Christian: Today, I’m joined by Patrick van Balkom. Patrick is a 2004 Olympian. His major achievements are winning the Bronze Medal at the World Championships in 2003 in the 4 x 100-meter relay and winning the Bronze Medal in the World Championships 2001 in the 200 meters.
After his career, Patrick has worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and has helped the Dutch Women’s Field Hockey team to defend their Olympic title in London 2012.
Patrick: Correct. Thanks.
His darkest moment
Christian: Patrick, now I’ve made you feel so good, let’s start with let’s not feel too good for so long, but what was your darkest moment as an athlete?
Patrick: That’s an easy one. That’s the Olympic Games in Athens 2004. I’m an Olympian, but at the Olympic Games itself, it didn’t go well.
I was there for the 4 * 100-meter relay, and the year before we won the Bronze Medal at the World Championships, so we had very high hopes. However, at the exchange, actually my exchange, from three to four, it went wrong, we dropped the stick and we didn’t finish. So, that was quite a dark moment.
At my exchange, it went wrong, we dropped the stick.
Christian: How did you recover from that moment?
Patrick: It was a dark moment, however, it also felt like a good moment, meaning that we as a team stood together. So the year before we won together and at the Olympics, we lost together.
So we kind of helped out each other. There were no bad feelings. Everybody understood that things could go wrong and that made recovery at that moment easy and good.
I saw that we really grew together as a team, so that was a really nice feeling. The years after when I was still running relay, sometimes I still had it in my system that things can go wrong. So, I know how well things recovered, but then I was always cautious.
We won together and at the Olympics, we lost together. I saw that we really grew together as a team.
Christian: And within the team, one has to give and the other one has to receive. Was there no blaming going on between the team?
Patrick: No, like I said, the amazing thing was that we’re all individuals in track and field and the years before that, we were actually opponents, but not friendly opponents. And at one point we said, okay, we’re going to do this.
We’re going to get together as a team and we’re going to try to win a medal because that’s our chance. At that moment we saw that we were teammates and even friends and after, there were no bad feelings.
Like I said, everybody knew that things could go wrong. There was no finger-pointing. No, that was all good.
His the best moment
Christian: What was the best moment?
Patrick: I won two medals at World Champs and both were nice moments and both were different. One was individual. I’m the only individual sprinter from the Netherlands that won a medal at the World Champs actually, so that’s really special.
I’m the only individual sprinter from the Netherlands that won a medal at the World Champs actually, so that’s really special.
The other one with the team was also special because then you celebrate together. It was just the whole journey towards that medal was just really amazing. Now at the moment, it’s really obvious that Holland is good at sprinting somehow because we have good sprinters.
At that moment, I was the first one that said that I can maybe be the best in the world being a Dutch guy. That was really strange at that point. So I was the pioneer in that sense and I showed that it was possible.
Now you see, after that, and after what we’ve achieved as a relay team, others felt like they could be sprinters. It was not strange that being a Dutchman they felt that they could be good sprinters. So I think that that’s nice. When you look back, that’s a nice thing. So that’s a good moment.
Christian: You know the four-minute mile story, right? Everyone thought it was impossible until Roger Bannister did it and then within 1 year 35 people did it.
Patrick: And then you see that everybody does it and then it’s easy. And what’s the same, I ran national records at 100 and 200 meters. The previous records were set quite well and they stood for some years.
People just thought that it was impossible and that no one was going to be able to beat them anymore. And I did. And after that, I know many ran faster or came close. So, it’s a nice feeling to still look back at that.
Christian: What did you learn from that? How have these experiences shaped your life?
Patrick: The biggest thing that I always say to people and what I will say to my kids, is that if you work hard and you believe, you can reach so much in your life. Obviously, I had talent, but I never saw myself as one of the biggest talents around. But I worked hard.
If you work hard and you believe, you can reach so much in your life, but you have to make choices.
I did the things that I had to do with the facilities that we had at that time, and that’s just what I learned, like the whole mindset and the hard work and what it brings you. That can happen for so many people, but you have to make choices. You have to make decisions, sometimes good, sometimes bad and then you can do a lot.
Christian: And you said belief, how many people believed in you? You believed in yourself and how many people believed in you?
Patrick: I don’t know, not that many, I think. But what I know maybe a nice story. When I was young, I wanted to be sponsored by Nike and I wrote a letter to Nike. I don’t remember my age at the time, but I was junior in athletics.
I wrote a letter saying I will be the best sprinter in the Netherlands. A couple years ago, I spoke to my Account Manager then, who received that letter, and he said he always got so many letters.
But just this one, somehow he saw or he believed that this young guy from the South of Holland, could be true.
When I was young, I wanted to be sponsored by Nike, so I wrote a letter to Nike saying that I will be the best sprinter in the Netherlands. A couple years ago, I spoke to my Account Manager and he said he always got so many letters, but this one he remembered and he believed that this could be true.
So back to the question, I believed in myself and he believed in me. Then I had a coach, my first coach, who really believed in me. So I think that was the right start.
Then as soon as I started achieving things more people believed in me, but it was difficult. As I was a pioneer.
Sometimes I see newspapers and I see the heading, I realize I dare to say things that others don’t dare to say. In the Netherlands it is expected that you just act normal and that’s good enough.
I dare to say things that others don’t dare to say.
I always said that I could be the best and that I would be the best. Somehow people started believing that, even before I was the best in the Netherlands or my two times third in the world.
But somehow, I don’t know, people believed me, probably because I believed in myself. You have people that just say it, but I really believed in myself and I think that’s the difference that people could feel.
His advice to a younger Patrick van Balkom
Christian: If you could go back in time, 10, 15, maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Patrick van Balkom?
Patrick: I was thinking about that. The biggest advice I would give now, and not only related to sports, but also in regular life, is to enjoy the moments. I’m a person that always thinks 10 steps ahead, and I never enjoyed the moments.
The biggest advice I would give now, and not only related to sports, but also in regular life, is to enjoy the moments.
Now I have to look back at things people are telling me that it was really great what I achieved. And then I started thinking a couple of years ago that maybe it was great. The story I tell now is that at that moment, I didn’t really realize what I was doing or how good it was, or after the finish of a race, I already started thinking about the next race.
I think that’s a good quality, but it’s also nice sometimes just to be in the moment and enjoy it. So to appreciate it yourself actually because I started appreciating what I did through others. I never dared to say that I’m an Olympian or something, because I didn’t do well at the Olympics.
I never dared to say that I’m an Olympian or something, because I didn’t do well at the Olympics.
But now I feel like actually I achieved something by going to the Olympics. But like I said, there has always been that thing that I didn’t achieve anything at the Olympics, but still saying, that I achieved that, it’s quite a big thing. But it’s always looking back and appreciating the moments when they’re there, so you can celebrate.
Christian: In 2005, you moved to Czech Republic to live with your girlfriend, considering she’s now your wife, it was a good decision. In retrospect, was it also a good decision from the athletic point of view?
Patrick: To be honest, I’m not sure. It was a decision that was influenced by multiple things. So first of all in 2005, we didn’t qualify for the World Champs and our funding would stop.
In 2005, we didn’t qualify for the World Champs and our funding would stop.
I wouldn’t have had any funding anymore and at that moment, therefore the decision was a bit easier to go to Czech Republic because I would have facilities there. I was still training there also. I was running for a club there and I wanted to be with my now wife, then girlfriend.
At that moment, it was the decision I had to make. And you never know, you make so many decisions during your career. That goes back to like doing one rep more in weight session.
What does it add? You don’t know or run 100 meter in a training session more or less. You never know. And this decision, I don’t know if it was a good one or a bad one. At that moment, it was the right one and I don’t regret it. So I would say it was a good one.
The funny thing that I spoke with my Dutch coach about it at that moment, and he wasn’t the happiest that I would go. He also said that if I have talent, actually, it wouldn’t really matter where I train. He said that I probably would still achieve what I wanted to achieve or a coach has to do really bad.
You can break someone, but if you have the talent and there are good coaches, then it should be okay. And I was at the end of my career. I still ran for two years then.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Patrick: Being consistent and making choices, hard choices sometimes. When I was young, I didn’t go to the parties because Sunday morning I had to train. My friends did and those were the friends that said after that they were just as good as me so they could have done the same and achieved the same.
When I was young, I didn’t go to parties because Sunday morning I had to train.
But they couldn’t because they didn’t make those choices. And I think that made the difference. But it’s choices in everything. It’s choices in what you eat, how you live, what you do and choosing the right coach.
When I was young, the first coach was a really good coach. He taught me a lot of things, especially mentally. Though at one point I found out, that I need someone a bit more technical knowledge and I said I need to go.
So as a young guy, I have to tell that coach that I was not going to train with him anymore. So that was quite difficult. These things I had to do and I did.
So I believe that those things make the difference, being consistent, and making hard choices. But to me, it was normal, for others it was more difficult.
Those things make the difference, being consistent, and making hard choices.
That’s somehow also a talent that you need to have, that you make these decisions that the future is fine. And that means that social life is also on hold sometimes and that you can’t go to birthdays or you can’t drink or all these things you have to decide.
Why he always knew intuitively how to optimally prepare for important competitions
Christian: A question in that context, listening to the people who trained with you in the past, you seemed to be very good in knowing yourself. What that means, for example leading up to important competitions, they said you were always training at low intensities or chilling or appeared a little bit like not caring very much.
But then at that competition, you ran a personal best or something like that. Is that something you felt that you needed to take it a bit easier, or how can you explain that?
Patrick: I think I felt it, but it was also really influenced by the coach I had, who also believed in that. So in that I found the right match. My first coach was really good getting me mentally ready. Being mentally ready for competition means that you have to be well-rested, otherwise you can’t achieve what you want to achieve.
Being mentally ready for competition means that you have to be well-rested, otherwise you can’t achieve what you want to achieve.
I really believe in that and that’s also what I tried to teach when I was Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Olympic Committee. That’s what I try to teach all the athletes I coached and it’s really difficult. I noticed because the day before everyone wants to feel that they’re in shape, but then it’s too late. I didn’t need that.
So a week or two weeks before I could relax because the difference was that I really believed in what I did and the training I did was good and that was good enough. So at one point, you can’t do anything anymore. You’re at a certain level.
Then you accept that you’re good enough and then you’re just relaxed and you go to the competition or the last few weeks to the competition. The only thing you have to do is rest and get mentally ready, and mentally ready you can only do when you’re well-rested. So that’s what I did indeed.
I remember before the Olympics 2004, I wasn’t in the best of shape and we had five guys going for four spots in the relay team. The coach was really in doubt if he wanted to put me in the relay. And I think just the last week, the last couple of days before, he decided that it will be me because I grew so much in the last training camp.
It was really amazing. No one expected that; that suddenly I ran those times and I was in my best shape, but that was just what I could do. That’s what my first coach taught me.
There are two moments a year, maybe that you have to be at your best. That’s the final of a championship; not even the semifinal, not even the quarter-final. Those races are just to get into the final.
So don’t show yourself in those races yet. Try to take it as easy as possible, so you’re ready and rested for the final. That’s why you have to chill. So that’s what he told me and that’s what I believed in.
Those moments you can get it out of yourself, but mentally I could do these things. As I said, I never felt I was the biggest talent ever physically. But mentally, I could do a lot of things and I still notice it now.
If someone challenges me or pushes me if you say that I can’t do something, then watch me, then I’m really going to go for it. Somehow I have that in me. But there has to be a coach that pushes the right button, otherwise, it’s never going to come out.
His morning routine
Christian: How was your morning routine as an athlete?
Patrick: I really stuck to the things I believed in. So my breakfast would always be the same. And then, normally I would train in the mornings.
So I think a good example is training camp. How we did training camps, every day was the same. And then breakfast, training, after training, eat again and then sleep, which also a lot of people found difficult.
But I slept after training again to recover, rather than laying in sun next to the pool getting tanned. I went to bed and then getting ready for second training again and then eat and relax in the evening.
So, it was a simple routine, but if I believe in that, then I wouldn’t change it. So that’s why I didn’t.
If I believe in that, then I wouldn’t change it.
Christian: So for example, if you eat the same breakfast every day, what would you say to people who say that’s too boring?
Patrick: Change it if you want, but that’d be going back to making decisions. The person that helped me with my nutrition, he made a program for me and I did that because I believed in what he said and I believed in what we did, so that’s what I did.
That goes back to some people wanting other things or wanting things differently and then doing that. But I didn’t believe that that will bring me the results that I wanted.
Christian: So it was all focused towards that end result.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: We touched on that. How do you prepare for important moments?
Patrick: To get mentally ready, you need to get well rested and focus on what you have to do. The most important thing was that I felt good in training and the things we did. I was lucky with the coaches I had and I understood everything myself as well because I studied physical education and I learned a lot.
To get mentally ready, you need to get well rested and focus on what you have to do.
I watched a lot of videos, so I was always self-taught in that, but still, it went hand in hand with the coach. And then you’re mentally ready. But what I want to say, the funny thing is I’m talking about focus, but I found there was one competition, 1999 World Champs in Sevilla, and I ran a really good quarter-final.
It was the first round and then I went to the next round and it was one of the hardest heats, there were a lot of good runners and it was my first World Champs. Somewhere inside of me, some voice told me that I have to prepare, be quiet, focus, and play the hardest metal music because it was my moment.
So before that race in the warm-up, I was really quiet and I was really focused; as people say, you have to focus. So thinking about my race, what I’m going to do and the race went really bad. I didn’t go further to the semifinal and final.
After that, my coach asked what I did. I told him that I did what everybody always tells everybody to do, which is to focus. I told him that I concentrated on how people say you have to do.
Then he told me that that was not like me. He said that I was someone that at warm-up, I have to talk with people, make fun and relax. And then I thought that that was actually more me.
Like they always say that you can’t focus on your competitors because it might distract you from what you’re doing. It is best that you focus on yourself. So, that’s what I always like to do.
I would watch, Michael Johnson or Maurice Green or Frankie Fredericks and what they did in their warm-ups because I was interested in that. But during my own warm-up, I would chat with the physiotherapist and ask what they were doing.
From then on, I decided that will be my preparation and I would focus when the guy that shoots the gun, the starter, when he would say “on your marks”, then it’s time to focus. It gave me a lot of relief also because focus also takes a lot of stress, tension, and energy.
Normally you’re focused, the more energy you give to that. So I could relax actually, up until the start. From then on actually, I won my medals at Worlds also. That was a big lesson and it’s a different mindset in focusing.
So you have to be relaxed and knowing that everything went well in preparation. Then when the gun goes, you go, and your body knows what to do because you’re prepared.
Focus also takes a lot of stress, tension, and energy. So you have to be relaxed and knowing that everything went well in preparation. Then when the gun goes, you go, and your body knows what to do because you’re prepared.
Christian: The events you participated in, like the 100 and 200 meters, it’s just 10 or 20 seconds. So there’s not much time to get into the rhythm, so you have to be spot on from the moment it starts. So how do you go from relaxed to that fired up or whatever you need it to be?
Patrick: Yes, that’s training. We practice a lot of starts, so when the gun goes, you know what to do. It’s like driving a car, at one point, you don’t think about how you change gears anymore because you did this so often.
It’s the same with starts as well. So you just do the thing that you always do, and it’s not simple, but that’s kind of the mindset that you have to have. The only thing was that what I added was in finals that at that moment I wanted to win.
Then suddenly things fall in place. I don’t know how; sometimes you also just don’t know how, but that was my mental preparation probably. You just do the thing that you’ve been thought to do and then it goes by itself.
You just do the thing that you’ve been thought to do and then suddenly things fall in place.
In 10 seconds you don’t have to think. You don’t have to do it. It’s easy. So you just go as fast as you can start. As soon as you think during your race, actually it’s a bad race probably.
The preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games
Christian: And that moment at the Olympics, when you lost the stick, can that be attributed to some change in the preparation or suboptimal preparation on the moment itself?
Patrick: Still up until today, we don’t know what went wrong. I know I was wrong, but we don’t know why. I was running and I gave the signal to the guy who I had to hand over the stick to.
Up until today, we don’t know what went wrong.
He had to put his hands back and I gave the signal. I did everything and I gave him the stick and he didn’t take it. And why not? We don’t know.
Suddenly, I started like, “What’s happening now?” I said it again. I tried to give it again and it still didn’t happen. So we don’t know what caused that if I didn’t give it the hard enough, because you have to give it with a certain intensity, or if he had a blackout or I don’t know.
We never know exactly what happened, but it went wrong. As I said, that was also the thing I spoke about before. No one ever pointed a finger, so we didn’t also really investigate what went wrong. It went wrong, so, okay. We tried together and we lost together. It went wrong, so that was it.
How to you overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Patrick: Just focus on the goal. I actually talk about focus. Focus comes from setting goals.
Focus on the goal. Focus comes from setting goals.
That’s what I also believe in. So I’m thinking 10 steps ahead. So setting new goals, adjust the goals. Sometimes the goal can stay the same, but there is a little hiccup. So that’s a setback, it’s part of the game and that’s how to deal with it.
His role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Patrick: I don’t have a specific role model. I never had. I just picked the best things from a lot of people. And everybody has their own qualities.
One had a good technique, one had a good mentality, so in that, I picked a lot from everyone. So I can’t really specifically say someone that was a really big role model or something. Sorry.
Christian: No need to be sorry, that has come back multiple times that athletes don’t really have a specific role model, so I’m not really surprised.
The best advice he has received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Patrick: I have to go back to my first coach, and his advice that the only race you have to win is the final. All the things that I did were based on that. So, there is a certain moment a year or two moments a year that have to be at your best.
The only race you have to win is the final.
If you think like that, that’s the focus and the goal. Then all the things lead up to that, all the things you do are connected to do that. That was always good advice for me because it gave me direction and it gave me the strength to be good in those moments.
Christian: And if you have only two moments in a year where you want to be good and you see the preparation leading up to it is a sub-optimal, what do you do?
Patrick: Pray. How it was for me is that I still believe that I could do it. So even with the setback, I made myself believe that I was still the best.
I spoke about it in Bas de Bever, who was interviewed here before, and he was also my mentor when I was working for the Olympic Committee. He also said the difference between an athlete that achieved something and an athlete that doesn’t is that they always believe they can win.
That was a start. I believe that I could win. I didn’t always have to win, but I thought I could. So I raced against Michael Johnson and I thought I could beat him.
In the end, he ran one of the best times ever, I remember. But I told him after, “You were scared, right? You thought I would beat you.” So I always thought that I could win.
A typical training day in the life of a sprinter
Christian: How did a typical training day look like?
Patrick: Preferably I did strength in the morning and then in the evening, I ran usually at the club or sometimes by myself with my coach. And in between, relax as much as possible. I always saw that in sports, the training is work and rest is a part of it. So I didn’t do anything next to it.
Training is work and rest is a part of it. So I didn’t do anything next to it.
I didn’t work, I didn’t study, plus that took me off my focus and I thought it wouldn’t help me. I tried to relax as much as possible in between the training sessions. But dividing training sessions already helps quite a bit. Being professional athletes, you could do that because I was training with athletes that couldn’t do that.
So they had to do sessions together in the evening and I could divide it. That was already quite a big help. So that’s how the day looks. Simple but effective.
Christian: And you try to sleep between or nap between the training sessions you said?
Patrick: Yes, always. Like one and a half hours or something. I believe that it would help. I thought 10 hours of sleep at least a day and then that would help me.
I always say training, everybody can do, getting tired, everybody can do, but you get better when you rest. That’s when your body gets better actually and prepares for the next impact or the next training.
Training, everybody can do, but you get better when you rest. That’s when your body gets better actually and prepares for the next impact or the next training.
So that’s what you have to do as good as possible. And that’s where you can make the difference. As I said, everybody can be tired and get tired and a lot of people could train how I trained and could run next to me in training.
They maybe didn’t rest as well. And if during your recovery time, you do things that don’t help the recovery, then you’re not going to be as good.
Christian: And then the 10 hours of sleep you’re referring to was it a stretch or was accumulated total?
Patrick: Yes, accumulated, although, maybe I slept even more. My minimum was 10 hours, I’m not someone that goes to bed late, so still not. I think that’s still in my system and always was.
Where can you find Patrick van Balkom
Christian: And where can people find you?
Patrick: My website www.patrickbalkom.com. There’s a bio and I have a weekly blog. Sometimes I tell things about training, about adventures or the stories about my career. It’s always connected to certain topics or themes and on Instagram, I try to show that I’m still busy and staying fit.
Patrick van Balkom’s social profiles
Christian: And you’re training for marathons?
Patrick: Yes. I’m training for marathons. That’s the thing. I found out that sprinting doesn’t really help you to get fit or stay lean. So I had to find some other thing and I was running longer distances. So now I ran two marathons already.
How he got into running marathons
Christian: What’s your time on a marathon?
Patrick: 3:33 is the fastest. That’s the thing. I started running longer distances just to stay fit. And I said that I’ll take a photo of everyone I do because then I don’t have to worry about the time.
As soon as I started doing that, I wanted to go faster every time. So that’s still the competitive side in me and then I started setting goals and then at the end, you end up running a marathon, like a sprinter.
That’s how it goes. Obviously, I never really thought of me being really competitive, but I found out that I am somehow.
Christian: What’s the goal then for you in a marathon, sub 3 hours?
Patrick: I thought about that, that would be really nice. As I said, I believe in a lot of things, always in my career, but I can’t believe that that’s possible.
So I thought under 3:30 is already good, but now I’m so close. So probably the goal, I will rethink, and then I will try to go a bit faster, but under 3:00 will be something, but I don’t know. I’m also getting older now, so I have to keep that in mind.
Christian: And I guess if you want to go that fast, it requires quite a bit of training volume.
Patrick: Yes, which is difficult with a busy job and a family, so we’ll see.
Christian: We’ll see. Hey Patrick, thanks for your time.
Patrick: Thank you for having me.