’t exist. Many coaches were volunteers. So I worked part-time in swimming, and the other half in gyms just to make money. I started with a small but talented swim team and went to my first international event as a coach 4 years later – the European Youth Championships in Turkey, 1994, with a talent I was coaching at the time named Pieter van den Hoogenband. He won 3 gold medals there. In 1995, we went to my first senior event, the European Championships in Vienna, then to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. From that moment on, I’ve been every year to either a European Championships, World Championships or Olympic Games.

A STEEP LEARNING CURVE

Pieter van den Hoogenband was the first athlete I had international success with. He was only 18 at the 1996 Olympics, and managed to be fourth in both the 100m and 200m freestyle. I also had a girl who won two bronze medals for the 400m and 800m freestyle. Those were surprising medals, but Pieter and my other medley swimmer were a bit unlucky not to get to the podium. It became my inspiration to continue and try to do better. Certainly with Pieter that worked out brilliantly with his gold medals at the next Olympics in the same two events and breaking both world records. The 1996 Olympics were my first and I didn’t have any experience whatsoever. Obviously, you make a lot of mistakes and need to discover a lot of things, and I was lucky to have the time to make those mistakes and still do some good.

From 1989 to 1996 was a big learning curve for me as a beginning coach, being exposed to international competition. From 1996 onwards to Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, I was capitalising on that experience. You never stop learning as a coach. I definitely appreciate the experience I needed to have in the first 7 years of coaching to become a better coach. I think your coaching style, that relates to the way you are, doesn’t change much. Coaching style is very personal. But you get more experience and learn more to work with the individuals. My first 7 years, I was working generally. I had a program that everyone did, and there was only a little individualisation. The program worked pretty well, but after 1996 I took more science on board and started to work with external experts like physiologists, biomechanics, strength and conditioning coaches.

I think the most important thing in a coach is that you get more experience with different people. Every unique person needs a different approach. As a coach, you don’t step away from your values, beliefs and structure, but you do work differently with each individual. If you have 9 people and no assistant coach, it’s a lot of work. It’s comparable to what Michael Bohl does these days. He has a lot of swimmers on the team and works on his own. Most coaches work with one or two people, sometimes 4 on the national team and that’s it, but the group dynamics within your group change as you add more people and so do the challenges: spreading your attention, your coaching on the day itself. You will always have some athletes that do well and others who don’t, and you have to learn to manage those emotions within yourself as well. Michael Bohl is a master in doing that.

INDIVIDUAL VS GROUP COACHING

When I got a bit older, my group was a bit smaller. At the 2012 Olympics, I had 4 or 5 people, and I was working very, very individualised. I think the biggest shift in my coaching has been to really go more in depth with all the experts. At the beginning of my career I couldn’t do this as there wasn’t the opportunity. I definitely didn’t have the knowledge and experience to manage all these people around a program. In the end, you get used to working with a team around you. You stay the coach, but you become a manager of a high performance team as well.

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In my home training environment, I like between 6-10 athletes. You can still give individual attention, but there is a group dynamic. But I know some coaches that work very well one-on-one with an athlete. I think it comes down to your personality and character. When I started coaching, I had 40 swimmers, and there was no place for individualisation. Instead of real coaching, it becomes training and keeping people busy. For high performance, that number is definitely too high. Ideally we’re looking around 8 swimmers is manageable, and 6-8 very manageable for a coach in high performance.

After 2012, I decided to quit individual coaching. I’d been in the sport for 24 years working as a coach either one-on-one or with groups, and I thought it was time for a change. From 2006-2012, I had combined the role of head coach with being an individual coach and the technical director. In hindsight, it was too much work, so I decided to focus more of the being the technical director and reorganise the Federation.

AUSTRALIA: A NATION OF SWIMMERS AND COACHES

In 2013, I got a call from Michael Scott, the Performance Director for Swimming Australia, asking if I was interested in a role in Australia. Because the Australian system is so big, I always thought that a head coach, technical director or performance director for Australia would be Australian, so I didn’t expect it. There are so many good coaches and people around. I’ve always seen Australia as one of the biggest swimming nations and always thought it must be a great place to for a coach to live and work because of the popularity of swimming. There was lot of opportunity, it was more professional compared to the Netherlands, so I was very interested, I just didn’t know what people would think of me becoming a head coach. Professionally the choice is not so difficult, but shaking up your family’s lives and leaving friends is much bigger and more difficult. My wife and two boys did a great job adjusting in another culture and making new friends.

I was recommended the Gold Coast to live, and although I fly around the country working with other coaches, nearly 75-80% of the team lives in Queensland, so it makes it easier. I needed to get used to it professionally and really find my role – work out what difference you can make, what value you can provide as Head Coach in the system, with the coaches and with the national team. It took me a while to figure out and actually build relationships. Obviously there are things you have to adjust to. Australia is not Europe. There’s a lot of rules and policies in Australia, and cultural differences. It’s not a problem, just something you have to get used to.

NO TWO COACHES COACH THE SAME

Because the role is bigger, you have a broader responsibility for both coaches and athletes. It requires more inspiring and informing and consulting. You have to trust the people you work with, and I’m lucky to work with a lot of great coaches here. You can walk into a program, share ideas and knowledge with the coach, try to inspire, but in the end the coach will do what they think is best for their athletes, and you have to trust and respect them in that.

There is no coach that runs the same program as another coach. For example, David Lush and Michael Bohl are very different from one another. Their programs don’t look alike, not on land or in the water, not their coaching style or skills, and yet they are both great coaches. The beauty of Michael Bohl is that he doesn’t take anything for granted, even at his level. He knows what’s required but will never guarantee you medals. David Lush is at the beginning of his career by comparison, and I’m impressed by the way he deals with things, by his style and philosophy, which is very modern. But whether you’re experienced or not, we can all be successful as long as we keep communicating and trying to make each other better coaches.

My role is to create the best possible environment for the coaches. Two weeks out from the Olympics, we bring the teams together, and this is where I lead the meetings and experts in the team. I perfect and protect the best possible environment for the coaches and athletes to work in. What Michael Bohl does with Mitch Larkin is not my business. I make strategic choices of training locations, relay teams, jet lag protocol, strategy with nutritionists, team atmosphere. I lead conversations with the physiotherapists, the psychologist, the team managers, and bringing it all together. I’m not the one making the medals. My opinion matters in the conversation where we share knowledge and debate things, but as soon as I walk away, I trust them to take the best ideas they can use themselves and leave the rest. This is the way it should work. I’m a sounding board to talk to on a technical level or on how they work with their staff and other people.

I never think about the results because they are uncontrollable, even for the athletes.

I never think about the results because they are uncontrollable, even for the athletes. The only thing you can control is yourself, the way you approach and prepare for the race. Our mantra is peak performance, which means be the best you can on the day that it counts. I will always encourage the team, but never mention a word on medals or results. Thinking about outcomes gets in the way of the best possible process, which leads to the best possible outcome.

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MY TOP TIP

To be a good coach, you need to be absolutely passionate and committed towards your goal. There’s no way around, only that passion will bring you the results. On top of that, try to be the best version of yourself. That means constantly develop yourself and never think or believe you know it all. At the same time, believe you can do the best possible, then ultimately your passion and belief, while being yourself, will bring you up to the level. Sometimes you need to accept the fact that everybody’s got a particular talent for something. Sometimes it’s also OK to be the best possible development coach in the country. Try to be the best version of yourself, and whether or not that is a lead coach or a development coach, only time will tell.

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