Ewout Boogaard: “Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport”

December 4, 2020

Ewout Boogaard: "Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport”

Ewout Boogaard, co-owner of Courageous teaming, is a team building specialist and leadership coach in the business world from his experience as a former professional handball player. “Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport,” warns our former student from Johan Cruyff Academy

Creating a healthy work environment is a purpose of every good company. Sport offers us a lot we can learn from, but it does not come easily. “Sometimes I am surprised that companies only work together for a few days on team building to change complex organizational behavior or bring about a cultural change. “Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport.”

These are the words of Ewout Boogaard, Johan Cruyff Academy alumnus and co-owner of Coureagous teaming. In his career he has made a transition from being a top handball player to a teaming building specialist and leadership coach in the business world. He aims to combine knowledge with courage, sensitivity and curiosity, the courage to ask what others only dare to think, the sensitivity to be well aware of the motives and feelings of others, and the curiosity to discover what’s really going on.

It is his ambition to bring more authenticity, courage and health to management teams and boardrooms, because “only this way can mutual goals be achieved energetically in rapidly changing circumstances”. The best way to achieve that is by being honest with yourself, facing your uncertainties and gathering your courage to make a change. And then using that to guide others, just as Johan Cruyff said: “You can only coach others, if you can coach yourself.”

Ewout’s story is about top sport, learning from your mistakes and insecurities and having the courage to face up to them, to bring about change, on and off the playing field.

Play to win

Ewout Boogaard at the Dutch premier handball league.

In 1997, at the age of 17, I made my debut in the Dutch premier handball league. I was given the opportunity to play the last 10 minutes of the game. I stepped nervously onto the court. Every ball that I received I played back as quickly as possible. After the last whistle, I left the field relieved. I had not made a mistake.

That night, I had difficulty sleeping. I thought I would feel proud, but instead a sense of shame prevailed. Why did I have that feeling? What was the cause of it? I had just made a successful debut! Tossing and turning in my bed, I suddenly woke up. I felt wide awake and it was crystal clear to me. I had played not to lose, not to make any mistakes. No actions, no mistakes, but therefore also no pride.

I will never forget that moment. From that moment on, I decided to always play to win, inside and also outside the handball court. That takes courage. The courage, as Mandela said in his famous statement that we quote on our website, to face and overcome fears, every day, every training session, every competition, every moment. Afterwards I wasted some matches, of course. I lost and made mistakes, but always with a good feeling afterwards: the feeling of pride!

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela.

Team coach on a different playing ground

As a handball player, I ran into several barriers—three, to be precise. The first was a physical barrier. I was too light, I lacked strength and I was too small. I couldn’t do much about the latter of course, so I put extra work into improving my physical condition. To understand what I had to do — and not do — for that, and to develop my own viewpoint, I did a strength and conditioning course, and spoke to several experts in Johan Cruyff Academy network of contacts. With a good program and a good dose of discipline, that barrier disappeared quickly. I even think that my physical strength became one of my greatest assets.

A second barrier that I experienced was a mental one. Disappointments, doubts, tension and sometimes anger. How do you deal with that? Thoughts such as ‘can I do it?’ or ‘am I good enough?’ did not help me perform better, but they were there. Making mistakes and getting stuck in negativity didn’t help, but it did happen to me. Through the training network I had contact with sport psychologists and, thanks in part to them, I developed a number of coping mechanisms that still come in handy today. Later, I also did a few coaching courses in this area with the aim of helping others to develop a different mindset.

A third barrier was a social barrier. Especially when I was invited to play in the Dutch team for the first time, I didn’t know what to do. How should I act? It made me tense. I didn’t know how to handle it. In one team I felt like a fish in the water, in the other team I was tense.

“Thanks to my career as an athlete, and my studies at Johan Cruyff Academy, I learned a lot about physical, mental and team development, and how they influence each other”
Ewout Boogaard: "Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport”

Ewout Boogaard, Johan Cruyff Academy alumnus and co-owner of Coureagous teaming.

Thanks to my career as an athlete, and my studies at Johan Cruyff Academy, I learned a lot about physical, mental and team development, and how they influence each other. But above all, I have experienced the impact of terrific coaches. It became clear to me that I wanted to be one of the best coaches. In sport? No. Although I couldn’t explain it, the business world attracted me more.

Now, 20 years after I started my studies at Johan Cruyff Academy, I have a coaching and consultancy agency together with André Wouters, my business partner. It may not surprise you that we have named our company Courageous teaming.

Towards a dynamic game

Shortly after the start of my handball career, the International Handball Federation adapted one of the rules and that made the game considerably faster and more dynamic. Until that time our tactical training consisted mainly of training game systems. The center-half or coach (from the sidelines) indicated which system should be played in attack. Everyone on the court knew his task and tried to perform it at his best.

Until then, the idea was: perform your task properly via the right system, and that will lead to goals. But due to the increasing speed and dynamics of the game, this no longer worked. Even before the system was completed — or sometimes even deployed — the game went another way. The center-half — and certainly the coach — no longer had the time to organize an attack in the old way.

Our training changed. They became more and more decision-making training sessions in which we were challenged in pairs or threes to solve different, increasingly complex and unimaginable game situations. We immediately learned from — and with — each other how things could be better next time. The decision-making authority shifted to all players on the court, to maximize our chance of scoring. We assimilated the structure from tactical principles, which enabled us to respond adequately to each other. The game was now more demanding, instead of just hard work and disciplined execution of your task. And it was a lot more fun!

The playing field of business

On the playing field of business, we often speak about the VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambitious. In my eyes, that world shows many similarities with the development that I have experienced on the handball court. With the clients I coach, especially the ones in larger corporations, I see and feel the same struggles. What usually is not working any more is the idea that it is enough to respect the rules of the organization and perform your task well, and then all will be fine. But what new principles should be in place that can provide structure and support? How can you stimulate employees’ own initiative and creativity so that they can fully develop? How do you facilitate the process of quickly tackling complex situations with the right players, working towards satisfactory solutions? And how do we make ‘learning-in-action’ possible in business?

In my role as a leadership coach, I use five principles that help with this:

  1. Act from courage instead of fear, especially by putting your real motives on the table and stepping out of your comfort zone.
  2. Lead instead of suffering. Do not complain about what lies outside your sphere of influence but focus your attention more on what you do have influence on.
  3. Speak out instead of joining the conversation, by putting the right team members together in the room and making all voices heard.
  4. Be curious instead of fighting. Do not try to convince someone of your point of view when you experience resistance, but genuinely investigate how others see it.
  5. Build up instead of breaking down. Do not criticize what is missing but focus on building on what is already there.

What often strikes me is that this approach contributes to the strengthening of various (sports) values. As soon as people become more aware of what they experience and really want, it also contributes to choices that are good for their health and well-being. Making brave choices leads to success and valuable learning experiences. It is a basis for self-esteem. Stepping into the leading, responsible role contributes to increased and better performance. And expressing yourself, being curious and acting constructively are a foundation for social behavior, team building and cooperation.

Ewout Boogaard: "Team building needs to be worked on constantly, just like in elite sport”

Ewout Boogaard, Johan Cruyff Academy alumnus and co-owner of Coureagous teaming.

I believe that I have pointed out clearly that my current career to coach teams and people in business comes from my former career as a handball player, and what I learned during that time myself. Looking back, I would like to thank Johan Cruyff Academy for making that possible for me, because only there was I able to combine my sport career with studies in a sport environment. Study that also planted the seeds for the profession that I can now practice with great satisfaction as a coach to people and teams in the business world.

“Making brave choices leads to success and valuable learning experiences; it is a basis for self-esteem”

Learnings from the master Johan

Thanks to my handball and Johan Cruyff Academy contacts, I had the privilege to meet many top coaches. I learned a lot from them. I also had the pleasure of being at Johan Cruyffs’ home once in Barcelona, ​​which had a great impact on me. He was extremely knowledgeable in his field, and we all know his famous statements. Two really stand out for me:

  • “You will only see it when you get it” – Johan Cruyff
    The statement can be interpreted in many ways. For me, the essence is that you only see what is really going on if you really understand the game and if you manage to see what is “under the surface”. You have to be able to look through the content, the superficial problems and procedures, to see what is keeping a situation trapped, so that you can actually do something meaningful to change and improve it. The statement is of course applicable to business teams, but it has also helped me a lot. In 2008, I decided to quit as a handball player. Until then I had combined studies and work with sport, but sport was always number 1. Then comes a time of uncertainty. Who am I now? What else can I do now other than handball? Where can I find a place that gives me satisfaction and where I can contribute? It takes a while before you realize and can see. What helped with this was the question: “what did I do well in a small way, that I could make bigger?” and the realization that this, like how I had learned to play handball, takes time.
  • “Playing football is very simple, but the most difficult thing there is, is playing football simply” – Johan Cruyff
    That brings me directly to this statement of Johan, which meant a lot to me. I always think of the famous 10,000-hour standard. Whether it is top sport or another profession, it takes time, practice, frustration, hard work and making mistakes to be able to do something so well that it becomes simple again. I notice that as a business coach in the field of team building, I also come up with that standard to make it simple again. I now do my work with the same peace and confidence that I had in the games I played at the end of my handball career. I dare to trust that I can easily and effectively deal with every challenge that awaits me.


This post was originally published at Johan Cruyff Academy.


Leadership in Coaching

Coaching is more than the use of tactical and technical knowledge as per Johan Cruyff’s vision. Coaching is about managing oneself, the players & staff, the team and the environment. Each participant’s personal background is the base for their further development and better understanding of themselves as a coach and/or manager.

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