Sunday, January 09, 2005

A trainer can also peak

Jacco Verhaeren - trainer of Olympic Champions Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn – only knows one place where he’s in his element: at the swimming pool. Alongside it, however, because he claims his own swimming performance was never worth mentioning. By now it’s really obvious that he is indeed in his element there. Van den Hoogenband and De Bruijn together won five gold medals in Sydney and 2 gold medals in Athens, plus silver and bronze Olympic medals, world titles and European titles. Verhaeren’s passion for his trade has only become greater after that. The fact that athletes can be coached to peak at exactly the right moment is something that continues to fascinate him.

”I’ve always been interested in that when watching other sports, for instance athletics. I always wondered how someone like Carl Lewis always wins at exactly the right moment. That intrigued me. Especially because, with only a few exceptions, Dutch athletes fail at such crucial moments.”

In 1993 Verhaeren was recruited by Cees Rein van den Hoogenband (father of Pieter van den Hoogenband) at swimming club PSV in Eindhoven as a revolutionary swimming coach with an unorthodox vision. “The Dutch swimmers weren’t performing well. The Olympics of Barcelona and the World Championship in Rome had been a disappointment. Everyone was trying to keep up with the other countries. Some trainers felt they had to push their swimmers even harder and have them swim more kilometres in training sessions. It’s a superseded concept from the seventies and eighties. I valued quality over quantity; perfecting swimming techniques. For distances that are most popular in The Netherlands - 50, 100 and 200 metres – forty to fifty kilometres per week is more than enough. You can get the most out of your training while not losing your edge. In other countries they’re now catching up to that approach. We were just one step ahead of them.”

At the Olympics in Sydney that advantage was the secret of their success. Not only the swimmers' performance peaked. “A trainer can also peak. Each training session hit target and the swimmers as well as I were so focussed that everything worked out. Take Pieter, for instance. His preparation was on track, but three weeks before the Olympics in Sydney I noticed he was too tired. He did reach his time limits. But I could tell by the way he moved it was taking a lot out of him. Eventhough it wasn’t conventional, I tapered him and focussed on quality. He was in shape exactly when he had to be. With Inge we just had to maintain her form. She was breaking world record after world record before the Olympics. If a trainer is in good shape, he will handle such opposite approaches well.”

Sometimes Verhaeren needs others to stay on edge. “Luckily I’m surrounded with people who can keep me on track after an important meet is over or when I’m less concentrated. Not only swimmers need that, a trainer needs it too.”

Qualities Verhaeren is acclaimed for are his down-to-earth approach and creativity. “Often you’re the only refuge athletes have. Everyone wants a piece of them. As a coach you need to be able to efface yourself. You’re a means for the athlete to reach a certain goal. You empathize, but that's where it ends. You shouldn’t be too creative. It has to be functional. Some trainers overdo it and want to make the training sessions fun. To me that doesn’t make sense. Swimmers don’t want extremes. My training is clearly structured with subtle variations. Each session is different, but just slightly. Athletes need structure. If a trainer comes up with something totally new, which could be a good thing sometimes, a lot of athletes won’t accept that, because they’ve never done it before. It’s too unfamiliar to them.”

Besides that, Verhaeren believes external specialists and technical developments are essential in modern swimming. “When you don’t get all the advice and information you need, because you think you know better, you loose the battle. There will always be things you overlook or don’t command. We were the first in The Netherlands to work with the technical analyses of fluid dynamics expert Wieger Mensonides. Also nutrition expert Joris Hermans, dryland trainer Luc van Agt and fysiologist Jan Olbrecht consult me in their fields of expertise. A trainer will of course always remain solely responsible. I decide how these analyses are translated into training programs.”

Verhaeren doesn’t mind sharing his expertise with other trainers. There are no secrets any more in swimming. “At training camps you can learn from each other, whether it’s about turning points or starts. Despite the commercialization we are a national team at major meets and not just the Philips swimming team.”

”It is important that the whole group performs well, with the much needed healthy competition within. Athletes only peak when they are in a comfortable environment. If they only see competitors around them, it doesn’t work. But of course I want my swimmers to beat everyone. But even then you can work together towards a certain performance level. I just have to make my swimmers faster. That’s my primary role.”

Quote Pieter van den Hoogenband: “Jacco and I are very much on the same page. He’s not just my trainer, but also one of my best friends. As a coach he dictates the rules, but outside the swimming pool we can talk about anything. We keep each other on edge, so we don’t get tired of each other. Besides that, I appreciate the fact that Jacco is incredibly impertinent. He firmly believes in his vision, but he also admits he doesn’t know it all. Jacco doesn’t hesitate to consult specialists and combine their visions with his, so he can gain more insight. Other coaches are more inclined to think they know best.”


Also read other background articles related to Pieter van den Hoogenband:

- “You can work on mentality”

- Tom Dolan analyses Van den Hoogenband

- “Winning the gold three consecutive times will be a mission impossible”

- Finding new sponsors


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