The coach of coaches joins the Visma cycling team, but first he must coach the French swimming team

dJacco Verhaeren’s two worlds symbolically come together when he arrives by bicycle (a city bicycle, of course) at the Pieter van den Hoogenband swimming stadium in Eindhoven. He has returned to the pool where he began his swimming coaching career over thirty years ago. In the then “sloshing place” De Tongelreep laid the foundation for the successes of Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn. Later they continued their heydays with Ranomi Kromowidjojo.

Verhaeren, director of the French swimming team since 2021, will reinforce the sports management of Team Visma – Lease a Bike from October 1. Cycling is a new profession for Brabander, 55, with a broad sporting interest, especially in regards to performance processes and competition strategy. Van Verhaeren has known for years that, as a swimming coach, he exchanges a lot of knowledge and ideas with other sports.

About the Author
Natasja Weber writes by Volkskrant about Olympic sports such as hockey, swimming and equestrian sports.

In his new position with the cycling team, Verhaeren will, among other things, be a coach of coaches and focus on sporting innovation. He will also play an important role as a connector between the men’s and women’s teams and will pay special attention to the personal development of the riders.

“I feel very honored to take on a new professional challenge with one of the most ambitious and professional teams in the Netherlands,” says Verhaeren. “Cycling and swimming are different sports, but the laws of high-level sport are universal and in that area I would like to use and share my knowledge and experience, but also deepen it further.”

Verhaeren, a good acquaintance of outgoing sporting director Merijn Zeeman, who is moving to AZ, joined the performance staff of the world’s best cycling team in 2023 last autumn on a part-time basis.

From Australia to France

Before joining Visma – Lease a Bike, Verhaeren faces a tough job as director of the French swimming team at the Olympic Games. He was hired to create the conditions that should lead to a good performance in Paris.

An important reason for choosing a job in France was the Olympic Games “in our own country”, as Verhaeren says. ‘I wanted to experience that dynamic; What happens in a country hosting the Games? In recent months I have seen Paris change; The sports facilities are being finalized and French television talks about the Games every day. Now the hype has really started, which is very special to experience. But I can also leave easily; A few hours by train and I’m in Eindhoven.

After seven years in Australia, in which he managed to bring swimming’s best out of the doldrums as head coach, he has now been working in France in a similar position for almost three years. Verhaeren, on whom the years seem to have little influence, is the coach of coaches and is no longer at the edge of the pool.

To convey his message as best and as nuanced as possible, he thought it was important to quickly master the French language. That’s why she went to “the nuns of Vught” for a week; the Regina Coeli language institute. ‘That was extremely intense, but it put me on the right path. What’s more, it’s a matter of doing it. At training camp I speak French 80 percent of the time.

Crisis manager

It was necessary. After two very disappointing Olympic Games, with a medal for the French team in both Rio and Tokyo, the swimming nation wants nothing more than gold in Paris. The big names who have to do it for France are Léon Marchand (elley), Maxime Grousset (butterfly) and the sprinter Florent Manaudou.

“I wasn’t hired to take care of the store,” Verhaeren says in his characteristic loud voice in the large pool cafe. “I’m always asked if things aren’t going well. That was the case in Australia and it’s no different here.”

In his early days as swimming director, Verhaeren visited training sites and spoke at length with coaches about their vision and philosophy. This philosophy is based on three important pillars: collaboration, sharing knowledge and creating a good atmosphere in the national team.

‘It’s about coaches who want to work together and share knowledge. This also applies to athletes and coaching staff. The more they share things with each other, the more they will see each other. This creates a very positive competition, which improves the atmosphere in the team. We have also professionalized the structure. Everyone knows their role.”

Jacco VerhaerenImage Desire van den Berg

Unlike the Netherlands, where professional swimming coaches are paid by the association, in France the coaches are employees of the associations. Verhaeren attaches great importance to athletes not being too dependent on the coach they work with every day. That is why he introduced the measure that swimmers participating in national team training courses are trained by other coaches. This was also done in the 2022 and 2023 World Cups.

The underlying idea is that not all swimmers have their own coach at the Games. “I think between 30 and 35 swimmers will qualify, while I can take 5 or 6 coaches,” explains Verhaeren. ‘Athletes must be able to act independently. A coach can get sick and then the Games will continue.

‘In many individual sports, in my opinion, athletes are too dependent on their coach. It cannot be the case that you can only perform when your coach is around. You also have to do it only on the starting block.’

‘Either you participate or…’

Verhaeren likes to work according to an influence model. ‘I always tell coaches: I’m not here because he knows more than you. I am here to make sure that you work together in such a way that you know much more together.

‘There are no secrets in swimming. I have seen many trainers in many countries over the decades, but I have never seen a special training program. In my opinion, the benefit lies in being able and wanting to share information.’

Verhaeren himself says that he is surprised that he managed to implement his point of view relatively quickly in France. “In Australia it took me a lot longer to do this; I found that culture more rebellious.”

According to the Dutchman, between 80 and 90 percent of coaches support his working method. They participate in training camps with the national team at home and abroad, where the swimming director is almost always present.

“I don’t force anyone to support my vision,” says Verhaeren. ‘I often compare it to football; National coach Ronald Koeman is also not going to tell PSV coach Peter Bosz how to train. I approach it in a simple way: either you participate or you don’t participate. If you choose your own path as a coach, that’s fine with me.

‘France does not have a centralized federation program like in the Netherlands with two training centers in Amsterdam and Eindhoven. If a club manager has a better plan, he should do it.”

Verhaeren demands that all coaches follow the structure and culture before and during big tournaments. ‘Two weeks before the Olympic Games, everyone joins the national team. The experience of previous World Cups also shows that this is going well. The minority adapts quickly. There is no place for those who want to work in a “every man for himself” culture.

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