How to stay motivated in sport and keep winning after a decade at the top

January 28, 2022

How to stay motivated in sport and keep winning after a decade at the top

Britt Eerland, the best table tennis player in the Netherlands and one of the best in the world, reveals how she stays motivated in sport and how the Master in Coaching in the Olympic year helped her to be even better prepared for the Tokyo Games

Being unique, being the best, being strong, or being a role model are qualifiers that accompany elite athletes. The image they radiate is so powerful that too often it dilutes how they got this far. When you put so much time and effort into improving the ‘best version of yourself’ that people know, finding the right balance might be the hardest part. That also applies to staying motivated in sport, continuing to perform at a top level, to peak at the right times, year after year. Britt Eerland, the best table tennis player in the Netherlands and one of the best in the world, knows how to stay motivated to continue building an exceptional track record. The Master in Coaching at the Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam has been part of her path to improvement.

Britt is one of the few Dutch professional table tennis players, a European talent in a sport dominated by Asian players. She trains daily in Schiedam, but since 2013 she has been playing abroad, where the level in table tennis is higher. After a bumpy road with ups and downs and physical and mental challenges, she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, just after graduating from her master’s degree. The studies brought out her high level of confidence even more, improved her reflection processes and even the work with her coach. Improving technique is important, but it is not enough to stay amongst the elite.

In this interview, she talks about how investing in herself has been one of the best decisions she has made in her professional career. “Before the master’s, I used to put a lot of responsibility in the hands of the coach, but if you don’t really know what you need, how can you ask someone else to help you get it?” says Britt. Here we get to know her a little better.

How to stay motivated in sport and keep winning after a decade at the top

Improving technique is important, but it is not enough to stay amongst the elite like Britt does * Photo: Onno Kemperman.

How do you get back on track, after such an important event as the Olympics?

That really was a struggle, because after the Olympics I was eager to start, but my body let me down. Training went well, but during competitions my body froze up and I got headaches, probably because of the continuing pressure. In one way or another, you have to get through that stage and the tournaments help me with that. When training at home, you stay too much in your comfort zone and you get distracted too much, but at a tournament, you are very clearly confronted with the things that are going on, both mentally and physically. They are good moments to measure where you stand and what you still need to do to perform well.

The World Cup in America in November 2021 was the first tournament that went well again for me. I achieved my personal goal of finishing in the last 32. My last match was against a player who was ranked number 11 in the world before the corona pandemic broke out. It ended up being a 7-set match, in which I was able to give everything until the end. A good match, just a pity I couldn’t manage to win it then. But you know, the only thing you can focus on is that you play well yourself and do your best, and I did. So, I took away a good feeling about it.

You studied the Master in Coaching. To what extent does it help you with these processes?

A lot, especially in terms of self-reflection! I used to assign a lot of things to the coach, in the sense of ‘you have to help me feel good’. But if you don’t know yourself what you need, how can you ask someone else to make you feel good? After the master’s, I now ask myself these questions first before I ask the coach to help me. Only when I have the answers do I then engage with the coach, and now it’s more like: “This is how I feel and I think that’s why I need so-and-so.”

“The Master in Coaching helped me a lot, especially in terms of self-reflection. If you don’t know yourself what you need, how can you ask someone else to make you feel good?”

Are you now more of a sparring partner with your coach than before? Is there more equality?

Yes, you could call it that. I also think it’s better for the level of coaching, if you know better what your needs are, and what you need help with at that moment. Because of course, that varies enormously. One tournament you feel good and at that moment you need some real table tennis training, while at the next moment you might feel a little less sure of yourself, and you need more ‘down time’. The better you reflect, the better it goes.

What was the most important lesson you learned on the Master in Coaching?

That I can now see it more as a whole thing. That sounds vague, but I will try to explain it: before the Master in Coaching, I was already doing certain things in my sport. For example, I had learned how you make your personality more powerful, so that you are also stronger behind the table tennis table. But on the Master in Coaching, you go deeper into that and it isn’t just about sport, but more about yourself. Then you discover that many things that you already apply in sport, have a much broader explanation or interpretation. You get a much better understanding why some things fit you so well, not only as an athlete but also as a person. In this way, I was better able to make it a whole, and I also developed more faith in my own path.

How to stay motivated in sport and keep winning after a decade at the top

Britt graduated from the Master in Coaching in 2021 * Photo: Joris Aben.

The Master in Coaching has strengthened, or deepened, my foundation, which also enables me to ask myself better questions, and talk about personal things more easily with others. You could also say that you develop a vision of yourself. In the past I often felt like an outsider, the one who does everything differently, but now that matters much less. I know it’s right, the way I do it. Plus, I have my Master in Coaching family supporting me in this, so that works out well too!

Does it feel that way, like you are part of the Master in Coaching family?

Yes, with a few alumni I keep in touch and we get together from time to time. And at the Olympics in Tokyo I ran into Femke Heemskerk. We discovered that we had both done the Master in Coaching, and that immediately offers you an opening to talk about very personal things. I like that, especially also to talk about it with other top athletes. Those who have done the Master in Coaching are very open about it, but then again, they usually have done a little more self-reflection, which of course makes it easier to talk about yourself.

Femke Heemskerk was also very open to the press about it, saying she wanted to ‘get rid of that little voice in her head’. Does that also apply to you?

Well —as I said— I already did a lot of things, but now it goes deeper. Of course, it’s still not nice to lose a game and I do have these little voices in my head too, but winning or losing is now much more separate from me as a person. Winning or losing now adds much less value to who I am. Thanks to the Master in Coaching, I have come to know myself better, have gained more confidence and give more value to myself as a person. So, I can separate it more easily now, which also makes it easier to handle the journey. It’s more like ‘come on, we’ll see’. It feels like things don’t get to me so easily anymore. That makes you stronger and so that’s just better.

“I have come to know myself better, have gained more confidence and give more value to myself as a person. So, I can separate it more easily now, which also makes it easier to handle the journey”

As a table tennis player, you come across to me as a hard fighter, when I read the reports on your website. Is that correct and has the Master in Coaching changed anything in that?

Yes, and yes it has. After the Master in Coaching, I believe in that even more. I want to show myself like that, as a real fighter. I fight, I will not give up! Stay positive and keep fighting. That’s the way I am. I use those terminologies, and the norms and values that go with it are important to me. I want to present myself like that. I know that I want to be involved in this, those are the things I want to show, that’s where I keep my focus, and the Master in Coaching helped me to make that vision of myself even sharper, regardless of winning or losing.

“The Master in Coaching helped me to make that vision of myself even sharper, regardless of winning or losing”

When I look at the international top 30, I see you—a European player—with almost only Chinese names above you. So, is it that fighting spirit, too, that keeps you motivated?

Yes, that’s right! Because of their physicality, they have an advantage and they are just very good at table tennis. So, if I rely on table tennis alone and had to compete with them in that way, I don’t think I’m good enough. But if I bring that extra strength to that will to fight from my personality, and I manage to apply it in the mental game as well, then opportunities arise. In the end, they are human too. I often try to challenge them on that level. So, I’m actually trying to fight a different kind of battle with them than they are used to.

“If I bring that extra strength to that will to fight from my personality, and I manage to apply it in the mental game as well, then opportunities arise”

Still, I think it’s very difficult to get even higher in the world standings. Do you agree with that?

In a way, I do. That is why I think it is so important to do my thing well, regardless of the ranking. Even now, at the World Championships, I almost managed to beat the number 11 in the world, because I played that mental game so well. As soon as she was confident about her game, she overcame me. But when I got her doubting me, I could take those games. You see, in that way I am still competition for her. That’s nice to see.

You’ve been competing at the international level for years. What is the biggest difference in your development between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2021?

For me, Tokyo was just much better than Rio, and it was also the reason I wanted to do the Master in Coaching in the Olympic year. Before Rio, I played the Olympic qualifying tournament, even though I really shouldn’t have, but I wanted to take those experiences with me. But during that tournament I completely froze, I couldn’t get into my game. I knew at that moment that an Olympic qualification tournament is the hardest thing for me personally, to show myself there and play my game. For Tokyo, playing well was not enough, the qualifying tournament was part of my path. So, when the opportunity came to do the Master in Coaching, I knew that it would be very useful during that qualifying tournament.

And how did that go then, how did you win your Olympic ticket?

The lowest ranked for the Olympics was the number 80 in the world, so actually that should be good enough, but the NOC*NSF only wanted to send medal candidates and therefore had set the requirement that you must be able to reach the top 16, which you could prove by winning the qualification tournament.

Participating in such a tournament, means you have to survive several rounds and beat several people, to actually win the tournament itself. So, I had to have a high ranking, win the qualification tournament and NOC*NSF also had to think it was good enough. There was really a lot involved and it put so much pressure on me that I thought, ‘what am I going to do with this?’

That’s why I loved that I could do the Master in Coaching during the Olympic year, because thanks to the program, I kept the right focus on myself during the tournaments and I also managed to go to Tokyo!

“I loved that I could do the Master in Coaching during the Olympic year, because thanks to the program, I kept the right focus on myself during the tournaments and I also managed to go to Tokyo!”

Did you use the Master in Coaching to, let’s say, develop that right focus?

Before Rio, it was all about training, training, training, and then that should all be enough to win a medal, or at least get a good result. But during the 2016 Olympics, that approach turned out to be fatal, because we had trained ourselves to death, we got injured, and ended up with a bad result. Everything just felt rotten then, so to speak.

“Before I did the Master in Coaching, I already knew that I wanted to approach Tokyo in another way that suited me better. I wanted to invest in myself and the study program is just about that”

So, before I did the Master in Coaching, I already knew that I wanted to approach Tokyo in another way that suited me better. I also thought ‘let me invest in myself’, because that’s what you have influence over. And the study program of the Master in Coaching is just about that, investing in yourself, so in retrospect I’m extremely happy with my choice that I did this master.

How to stay motivated in sport and keep winning after a decade at the top

Britt Eerland in a European Championships teams qualifying match * Photo: Rob de Ruiter.

So, the trick is to stay satisfied with your own performance and showcase yourself, regardless of the result.

Yes, that’s it in the end. Look, it’s still super tough to get there, but you only have control over yourself and how you do it. Wins, losses, rankings, medals, Olympics … you have to take so many steps before you get anywhere near that, and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll make it!

For an Olympic ticket for Paris 2024, for example, the NOC*NSF has made it even more difficult. They want to continue to see growth after Tokyo. If it becomes increasingly difficult, it is better for me to set my goals realistically and see which tournaments fit in. Then I prefer to focus on that, so I am sure that I can get something out of it for my own development. For me, the next European Championship in Munich in August 2022 is an important goal. I would like to get a medal there.

“For me, the next European Championship in Munich in August 2022 is an important goal. I would like to get a medal there”

You have been playing table tennis at the top level for more than 10 years. What’ does the sport give you?

For the most part, it’s freedom. Of course, it is difficult to perform under pressure, but given my situation, I can always be who I would like to be. I live and train in Schiedam (the Netherlands) and I am the boss of my own program. It gives me a certain mindset in which I can be fully engaged with my own development, and where I don’t have to repeat the same things all the time from 9 to 5.

Table tennis continues to challenge me in many different facets: the technique, the speed, the physical and mental element, and who I am, my personality. Everything is in it and it is never boring. The matches and tournaments are the measuring moments, where I analyze what I want to invest in. Then I have plenty of freedom to decide what I want to work on. This way of life—in terms of investment and what I get out of it—and the mindset that goes with it, I just really like.

I don’t think it’s good for the sport that there are so few top players. What do you think about that? 

Yes, currently I am the only female top player in the Netherlands. Many athletes stopped, both female and male. Pretty intense. It is also partly due to corona. The men often earned some extra money with the leagues, but those are often stopped. So they got too little return on their investment.

It is also because it’s an indoor sport, and due to Covid they are often not allowed. Some people switched to playing outdoor tennis, or doing other sports that are allowed. It’s a real shame that in the Netherlands, they don’t look for more ways to keep all sports possible. Because doing sports plays an important part in your health.

As a top player, can you stimulate more children to play table tennis?

I do try, but that was before the corona pandemic. We organized a meet and greet, where children received some training from me, with a shirt, a photo and an autograph. We are looking for media opportunities to put table tennis on the map, also on my own social media and of course I have my own website. It is difficult, because in the Netherlands it is a sport with little money and the table tennis association focuses more on the elderly, because that is the largest group that plays table tennis.

Did you become an ambassador for the Johan Cruyff Foundation with that in mind?

Yes, the philosophy of Johan Cruyff Institute and Johan Cruyff Foundation, that everyone can develop through sport and that we can give something back to sport, I find that a beautiful concept. I have done a session with a group of disabled children, and I played games with them for a day. They wanted to start training immediately, but because some of them did not yet understand the game, I tried to just make it fun for them the first time. We all had a great day.

Finally, could you see yourself as a coach in the future?

Yes, I would like to become a coach later on, if I can, of course, but preferably in another sport or setting, because table tennis is too much in my comfort zone. Internationally, I do have a few good friends with whom I can talk about table tennis and have intellectual conversations, also about the mental part. And since the Master in Coaching, I try to spar more with coaches. My horizon has expanded because of it. I would really like to join other sports, to see how they train and are coached, and how the coach guides them.

Cover image: Kevin Kempf.

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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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