Dennis van Vlaanderen, who was elite sports coordinator in the early days of the Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, talks about the evolution of the dual career for athletes and the need for educational institutions to respond to changes in sport and society
In September 1999, 35 elite athletes started their dual career combining sport with studies at Johan Cruyff Academy of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS). They balanced their top sport with the study program Sport Marketing, a learning track of the Bachelor of Science degree in Commercial Economics but focused entirely on the sports industry. In higher education, it was new at the time to offer extra guidance to top athletes to make the combination possible. It was a great wish of Johan Cruyff, who saw that many athletes struggled with the transition from their sports career to other roles and responsibilities in society, while they had built up such valuable knowledge during their sports career.
The AUAS supported Johan Cruyff’s vision, but when Johan Cruyff Academy was launched in 1999, no elite sports policy had yet been developed in higher education, and there was no infrastructure. That is how Dennis van Vlaanderen started on February 7, 2000, as elite sports coordinator at Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, to set up that infrastructure, which also formed a basis for the elite sports policy of the AUAS.
All 35 elite athletes graduated. Based on the success of Johan Cruyff Academy, the first Johan Cruyff College opened in 2004 at ROC van Amsterdam, so athletes could also develop a dual career at the vocational education level. Peter Jansen, who led the implementation process, asked Dennis to apply the policies at the college level, and to take care of the intake procedure. Between 2004 and 2009, Dennis worked as elite sports coordinator for both entities. Dennis currently works as Manager Elite Sports & Education at the Elite Sports Academy Amsterdam (TAA) of the AUAS, which offers elite athletes the opportunity to successfully combine their sports career with any study program of their choice.
Dennis’s enthusiasm is not difficult to explain. He was an elite athlete himself and was part of the Dutch canoe team between 1988 and 2000. “If you wanted to study as an elite athlete, you had to figure it all out yourself,” he says in an interview for the AUAS. “I wanted to study economics and combine that with my sports career,” he continues, “and I succeeded because I am not someone who holds back. I realized that this does not apply to every elite athlete.”
Over the last decades, what have been the most important changes in dual careers for elite athletes?
First, in the sports world there have been a multitude of changes. There is much more training during daytime now. Various new sports have become popular, such as urban sports. Esports and the gaming world have made their entrance in the sports industry. In addition, the Dutch umbrella entity NOC*NSF and its TeamNL programs have further centralized elite sport. As a result, more young talents are leaving home at an earlier age, and their personal life situation has been changing consequently.
“In education, you see a shift from competence-based learning to learning outcomes, with other forms of testing and examination. If you look specifically at Johan Cruyff Academy, you see an adjustment in the educational concept”
And in education you see a shift from competence-based learning to learning outcomes, with other forms of testing and examination. If you look specifically at Johan Cruyff Academy, you see an adjustment in the educational concept. Due to technological developments, there are more possibilities for time- and place-independent learning.
As a result, the entire intake procedure has become even more important: from reliable information and the introduction and the personal intake interview, to the start of the academic training. In short, a rapidly changing sports world and society, to which educational institutions must respond to.
What can be done so that athletes will be able to develop even more successful dual careers in the future?
There are many factors that determine whether an athlete will successfully complete a dual career. In my experience, the all-encompassing factor is communication! Communication between sport and education, and between the athlete and all the people in their environment—in sport, in education and in their private life.
“I find it rather remarkable that the academic sector invests a lot in elite athletes and their sports career because it considers sport important, while the other way around it’s less evident”
The ideal situation would be if the entire sports sector would see education as an integral part of the basic package for every athlete, as has already happened with dietitians, mental coaches and physiotherapists, for example. In the past, the athletes had to figure it all out on their own, but nowadays these experts are employed by the sports teams, and form part of the package.
I find it rather remarkable that the academic sector invests a lot in elite athletes and their sports career because it considers sport important, while the other way around it’s less evident. If the executive board of our university of applied sciences were to say “we’re going to spend our education budget differently and we’ll stop working with the Elite Sport Academy Amsterdam and Johan Cruyff Academy“, many athletes and the sports world would have a major problem.
Fortunately, it is very unlikely that this will happen. The AUAS institutional plan describes a number of ambitions for the future. One of these is that the students have more control over their own learning path. Also, there is the development in education towards learning outcomes, making education more flexible and individual skills increasingly important. For elite athletes, this means an excellent opportunity to use their top sport skills more within their education, just as they can also use their academic skills and their social skills to become a better athlete. Student-athletes as a target group therefore yield a lot at the academic world, both nationally and at the AUAS level.
“If there were more people in the sports world who could help an athlete find out about the best courses for them, this would make the choice for the athlete clearer and easier”
The idea that studying is important is very present among many elite athletes. Yet there are also many who, for various reasons, focus solely on their sport. How could we motivate more elite athletes to pursue a dual career?
First of all, this is the athlete’s own choice. Not everyone has to study, so not every elite athlete has to do it either. But if we create the situation in which education is part of the athlete’s basic package, then cognitive development would become more automatic. I do think it is very important that every elite athlete continues to develop. For some, a vocational or higher education is suitable. Others choose a single course or a part-time job.
If there were more people in the sports world who could help an athlete find out about the best courses for them, this would make the choice for the athlete clearer and easier.
Do elite athletes face similar challenges in all study programs, or not?
Our support of TAA is based on six pillars, in which we provide customized services: personal supervision, scheduling, testing, program, internship/minor and physical workload. With this in mind, I always look at the bigger picture and in doing so, I try to find the best balance between the individual wishes and customized needs of the athlete, on the one hand, and the possibilities offered by the academic training, on the other.
There are several factors at play here:
- The athlete: How independent is an athlete? (e.g. age, experience). Which sport? (individual vs. team, summer vs. winter). What level? (young talent or Olympic champion). What training times? (early in the morning, during the day, evening). Where are the sports locations? (travel time, single or multiple locations). What other commitments (many competitions or training camps, national or abroad).
- The study program: Compulsory attendance, physical strain (such as sports classes, practical classes), experience of the staff with elite athletes (new employee, first elite athlete), class schedule (number of study hours/days per week), test formats (assignments, knowledge tests, assessments), group work (compulsory collaboration or not), number of students on the program (a smaller number often means a bit more personal but less schedule shifting, and larger often requires more independence from the athlete but more opportunities to take classes at different times).
This means that while a certain academic program is suitable for one athlete, it may be totally unsuitable for another.
What are the contemporary challenges in education to support dual careers?
In education, it is mainly about social responsibility towards young people in general, including sports talents and elite athletes. There are some crucial questions in the academic world that play a role here:
- Do we want to invest in elite sport? If so, why?
- How much do we want to invest in elite sport?
- What does this mean for other target groups, in which we do not invest or invest less?
- Who pays for this?
The answer to question 1 is positive. In higher education in the Netherlands, we see for example that 31 institutions are affiliated with the national platform for Flexible Education & Top Sport (FLOT). The reasons are diverse: social responsibility, the innovative pilot function it can offer in educational development, fitting well within the diversity and inclusion policy, for marketing and PR reasons, having influential athletes within the institution, etc.
“Whether we want to invest in elite sport, how much we want to invest, what that means for other groups in which we do not invest or invest less, and who bears the costs are crucial questions for the academic world”
The Achilles’ heel lies in questions 2, 3 and 4. There are major differences in investment at the educational institutions, varying from having one student counselor as the elite sports contact person without any extra available hours, to academic institutions like the AUAS with professional departments such as the Elite Sport Academy Amsterdam and Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, and everything in between.
For our educational institution, a broad university of applied sciences offering programs in all kinds of fields, the benefits mainly lie in sharing knowledge and experiences with elite athletes who are studying there with other special target groups that also need extra support. This is a major investment for the academic institution, but it also yields a lot, particularly in terms of equal opportunities and study ability for everyone. And also for the development of programs and new curricula, it is sometimes ideal to use the knowledge and experience of the elite sports policy. This target group places high demands on education. If it is workable for them, then it is workable for almost all other students. This is something valuable that many universities could learn from.
Why is it that many elite athletes perform better in their sport when they are also studying at the same time?
Not much scientific research has been done yet, but athletes themselves do report positive results in the sports experience in terms of more self-confidence, involvement, enthusiasm and energy in their sport. This is especially true if the off-field activities are within the athlete’s area of interest.
“Athletes themselves do report positive results in the sports experience in terms of more self-confidence, involvement, enthusiasm and energy in their sport. This is especially true if the off-field activities are within the athlete’s area of interest”
Exceptional sport performances are sometimes spurred on by remarkable motivation, like after suffering a big loss or being considered the underdog, but if you search for a more common denominator, you’ll find that top-level athletes all train with about the same firm commitment, with excellent guidance, and they are all equally fit. The difference between those who perform poorly and those who perform well usually lies in the mental aspect: Do you feel good about yourself? Are you confident and motivated? Do you have the right focus? Or, in short: Is your life in balance?
I recognize this well, from my own experience and from the thousands of sports talents and elite athletes I have worked with over the last decades, and with whom I have had many conversations about this.
How can we help elite athletes maintain that right balance in their lives?
If we look at the length of a sports career in the Netherlands and the peak in that career, we see two interesting things:
- The career of talents has started earlier in recent years and begins from around the age of 13 to 14 now, depending of course on the sport.
- The average age of our Olympians has risen to above 27 in the last 20 years.
If you want to reach your personal best as an athlete, this means that you will be working on your sports career for about 14 years before you reach your best and during all that time professional guidance is important. As far as I am concerned, the common thread of the story is that we—everyone who guides talents and elite athletes—bear a joint responsibility: to support a happy (young) person to get everything they can out of themself and to achieve their personal best.
This can be achieved by building a safe infrastructure around the athlete, with transparent communication, expectations and responsibilities, like we did with the creation of STARTING 11, the first European dual career toolkit. I am convinced that this is possible and that it is also our responsibility because a life filled with only elite sport is no longer part of today’s reality. If this succeeds, the Netherlands as a sport-loving country has a very bright and successful (sports) future ahead!