Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

August 6, 2021

Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

Lecturer and study advisor Joyce van Kooten delves into study coaching of elite athletes at Johan Cruyff Academy and the key aspects to combine successfully high level sport and studies

Lecturer and study advisor Joyce van Kooten delves into the subject of study coaching of elite athletes and the challenges she and the athletes face when combining elite sport with studies at the bachelor’s degree level. In addition, as a real-life example of this difficult mix, volleyball player Myrthe Schoot explains why she decided years ago to stop studying, and why she recently decided to go back to the university of applied sciences. She is a volleyball player who performs at the highest international level and a third-year student at Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam.

Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

Myrthe Schoot * Image: Ronald Hoogendoorn.

Since 2007, Joyce van Kooten has been involved as a teacher and a study advisor in developing the study program for elite athletes at Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam. Together with the rest of the team she strives for the ideal balance between their sport and their full-time bachelor’s program in sport marketing. The three sites of the Johan Cruyff Academy in Amsterdam, Groningen and Tilburg offer tailor-made study guidance for every student-athlete who studies there.

This publication is the last in a series of three. In Part 1, Joyce explained the principles of study coaching of top athletes and the critical factors for success. In Part 2, she discussed study coaching in the context of diversity in sport and between athletes.

Top 9 success factors for top athletes

What should top athletes score well on in order to be successful in their sport according to Champions ID?:

  1. Ability to perform under pressure
  2. Motivation
  3. Sense of responsibility
  4. Ability to enjoy
  5. Relationship with coach
  6. Relationship with team (players, supervisors)
  7. Funding and financing
  8. Vision on career
  9. Being prepared for the end of their career

Do the same factors apply to success in studies?

Yes, it is easily translatable to studying. The biggest difference—and also the most important aspect—is the motivation. Sport really comes first for top athletes! Wanting to study is not the same as feeling passionate and going for it.

“The biggest difference between being successful in sports or in studies is the motivation. Wanting to study is not the same as feeling passionate and going for it”

Studying also requires other skills than sports, of course. You need to be interested in and curious about the subject of sport marketing, in order to get started with your studies. Because top athletes can sometimes only invest the minimum in their studies, you notice that they do not always realize how much fun this can be. They often only discover this when they have an opportunity to dive deeper into it.

“Top athletes do not always realize how much fun sport marketing can be until they have an opportunity to dive deeper into it”

The mutual relationship between student-athletes is very important in that regard. The fact that they study together as athletes provides connection and commitment. They understand each other’s situation and are often more willing to help each other at certain times, or to look together for creative solutions.

Naturally, you must be careful not to encourage free-riding behavior, and also to teach them how to deal with that. But we see the fact that they can study together as a great added value of Johan Cruyff Academy—and they themselves think this as well, according all evaluations.

As a study coach, what tenth challenge would you add?

Developmental orientation: being able to reflect on one’s own behavior, setting development goals and being willing to work hard to get better and to keep learning.

Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

Joyce van Kooten, lecturer and study advisor at Johan Cruyff Academy.

An athlete said: “When things went well in sport, my studies also went well.” Do you agree with that?

Usually this is the case. A big misconception is that with an injury, there is more time for study. First, the structure is gone and a new rhythm has to be sought. You should also not underestimate how many hours are involved in rehabilitation, often with mandatory attendance at team activities. And then the mental aspect comes into play; they are often disappointed and feeling down because of the injury and cannot simply collect their thoughts to spend them effectively on their studies.

“It is a big misconception that with an injury, there is more time for study”

Of course there are exceptions! There are top athletes who do flick the switch because they are very passionate about performing, wherever possible. But most athletes can best maintain the combination of sport and study in a steady flow. Some seek variation with targeted moments, which they devote to sport and study. Sometimes top sport demands so much that the athlete can no longer focus on two things. Then it becomes more difficult and choices have to be made.

“Most athletes can best maintain the combination of sport and study in a flow, but there are also exceptions”

If there are difficulties in the student’s sport, does that affect their study progress?

We are of the “total human principle” —as I explained in Part 1 of this interview— and nine times out of ten we notice that problems arise in a student’s study progress if things are not going well in their sport.

“If things are not going well in their sport, it affects their study process, and this applies nine times out of ten”

What we occasionally see is that when things go less well elsewhere, students use their studies as an outlet or distraction. That works for some students and it is nice when there is that distraction. What I often notice is that many athletes do not report quickly when something is wrong. Many are the ‘don’t-talk-just-do-it’ type, and they often like to solve their problems on their own, sometimes going on too long with things, which can make the problem get bigger than it should.

“I often try to explain students that independence is not the same as wanting to do things alone”

In these situations, what I often try to explain to the students is that independence is not the same as wanting to do things alone. In fact, the opposite is true! It makes you stronger to share and do things together. Here I also always refer to the strength of Johan Cruyff, who gave direction to his own life while engaging the right people at the right times and understanding the importance of teamwork. “You can’t do it alone, you need to do it together!”

“Johan Cruyff always emphasized teamwork: ‘You can’t do it alone, you need to do it together!’”

‘Success in sport and study’ is one of the pillars of Johan Cruyff Academy. Do you ‘mind’ if a student quits their sport?

Many students graduate while they are no longer top athletes. They do not have to leave the study program. In fact, this is precisely as Johan Cruyff wanted it, and that is why it is part of the mission of Johan Cruyff Academy: we ensure that athletes have a productive future, especially after their sports career.

“Athletes do not have to leave the study program if they are no longer top athletes. Part of our mission is to ensure that athletes have a productive future, just as Johan Cruyff wanted it”

A sports career can be abandoned for many different reasons, and it can happen at many different times in an athletes’ life: being mentally tired of top sport, getting injured, having passed your peak, you name it… In all those cases, they choose to shift their focus and we usually see that they are going to do very well in their studies and really start working towards another career. That is also very nice to see and to be able to guide. In both cases, they are in the process of becoming a young professional.

Do you mind if they stop studying, because of the pressure from their sport?

Sometimes there is simply no other option. There is always a way to obtain a diploma or certificate later on, or in another way. I always give them those options. Usually, they are still quite young, and in those cases they can easily pick up their studies again later. We do, however, everything we can to continue to bind the student-athlete to us, so that postponement does not lead to abandonment. For example, I always congratulate them when I see that they are achieving success in their sport.

“Studies only makes sense if they themselves show the will and commitment to want to graduate”

When sports pressure increases and the idea of dropping out comes into the picture, then we plan a conversation and always the same question arises: “Do you really want to study?” Because it only makes sense if they themselves show the will and commitment to want to graduate. If it becomes too much of a struggle, it will be at the expense of the precious time they have to enjoy their sports success.

Does it often happen that studying becomes impossible due to the many sport obligations?

In my experience, this actually only applies to Olympic athletes, during European and World Championships, and to athletes who train a lot abroad —temporarily or full-time— where often heavier training schedules apply than in the Netherlands. But even then, there are athletes who can manage sport with studies!

Olympic programs are the most demonstrable reason why following a full-time study program may not always be successful. In my experience, in almost all other cases, when it is not possible to combine it, other factors play a role than just the busy sports program.

How is it for you as a study coach when top athletes stop studying?

When athletes give up their studies, it usually gives a feeling of failure, both for the athlete and for us. But changes are part of life and you also see that they can often have good careers, as a journalist or commentator for example, or they sometimes take up their studies again later.

When top athletes take somewhat longer to complete their studies, they also often see this as a failure, while we emphasize that we continue to look at what they did achieve, and how difficult it is to keep up balancing sport with studies, in order to help them complete it successfully.

“When top athletes take somewhat longer to complete their studies, we emphasize to keep looking at what they did achieve, and how difficult it is to balance sport with studies”

You build up a bond for years with some ‘slow students’ and then you are almost even prouder than they themselves are when they graduate. And you are proud of those who complete it in the scheduled four years of our program, because it is so clever that they have managed it all so well: top sport with full-time study.

How does sport affect the relationships with the other students?

Totally! Everyone is very involved in the sports performance of the students, both the teachers and the fellow students. We follow them as much as possible. Much of our success comes from the connection through sport.

“Much of our success comes from the connection through sport”

Recently we all watched a live handball match online at home, in which three current and one ex-student participated. We are all sport fanatics, so we like to watch it and sport is a very important tool in the relationships between us.

How does sport affect the student development?

Our entire program is sport oriented. We prepare our students for a career in the sports industry, so that they can further strengthen it, although it is also fine if they choose to work outside of sport, as their skills can be used in many sectors. As a team of teachers, we prefer to work with the students, rather than see them just as students. We encourage them to develop their own opinions, and sport offers good starting points for this. You must make sure that you do not take the chair of the sports trainer or coach, but on the other hand we do not hesitate to encourage students to look critically at their sports context, let them formulate their own opinions, and discuss all matters that play a role in their sport.

“Sport offers an excellent environment in which to practice the skills they will need later on”

In that respect, sport offers an excellent environment in which to practice, try out, develop and use the professional skills they will need later on.

Could the ‘top of the top’ athletes be helped even better?

Maybe, yes. I am in favor of modular education; that the study programs in higher professional education become more of a package you can put together yourself, both in terms of content and timing, so that you are even more flexible when and how much study load you take on. I expect that this is the direction of the future of higher professional education, but we are not there yet. And additionally, I think we can focus even more on career counseling for the entire career of the top athlete, from their entry to the study program until some time after graduation.

Finally, what literature do you recommend about study coaching of top athletes?

Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

Myrthe Schoot Case

Myrthe Schoot is 32 years and has been playing volleyball since she was 12. She has played for the Dutch national women’s volleyball team for 12 years. It is her tenth season in the German Bundesliga, after playing six years in the Dutch first division. At the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio, she and the team finished fourth but unfortunately, they didn’t qualify for Tokyo.

Myrthe started her studies at Johan Cruyff Academy in 2012, had to stop for a time due to her busy sports schedule in Germany, and has now resumed her studies.

Why did you decide to stop studying?

When I went to live abroad in Germany, I was 22, a very young talent. It was my dream, so I ‘had to go’, but I was inexperienced. Before I arrived at my new club, I already heard about all the stories of other international players who went abroad and felt tremendous pressure from the club, because they were ‘chosen’ – and got paid – to score the points for the club! It was quite a step: dealing with that pressure, the high expectations, the lack of family and friends, the new languages, the high sports level, another mentality and culture, new training methods, everything was different and intensive. The sport gave me something to hold on to, because I had very clear goals: I wanted to shine at my new club and get a permanent position as a player with the Dutch national selection. I managed to realize those goals!

I thought that I could do my studies on the side, but unfortunately that did not work out then. If I’m honest, I don’t think I could have made it with the current online possibilities either.

Why have you picked up your studies again?

I am 32 now and aware that my top sport career will end someday. It is something I never thought about before because I had to get that Olympic medal! I started asking myself: what do I want from life after volleyball?

Our team did not perform well at the Olympic qualification tournament in January 2020. That really got me thinking. My dream of winning gold in Tokyo, instead of Rio, was shattered and due to the corona pandemic, my life as an athlete literally came to a standstill for a while.

Questions raised in my head: What do I want, what do I like, what are my strengths, and what is my passion? Johan Cruyff Academy came back to my mind, but also many doubts: Why would I succeed now? Is it realistic to think I can study 100% online, in addition to my busy top sport life? At the same time, I thought how important it is for me, to get my bachelor’s degree.

After conversations with my study coach and a few friends, I made the decision. I have always enjoyed studying and I must say that I am taking it up again with great pleasure. Sometimes it is hard work with a lot of planning and canceling ‘team things’, but I know what I’m doing it for: my future after my volleyball career.”

How is the combination of top sport with studies going now?

I live in Germany from August to May during the Bundesliga competition season. We train twice a day and are almost never off for two days in a row. On Sunday evening, we receive a message with the schedule for that upcoming week. When we train badly, or when it suits the trainer better, everything is changed at the last minute.

Study coaching of elite athletes – Part 3

Myrthe, in a match with the Dutch national team * Image: Ronald Hoogendoorn.

Traveling to the Netherlands is not an option during the season. I do miss that. I always enjoyed being in class with other athletes, and socializing you also pick up a lot of new things. But the fact that the study is completely online, fit my situation perfectly. I really looked forward to being a ‘student’ again. I feel very proud when I sit behind my laptop and attend a lecture or tutorial. Because of the physical distance, you need to be disciplined; there is even more responsibility involved. Fortunately, I have a terrific study coach who has ‘shown me around’, because it took some time to get used to studying again.

The academic team is really good at helping me, also to find a solution for my internship, for example. I’ve started in year 3, and I am balancing an internship with my top sport life, which is very difficult. That is why I can now spread the internship over a year, instead of six months. In addition, I can do the internship completely online, from abroad. For me, it is great that this could all be made possible, of course!

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