Renée Kersten, a former professional football player and alumna of Johan Cruyff Academy and the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute, is back in football and now works at the KNVB on projects that promote inclusive football
Her past as a professional football player allows 29-year-old Renée Kersten to devote herself to her work as a coach and as an employee of the KNVB, the Royal Dutch Football Association. Now she has returned to her old nest, to once again be on the field as a coach and, among other things, to promote inclusive football.
Renée Kersten was a football talent from an early age and, after excelling in the youth teams, became a professional football player at the age of 17 at VVV-Venlo in the Dutch premier football league for women (Eredivisie Vrouwen). In late September 2011, she suffered a brain contusion and severe concussion and was severely restricted in her activities for eight months. After her return, although she reached her old playing level, she also had regular setbacks. In addition, she was instructed to wear head protection while playing to avoid further risks.
When that team was dissolved and partially transferred to PSV/FC Eindhoven, she had the opportunity to play there. But she decided to take on a new challenge at FC Utrecht. This transfer to the top of women’s football would last a season. A subsequent period with yet another setback from her brain contusion and the unexpected loss of her mother in a tragic traffic accident made her think about her future. This led her to retire from professional football in 2013.
She combined her career as a professional football player with studies in sport marketing at Johan Cruyff Academy Tilburg. Last year she graduated from the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute. Her past as a top athlete and those difficult periods in her life were important life lessons for her.
After a period of rest and inner reflection, she has started new projects that give her a lot of energy and which she talks about with great enthusiasm. Renée tells in this interview how she is now making her contribution to Dutch football, a model that is committed to inclusiveness and the development of opportunities for everyone.
How does it feel to be back at your ‘old nest’?
It feels great! It’s an inspiring environment and you’re occupied with nothing but football. This time not as a player but as a project employee.
What does the football development program of the KNVB entail?
We want to generate an offer for everyone, because football is for everyone. In everything we do, we think from the perspective of the football player in his or her environment, whether it concerns a youth football player or an international player in the Dutch national team. Our aim is that every footballer enjoys football in a safe environment and that he or she can develop at a level that suits them best. Every footballer deserves a good coach and equal opportunities. That is why we also strive for more women in technical football positions.
To this end, Team Football Development develops training, content, products and services, including, for example, the development programs. We do this through research and by engaging with clubs to offer various products or services. Creating awareness among associations is, in my opinion, the most important objective. Then we can work together towards new insights to change things, such as the traditional thinking of ‘this belongs to girls, and this belongs to boys’. It would be awesome if there was more focus on the individual and not on gender. In short, I would like to see a new norm in football that is similar to that in primary education: together in class, together in gym and together in football!
How will you contribute to that?
I will be participating in various projects, from research and policies to implementation. For example, I am now working on the project ‘More women in technical football positions’. More and more women are active in football, as players but also in government and management positions and as coaches/trainers and referees. We see many opportunities in this development and thus the development of football. We want to create more suitable places in the coming years to have more women in these football roles.
“We want to create more suitable places in the coming years to have more women in different football roles”
Another project in which I am contributing, and that has been running for some time is ‘Equal Opportunities and Mixed Football’, where we help the clubs with challenges like ‘How can you offer youth football in a safe environment in which girls and boys learn to play and enjoy football?’, where opportunities and offerings are equal for everybody, regardless of their gender or current level.
What I like about my work is that you can make a big impact with these kinds of projects, and not just in terms of football. Children learn valuable experiences through football, which they take with them for the rest of their lives. Playing mixed football, for example, is good for the development of a child, because it teaches them to deal better with diversity and the differences between children, from which they benefit for a lifetime, both privately and professionally. We also bring about a change, in which traditional thinking is broken, thus increasing the chance that a child can use his/her own potential.
“With the project ‘Equal Opportunities and Mixed Football’, we bring about a change, in which traditional thinking is broken, thus increasing the chance that a child can use his/her own potential”
Apart from the impact, I really like the variety. The projects are very different, but there is also variety in the steps within a project. It’s nice that I don’t have to focus only on research, or only on the implementation. It’s great to be responsible for something from A to Z and to see it turn out to be a success!
To what extent do your own football and coaching experiences help you in your current work?
My football experiences have shaped me very much as a person, both positively and negatively. I also notice that if you have played football at different clubs yourself, and you understand the game, many projects are easier. You also know that every club is different.
I use my coaching experiences especially in how you deal with different people, but also in groups. Observing what is happening and how is that affecting me? What am I feeling? Thinking and being more conscious about what you say and how it can come across.
You are also a coach at KNVB MO15 South Netherlands. How did you develop yourself as a football coach?
When I was still playing football, you mainly listened to what the coach had to say. There was hardly any room for the players’ own input. When I started as a trainer myself, I noticed that this was no longer the norm. The players often want to decide for themselves how they want to play football. They also dare to express themselves more. If they don’t feel like doing something, you will notice that instantly. In my time as a player that was not done.
“In addition to my own experience, the Master in Coaching made me realize how important that mental part is”
When I started as a trainer/coach, I found that quite difficult, but I also quickly realized that the only thing I can influence is how I deal with it. In addition to my own experience, the Master in Coaching —with its motto that ‘You can only coach others if you can coach yourself’— also made me realize how important that mental part is. My coaching style is now much more focused on what’s happening now: not mirroring and making assumptions, but constantly observing and staying in conversation with the players, asking questions and motivating them to try to find the answers themselves. Autonomy is stimulated!
During the time you were studying at the Johan Cruyff Academy Tilburg, you suffered a serious head injury in the middle of your football career and eventually had to stop playing football. You also suddenly lost your mother. How did those events shape you?
My head injury has taught me that sometimes not everything can be done. I still get knocked back by my residual symptoms. Sometimes out of the blue, I can suffer a setback and have to take a break. Unfortunately, at that time for me, my only brake was my own body, instead of being preventive. Now, I have managed to put this in a better context and deal with it differently.
When they told me how long my recovery was going to take, my (football) world collapsed; rehab, at least 8 months. In the beginning, I slept alone and had trouble with, for example, sitting on a skippy ball with music on. Multitasking was impossible and talking was also difficult. Everything took too much energy. Slowly I recovered completely, with some residual symptoms that I could live with. I did have to play football with head protection. Another blow like that would have been disastrous!
Unfortunately, I noticed that playing football after such a severe injury has its drawbacks. More weeks of building up, not being part of the selection and then playing full time again. It went up and down constantly. Demotivating at times, but no matter what, I had to do everything to be there again. At a certain point this broke me down and I started some sessions with a sports psychologist. I kept this to myself of course, because it didn’t fit into the picture of a strong footballer. Nobody knew about it.
I realize now that the emotions that I had all the time because of my brain injury wanted to come out. But there was no room for that, because being ‘soft’ is not part of top sport. Don’t whine and keep going. I think this was the beginning of the crumbling of my ‘hard top sport identity’, or at least how top sport is often seen most of the times.
“I gradually came to realize that top-level sport can also be a grim world and that it wasn’t a good fit for me anymore. I want to use the experience I have gained, not only in football but also in my life, to help players. This is where my passion for performance coaching comes from”
I remember sitting at the physio clinic with my mom in late 2012 because I had torn a tendon in my knee; yet another setback after my head injury. I remember saying that I hoped 2013 would bring me better luck. Unfortunately, this turned out differently. In early January I lost my mother in a car accident and my oldest brother spent three weeks in a coma. It was a very dark period, which sometimes feels like a movie. Fortunately, my oldest brother has completely recovered. I am so proud of him and how he managed that!
During the following period, I struggled tremendously with my identity and with all the emotions that come with mourning. “These emotions aren’t allowed”, “I just have to keep going, what else can you do?”, “What is crying good for? That doesn’t change the situation!” And then I really broke. My top sport identity was getting horribly in the way. As floaty as it sounds, but the “real me” wanted to get out; I needed air, to give all the emotions a place, and let it all go.
I gradually came to realize that top-level sport can also be a grim world and that it wasn’t a good fit for me anymore. This is where my passion for performance coaching comes from. I want to use the experience I have gained, not only in football but also in my life, to help players. I want to get to know the person behind the player, see what works for them and thus fill their backpack for life. Help them gain self-insight, autonomy and self-confidence. And that’s how I ended up doing the Master in Coaching! A logical step.
How have those events been part of your personal development through the Master in Coaching?
During the personal presentation at the beginning of the Master in Coaching, I shared my story with my fellow students and teachers; the car accident and my brain injury. When I stood there so vulnerable in front of a group of people I didn’t know, it was very scary, but also very nice. I was allowed to be myself, with everything that goes with it.
“Years of elite sport had made me tough and—looking back—I was like an emotionless robot in some situations. The Master in Coaching taught me that it is okay to be yourself and all the emotions that come with it”
Years of elite sport had made me tough and—looking back—I was like an emotionless robot in some situations. The Master in Coaching taught me that it is okay to be yourself and all the emotions that come with it. Also, the loss of my mother made me realize that it’s okay to cry, instead of holding everything in. I find it weird now, that this is often seen as something soft and weak, especially in so many sports.
What were the biggest take-outs for you from the Master in Coaching?
Awareness, awareness and more awareness [laughs], about how I come across and observing others. The Master in Coaching gave me insights like: what is mine mentally, and what belongs to the other person? Where do I have influence, and where do I want to put my energy? When do I make assumptions? And what are they based on?
The Master in Coaching has also allowed me to lower the bar for myself. Ever since I can remember, I have heard that the bar had to be lowered, but now I was really able to do so. The birth of our little son Don also made me realize what is really important. No matter how cliché this might sound, you only live once! And it’s all okay, that is something our professor-coach Maarten van Heeswijk often said. Very simple, but it gives me peace of mind.
Can you explain, how the Sport Marketing program at the Johan Cruyff Academy has contributed to your career?
During my time at Johan Cruyff Academy, I was allowed to conduct market research at the club where I started as a girl: V.V. Maarheeze. In this way, I not only learned what happens behind the scenes at a club, but also how to conduct good qualitative and quantitative research by performing, interpreting and testing, and how to map out the current status of a club by means of SWOT analyses. I often have “oh yes moments” in my current work thanks to Johan Cruyff Academy. For example, the User Interface model came up in one of the projects.
What was it like to study there with other athletes?
A lot of fun and I found it interesting how other top athletes deal with their sport. With footballers, everything is arranged, and you train relatively little compared to (mainly) individual athletes. At least, that was the case in my time.
I also noticed that the work dynamics were good. In general, everyone was attentive and many fellow students asked critical questions. There was sound forward planning, so that you could manage your own direction easily. In my experience, this was a difference compared with many fellow students in high school, which is also logical to a certain extent, because top athletes are used to setting goals and want to continue practicing their sport and deliver good performances at all costs. That is how I experienced it, in general.
“Sometimes things happen to you in life and you are forced to stop. Johan Cruyff Academy was an important safety net for me in that respect”
Finally, we know you have a great love and passion for Johan Cruyff. Where does that come from?
In our family, Johan Cruyff is sacred. My father is a big fan. For him, he’s ‘the best footballer of all time’. And yes, what your father says must be true [laughs]. Apart from his talents, I am very happy that I was able to study alongside my top sport career, because as I mentioned earlier: sometimes things happen to you in life and you are forced to stop. Johan Cruyff Academy was an important safety net for me in that respect.
I also had the opportunity to meet Johan Cruyff briefly at a football tournament with a team from Johan Cruyff Institute. A very sweet man. He took the time to speak to everyone. And it was very nice to see him in action on the field!