‘You are only doing it for yourself.’ Nils van’t Hoenderdaal – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 9

Christian: Today I am joined by Nils van ‘t Hoenderdaal, Nils is Olympian 2016, European Champion in the team sprint 2015, runner-up at the World Championships 2016 and 2017 and World Champion 2018. It’s my very pleasure to introduce Nils, who I have been fortunate of working together for 6+ years.

Welcome, Nils.

Nils: Thank you.

Nils’ darkest moment

Christian: Nils, what was your darkest moment?

Nils: That’s a bit of a hard question, but I think it was Rio 2016 at the Olympic Games. We really thought we would make the podium there in the team sprint, and maybe win gold, but we didn’t even come close, and we didn’t even come close to our normal times we did in prior seasons. We were about half a second away from our normal times and almost a second away from the winners.

That was a really dark moment, and it actually took a while to recover from it, because we didn’t know that would be the outcome. We felt really good in training, but things didn’t work out in the competition. We all thought we were good to maybe achieve gold, and then it was a bummer when we didn’t, so yes, I think that was my darkest moment.

We really thought we would make the podium in Rio 2016, and maybe even win it, but we didn’t even come close. It took a while to recover from it.

Christian: What did you learn from that moment?

Nils: From now on I know I can come back from anything. At that moment I thought I would never be able to start faster than I could then because I was pretty good at that point in time. I was actually afraid to ride competition again because I was feeling good but then the times weren’t so fast.

But now it’s almost two and a half years later and I have achieved some more goals and I won  some more competition. What I learned from it is that I can be better than I was there. It was a dark moment, but you can always step it up and be better.

I thought I would never be able to ride fast again, I was actually afraid to ride competition again.

Nils’ best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Nils: It was just a little while ago, three months ago, we became World Champion in the team sprint, and also I did a new personal best, with a very fast first lap. It was my best moment.

Christian: That was a great moment. What did you learn from that moment?

Nils: I never thought I was able to ride that fast. It was 17.0, and normally I would ride 17.4. My fastest was 17.3, so it’s just three-tenths of a second faster. And that looks like a small margin, but it’s way faster. That is my biggest achievement.

I never thought I was able to ride that fast.

Nils’ advise to a younger Nils van’t Hoenderdaal

Christian: If you could go back in time 10/15 years ago, what advice would you give your younger self?

Nils: Actually, I would tell my younger self that everything is possible. Because the level where I am now, being in the Olympic program of track cycling, being World Champion at the moment, I always thought it wasn’t possible, I did it for fun and everything came step by step. And now I know I can achieve this and be one of the fastest starters in the world.

So, I would say to my younger self, “Belief in yourself, do your own thing and train with other people, training in a group ensures you are really strong.”

Believe in yourself, everything is possible.

Christian: I have a question for later, but it fits in very well now with what you just said. I have been working with you for six years now, and when you were younger you didn’t always have your priorities sorted out.

When did you realize you can be one of the best in the world or even the best in the world?

Nils: Actually, on the day itself, that was when I knew I can be really fast. And I was feeling really, really strong that day. I had a false start the second time. There is a qualification, semi-final and a final; and in the semi-final, I had a missed start and I thought, “Oh shit, I need to focus” because I was too quick.

But then I thought, “I’m really strong, I can even manage to be a little bit late out of the machine and still ride fast.” So, I had the confidence of finishing strong. I was a lot later with the start, I did one thing slower than I did before, so my time was 17.24 and in the qualification, it was 17.19, so it was a little bit slower.

But just the feeling of feeling so strong was like, “I don’t care what happens, I can do whatever I want, and we will still be in the finals.”

I don’t care what happens, I can do whatever I want, and we will still be in the final.

Christian: If you look at your career as an athlete, we started working six/seven years ago, you were a new athlete and had lots of things in your head and you were not always focused on training.

When did that switch come where you thought you can be good?

Because I remember working towards the Rio Olympics, you were really focused and dedicated, so somewhere between 2012 when we started and 2016, there must have been a change in you.

Nils: I think it’s when we became European Champions [2015], that season was pretty good for me, because it was the first competition of the season. After that, we rode some records and I was also going pretty fast, even faster than I was going in the European Championships.

And from that time on I really focused on training, because I knew I could be faster, I felt like I could be faster, and I just needed to get stronger in the gym especially. So, I was really focusing on being strong in the gym and getting some bigger plates on the bike. You have to work harder on the bikes because that’s a really specific strength training. I think from in 2015 I was really focusing on training really hard because I knew I could be better than I was.

Christian: You started tasting the blood.

Nils: Yes.

I knew I could be better than I was.

Nils’ success habits

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?

Nils: I don’t really have any habits. I feel like I’m a really normal person competing at a high level. I don’t really feel like I’m a real athlete where I’m always on time or I have the same routine every day. I just feel like I’m a really normal person on high-level training.

I am a really normal person, but competing at a high level.

Nils’ morning routine

Nils: Not really. I wake up most of the time one and a half hour before the training starts and then have coffee, I always have coffee, then go to the toilet, and then have a little breakfast because I can’t really eat much in the morning. I tried oatmeal in the morning, but I couldn’t really go with it, so I just eat bread with chicken fillet and cheese, so that’s what I eat in the morning.

But on competition days it’s kind of different because then you also are nervous. I drink a little more coffee just to be awake and to have the system going, but especially on those days, I can’t really eat. Because I now have six years of competition experience, I know you don’t really have to eat a lot on the competition day, you’re already strong, you did your training and if you don’t get your breakfast in the morning it’s not really bad for you.

Christian: So, you compete on an empty stomach?

Nils: Sometimes. Not completely empty, but a little empty because I want to be light and I don’t want too much weight on me on that day.

Christian: I can relate to that. I also like that feeling of not having eaten if you’re doing something or also if you want to concentrate and work on something I like to be on an empty stomach, with coffee.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?

Nils: Sometimes I look back at some videos on what I did before. I am the starter in the team sprint. It’s one lap and you can’t really make a mistake on that lap, because then the rest of the team suffers from my mistake. The timing needs to be exactly on point. So, that’s why I’m usually counting from five back to zero. I watch old videos just to see the movements for the start.

As the starter in the team sprint, you can’t really make a mistake on the first lap, because if you do, the rest of the team suffers from your mistake.

Christian: During the World Championships you set three new PBs and actually the fastest PB was in the final when it counted the most. How did you do that?

Nils: The first one was really out of the blue, it was 17.19. That particular lap felt really good, I knew what to do but I was feeling a lot of nerves. That was a really fast lap and then I thought, “Wow, I can be way faster than this.” Then the second one was the missed start, so I was a little slow in that one.

And in the last one, it was just like everything came together. I had been doing starts a lot in training and in competitions. I just focused and tried to get the quickest time so I could be the World Champion, and that’s what happened.

I had been doing a lot of starts in training and in competitions, so I just focused to get the quickest time, so that I could be the World Champion. And that’s what happened.

How Nils overcomes setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks when things don’t go your way? You said you went through a dark period after the Rio Olympics, how did you come back from that?

Nils: That actually took a while because I didn’t know if I wanted to go further in track cycling. But then I decided to continue and so I went to training. But the first season of training was not really on point.

In some training sessions you would focus and do your thing, and then the next day you wake up and you think, “Oh f… this, I don’t want to.” And you go to training feeling that way. But you really need to be focused on your training, know what you are doing, and it was kind of hard to get back into that at first.

After Rio, I didn’t know, if I wanted to continue with Track Cycling.

Christian: How did you do it?

Nils: In the last season I didn’t compete at the European Championships because I wasn’t good enough, so another team went from the Netherlands. And then I was really trying to at least ride in the first two World Cups, and they let me, so I could show how fast I was at that time. I did 17.4 all throughout, except for once when I did 17.5. So, I did way better than they expected, which was really good.

After that we were to have the World Championship in our home country, so I wanted to compete there, and I wanted to be World Champion because we were in second place two times before. So, for three and a half months I really, really focused every day on what I did – eating, training, and everything all around it, and that really helped me. For me, it was three and a half months of really, really focusing on my training and not riding in any competitions.

Nils’ role model

Christian: Who is your role model, and why?

Nils: I do not really have a role model. I don’t really want to be like someone else. But I do respect some athletes, when I see them doing their thing it’s really cool, especially Peter Sagan  the road rider, he is the World Champion in that event now. Now he is winning a lot of races, whereas not a lot of reigning World Champions are winning races. So, yes, he is a very cool person.

I don’t really have a role model, I don’t want to be like someone else. But I do respect athletes, who do their thing.

The best advice he ever received

Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?

Nils: I think it’s from my former coach René Wolff, he said to me, “You are not doing it for me; you are doing it for yourself.” And that’s the one thing you always think about when you’re training, you think, “Are they watching? No. I can do a lift some lighter weights then.” But then you think, “Oh, I’m doing it for myself, they don’t care what I do. I want to be the best, not them.” So, then I always think, “Do it for yourself, train hard and do your thing.”

Do it for yourself, train hard and do your thing.

A typical training day in the life of a Track Cyclist 

Christian: How does a typical training day look?

Nils: Most of the time we train at 9:30, so I wake up at 8:00 most of the time. Training is usually two to three hours – it depends if it’s weight training or track training and then we have some time to rest. Most times we cook and eat lunch in the afternoon. And then we train again at 3:00 or 4:00, after that we eat dinner, lay in our beds and go to sleep later.

Where can you find Nils van’t Hoenderdaal

Christian: Where can people find you?

Nils: I think Instagram is the best place, I try to post something every week or Facebook.

Christian: Thanks Nils.