Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

April 9, 2021

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

Lecturer and study advisor Joyce van Kooten delves into the various aspects of study coaching of elite athletes at the Johan Cruyff Academy, where she is responsible for the admission and study progress of student-athletes

Since 2007, Joyce van Kooten has been involved as a teacher and a study advisor in developing the study program for elite athletes at the Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam. Together with the rest of the team, she strives for the ideal balance between students’ 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. In this interview, Joyce talks openly and in depth about the successes and challenges in the study guidance of student-athletes at the bachelor’s degree level.

In this first part, we ask her about the principles of study coaching of top athletes and the critical factors for success and failure. In Part 2, we discuss study coaching of different kinds of athletes and in different sports, including male and female differences and the guidance of disabled athletes. Finally, in Part 3, Joyce goes into the subject of study coaching of the very best in top sport.

What is your approach to study coaching of top athletes based on?

In line with Johan Cruyff’s philosophy, in the entire supervision process—from a student’s arrival to final departure, with or without a diploma—our focus is on the whole person. We mainly use Paul Wylleman‘s ‘Holistic Athletic Career Model’.

The model assumes that an athlete will face various challenges in their career and that, moreover, all these aspects do not stand alone, but are also related to each other. Developments in one area usually have an effect on other areas.

“In line with Johan Cruyff’s philosophy, in the entire supervision process—from a student’s arrival to final departure, with or without a diploma—our focus is on the whole person.”

For example, student-athletes who start a study program often have a more challenging time than other students, because they are in a transition phase in various aspects of their lives: new sports obligations often apply, but certainly new study obligations and relationships with friends change, they become more independent from their parents, they may go live on their own, be given more financial responsibilities, etc.

Wylleman’s model therefore examines all those various facets of a top sports life and what the context looks like. It deals with all matters at the same time and how they influence each other: who are you as a person? what does your environment look like? And within that environment: can a good balance between sport and study be organized?

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

Holistic Athletic Career Model – Paul Wylleman. Source: Wylleman, P., De Brandt, K., & De Knop, P. (2020). In D. Hackfort and R. Schinke (Eds.), Routledge International Encyclopedia of Sport and Exercise Psychology: Volume 2: Applied and Practical Measures (pp. 89-106). New York, NY: Routledge.

How and when do you question student-athletes about their lives?

We offer tailor-made guidance for every student. To be able to do that, as a study coach you need to get to know the student-athlete well, so that you are able to tailor the supervision to his or her situation as closely as possible. You also want students to gain more self-insight, so that they learn where their strengths lie, to move towards more self-regulation. The better they know themselves, the better they are able to change or develop something and to give direction to their lives.

So, when our student-athletes first start their studies, we use the Wylleman model to get to know them. The students fill in a questionnaire based on the model, which gives us insight into the various aspects of their life. We then also immediately see whether there are points for attention that require quick action.

“We want students to gain more self-insight, so that they learn where their strengths lie, to move towards more self-regulation.”

For the student-athletes this is an opportunity—and for some, even the first time—to think about their own situation. It is like a ‘zero measurement’ at the start of their study career, and we continue to discuss all aspects throughout their studies.

In addition, we use a number of other instruments and models spread throughout the study program, which help the students to gain more insight into their own personality and skills, such as the Belbin team roles, Ofman’s core quadrants, SWOT analysis and the dual career tool assessment.

On occasion, we ask them to formulate their development goals and to evaluate the extent to which they have been achieved. In this way, the students form an increasingly better picture of themselves, hopefully also gaining a better grip on their challenging situation.

“They gradually discover that the skills they develop through their sport also help them in their studies, and vice versa.”

Through all this, they develop the skills they will need as a future sports marketer and young professional. They also gradually discover that the skills they develop through their sport also help them in their studies, and vice versa.

We also proactively contact the student-athletes, especially at the beginning of their program and if we haven’t heard from them for a while. Then the first question is always: “How are you?” We explicitly avoid immediately talking about their study progress. It is important to show that we put people first, then the athlete —because that’s how they see themselves above all—, and that we also look at other aspects of their life, including their studies.

It is vitally important to stay alert about this, because sometimes you feel the tendency, especially because of the limited time, to immediately start focusing on their studies, but our experience shows that investing in the person first is always more effective in the end, for creating commitment and motivation for the academic training.

VIDEO: Lecture by Paul Wylleman for the University of Flanders. ‘Why doesn’t the fastest always win Olympic gold?’

“It is important to put people first, then the athlete —because that’s how they see themselves above all—, and that we also look at other aspects of their life, including their studies.”

Am I right in assuming this is all confidential information?

Yes, both trust and safety are very important, I think even crucial aspects in the relationship that the study coach has with the student-athlete. We always make sure to stress very clearly, when they complete the questionnaire at the start of their studies, that the information provided is treated confidentially.

It is important that the athlete is very aware of this because it promotes open communication so that we can respond to signs more quickly. Athletes are often inclined to want to solve their problems on their own, and therefore do not always quickly open up about things that are going on in their lives. As a study coach of athletes, you must therefore pay extra attention to the signs.

So, the student-athlete must clearly identify—or learn to identify—the matters that play a role in their life, and as a study coach of elite athletes, you learn to effectively pick up their signals and invite them to communicate with you, in such a way that they feel they are always welcome.

“Athletes often want to solve their problems on their own, and therefore do not always quickly open up about things that are going on in their lives.”
Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

Joyce van Kooten next to ‘The 14 rules of Johan Cruyff’.

Where do you draw a line between study coaching and therapeutical guidance?

It can be quite difficult at times, but it is crucial to continue monitoring the boundaries of tutoring. You act in it as purely as possible. Through the tools we use, top athletes gain more insight into their selves, especially so that they can take action on their own. The starting point is that you guide them in this, but they have responsibility for their own lives.

“As a study coach of athletes, you will have to deal with problems that often play a role in sport.”

As a study coach of athletes, you will have to deal with problems that often play a role in sport, such as anorexia, cases of undesirable or dominant behavior from coaches (gymnastics was recently in the news, but it also happens elsewhere), pressure from parents on study progress in addition to sport commitments, facing difficulties with the busy week and all the obligations, or putting personal matters in the very last place after sport and studies. You have to keep a close eye on when you have to conclude that, as a study coach, you cannot offer the right guidance.

We refer to the student counselor of the university for all personal circumstances outside of sport. For example, this counselor can refer a student to a student psychologist. You can also explore with the athlete, to find out whether help might be available in the sport context, such as a sports psychologist, especially if they have to deal with difficult situations that are also related to their sport.

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

What are important aspects in the professional attitude of a study coach of top athletes?

Young athletes at the start of their studies often have learned from their sport to reflect on their sport skills, but to reflect on themselves—as a person—many have never really done that. So, in your attitude as a study coach you must be accessible and inviting, so they can easily cross the threshold to start thinking and talking about themselves.

“In an open climate, time is not an issue, but the time you have is limited.”

Time does not play a role as a starting point, but the time you have is limited. In the open climate that you create, you indicate that everything is welcome and you encourage students to discuss all their issues with you. In many sports, we also see that the type of guidance we offer is not yet standard for these young age groups. They sometimes tell you shocking stories, and you don’t want to just cut them off, but you need to deal with those situations efficiently.

“The study coaching is intended to make them stronger.”

Furthermore, they must be aware that the study coaching is intended to make them stronger. This means that in the formulation of your questions, it is best to fall back on what the student-athlete wants and needs. But explaining the importance of this concept often doesn’t work. It is often better to help them build it in steps, help them to set small goals in the not-too-long term, so that they can experience success in attaining them.

“Sometimes you have to give them time to let them discover things for themselves. But that doesn’t mean you should just leave it up to them.”

In this regard, we take into account the insights of Jelle Jolles, professor in neuropsychology, director of the Center for Brain & Learning, and author of the book The Teenage Brain, in which he argues that the brains of young adults are not yet quite ready to perform all functions. Sometimes you have to give them time to let them discover things for themselves. But that doesn’t mean you should just leave it up to them.

On the contrary, helping students to take responsibility for their learning is the aim! And because they often need to develop this aspect at their own pace, as a tutor you have a responsibility to help them get started. For example, helping them to set boundaries is often a good way, because normally they are already used to doing that in their sport. Learning self-knowledge and self-regulation is therefore accompanied by the commitment and expertise of the study coach.

To help students learn how to gain more self-insight, we ask them, for example, to ask for feedback from people around them, about how they see them. We will then discuss the concepts of fixed mindset and growth mindset: do you hold on to the innate and immutable matters or do you look for the things that you can improve through practice? In the beginning, they usually ask for feedback from people they already know well, which mainly confirms what they already know about themselves—which is also okay—and a little later we challenge them to ask for feedback and be open to insights from people they know less, to arrive at new self-insights.

“It often helps if you show them how you, as a study coach, keep working on your own development, learning new things yourself, and asking them for their feedback about your performance.”

What often works is showing them how you as a study coach are still working on your own development, learning new things yourself, asking them for their feedback about your performance and being genuinely open to it.

The coach’s professional attitude naturally changes when the student-athlete has more self-knowledge. I have different conversations with young talents than with more mature athletes. In that respect, we also notice that athletes who perform at the very highest sports level generally score higher on average on self-reflection and self-knowledge. This is confirmed by Laura Jonker, a scientist and expert in the field of self-regulation, who has published articles about it.

Last, but certainly not least, it is important to not just go along with the main attention on the sport. Requirements may also be set for the studies! That sometimes creates friction between the student and the study coach, and I am sometimes seen as strict and demanding, but it stems from the confidence I have in my students and the positive experiences it can deliver. I see it as the coach’s task to help them to get the best out of themselves in all areas, and not to run away from difficult things. If you explain that to them well, they usually catch on.

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

What are the major pitfalls in study coaching of top athletes?

Talking and explaining too much, instead of listening and letting the student speak. And thinking that you have the right solutions and imposing them. The art of student counseling is always to find the right balance between advising and coaching. The further they are, the more you can usually let them do themselves. You can use the four-step learning model ‘(un)conscious / (in)competent for this, and sometimes practical advice can help of course when they just don’t have certain knowledge yet.

“There is no point in telling them that the world is different from the way they experience it.”

Furthermore, you should always take signals seriously, and you shouldn’t downplay or ignore anything. It’s about their perception! There is no point in telling them that the world is different from the way they experience it. For example, if they say that their week is very full and that they are extremely busy, but you think their week is really not as full as it seems, telling them that ‘it is not so bad’ is not going to be very helpful. Giving them confidence that they are doing the right thing, and that they can handle a bit more with some help and by adjusting their approach, usually works better.

Finally, never apply ‘one size fits all’. What works for one student-athlete can be completely counterproductive for another. This also means not acting according to your personal preference as a coach, or giving standard advice in certain situations, but always looking for what the student-athlete needs, without ignoring yourself and also clearly indicating where your own limits lie.

What have been tough challenges for you personally as a study coach?

I sometimes experience feelings of failure and powerlessness, for example when athletes drop out due to frustration, and then speak badly about us to others, which we then hear later from other athletes at information sessions or during the admission process. For that reason, we always call after a student abandons their studies, to try to end on a positive note. Unfortunately, that is not always possible and, if it does not work, I sometimes find it difficult to accept that it happened.

Recently, there was an athlete who successfully completed her studies, but with a lot of incomprehension towards us and our academic program. She was a very self-managing athlete, using our team to get things done through requests that couldn’t always be fitted in. In my opinion, we had really pulled out all the stops.

It really hurt then to hear from her that the Johan Cruyff Academy “had worked against her”, while she thought “we were there to make everything possible”. I found that very difficult, because that is the opposite of how we are—us as a team, and me as an individual.

“Students do not always realize the effort it takes to meet all educational requirements.”

It sometimes takes a lot of effort, time and creativity, to meet all the requirements of higher professional education and the university of applied sciences, and to look for ways to make exceptions and come up with solutions to balance sport and studies.

You usually don’t want to burden the student-athletes with it—and then they don’t see it—which sometimes creates a ‘struggle’ or friction in the relationship, because we cannot always arrange everything they need. We all do our best, within what we can offer, and in the end we also have to meet all the requirements of the professional education program.

Often, you feel like ‘Calimero’ when you come up against the boundaries of the organization, and ‘Asterix’ when you manage to find a creative solution that is acceptable to all parties.

Sometimes I share this struggle with students, in situations that seem unfair and when it helps them to understand that not all requests can be made possible, or when you have to deal with a less favorable solution. It usually works well to clear the air, if you explain it to them well, and in most cases, you can laugh about it together at the graduation ceremony.

And the biggest success factor in your study coaching approach?

That we share the study guidance within our team. It is never ‘your’ success alone, when a student-athlete does well. We guide our top athletes as a team. Sometimes they prefer to turn to another colleague for guidance. Then I have to accept that as a study coach, and give them that space, so that they can look for

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

guidance from, for example, their project teacher.

Thus, we do it together, which makes the study guidance process better and more fun. We also celebrate successes together. In my view, this is a critical success factor: that I do not stand alone as a study coach.

We are a relatively small team, and we all know the students personally. We coordinate our approach with each other, both towards the groups and the individuals, while always maintaining privacy if the student has confided in you.

However, I will always be responsible and the point of contact for their overall study progress, otherwise you run the risk that students will try and find the ‘best deal’ with different teachers, especially because everyone is so accessible! But thanks to the continuous coordination within the team, we tackle this quickly and then we tell the student that we really have to do it together.

 

Study coaching of elite athletes. Part I

Joyce van Kooten.

Joyce van Kooten is a study advisor and teacher at the Johan Cruyff Academy in Amsterdam, part of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. As a study advisor, she is responsible for the intake and study progress of students. In doing so, she and her colleagues strive for an ideal sport and study combination for every student-athlete. She is also a teacher in Personal Branding and Communication Skills, where student-athletes gain insight into their personal and professional development.
Joyce was a consultant in ‘recruitment and selection’ and ‘management development’ in the business sector for KPN and TNO. Through her company Joynyou, she works as a personal coach for the Master in Coaching of the Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam, she helps in sharing education between the three Johan Cruyff Academies, and she is a teacher in the English editions of the online modules Leadership‘ and ‘People Management in Sport‘ offered by the Johan Cruyff Institute in Barcelona. Her ambition is to contribute (even more) with her own company to projects in the field of personal development and self-regulation of young athletes.

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