Wim de Wit, who shared a changing room with Johan Cruyff at Ajax, was part of the creation of Johan Cruyff Academy. Together with Kim Middendorp, the current team leader, he tells us how the story began with 35 student-athletes. “They all knew they were part of something unique,” recalls Wim
Johan Cruyff Academy started its activity in 1999, a year after two men who had shared the changing room at Ajax in the 60s met again by chance. Or maybe, it was a matter of destiny. Johan Cruyff debuted in the Ajax first team in 1964, beginning a career that would not only make him the best and flagship player of the Dutch team, but also an international star that would revolutionize football and become one of the best players of all time. Wim de Wit was, at that time, goalkeeper of the second team and an occasional first-team reserve.
Each followed his own path and fate brought them together again in 1998, at an event organized at the RAI Amsterdam Convention Center. Wim was a professor at the Academy of Physical Education (ALO). Johan had been thinking for some time about the idea of creating a study program that professional athletes could combine with their sports career. And he saw in Wim the man who could not only understand him, but also help him make it happen.
Wim de Wit was involved in the creation of Johan Cruyff Academy, which was then called Johan Cruyff University. He was already working in higher professional education and. for the rest of his career until his retirement in 2011, he would continue to do so as a teacher at Johan Cruyff Academy.
Thus began a success story that Wim now tells us in first person, along with Kim Middendorp, the current Johan Cruyff Academy team leader, former waterpolo player and Johan Cruyff Academy student from 2002 to 2006.
Did athletes have any opportunities to study in the nineties?
Wim: In the Netherlands, there were very few elite sport-friendly bachelor programs. As a teacher at the Academy of Physical Education (ALO), I did get the opportunity to contribute to the ‘Topsport Center Amsterdam’, but that was one of the few programs for elite athletes at that time. Due to the strict national legislation in higher education in the Netherlands, there were also very few possibilities to create such a study program that could offer the necessary flexibility to take into consideration the sports obligations of students. But there were a few people who wanted to change that, and Johan was one of them.
How did Johan manage to change people’s minds?
Wim: I can still remember the first time that Johan spoke to me about it in December 1998. I was on an internship visit to Jumping Amsterdam at the RAI event & congress center, and he was there too. He knew that I was a teacher and said: “I want to start a school where you can study and engage in top sport,” to which I replied: “Johan, you shouldn’t do that, because you don’t know anything about education and you aren’t a teacher. And what’s worse, you hate it,” and Johan’s answer was, “that’s why I need you to do it.” Johan saw the difficult situation for elite athletes to balance their top-level sport and studies. He often said things like: “Talented athletes need to study. They have valuable experience because they know the world of sport from the inside. And whether you come first in your sport or twentieth, you have no real opportunities to train to the maximum and study at the same time. I want to change that! The person who comes twentieth might need it even more badly, because there is a long and productive life after you stop practicing top sport.”
How did you start ‘cooking up’ Johan’s idea?
Wim: The spirit of those times was also ripe for it. Jos Baeten had developed an educational vision for Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, of which Johan Cruyff Academy is a part, with the title ‘Amsterdam Virtual Action Learning’. At that time, this was a totally new approach to higher professional education, describing issues which are now common, such as a shift toward the concept of ‘the student at the center of the learning process’, and the intensive use of the internet with new, virtual ways for students to collaborate and take exams. This made it possible for top athletes to study and practice their sport, because they could learn from a distance, even when they were on the road for their sport. Legally, though, it was impossible to organize this at the ALO, because at that time the government didn’t want us to start a commercially oriented program in sport marketing in a sports-oriented environment like the ALO. So, Johan Cruyff Academy was set up as part of a commercial economics faculty, with a focus entirely on the marketing and management of the sports sector. One condition, of course, was that teachers had to commit to top-level sport-friendly education, which meant they needed teachers with a sports background, and that’s how I was then appointed as a teacher and developer of the education concept and the curriculum.
Education vision 1999 – what was innovative for the time:
- The student’s learning process is central
- The responsibility lies with the student
- Starting point is student’s personal experiences
- Extra-curricular experience is part of the learning process
- Competency-driven learning
- Students must demonstrate competency developments
- Components in the study plan are designed to reflect real-world professional roles
- The teacher has been replaced by trainer roles
- Integration of different learning environments
- Intensive internet use
- New virtual teaching methods and new methods of testing and assessment
- Personalized study plan in the 3rd and 4th academic year. The student chooses his own learning objectives
You started with 35 student-athletes. What do you remember of that time?
Wim: What I especially remember about the first group was the enthusiasm of the students. They realized that they were part of something unique. As a result, the group cohesion between the students was enormous. They found the whole thing a wonderful experience. Everything was new, not just the Johan Cruyff Academy and the education concept, but also the economics faculty within the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, to which it belonged. We could create our own culture. Little was imposed on us from above, as long as the concept was followed. And another advantage was that a new institute receives some start-up money. That certainly applied to the first two study years. A lot was possible! My personal challenge was that this had to succeed. And it worked! The teachers, study coaches, managers, staff, advisers, everyone was headed in the same direction. There was solidarity, and we created and cultivated curiosity. In my eyes, education really changed back then. I have had that feeling for a long time, although at the end of the 12 years that I was privileged to be a part of this, it ebbed away somewhat. Finally —thanks to Johan of course— there was a lot of media attention, especially at the start and at the first graduation. Johan was present at those moments too, and he always showed a lot of personal interest in the students and in how things were going. All that made it very special.
Are today’s student-athletes different from then?
Kim: In their essence, no; sport is number one for them. But the world in which they live has become much more complex.
Wim: The students from 20 years ago were a bit more open and a little less calculating. This is mainly due to the financing and low interest rates we now have. How do you deal with high study costs and a loan to finance your studies? How can you convert it into a business model? You have to bear in mind that education for the sector that Johan Cruyff Academy is part of also includes teaching in business and earnings models. Students have become much smarter in that regard, despite some risks involved.
What are the similarities and differences between Johan Cruyff Academy then and now?
Kim: We still have the same mission: to offer athletes a study program in higher professional education on top of their elite sports career, and to strengthen the sports sector of the future. That makes working for Johan Cruyff Academy so worthwhile. You work on the development of young, talented people every day. The world around us has changed a lot. Twenty years ago, we were practically the only academic program where students could combine their top-level sport with a study program. Nowadays, top athletes in the Netherlands can study almost all academic programs to develop their talent through sport and study, thanks to broader financial arrangements to support them in their education. And, in addition, the field of sport marketing has changed tremendously. The arrival of online markets and digital tools has made it increasingly complex and because we can gain more market data and insight, it’s more measurable. The choice of marketing tools and resources is therefore getting much bigger, and the markets are becoming more complex. Today’s marketer —whether inside or outside the sports sector— is increasingly becoming an expert. As a result, the curriculum is very different from 20 years ago.
What is Johan Cruyff Academy’s most important contribution to society?
Kim: Everyone now recognizes that the qualities elite athletes develop through their sport also contribute to them successfully completing their studies, and to their passion for their future jobs in the labor market. This is very important for the development of young people, especially in present times. You can also see that this is being more and more widely used by others. It is like a pyramid: only the elite athletes at the top break through in their sport. However, the top cannot break through without a good foundation. If you create good facilities for the entire pyramid that optimize the intensity of education and sport development, then the whole pyramid provides a sound foundation for the top. That is good for every individual sport talent, that is good for elite sport, and that is good for the sports sector as a whole, which is strengthened by well-educated elite athletes.
To what extent is the alumni network important?
Wim: The alumni network is a link between the past and the present, a connection between groups of students. It is somewhere where you can look for those groups that had the same powerful experiences, where the essence of the education still touches their present, where there is certain pride in being a ‘Cruyff graduated’, and where the soul of what was experienced lives on in their current life story. Tell those stories!
Kim: The alumni are our ambassadors and an example for the new generation of students. It is quite difficult to achieve an organized activation of our alumni network, because our core business is of course the development of future sport marketing professionals. It is therefore fantastic to see that we meet many of our alumni in the labor market. They are our clients, guest speakers, internship supervisors or trainers of current Johan Cruyff Academy students. There is a great willingness on the part of alumni to pass on knowledge and skills to current students. We would therefore like to tackle this issue more structurally, and I would like to invite alumni to get in touch with us to exchange ideas on how we can structurally do more with this fabulous network.
Many dual study careers now exist. Is there a future for Johan Cruyff Academy?
Kim: Certainly. As Johan Cruyff Academy in the Netherlands, we have around 50 new alumni every year at least. These are student-athletes who obtain their bachelor’s diploma in four or five years and they are of great value for the sport and business sectors. These graduates are sometimes still active top athletes, or they have fully engaged in their new professional careers, both in accordance with the vision of Johan Cruyff. That vision is therefore just as relevant today as 20 years ago.
What is important to keep an eye on for the future?
Wim: The study facilities for athletes are much better organized nowadays than in the past, and young people sometimes ask me: “Why was Johan Cruyff so famous?” (Wim smiles and adds, “yes, it’s amazing but true”). But that is precisely where there are opportunities for Johan Cruyff Academy: to work on features that make us different from any other program for athletes! What must be cherished are the characteristics of Johan Cruyff, both in the look and feel of the study location, as well as in the curriculum. The didactics and study methods must retain a unique Cruyffian character. Johan Cruyff was a genius in spatial thinking, and he was not only interested in student-athletes, but also in vulnerable and disabled people—that Cruyffian philosophy we now call the ‘Cruyff Legacy’, and it is a great source of inspiration for education.
Kim: We are always working on two components: on the one hand, how we should deal with the increasingly intensive elite sport programs in which our students participate and, on the other hand, how we can ensure that the knowledge and skills of the (sport) marketing discipline—which is constantly developing—are kept up to date in our program. We will continue to work on this toward the future, so we can offer a Cruyffian style of education that is independent in both time and place, structurally connect sport and study, and focus on student development.
Is there any last thing you want to share?
Wim: Ultimately, you do it for the students, who are entitled to a good position in society. Because of the special combination of sport and study and the intensive supervision of the students, the contact with them was intense. Every day there was appreciation and respect on the part of the students. Although I’m retired now, I still see that. I have many contacts, and I regularly receive invitations and meet alumni, who continue to express their sincere thanks and appreciation to me. That is great and I am very grateful for that.
Name: Wim de Wit
Job in 1999: Teacher and curriculum developer 1999, Johan Cruyff Academy
Sport 1999: Football
Job 2019: Retired (since 2011)
Name: Kim Middendorp-Meister
Study 2002: Sport Marketing (HBO Commerciële Economie), Johan Cruyff Academy
Sport 1999: Waterpolo
Job 2019: Team Leader, Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam
Original content in Dutch:
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Johan Cruyff Academy
The Johan Cruyff Academy offers elite athletes an opportunity to balance sports with a four-year Bachelor of Business Administration program in Sports Marketing, a learning track of Commercial Economics. This program is exclusively offered to students who practice sports at the highest levels in The Netherlands and it is delivered in Dutch. There are Johan Cruyff Academies in Amsterdam, Groningen and Tilburg. These Johan Cruyff Academies are part of Dutch universities of applied science (The Netherlands: Hogescholen o hbo).Check it out!