‘Consistency and honesty are the two most important qualities as a coach.’ René Wolff – Olympic coaches interviewed Episode 14

Christian: Today I am joined by René Wolff. René is a former track cyclist, amongst his most notable achievements two times Junior World Champion, Olympic Champion in the Team Sprint at the 2004 Olympic Games, and World Champion in the individual sprint in 2005. René retired from competitive cycling in 2007 and started coaching in 2008, as a coach for the German Cycling Federation, René moved on to become Head Coach of the Dutch Cycling Federation in 2010, where I have been fortunate to work alongside René, and is now [2018] going to take on a new role as Head Coach Track Cycling New Zealand. Welcome René.

René’s most notable successes as a coach,  with his athletes at the Rio Olympics, for instance, Elis Ligtlee, Olympic champion at the Rio Olympics 2016, and Matthijs Buechli, silver medalist at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Olympic Champion as an athlete, and Olympic champion as a coach, we could call him the ‘Franz Beckenbauer of Track Cycling’.

Joking aside, welcome René.

René: Thank you.

Christian: I also wanted to interview René because of a lot of athletes who have been interviewed before like Matthijs Buechli, Jeffrey Hoogland, Nils van t’ Hoenderdaal, Shanne Braspennincx and Harrie Lavreysen have mentioned René as someone who has given them the best advice in their career.

René: I’m surprised by that.

Why is his nickname Heintje?

Christian: Let’s start with the first question, why is your nickname Heintje?

René: Because of my notable voice, and on the German team in the time when I competed there was the idea that everybody should have a nickname, and they came up with Heintje, since then they’re still using it. So, if all of us athletes meet up and we’re sitting together for dinner, I’m still called by this name.

His darkest moment

Christian: René, what was your darkest moment, either as an athlete or coach?

René: I did not have really dark moments as an athlete, because most of the dark moments were followed by light moments. Like, I had a bad crash at the World Championships in 2004, where I couldn’t compete in the Worlds, which meant I wasn’t qualified for the Olympics, but I got a white card for the Olympics just a few weeks later. I had a good career, I had a nice career.

Most of the dark moments were followed by light moments

My darkest moment as a coach was, when I started as a young ambitious coach here in the Netherlands, and we tried to qualify the Team Sprint for the Olympic Games in London 2012 and we missed our qualifications by 40 points. In all the competitions we did for qualification we gathered about 200 points for each competition. But we couldn’t compete in one competition because there was no budget to go to the competition, and that’s where we paid the price. That was one of the darkest moments in my coaching career.

Christian: What has that moment taught you, or what did you learn from it?

René: Take everything in your own hands and try to solve it beforehand.

Take everything in your own hands and try to solve it beforehand.

His best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

René: I wasn’t actively involved in the best moment. It was certainly the guys [Nils van ‘t Hoenderdaal, Harrie Lavreysen, Jeffrey Hoogland and Matthijs Buechli] winning the Team Sprint here in the Netherlands this year [2018]. We fought a long time for this. I was coaching this team from 2010, it started with Matthijs Buechli and Hugo Haak when they were really young, we got everybody on to the team and finally seeing the team on top of the world, winning the rainbow jersey, that was a really good moment.

We fought a long time for this, and finally seeing the team on top of the world, winning the rainbow jersey, that was a really good moment.

Christian: That was also a very special moment for me.

What advice would he give his younger self

Christian: Looking back at your career as a coach and as an athlete, what advice would you give your younger self?

René: In Germany, we say ‘nothing is eaten as hot, as it is cooked’, which can be loosely translated as ‘take it easy, take one step at a time, don’t get distracted by things just coming your way. Just have a full night of sleep and let’s see how to solve the problem and take it step by step.’

Nothing is eaten as hot, as it is cooked.

Young athletes or athletes, in general, are really emotionally involved with their program, with their success, with their own development, which has kept them many times from seeing the bigger picture and letting things go to just be in the moment instead of seeing the big picture and taking advantage of it.

Athletes are really emotionally involved with their program, with their success, and their own development, which keeps them from seeing the bigger picture, letting things go, and see the big picture and taking advantage of it.

Christian: I think it’s not only young athletes but also managers and coaches because once we are involved it’s very difficult to see the bigger picture. Having an outside perspective is important to see the bigger picture.

René: That’s right.

His coaching philosophy

Christian: What is your coaching philosophy?

René: I don’t know if I have a coaching philosophy because in the end the work of a coach is helping the athlete to achieve their goal, and to be called in one philosophy means you can’t deliver with every athlete.

The work of a coach is helping the athlete to achieve their goal.

So, I actually try to look after what the need of each athlete is and work on that and try to help each athlete achieve what they want. Actually, there are really key things such as consistency and honesty, I think those are the two most important qualities in developing athletes and helping athletes towards their own goals.

Consistency and honesty, are the two most important qualities in developing athletes and helping athletes towards their own goals.

Christian: I also read this quote from you, “You don’t have to understand life, and then it will be like a party.” What does that mean for you?

René: It’s not a quote from me, it’s a quote from a famous German writer Rainer Maria Rilke. And I would work on your translation just a little.

“You don’t have to understand life”, that’s correct. But the second part of the saying is, “then it could be like a festival”, which means it totally depends on you as a person.

There are people who really need to understand the deeper meaning of life and to develop their own thoughts about life, but it’s not a must to understand life in order to enjoy it. You can also enjoy life if you don’t understand it deeply and you just enjoy it on a daily basis. So, actually for me it’s just a point that each person can have a different depth and different angle of sight of the world but still have the same level of enjoyment, or the same level of development, or whatever you call it. So, it’s just an individual way of life.

It’s not a must to understand life in order to enjoy it.

Christian: Interesting. I would probably argue that once who don’t try to understand life, are probably a bit happier.

René: It can be, but we never know.

Christian: No, you never know. I think it’s very individualistic.

His core values

Christian: What are your core values? You mentioned your consistency and honesty in coaching, what other core values do you have?

René: Let’s go back to honesty. As a coach, you have to be aware that actually maybe you are really important, but in the end, you are external feedback for the athlete. You can provide advice, you can deliver the bigger picture, you can help them with the knowledge you have, you can help them with feelings you deliver or with experience you had yourself and stuff like that and feedback too. So, what you have to deliver is straight feedback, and in different ways.

If you come back to honesty it’s connected with communication, so you have to be able to find a way of communicating so that you are understood by the athlete, which means as a coach you have to be totally flexible in your ways of communication, because your communication always has to match with the athlete, that’s the most important thing.

You have to find a way of communicating, that is understood by the athlete. Your ways of communication always has to match with the athlete.

And consistency is the next thing, it means you have to stay true to your own values, you have to stay to what you communicated and what you delivered to the athlete. And for sure, this will shift over the years, and it will develop, and it will evolve, but you can’t say one thing one day and then say another thing another day.

And what’s also the most important thing, what’s interesting for most coaches is you also have to live up to these values yourself. In the end as a coach as we look at high-performance cultures like in training camps or on a daily basis, you have a lot of time with your athletes and if you are not living up to the values yourself that you ask from your athletes it will not work out in the long-term.

You can do it for the short-term, but it doesn’t work out in the long-term because your athletes will not believe you anymore if you’re not living up to what you ask from them. So, I think if you put all this into honesty and consistency if you put this in these two words, I think it could describe the core values.

If you are not living up to the values yourself that you ask from your athletes it will not  work out in the long-term, because your athletes will not believe you anymore, if you are not living up to what you ask from them.

Christian: I saw on your Twitter account the quote, “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” Can you elaborate on that?

René: Yes. Let’s put it a little bit more in the past, Socrates said ‘you never step twice in the same river”, which means you always have to adapt to the current situation. If you are standing by a river, you step into the river, you wet your feet in the river, you step back out again and wait for a minute, the bit of water that you were standing in is just moving further. So, if you wait a minute and step back into the water it’s totally different water, it’s still the same river but it’s different water.

And that means if you look at an athlete’s development you can’t copy periodization and stuff like that in detail from one year to the next. You always have to look at the bigger picture and have to look at where is this athlete coming from? What’s the need? What makes sense for development? Which values do you have to develop, what do you want to develop at the moment and what do you need for the next competition, what do you need for the competition after, and build a chain of this.

You can’t copy periodization from one year to the next. You always have to look at the bigger picture.

But be aware that if you build a plan, the longer the plan gets the more likely it is to get changed because if you make it a 4-year plan you will never get to a 4-year plan. You will have it as a guideline, but not a detailed plan.

The longer a plan gets the more likely it is to get changed, you will never get to a 4-year plan.

What person has influenced René most

Christian:  Which person has influenced and impacted you most, and why?

René: Besides my parents who guided me throughout all my life and helped me to develop my own self, it’s for sure my own coach. I stayed my whole cycling career with one coach and we had a really good relationship so that when he stopped coaching, I took over his job in Germany.

He just told me to trust myself and to make my own decisions and to trust those decisions and go for it, which is maybe the most important thing, make a decision, go for it, even one decision is better than no decision.

And if you made a decision don’t question it anymore because the decision has been made, you’ve done it, so everything that comes after, you have to develop on this decision and not question this decision anymore.

Trust yourself, make your own decisions and to trust those decisions. And if you made a decision don’t question it anymore.

Christian: That’s actually what Matthijs said he got from you as the best advice, is to make a decision, give it at least half a year or one year before you change plans. Why is that? 

René: It’s fine that athletes are trying to get through with this and to develop it further, and I think for Matthijs it’s really important also to get some time on this because he is the kind of guy if he has the ability, he can change ideas within days. So, if he gets some time to think over and to develop then it’s fine for him.

How to manage a team

Christian: How do you manage a team? More precisely, how do you manage individual expectations as well as team expectations? In sport you have to qualify as a team, so every team member has to contribute to that, but on the other side, some team members have their individual goals, for example, the competition that is important for the team is not always important for that individual, which can sometimes be a balancing act. How do you manage that?

René: The question is do individual goals stand in the way of team goals, or are team goals standing in the way of individual goals? If you are working as a head coach for a Federation, you constantly have to combine individual goals with team goals or with goals from your Federation. But it’s mostly about working out how to match those goals and not to separate them.

If you look at the Team Sprint, if you are able to compete in the Team Sprint on the World level then you are physically able to compete on your own as an individual sprinter, whether it is for Keirin, Sprint or Team Sprint.

The physical base can be done in that part of the training, so that means you have tactical and technical bases that you can work on, and we just add to each other so it’s mostly about combining goals. One goal doesn’t have to be the enemy of the other goal, you just can combine it.

One goal doesn’t have to be the enemy of the other goal, it’s about working out how to match those goals and not to separate them.

How to convince your athletes

Christian: Working at a higher level you always have some strong individuals, so sometimes I think they have their own opinions, which is not always the opinion of the coach. How do you determine when you should back off and when you should put your foot down? 

René: It depends on the ability of the athlete to see the bigger picture. There are athletes who need to be guided more strictly, there are athletes who don’t need to be guided. As a coach, I don’t see my role as a policeman or stuff like that.

I have a meeting with an athlete and we determine goals, we determine the way to reach those goals which involve which training program we do, how to fill in which involves what other interventions we take, and it also involves what kind of leading you want to have as an athlete from me as a coach.

So, it’s more that we have an agreement beforehand – do I stand beside you, or do I lead you? Or, am I your partner or am I your leader? It’s about the athlete, the athlete mostly fills in these questions.

There are athletes who need to be guided more strictly, there are athletes who don’t need to be guided. As a coach I don’t see my role as a policeman, I make agreements with the athletes beforehand – do I stand beside you, or do I lead you?

Christian: And then if discussions come up you refer back to the agreement as a basis of discussion.

René: Yes. Mostly, yes.

Has being a successful athlete helped his coaching

Christian: How has being an athlete helped your coaching?

René: It gave me a lot of experience. Actually, getting knowledge in coaching helped me to understand myself as an athlete, which gave me even more experience, because some of the situations, most of the situations that athletes are in I have experienced myself, which means I can understand them.

For sure there is the need for different coaching tools that you add in that you would do on yourself because every person is different, but it helps me to understand the situation of the athlete and it helps me to recognize which situation the athlete is in and what could be the next step to help them find their next step.

Most of the situations that athletes are in I have experienced myself, which means I can understand them and it helps me to recognize the situation and what could help them to find their next step.

Christian: Do you think it’s a requirement for a coach to have been a good athlete himself/herself?

René: No, I don’t think so. It’s something that would help you because it delivers a lot of experience, but I don’t think it’s a requirement.

The most important thing you have to do is that you need to understand people, you need to understand the situations of life and you need to understand that athletes are human beings and not functional robots. I think that’s a really important quality of coaching.

The most important thing you have to do is that you need to understand people, you need to understand the situations of life and you need to understand that athletes are human beings and not functional robots.

René’s take on motivation versus discipline

Christian: What’s your take on motivation and the discussion of motivation versus discipline?

René: There are athletes who for them it’s discipline, and there are athletes who for them it’s motivation. Some of them need to be guided, some of them have the motivation and can see the bigger picture and they just understand, “Okay, if I want to reach this over three years, I have to do this for the next two days, or this, this and this.”

But there are also athletes who just need to be shown the bigger picture again and again and need to have partial goals. So, it’s more about how you organize things so that athletes will have that motivation. It’s how to break it down so that the athlete understands what to do.

Christian: It takes longer with some than with others.

René: There are athletes who you will always have to lead through this process, and there are athletes who pick it up with the years and understand more and more and more of their own development, and there are athletes who just have it from a young age. So, those are the three extremes of the whole spectrum, and in between that everybody is moving.

There are athletes, that understand “Okay if I want to reach this over three years, I have to do this for the next two days.” But there are also athletes who just need to be shown the bigger picture again and again and need to have smaller more frequent goals.

How to choose your support staff

Christian: How do you choose your support staff, the people you want to work with?

René: Of course, there are circumstances where if you work in a high-performance environment like in a National Olympic Committee (NOC) or national federations, there are funding issues, and you can’t always choose the people you work with. However, it’s mostly about the quality of the people and acceptance by the athletes, because athletes need to accept the expertise of the support staff.

I can’t employ a physiotherapist who the athletes don’t accept as a good physiotherapist, I can’t employ a good strength and conditioning coach who is not seen by the athletes as good strength and conditioning coach. So, it’s mostly about acceptance of the group.

It’s about the quality of the people and acceptance by the athletes.

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

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

René: Are there typical days?

As I said, you work with human beings on all sides around you, so we have to manage the program which is determined by a federation, by a NOC or federation, but actually which is filled by human beings. And next to this is you have athletes who are human beings and every day is different.

So, you have to expect everything as a coach every day, which means holding the structure and holding the bigger picture in this highly dynamic environment; that’s the everyday life of a coach.

You have to expect everything, every day as a coach, which means holding the structure in a highly dynamic environment.

René’s interview nomination

Christian: In closing, do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

René: To get a really interesting picture on coaching I would nominate is Jeroen Otter, he is coaching short track in the Netherlands, he’s doing that quite successfully. Short track is a really interesting sport metabolic-wise but also technical-wise, because it’s a gamble as well, but it’s coachable, so it would be interesting to hear about that.

Christian: I’ll reach out to him. Thanks, René, thanks for your time.

René: You’re welcome.

René Wolff’s social profiles

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