“At Johan Cruyff College we are concerned with the total development of elite athletes: they study together to learn, not only with each other, but also from each other, and that is very stimulating,” says Peter Jansen, chairman of the steering committee
Being an elite athlete or a young promise who aspires to become one should never detract from other facets of life. It is already known that betting everything on one card is not always the best decision, but when it comes to choosing between a sports career and studies, sport always ends up winning. The dreams of athletes themselves to achieve glory and the demands of society itself do not help those who have an extraordinary sporting ability to find time for anything else.
Johan Cruyff College, belonging to the academic network of Johan Cruyff Institute, has been questioning this reality for 18 years and is committed to the education of athletes at its four centers in the Netherlands (in Amsterdam, Enschede, Groningen and Roosendaal), where they offer two academic programs on the intermediate vocational education level: Sport & Business and Sport & Coaching.
Based on Johan Cruyff’s idea of creating a dual career system that would truly adapt to the lives of elite athletes and offer them opportunities for personal growth, Johan Cruyff College has come up with the formula. Peter Jansen, chairman of the College’s steering committee, tells us how and why in this interview.
If you had Johan in front of you now, how would you explain to him how Johan Cruyff College has changed over the years, and what it has become?
When we started in 2004, there was one other study program in the Netherlands that used the Cruyff brand: the Johan Cruyff Academy Amsterdam, which was then still called the Johan Cruyff University. There is now an entire network in the Netherlands, with one Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam, three Johan Cruyff Academies in Amsterdam, Groningen and Tilburg, and four Johan Cruyff Colleges in Amsterdam, Enschede, Groningen and Roosendaal. What has also changed is that the four Johan Cruyff Colleges now not only offer a study program in Sport & Business, but also in Sport & Coaching. It is really unique in the Netherlands, the way the teams of the four institutions work together. Every year, the collaboration intensifies, which strengthens the brand. This includes the relationship we have with the Cruyff Foundation.
Johan Cruyff was aware that a lot of sport talents and top athletes do not—or cannot—study a four-year bachelor of science program in sport marketing, which is what Johan Cruyff Academy offers. Some of them are younger or are studying at secondary or vocational education level. In secondary education, top sport-friendly schools already existed, the so-called LOOT schools, now top sports talent schools in the Netherlands. In vocational education, there were no schools for talents and top athletes at that time. We felt in 2003, like Johan, that we had to do something about this. A year later, the first Johan Cruyff College in Amsterdam started with a program in ‘Sport & Business’ on the vocational education level, ‘mbo level 4’ in the Netherlands.
“Our athletes study together to learn, not only with each other, but also from each other, and that is very stimulating”
On what pillars is Johan Cruyff College based?
At the vocational education level of Johan Cruyff College, we want to ensure that young talents are guided well in combining top sport and studies. In the past, talented athletes often had to choose top sport or to study. We offer a program where students who practice different sports, study together. They stimulate each other in their sports and studies and learn not only with each other, but also from each other. Also, we do not only work towards obtaining a diploma. We believe in development in three areas: as a starting professional, as an athlete and as a person. We also call it ‘total athlete development’. Johan was of the opinion that sports organizations should be led as much as possible by former athletes. We believe we can make a valuable contribution to this mission, with the program that we offer within the Cruyff academic network.
Johan Cruyff himself was closely involved with Johan Cruyff College. How do you remember his involvement and how can we best honor that legacy?
Every time I saw Johan Cruyff, he asked me how the program was going. Johan also always had questions, both about the content and the organization. I was often amazed at what he had remembered when I saw him the next time. He was especially interested in the well-being of the student-athletes. I remember well that Johan once came to visit the Johan Cruyff College Amsterdam. We had kept it a secret from everybody else, to limit outside attention as much as possible. Johan had time to speak extensively with the students. At a certain moment he was talking to a student about pressure point massage. At the end of the conversation, he gave the student a piece of advice, which was typical of him of course, and it was an unforgettable experience for the students.
“Johan did not think about problems, but always about solutions. Future generations of athletes and teachers can also learn something from these fine ‘Cruyffian’ features”
Now that Johan is gone, we have to pay extra attention to storytelling. We have to make an effort so that both fresh-year students and new teachers know why Johan wanted study programs for athletes, and how special his legacy is. He has left us a remarkable legacy and we must honor him as a football player, trainer/coach, but above all as a person, a special person. Johan did not think about problems, but always about solutions. He was goal-oriented, creative, different and sometimes mischievous. We can ensure that future generations of athletes and teachers can also learn something from these fine ‘Cruyffian’ features.
Johan Cruyff College is based on a special way of training. What makes it different from other study programs on the same educational level?
To start with, we chose to have athletes studying together. In other courses on the same study level, talents and elite athletes are only guided in the course they attend. There they are in a marginal position. We put them together, so that they can learn not only with, but also from, each other. The study paths at Johan Cruyff College also offer more customization than other courses. Of course, we only offer that guidance when a student-athlete needs it. Not every sports program puts high demands on the flexibility of their education. Our promise is: we have a solution for every combination of sport and study. In our program we also pay attention to top sports skills, including performance behavior, and how to manage nutrition, doping, insurance, sponsorships and agents. In doing so, we not only contribute to the development of young professionals for the sports industry, but also to the development of our students in their sport.
“We have a solution for every dual career; we not only contribute to the development of young professionals for the sports industry, but also to the development of our students in their sport”
A clear difference is that Johan Cruyff Athletes Academy offers one study program in Sport Marketing (commercial economics), while Johan Cruyff College offers two career paths: a similar one called ‘Sport & Business’, and a different one in ‘Sport & Coaching’. This last program provides student-athletes with the opportunity to work as a trainer/coach. But there are far more similarities than differences, which makes sense of course, because we all value Johan Cruyff’s vision on learning opportunities for athletes.
How do we manage to capture the interest of such young sport talents, to take an interest in studying as well, and have a dual career?
It’s a challenge of course, because sport remains number one for them, but we notice that young athletes find it an added value to study together. In a ‘normal’ school, you have a special position as an athlete. They are in a class with young people with a different lifestyle, who often do not understand athletes. The same goes for the teachers.
At Johan Cruyff College, they study with fellow athletes. This allows them to exchange experiences and help and stimulate each other, in their studies and their sport. There is mutual understanding. The teachers also understand them better, because most of them also have experience in high-level sport themselves. This means that they are better able to motivate and inspire them. Finally, the content of the study programs also has a relationship with sport, and the subjects studied are all applied to a sport context. So, for example, there are no case studies of a cosmetics factory, but there are about a supplier of sportswear.
What opportunities do you see for the Cruyff academic network?
I believe the Cruyff academic network can become stronger if we further improve our cooperation. This not only concerns national cooperation between all Cruyff academic programs, but also those at regional and local levels. In Amsterdam, for example, we have the Johan Cruyff Institute, a Johan Cruyff Academy and a Johan Cruyff College. And let’s not forget the Cruyff Foundation, also a social cause of Johan Cruyff. Better cooperation can have advantages not only for our students, but also for brand awareness and the position of the Cruyff courses in the market. It would be great if every study program did something annually with and for the Cruyff Foundation. In addition, the courses can do a lot more with each other. For example, students of Johan Cruyff Academy could play a role in supervising students of Johan Cruyff College—in sports, in studies, or in internships. And it also would be good to have more joint activities on the agenda every year, organized by our students.
“Many universities say that they support top athletes in their sport and studies, but in practice this often fails”
In 2022, most academic institutions say they offer special guidance to student-athletes. Why is Johan Cruyff College still necessary?
Many universities say that they support top athletes in their sport and studies, but in practice this often fails. A student with a dual career faces many challenges, and we often receive applications from athletes who had started with a program elsewhere but were unable to receive the guidance they needed. We are happy to help them. Unlike other courses, we also pay attention to their development as an athlete. We are unique in this, just like in the Cruyffian way in which we organize our education. Of course, the athlete needs to be willing to invest in the sport-study combination. We can guide them, but they are responsible for their own careers. The student-athletes have to do it themselves, which means they need to be well motivated, both for their sport and for their studies, because it’s a challenging combination for sure.
“The pressure on private life and education is therefore increasing. This means that the demand for customization and guidance will not decrease, but rather increase. We would like to continue to play a role in this”
How does Johan Cruyff College view the future? What changes are expected in the coming years?
We look to the future with optimism and with confidence. Talent development demands more and more effort and time from young people. The pressure on private life and education is therefore increasing. This means that the demand for customization and guidance will not decrease, but rather increase. We would like to continue to play a role in this. And because all this is changing, we have to change with it. We’ll have to focus on tomorrow’s demands. That is why we are also starting with a new education concept next academic year. We have divided the program into parts that we call ‘stages’. These stages make it possible to make differences in the order and pace in which students complete their program, so that we can better match the needs and wishes of individual students. This allows the student-athlete and us to see how we can best fit their study program with their training and competition program, personal wishes and individual circumstances.
What are your personal wishes for Johan Cruyff College in the future?
My first wish is that what we do now, we will do even better in the future. I think you should never be satisfied. There is always something to improve upon, such as the awareness of the courses. During interviews, Johan Cruyff was in the habit of bringing up his Foundation and the Institute, and the entire academic legacy. With the passing of our founder, it is now up to us to attract attention ourselves, and then keep it. That’s challenging, because our first focus is on serving our student-athletes well, of course.
Standing still is going backwards. It is also important to keep innovating. For example, we must keep our education up-to-date and tailor the guidance we offer to the ever-changing demand. To do this well, it’s necessary to maintain good relationships with all types of contacts in, for example, sport federations, associations, unions, local and national government bodies and other sport organizations. We will also have to consider, for example, the desirability of offering part-time courses or developing an associate degree (two-year program). I also wish that we share our knowledge and experience with schools in primary and secondary education so that they too can deal better with sports talents. And we must continue to listen carefully to our students, of course, but that’s logical!