‘I challenge my athletes to think bigger, than what the world around them thinks is possible.’ Jeroen Otter – Olympic coaches interviewed Episode 31

Jeroen Otter, Head Coach of the Dutch Short Track Speed Skating team, outlines how he wants to allow his athletes to dream bigger and instill believe in themselves, how he wants to facilitate a culture of constant improvement in his team of support staff, by allowing everyone to be open for constructive criticism, including himself. And he explains the challenges he had with the sport of short track speed skating, as always being like the small and unnoticed brother of Speed Skating in the Netherlands.

Furthermore, we discuss

Christian: Today I am joined by Jeroen Otter, who was nominated by René Wolff in a previous interview. Jeroen is short track coach for the Dutch National Team since 2010 and since then the Dutch National Team has seen a growth in results.

The team won one medal at the 2014 Olympic Games placing them 7th in the medal table. At the 2018 Olympic Games, the team won four medals and placed second in the medal table. And recently a very successful World Championships 2019, claiming the overall title, congratulations Jeroen. Jeroen has also been National Coach in the USA and Canada before he came to the Netherlands in 2010.

Welcome, Jeroen.

Jeroen: Thank you

His darkest moment

Christian: Jeroen, in your life as a coach or athlete, what was your darkest moment?

Jeroen: As a coach and as an athlete, you have many dark moments. Probably for me as an athlete, the darkest moment was back in the mid-1980s when we were a very competitive team in our sport. The Dutch were one of the top three countries in the world for five years in a row from 1986 to 1990.

Every year the Dutch team won the World Championships. We won the Olympic demonstration exhibition sport in 1988, and our sport became a full sport in the Olympics in 1992. The selection competition for that moment was the World Championships in Australia in 1991, exactly 11 months prior to the Olympic Games.

I never lost the competition in my five years. We never lost the most important competition of the year, the World Championships or the Olympic Games, but this time we got penalized. We got a disqualification and we were not allowed to go to the Games. We made one mistake and our Olympic dream was over.

We never lost the most important competition of the year, the World Championships or the Olympic Games, but this time we got penalized, we made one mistake and our Olympic dream was over.

After 1988, I studied economics at the University of Amsterdam. In my mind, 1988 was the end of my career and I would just finish my studies. We won that Olympic Games 1988 and we didn’t feel completely fulfilled. I think because it was a demonstration sport, we didn’t really feel the support of our federation. In those years, our National Governing body, the Dutch Olympic Committee, really didn’t give any support. The whole team was ready to give up. There were players who wanted to quit after 1988 but decided to continue until 1992. Suddenly, 10 or 11 months prior to those Games, we ended up getting a disqualification and our dream was over. We didn’t go. That was a really dark moment.

Christian: I believe that. Your team was World Champion four years in a row, for 1990, 1989, 1987 and 1986, right? Nineteen eighty-six to nineteen ninety?

Jeroen: Yes, correct. In 1988 we were second, but it was a week or two weeks prior to the Olympic Games and we won the Olympic Games.

Christian: How did you recover from that moment?

Jeroen: The 1991 experience was especially tough for me. I finished my studies, just because I wanted to go to those Games and I couldn’t combine studying at the University of Amsterdam. In those years there were no facilities, so you just had to do your exams at the moment it was planned.  I probably wasn’t smart or agile enough to do both top sport and studying.

So, I quit and I picked up another study that was much easier to do and I finished that in a few years and it was not a problem. I really changed my future due to the fact that we won in 1988 at the Games. I think if we had been third or fourth or fifth, it would have been nice, but I would have just continued my life with something else.

I really changed my future due to the fact that we won at the Olympic Games in 1988.

But in this case, I kept skating and learned from the dark moment in Sydney, Australia. It was 35 degrees outside and I was racing in a shopping mall in a small ice rink. I continued for another year and then I moved to the US until the six years going up to 1998.

Christian: I guess there’s another dark moment I want to touch on before I let you off the hook here. Early this year, one of your athletes had a serious accident prior to the European Games?

Jeroen: Correct.

Christian: So, I imagine you went to the European Games to support your athletes and prepare them. On the other side, one of your athletes was in danger, which was life-threatening at the beginning. How do you deal with that?

Jeroen: The one that I just touched that was the darkest moment as an athlete. Now, you are talking about the darkest moment as a coach. This year, the post-Olympics season, we had our biggest aim, and I’ve written it in capitals in our programme, it was to win the European Championships in our own home country, Dordrecht. This was always a full house with great support from anybody that loves the sport of short track and even outside of that.

Then a month prior, our top athlete, Sjinkie Knegt, who was, of course, one of our title candidates, got an injury with a truck and he damaged his calf muscle. That was already a big impact on our team. We were missing our main guy.

Then a day before the start of the European Championships, we got the news that he burned himself. He was lighting his stove and it went completely out of hand and he burned almost half the front of his body. It was over a quarter of his total body that was burnt. Well, that was a big part and a major injury.

A day before the start of the European Championships, we got the news that our top athlete, Sjinkie Knegt, burned himself. Suddenly, in the back of your mind, you got a guy that is fighting for his life.

It especially had an impact on the team, hearing the news, probably 20 hours prior to the start of the European Championships. They knew that he would not have been there as an athlete, but he would have been there as a support guy. He would have shown up on that Friday and helping the team and helping myself and the staff members with his view on the competition.

Suddenly, in the back of your mind, you got a guy that is fighting for his life and the moment we heard the news, we have no clue how bad it was. We knew it was very bad but did not know if it was life-threatening. In the first moments, we heard it might be because, of course, if the heat gets into his lungs, it might burn a lot of soft tissue there and then you’re really screwed.

Christian: How did you keep the team together?

Jeroen: Well, in our sport, everybody realizes that our sport is a team sport. Even though you race a lot of individual distances, you have to prepare as a team. Our sport is a technical sport. You have to be very efficient in your technique. It’s a physical sport, so you have to be very fit.

Sometimes you race 12, 14 or 15 times during a weekend and it’s a technical sport. You have strategies and especially that part of tactics, you can only practice with people on the ice. I can be the best athlete out there, but if I don’t have somebody to spar with, I don’t have somebody to put my tactical skills on and getting blocked sometimes and having an interaction on the ice, there is no way you can make it into the top of our sport.

That is a big thing that we have our top athletes that challenge each other every single day on that ice. Then, suddenly missing a guy like Sjinkie Knegt, is a major thing because he was, of course, as an Alpha wolf. He is King on the mountain and every practice, every lap, he is present with his voice, with his techniques and with his tricks. He is a magician on the ice and everybody realizes that and everybody benefits from those tricks and everybody benefits from his speed. Suddenly, you’re missing him.

A guy like Sjinkie Knegt, he was like an Alpha wolf. Every practice, every lap, he is present with his voice, with his techniques and with his tricks. He is a magician on the ice and everybody realizes that everybody benefits from him. And suddenly, you’re missing him.

That was one thing, but we had like three to four weeks due to his leg injury where we could still practice that a little bit. We had a lot of guys filling those spots. They were not great, but two to three guys were filling it up and then later on in the season, the people grow from it.

But the first two weeks prior to the Europeans was a very hard thing. Suddenly, it’s not like you’re missing a guy on training. You might miss a guy for the rest of your life and that was very hard. I think in the first few hours, we allowed people to just let their emotions go. We told them not to pressure themselves into focusing on the competition because there are more things in life than competitions.

I think we told them around 3 o’ clock in the afternoon on a Thursday. We raced the next morning and then later on in the evening around 8 o’clock, we sat again with the team and everybody aired their feelings as they talked to each other. They had their telephones talking to people they felt it was necessary to inform.

Then we actually picked it up at 8 o’clock at night. I asked the team what they thought Sjinkie would want us to do. And I think that really helped the team. In fact, maybe the thing that really counts here is performance.

I asked the team what they thought Sjinkie would want us to do. And I think that really helped the team. In fact, maybe the thing that really counts here is performance.

How can we show where our team is by performing well and getting the best out of us and focusing on the people? What has been our red line throughout the year? What has been the cork that this team floats on? And that’s team building and that is getting strength from each other.

If you don’t feel well today, somebody else will put the shoulder on you. It’s like shoulder to shoulder, focus on the same point and helping each other where needed. Maybe emphasizing that even more that evening, prior to our competition made him feel strong and they wanted to perform for him and that helped really.

His best moment

Christian: What was your best moment as an athlete, a coach or both?

Jeroen: At the moment, I’m probably very privileged that I can look back on a lot of good moments. Especially since I am back as a coach in the Netherlands since 2010, I got a feeling that all those years, my Federation and my teammates from the 1980s made the sport as it was then to something great and then it really fell down.

We didn’t pick it up in the Netherlands, while the rest of the world started investing in the sport. I had an opportunity to come back in 2010 and help the people with the knowledge and the work experience I picked up in those years, and with my drive to really think positive and challenge the athletes to think bigger than normally the world around them thinks is possible.

My drive is to challenge the athletes to think bigger than normally the world around them thinks is possible. Don’t be limited to what people around you think is possible. Be a free thinker.

Don’t be limited to what people around you think is possible. Be a free thinker and I had that opportunity in 2010. I think that was for me a very great moment to get and grab the opportunity and to create a team. Of course, in the years afterward, eight months after I started to train in our home rink in Heerenveen, we won the European Championships in the ladies and the men’s relay. A few years later in Sochi 2014, Sjinkie won the first-ever medal at the Olympic Games. A year later Sjinkie won the World Championships overall and on and on.

Another moment was Jorien ter Mors switching between the long track and short track and winning two gold medals at the Games in Sochi 2014. She also won a fourth, a fifth and a sixth place on her individual short track event. She, in my opinion, was the most complete athlete at that time in Sochi, winning two medals in two disciplines.

At the Olympic Games 2018, having Suzanne Schulting winning the gold medal. But starting the first day of Sjinkie winning a silver medal, which was at that time, the best medal for a short track athlete. Two days later Yara van Kerkhof, having a tough, tough year, won a silver medal. All these performances are amazing. We had a team win a World Championships in Sochi after we fell in the first half lap.

After 30 meters, there was a collision and the starter was not recalled and for 441/2 lap, we were skating behind the pack and we missed a chance. That’s how I fell and that’s how my team fell. We missed a chance to fight for a medal and a month later we won the gold medal at the World Championships.

So when we get knocked down, we stand up again. We learn from our mistakes and our disappointments. We know it’s not the result that counts. It’s the process and the trajectory we choose towards our goal. That is a much more important thing and should be valued much heavier than just results.

When we get knocked down, we stand up again. We know it’s not the result that counts, it’s the process and the trajectory we choose towards our goal.

This is especially so for sports such as track cycling and short track. These are peck style sports and in peck styled sports, you control your own game. You don’t control the game of the other people. I really emphasize that we have to focus on ourselves. We also have to focus on the line that we choose in the beginning of the season or in this case the beginning of the quadrennium, till the next games.

Stay on the path and believe in it. Sometimes you get a disappointment as we did. We definitely did and it was a dark, dark moment as a coach in 2014 at the Games. But a month later we win the World Championships with the same team. These are moments that feels really great.

I really emphasize that we have to focus on ourselves. Stay on the path and believe in it.

His advice to a younger Jeroen Otter

Christian: If you could go back in time 10 or 15 years, what advice would you give your younger you with all the knowledge you have now?

Jeroen: Yes. That’s a question we ask ourselves every day because we know, that in sports, in five years from now, we look back and we think about how serious we were. We often wonder how we did not see some things and why we did not approach the sport differently?

That’s a question we ask ourselves every day because we know, in five years from now, we look back and we think how we did not see some things and why we did not approach the sport differently?

So that’s what you have your evaluations for. How did your past season go? How did the past two years or four years ago? One of the things, in my opinion, is always creativity. Don’t let other people, such as the Federation, the media and guys that are not on your team say things are not possible.

Other team members from different countries have a different approach.  Most of the times it comes because they think in limits and I think you should not be limited. If I go to another sport, I sit there and I believe I always see opportunities. Of course, nine out of 10, have been probably worked out already in the past by those coaches, sports members, and facilitators.

But sometimes because of the different view and helicopter view are a completely different perspective on that sport, it opens a completely different way of approaching that sport and gives a lot of opportunities. That’s why I am very open to having foreigners train with me and having different teams coming over to the Netherlands. I really believe they learn from me, but I’ll be learning from them as well.

Sometimes a different view and a completely different perspective on sports open up a completely different way of approaching that sport and gives a lot of opportunities.

If I stay within my group and not get information from outsiders and from people that are actually knowledgeable about my sport and about other specialists, then I will limit myself. That’s one thing, if I look back, make sure that you do not do that. If somebody says it can’t be done, that is actually a challenge to show that it can be done.

When I came to the Netherlands in 2010, short track sport was very determined of. I think it’s called fatalism. That is, if somebody wears a Korean or a Canadian skin suit they are unreachable for us, because they are from another planet. The only thing we can do is look up to them and fight for second or third place. That is one thing that I’ve told them is the biggest mistake they can do.

Of course, they are great and they’re probably better than you right now. But the moment you have that thought in your mind, you’re always one step behind. I find all kind of creative ways to solve that problem.

I took Koreans to the Netherlands, the best in the world and have him train with us. I had a little bit of status as a coach that I had the opportunity to do so. And within a few months, we’re training with the World Champion from Korea, for example, or training with the European Champion from a different country than the Dutch was.

What is the difference between those guys? They’ve got two legs, they’ve got two arms, they’ve got a mindset, and they know what they want. They work hard, they’re determined, and they do not think with limits like we do. They don’t think that the Dutch are better than them.

I notice that the real first time when I was living in Canada and I started working prior to the Olympic Games in Vancouver 2010 that the long track teams there were looking up to the Dutch. They referred to us as the King and Queens of the Mountains.  And I noticed that this was an extra load on their shoulders that day.

If they could really forget about that thought that could have released them from a load. Every load pulls you down and it’s like an anchor going forward. If you cut the line, then you don’t have the anchor behind you.

That’s what I would like to advise the young coaches and athletes that are coming up right now. If you think that a world record cannot be broken or if you think that a world record is ridiculously fast and it’s not ever in your reach as an 18-year-old, then you probably are right. It will never be in your reach. If you think it is a challenge, then you got a chance.

Christian: Interesting. John F. Kennedy made a quote like this. He said, “The moment you settle for second place, you will become second.”

Jeroen: That’s one of the things, the quotes that I talked with my young athletes with. It’s like if you have something in your mind and the other guy has something else in his mind, the biggest chance is that you’re going to be right and he’s going to be right.

You better get the right thing up there instead of going for second or third or being happy that you can go to the games or being very released of the pressure that you qualified for a major competition with all the trials of the world’s qualifying competitions, already after qualifying. That’s the first step. It’s about that World Championships. It’s about those Olympic Games. It’s not about participating at the Olympic Games.

It’s not about participating at the Olympic Games.

Christian: And when did you develop that kind of belief or also trying to instill it in your athletes? Was that abroad, or did you do it as an athlete yourself?

Jeroen: I think I was a good athlete, but I was definitely not the best. I liked to train; that’s one thing I liked doing. I think I never missed training. I thought it was great and I had a lot of enjoyment doing it and I was thinking about it.

And in those years, with the feet forward. I thought about what I would do in the practice sessions and I was creative. I played with a lot of equipment in those years. I created my own carbon fiber boots in the 1980s when people didn’t even know how to spell carbon fiber. That was my core and that is what I loved doing. The competition was great, but the team made me in those relays. My teammates got the best out of me. It was not me.

I was a good athlete, but I was definitely not the best. My teammates got the best out of me.

But one thing that I remember, even as it happened, even as a student, I thought that nobody was ever better than I was. If I choose that study, I should be able to finish it, as long as I give myself time to do so. If I talk to people, I’m happy that they are whoever they are, but if I would have chosen that path, I probably could have done the same.

Life is about making choices and sometimes you make the right choice. And if I look back now, maybe it was very lucky that we won a gold medal in 1988 and I ended up being in the sport that I love. But maybe I would’ve been a great stockbroker. That’s kind of what I had in mind, being an analyst on the stock market.

And the greatest thing I think as an athlete or as a coach is be challenged at what you do. Always feel the challenge. And if the challenge is not there, then you should create one, but never see it as a job. Always see it as an opportunity to get the best out of yourself. That can sometimes make it difficult to work with me as a coach because I expect the same for all the athletes that are stepping up.

The greatest thing as an athlete or as a coach is to be challenged at what you do. Always feel the challenge. And if the challenge is not there, then you should create one, but never see it as a job.

His coaching philosophy

Christian: You touched on it a little bit, but if you outline your coaching philosophy, what would it be?

Jeroen: It changes over the years, of course. When I started as a coach, I was more rigid.  So guys follow up and slowly you start to realize that every single person is, of course, a completely different person and needs a different approach. But one thing that everybody should realize, and I emphasized that already, is that you should challenge yourself.

Every single person is a completely different person and needs a different approach. But one thing that everybody should realize, is that you should challenge yourself.

If you do not challenge yourself, if you cannot think bigger than your neighbor can, then probably there is a chance that you top yourself. You limit your abilities and I believe there is no limit on people. Of course, if you’re 165 centimeters and your dream is about becoming an NBA player, that’s difficult.

But besides physical limitations, and we can do so much more than we do. That’s why people keep improving. The next generation picks up already on a train that is running at high speed. They jump up and they move from wagon to wagon until they are close to the front. I don’t think we were less capable physically 10 or 20 years ago.

But the times that the guys skated 10 or 15 years ago, the women are skating right now. Are the women as strong as the guys in the past? Of course not. But everybody thinks in limits and that’s where you end up and then you quit your career.

Are the women as strong as the guys in the past? Of course not. But everybody thinks in limits and that’s where you end up. The times that the guys skated 10 or 15 years ago, the women are skating right now.

Then the next person comes and thinks about going over those times a little bit. They come into the sport a little earlier these days. There are more opportunities and the facilities are bigger. I think if you wanted to have a sustainable performance, like not only depending on one or two good and great athletes, there are a few things you definitely need.

That’s the philosophy I try to have. That is, to make sure that facilities are available. If you want to be a speed skater, you should have a lot of ice rinks available to the sport. It should be a safe environment. The people that are training hard should feel safe in the facility that they do so. You should be a little lucky that there is some technical people around you.

I think that is the responsibility for the Federations to invest in trainers, to invest in coaches, to invest in our sport and a lot of other specialties. But if you invest in that, then you create a pool of people that are capable of getting the best out of an athlete.

I think a very important thing is that you get recognition for your sport and your performances in the society you live in. And that means that your parents should support you and your family members. Most of the time, that’s not the most difficult thing.

A very important thing is that you get recognition for your sport and your performances in the society you live in.

When you are a 15 or 16-year-old high school student and you talk about being a short track speed skater, people should be amazed and excited for you. That makes you feel great. If you say you are a curling guy, probably right now people might not know about that. While if you say that in Canada, they will tell you how great that is.

I grew up in a part of Amsterdam where it was tennis, cricket or hockey, field hockey. You didn’t play soccer in my school either. Nobody plays soccer and nobody, or hardly anybody skated. I was an exception in there. And so if you were a hockey player people thought you were great and were happy that you played for Amsterdam. This was the same thing for tennis and cricket on a certain level.

I think what we try to do as a Federation is that people accept the sports you do and that they think it’s a great choice. And media attention is a very important part. And these are all things that we try to build in less than eight or nine years, since 2010.

What does the media need from us? That whole announced palette of colors, the different approaches for the different things that I just mentioned, if you work on all of them, I know that as an athlete you have almost a path towards the goal that you set for yourself. And that’s one of my philosophies as a coach. I do more than just train somebody. I feel responsible for a lot of things and a lot of items around it. And that’s why I work with my team very hard on to realize that.

Christian: Interesting. You mentioned about don’t, not thinking in limits. I think in the last years Carol Dweck has coined that “Fixed mindset versus closed mindset,” whether you’re thinking limits or not. If you have an athlete that thinks a lot in limits, what do you do?

Jeroen: Well, first of all, you have to make him realize, and you can draw that. Many times you can have a lot of discussions on an office table, sitting like we’re sitting and discussing all kinds of things. But I’m more like a practical guy.

You go onto the ice and ask them their limits there. And the guy might tell you that they have a dream to skate under nine seconds per lap. Or they might tell you about going through a speed limit like in the 50s with their power jet airplanes. Or they might tell you that they think about jumping higher than two meters.

Mostly in the beginning, I leave it at what it is and then they finally cross that line. They go faster than 9.0 and the next week later they do it again. And if they do it one more time, it’s no fun anymore, because for them it is just another 8.9.  That’s when I tell them where they went wrong. The first time you went through it, you are a happy guy and within like a week you’re not satisfied anymore.

If you go very broad, and not only think about your lap time but also about how you approach your work, about the weight training you’re doing, about all the other things we do, if those limits are already no more and don’t give you the satisfaction after one week, why don’t we think much bigger? That way you can be challenged for a longer, longer time. Because there is no fun skating 9.0 anymore.

I give them the examples and most of the time after this happens I go to a world record list and I show them. In 1981, the men’s record was this and look what happened. For this guy, breaking a world record was the greatest thing on earth. And right now, probably your three years younger brother skates this already or laughs about it because it’s definitely not fast and he sees the girls skating this.

So if you think in numbers as most athletes do, you limit yourself and it doesn’t even get close to your potential. And I always like to give practical examples instead of talking about it. I let them experience it and let them win a race. Well, how great was this? There were only West European athletes or there were only Dutch athletes. Or there were only athletes that are A juniors or approach it that there are so many more other people out there.

If you think in numbers as most athletes do, you limit yourself and it doesn’t even get close to your potential.

If you let something go or if you don’t focus on this point, I guarantee you somewhere in the world, on the other side, a Chinese 60-year-old is definitely doing what you’re not doing. You might be happy about that little performance you just did. It’s not going to help you in the long run.

And, of course, we learn a lot about having little steps and having goals close by so you have a great feeling every day. But that should not stand in the way of thinking really big. I think sometimes we in general, and especially the first group around the athlete, the parents, they’re always satisfied if the kid does well. We approach the world as everything should be positive, and athletes should feel positive. You should have a lot of positive feedback to the athlete.

We grow up in a world that is a win-win situation. Everything we do economically. Everything we learn at school says if we do something good, it probably is good for somebody else as well. We paid taxes and then because of the taxes, we’ve got great infrastructure. It’s always good for something.

And there’s only one thing actually that is still like the medieval times. In the medieval times, if you wanted to grow, if you wanted to become a bigger businessman or you wanted to become a landlord, the only thing to get more land is grabbing it from your neighbor. He had a little less, I got a little more.

And slowly over the years, we’ve got away from that. And I think it’s a good thing to get away from it. But there was only one thing in a world that does not share anything and it’s top sport. If I win, you lose. That’s how simple it is. If I stand on the highest podium, you probably are next to me, but a little lower or you’re not even on there.

We grow up in a world that is a win-win situation. But there is only one thing in the world that does not share anything and it’s top sport. If I win, you lose.

So we don’t share anything there. And I think with that approach, the only way to reach that is thinking limitless. And explaining this and having experienced it and making him feel bad sometimes and feeling like F-#-@-& loser, that’s the only way to get to the top.

Because somewhere down the line, every athlete is going to run into something he does not like. Every athlete is going to experience a very nasty thing in his sports career. It could be that he got injured, somebody around him dies, he cannot skate for a season because of whatever reason or he misses his Olympic Games. So everything went well and he got disqualified by a referee.

You name it, every athlete, every person, reaches a moment where they feel like they are going to quit. They feel that things are terrible and they question why they worked so hard for the last few years.  Persons will ask why it happened to them and not somebody else.

The athlete that is actually capable of thinking about it, looking for creations to forget and only learn from being knocked down, he can stand up by himself and he doesn’t need a lot of people to do so. He feels like it is the people around him that are helping him. But he creates a world that he can resurrect from that disappointment, that injury or that whatever. That makes him strong. And that really makes him the athlete he can be.

Every athlete, every person, reaches a moment where they feel like they are going to quit. They feel that things are terrible and they question why they worked so hard for the last few years.  The athlete that is actually capable of thinking about it, looking for creations to forget and only learn from being knocked down, he can stand up by himself and he doesn’t need a lot of people to do so.

If you’re hanging to when I was so unlucky, I had an injury, and why is it me and keeping a negative thought. We need negative thoughts to become positive again. You need some time to realize that it’s not always a party time you’re in. You need to realize that top sport is not all about winning.

There’s no way that happens. None of the athletes, not a Ronaldo, not a Messi and not a Sir Hoye, as in your sport. There’s always somewhere that it’s very negative, that the days are very dark and you can hardly see the light in the tunnel. And if you are capable of standing up, your limits are endless and then actually it’s limitless and it’s only light that you see. That’s what you focus on. And athletes have to go through periods like that to realize that if you work hard and if you approach it differently than you did in the past, it’s going to give you some results.

His core values

Christian: What are your core values?

Jeroen: Well, sometimes I say as a joke, there are a few things in life that are very important, We all want to have that 100% of performance. We want to get 100% of our potential. And what is one hundred percent? How do you get the best out of an athlete?

If you use cryptography, the secret way of reading if an ‘A’ is a one and a ‘B’ is a two and a ‘C’ is a three, how do you end up with one hundred? How do you get that? You could work it out. If you calculated all the letters together, W, O, R, N, and so on, you end up with ninety-eight. You’re still short of that one hundred.
So everybody works hard. You’re not going to make a difference by working hard. So what do we do as a team? We get a lot of knowledge. We go to universities and we ask them to help us. We got a specialist with a team and we call that knowledge.

And if we do the same for the K, the N, and the O, and the W and so on and calculate them cumulatively, it’s going to be ninety-six. So we’re very close to 100, but it’s still not there. There’s one thing, and I really believe it’s all about attitude. And attitude, if you give A for one and so on, you end up with exactly 100 points. Exactly one hundred percent. That 100%, that attitude makes a difference.

Everybody works hard. If they get to a starting line and they look left and right, there’s nobody on that final at the Olympic Games that did not work hard for four years or eight years. None of those country members had a team behind them that had a lot of knowledge.

Everybody works hard. There’s one thing, and I really believe it’s all about attitude.

Who is capable for eight years in a row, anonymously go to the ice rink at eight in the morning, does his laps, go back home, concentrate on what he has done or what he’s going to do in the afternoon, and he shows again to the rink at three o’clock and goes home at six? And that’s five or six days a week. What is it? Twenty-six days a month, 350 days a year, always for that one glorious moment at the Olympic Games.

You cannot train 1300 days if you do not have the attitude that you need. And I believe if you really think about what is the core of training, do you have the attitude to do that anonymously, without the media there, without anybody supporting you all the freaking time? Outside of your own teammates, you’re not going to get there.

And I think that is what is lacking. That is what is standing out in a lot of the athletes. They know how to work with things that are negative and things that are happening to them. They have to overcome because that’s an attitude thing. Working hard when other people maybe think that other things in life are important as well. That’s attitude and that’s the core business of what I do, creating that attitude.

The person, that has impacted him most

Christian: What person has impacted or influenced you most and why?

Jeroen: Well, in life, you always run into people and sometimes I don’t even remember the name of the person. But they told me one thing and that I realized, like a Eureka moment, that how could I not have thought about that. It’s so obvious, it’s around me for years and I didn’t see it.

And one of the things is like my dad always told me, finish your school, like your high school, because then the world is open for you. Then you can do whatever you want. I had a coach who was also a teacher at the university. He said that I should not be satisfied with a six [6 points out of 10], for example in physiology, although it’s a pass, but always work for a 10 because this will benefit me in sports. It might be more critical in the things you do.

I had people telling me that you could work so hard and you can have the greatest attitude and you can overcome anything you did, but look, from a helicopter view at what you are doing. If equipment is part of your sport, don’t rely on people that make the equipment that you don’t even know.

In the beginning of my career as an athlete, they didn’t even make really specific equipment for our sport. It slowly got available, but if you think you know better, go for it. And if you do not know better, go to people that you think can help you.

Like being busy with the top sport is more than running around the track or sitting on a bike and go from A to B or go in the swimming pool or on a tennis court. It’s more than that. It’s the other hours around that sport that make a difference. Over the years, I had people telling me that.

I had an American friend, Jack Martel, who was the team leader. I was a coach in those years that I was in the US. We got so much out of regulations, such as how is the sport build up in the law book? How does the referee and how do the people of the International Federations approach the sport.

That made me very keen on the rules and on the fact that you first have to change the rule if you want to have an impact later on in your sport. Or you have to change the people that are actually turning the knobs. If I want them to turn the knob, I have to give them an example of how it could be different.

So I always surrounded myself with people that were very critical to what I was doing. I listened and then I took what I thought was necessary. Sometimes they insisted that some things were necessary. They told me that I had to pay attention because they were older, wiser and had more experience.

I always surrounded myself with people that were very critical to what I was doing. I listened and then I took what I thought was necessary.

Or they may say that they have no clue what happens in my sport, but in the other sport that they worked with, they always approach the same problem, different way, and that I should try. And I always kept my eyes open for that.

How to manage a team

Christian: With the group of athletes, how do you manage that team?

Jeroen: Managing a team, it’s not only the athletes. I work with six women, seven men from the Netherlands and I have about four foreigners that train with us. Besides that, we have about 10 people, staff members, all with their own specialties, most of them full time, only very little part-time.

The most important thing in managing a team is making sure that we all have the same goal. They all feel responsible for what they are doing. With their specialty and the hours they put into this sport, how do they see that it turns into a result or to a disappointment?

The most important thing in managing a team is making sure that we all have the same goal. They all feel responsible for what they are doing.

Like we have an expression in the Netherlands. We only think that if you work in a team and work together that you get a better result. We should not be one and one and that’s two. It should be one and one that should be three, actually.

And the question you should ask yourself, is that true? And how big is that team that it’s still true that if you calculate the knowledge of three or four people together, does that add up more than the individuals? Because that’s of course what you want to do.

Teamwork is a verb. You have to work. That means you have to really work so that the team realizes that they can benefit from each other. And sometimes I believe that people think that because we’re going to a training camp somewhere as a team that we all start to understand each other better and therefore we perform better.

Teamwork is a verb. You have to work.

But maybe by being together for a longer time, we starting to irritate and we start to see some characteristics that you don’t like from another person. Then, you get the negative from the being on the road and then you actually see that teamwork adds up on a minus one or minus two.

And that’s one thing that I really emphasize in training that we do something, we do it together. That is when you use a quote from Kennedy when he asked himself or the folks in the US, “Don’t ask yourself what the country can do for you, but ask yourself what you can do for your country.”

I think Magic Johnson in an interview when he was great at the LA Lakers, he said the same thing. He said,” I never asked myself what the teammates can do for me. I always ask myself, how can I be of such value that I can work for my teammates, knowing that what I will get back will make me even a better athlete.”

And that’s how I approach my athletes and it’s very simple. Again, I can talk about it or I can show it at practice. One of our things that’s a very important part of our practice is relay skating. Number one pushes number two, two pushes number three, three, number four and four number one again.

Imagine if we do this and number two or number three are sick today. You can’t do the workout. And a young guy that comes into this sport came from a background that they didn’t have the numbers to work that way or that coach was approaching more on an individual way. Sometimes I see that with the foreigners that come to us.

Suddenly, one day after a few weeks of practice, I take one or two of the guys out, just on purpose and they start to wonder what’s happening. They start to ask questions. Who do I skate with right now? Who’s giving me the push? Who do I challenge in my blocking? Who do I challenge in my attacks? Who is actually challenging me?

And suddenly, it’s so clear that if somebody doesn’t return a ball from the other side to Nadal in tennis and then he will ask if they should play against the wall. It was like you need that feedback and that sparring from the people around you. That’s always in practical examples on a hard way. It’s not going to be great today, but you feel the difference if you have teammates or not.

For example, in cycling, if you bike in front, with all the air resistance you’re having or your 10th in a group, it’s a major difference. On the power output, you probably see maybe even a 20% drop if you’re in the back. And now suddenly that whole program that was written for this week, you don’t do with a team. You do by yourself.

Wow! Suddenly, what might’ve been extensive, becomes intensive. And then you realize that if you want to have this pedal rpms or this speed, you can’t do it by myself. You need other people.

How to manage expectations

Christian: And then if we think about managing a team, but within the team, especially in your sport, in many sports, they compete as an individual. So they train as a team, but they compete as an individual. How do you manage the expectations of the individual for himself and the team expectations?

Jeroen: Yes, I went up a little bit off the subject. Managing this team, I think if you work as a team, we can look and we go back and we decide if we had some great results or not. But if you monitor everything, every lap from my athletes in a race, I know exactly what he did, what he did not do, when he should have done it, what he did, and what he may be even doing more than we expected him to do.

So we can put it clearly on paper. This is what your part of the performance was. That’s the same for the team members as well as for staff members.

If you monitor everything, we can put it clearly on paper. This is what your part of the performance was. That’s the same for the team members as well as for staff members.

What did the strength and conditioning coach do? Do we see an improvement in the strength of my athletes?  Why do I see it or why do I miss something? So why do we see it with this athlete and that athlete?

For the doctors, why do we see more people ill this year? Is it because of the choices we made in training camps? Were we unlucky with the weather conditions and we made the wrong decisions? Or was the doctor lacking some attention to what he should’ve done? Why can we not be preventative in a few things? How fast do we recover from injuries?

Then we look at the equipment. Why don’t we have a modification to the blades? At the beginning of the season, we could have sat with our technical group and tell them that we want to have some modifications to the equipment that’s available. And somehow we did not. Why? Is it a lack of time? Is it a lack of money? Or is it a lack of attitude? Or did we just say that we are doing fine right now so we did not go to the next step?

Then I can pinpoint every single little mistake or the thing they did well. The more you monitor, the more you can show later on in an evaluation at the end of the season, at the end of a four year period that this is what we did great, this is where we lacked, this is where we should improve and why.

Four years later we look back and wonder how we could have missed this.  Do we need another specialist telling us what to do? Or should our specialist be a little bit more open-minded and go abroad and see what happens in other sports or in other countries?

And that’s how I manage my team to show them on a regular basis that everybody has a part of the success of the athletes. If I stand next to the boards and the athlete wins and he gives me a high five, I feel great. At the same time, I want my nutritionist at home or my doctor who stands in another corner or the physiotherapist, who did her work the day before, or the strength and conditioning coach, who probably looks at the TV to be as proud of that performance as I get that high five.

That high five should be for all of them and the moment they feel that I know I did a good job as a manager. The moment somebody is lacking or actually thinks that his performance, his additional work towards that team is minimum, and actually did not change the performance, I did something wrong and I should talk to that person.

How to choose your support staff

Christian: And then if we’re talking about the support staff, how do you choose them?

Jeroen: We choose sometimes and we choose wrong and then we changed to somebody else. But one of the things that they always hear in the first interview, if we talk during the week, at least I want to have it a few times, that you come back and tell me that I should have done something differently or challenged me why I do the things I do. So I have to explain it and it becomes not an automatic thing. That’s one thing.

I want to have it a few times, that you come back and tell me that I should have done something differently or challenged me why I do the things I do.

So I want the specialist to be critical on what I do, from their point of view of their specialism. And at the same time, they should be open for criticism from the other staff members on their specialty, on their field of play.

A doctor should be pointed out that, why did you miss this? Why somebody’s sick? Why are we lacking something? And if he cannot handle pressure or if he cannot handle criticism, the top sport might not be the field that he should operate in.

And if you’re open to that, and if you have the attitude to be able to work 24/7, of course reasonable, but 24/7, then you might be a very successful member of our team. And if not, or after a year or two, we noticed that people are not capable of handling the criticism or that they always say that we’re doing great, then it’s time to depart.

Christian: That’s an interesting one. Then how do you create the atmosphere that criticism can be taken constructively rather than as an offense?

Jeroen: Criticism, if you go back to the Greek, was just as you asked the question. Just you ask a question about something you might not be 100% sure of what this meant or not 100% sure if it will come up to the result that we were talking about.

But slowly, criticism in the Dutch language right now actually is picked up as a negative thing. I got criticism on your behavior or criticism on your way of work or criticism on your knowledge. But criticism is just meant, at least in my team, to make sure that we keep on our toes. We should feel happy that people show interest in the work you do.

But criticism is just meant, at least in my team, to make sure that we keep on our toes. We should feel happy that people show interest in the work you do.

And criticism for us is not written in red to attract a pull. Criticism is written in a great color of “Wow!” People do care what I do and maybe I should think about it one more time. Or maybe I should show him my way of work. This is the basis of why I do it.

This is the experience I had on other teams. Of course, that’s what we tried to explain to our staff members and also to our athletes as well. Criticism is a hard thing because people do not always feel it that way.

But it’s explained to them over the years that this is how we work and do not take it personally in a way of trying to undermine your knowledge. We try to ask why you do the things you do and what do you think will be benefiting the athletes in the near future? It’s really an open book.

We don’t have little agenda or we don’t have small groups in our staff members. We are very transparent and I want people to criticize me as well. So I go back home and I ask myself questions. Did I really not see this? Did I really make a mistake? Or should I go back? Is what I did automatically in the last few weeks, months or years out of date and should I come up with a new idea?

Has being an athlete helped his coaching

Christian: Has being an athlete helped you with your coaching?

Jeroen: Of course, in my opinion, it has. But it doesn’t mean that coaches that were definitely less successful athletes are not still great coaches. But one thing, although the sport really evolved, what helped me is that the world of short track speed skating feels really like a huge world, a family that I know. I know every little thing that happens. I have a sixth sense for this sport.

I have a sixth sense for this sport.

I have a sixth sense for changes that are made to this sport by people at the international level, the people in the council and the people in technical committees that come up with new ruling and new ways to approach the sport and the athletes that are stepping in, like I was as a 16, 17 or 18-year-old. I got the sixth sense of what the equipment is doing for us and what the industry is doing for us. I got a sixth sense on the blades, boots, but also in skin suits, in safety systems and the way the ice is made on an ice rink.

So if you have an experience of 40 years in this sport, it definitely helps over somebody with a lot of physiological knowledge coming from the outside. But they can be definitely a special specialty in our sport by having a lot of knowledge on one part that is part of our sport. But that’s what I’m trying to do with my specialists.

And in the past, although I couldn’t say that to a lot of people anymore, I can tell them that I have won a lot of medals. Sometimes I tell them to trust me a little bit on where we’re going. I cannot guarantee it, but it’s more than just a lucky shot what we’re trying to do.

It’s not like we’re just throwing a hundred people against the wall and whoever sticks will be our champion. We don’t have those amounts. So we tried to do that with a certain philosophy. We have a lot of people around us that all monitor the performance you are doing. It helps if you come up with a curriculum in the past that showed that we did the right thing and that we didn’t miss a lot.

Christian: Credibility.

Jeroen: Yes, exactly.

His view on motivation vs discipline

Christian: What’s your view on motivation versus discipline?

Jeroen: Discipline most of the time is laid up by the people outside. So the coach tells somebody to do something or the parents tell them to do something. While the motivation to me is a creative thing that comes from the inside. My athletes see a different world than I see.

Discipline most of the time is laid up by the people outside. While the motivation to me is a creative thing that comes from the inside.

My athletes see bigger things or colorful things, while I may be focused on one or two particular things. The world he sees motivates him to do the things he does. That needs discipline or the attitude to get them to the highest level.

A typical day in the life of a head coach

Christian: How does a typical day in the life of a coach look like?

Jeroen: I am the national team coach. It is just as I described for the athletes, they show up at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning. Then they start warming up and they change into clothes that we need on the ice. Then we skate for two hours and we’ll do a small cool down and then they go home around 11:30 to 12 o’clock.

In the afternoon, we’ll do the same thing. And we do that Monday through Saturday morning. And that’s what we do all the weeks of the year. And then on the weekends, you race Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We do that in Heerenveen or we do that abroad or in the Olympic year, we are about 150 days on the road.

Me as a coach, I’m there when they show up. When they go home, I go in my office and look over the work and monitor the things that they did. I go over to the lap times, the plan and the expectations we had that did not match my view of that practice. And hopefully, we can turn a little bit and create better training in the afternoon or the next day.

I’m there when they show up. When they go home, I go to my office and look over the work that they did.

And that really goes until six o’clock at night and I’m home. And then I probably have to go through some emails. So I’m 24/7 with my sport and I notice when I’m relaxed, I’m very creative. I come up with ideas every single day.

If it’s equipment, if it’s the way we should practice, that I should talk to my staff members or challenging my athletes, I see sports. I love to watch little clips around the end of the year that I see a lot of athletes doing a great performance or the bloopers and I’m trying to learn from there, the way they approach their sport.

How can it be that somebody can win every single World Cup? For example, in your sport, with the team sprint last year. There are so many things that could go wrong, but somehow, it did not happen.

Sven Kramer winning 10 European Championships. How can that be? How can a Christian Ronaldo leave Real Madrid and in those eight or 10 years he was there, they always performed great? He leaves and suddenly the core of that apple is gone. He’s in Juventus and they make the next quarterfinals, and he scored three goals.

How is it that people can always perform when they need to? And why is it that other people cannot? And that for me, that’s the greatest challenge in life. How can I get to the potential every single time, for both myself and my athletes?

Christian: That’s interesting. And you said you have many ideas coming up, right?

Jeroen: Yes.

Christian: Do you pursue every idea? When do you know that’s an idea worth chasing?

Jeroen: I do not pursue every idea, but even what remains is still a lot. Out of all those ideas, 90% dies somewhere on the drawing table. Or finally, we work it out and it did not give us the change that we’re looking for, or we could not make it because we are not knowledgeable enough or we don’t have the budget to do so.

I do not pursue every idea, out of all those ideas, 90% dies somewhere on the drawing table. But one or two really get to the surface.

But one or two really get to the surface and we get, for example, a saver skin suit. Imagine if a racing car of Max Verstappen is not as safe as it is right now, but he has the speed in the 70s. He probably will think twice before he passes somebody else.

We tried to take that away from our athletes. We have a safety system. If they crash, they stand up, they shake their head and they continue to practice. With the same speed, 10 years ago people would be out for weeks before they get back onto the ice.

These different approaches by creating a safer ice rink, by creating a safer falling system, better ice quality, skin suit, that normally was like a speedo, like a condom almost and putting Kevlar in there like that cut resistant material that you’d never feel limited on the challenge. You can take it in practice over racing. Well, that’s one example that we worked on. There’s a lot that we worked out, but multiples that we did not work out or did not work.

His interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Jeroen: Yes, Jeffery Herlings, I think what he did by winning almost every World Cup in motor cross that is exceptional. You rely on your equipment. We hardly see that sport on TV, but we all see the Formula One and people drop out there all the time. How is it possible in his team, at that grade that he can win every single race on that surface?

We all know it. It has bumps and it has sand.  Have you ever been on a motocross thing? Of course, maybe with BMX and it’s a little close to it. How’s it possible that that guy can just win every single race and be World Champion far before the last race of the year? The guy should be much more in the spotlight than he was last year.

Where can you find Jeroen Otter

Christian: Where can people find you?

Jeroen: Next to the ice rink.

Christian: Any online presences you are using?

Jeroen: I twitter sometimes, that’s all I do.

Christian: Jeroen, thank you for your time.

Jeroen: Thanks.

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