‘You only live once, so take the opportunities that are presented to you.’ Rob van den Wildenberg – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 21

Rob van den Wildenberg, Olympic finalist 2008 shares how getting into the best possible shape at the Olympic Games 2008 was a big relief from him, how he uses the lessons he learned as an Olympic athlete in his coaching career now, and why he believes it’s important to let athletes fail.

Furthermore we discuss

Christian: Today I’m joined by Rob van den Wildenberg. Rob has been nominated by Merle van Benthem to be interviewed. Rob was Olympic finalist at the Beijing Olympics 2008 and participated in BMX Supercross. He was a World Champion challenger at the age of 16 in BMX Supercross. Welcome, Rob.

Rob: Thank you.

Rob’s darkest moment

Christian: Rob, in your life as an athlete what was your darkest moment?

Rob: I had quite a few dark moments, but I think the darkest one was the winter before the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing. In December 2007 I was fully preparing for the Olympics at that time when my mom got a heart stroke. So that made it difficult to set priorities, should I get out of my training routine, because I was really afraid to lose my mom. That was quite a dark moment because suddenly my dream of being an Olympic athlete, kind of felt like it was not going to happen.

I was fully preparing for the Olympics at that time when my mom got a heart stroke.

So that was quite impactful at that time, but luckily it went well and I think it made me even stronger afterward.

I was realizing that I have to go for the moment, the opportunities that are in your life. Luckily, a few weeks later my mom got a bit healthier and we knew she was going to make it, and that gave me the vibe to really give it all I had for the chance that was given to me.

That was kind of a dark moment, but afterward, it was like one of those moments in life that you realize you only live once and you have a few opportunities and if they are close to you, you have to embrace them and go all out to reach that goal.

Next, to that, there were a few other dark moments, with all the injuries you had as an athlete. In our sport, it’s quite common to have injuries.

After a race in 2011, I was doubting a lot to continue. I had a broken my sternum in the crash and I was close to saying, that was enough for me and I stepped down from racing on the highest level. That was also quite a dark moment.

Christian: It seems to be a trend that athletes in the BMX world, the older you get the more difficult it is to recover from injuries. Especially recovering mentally seems to be difficult. Not only in the healing process of the body but there’s a mental fight of coming back?

Rob: Yes. For me as well, it was the same way. When you’re younger, and you don’t think so much about the injuries you have or that you will get injuries, everything seems easier. When you’re older, and you know how much effort you put in your training, and all the things you sacrifice to become the best athlete that’s within yourself. At one point you will have enough and you think, ‘I can’t handle any more injuries.’

When you’re older, and you know how much effort you put in your training, and all the things you sacrifice to become the best athlete that’s within yourself. At one point you will have enough and you think, ‘I can’t handle any more injuries.’

Because when you’re older you need to put more quality in your training and then recovery from injuries is really difficult mentally. I think that’s for most athletes that decided to quit racing BMX.

Christian: And the dark moment was the decision to stop?

Rob: Yes, you always want to stop in a nice way, knowing that you have achieved everything that was in yourself. Even if it’s not winning a title or whatever, but you pull the best out from yourself.

You always want to stop in a nice way, knowing that you have achieved everything that was in yourself.

And for me, in 2010 I trained as hard as I could. I felt, that I did everything correctly and I thought it was the correct time to stop. So I don’t have any bad feelings about quitting. I got injured and I didn’t get the results, that I needed to continue to receive an Olympic status from NOC.

I didn’t perform, during the World Championships I competed, but I wasn’t able to place in the top-eight, so I lost my status. And it all adds up, I’ve gotten all the injuries, I was a bit in doubt whether I can continue without the status, and then I decided that it was enough. I didn’t see myself improving much anymore as well, so that was also a realistic point of view for myself to say, ‘Okay, I don’t see any growth in me anymore, and I don’t want to compete in a top 30 place.’ I always wanted to compete for the top eight and I felt it wasn’t in me anymore.

I always wanted to compete for the top eight, and I felt it wasn’t in me anymore.

Christian: For the sake of clarification, status for NOC status also means financial support. If an athlete loses the status, the athlete loses the financial support and in a sport like BMX, where athletes don’t earn a lot of money, that is an issue.

Rob: Yes, it’s needed.

Christian: I remember when you retired, I met you at the World Cup here in Papendal in 2010, and I asked you how you felt with the decision, and you said you don’t have any bad feelings. You were convinced it was the right decision?

Rob: I still don’t have any bad feelings about my decision to quit competitive cycling. Sometimes I miss the racing atmosphere, but when I see the level of racing nowadays, along with all the support that they get from Olympic committees or training groups, I think it’s another era now.

When I was riding, I came from an average rider to top rider. I became a professional rider after 5 years when I was 23 and I think I had reached my limit. And now we are starting to train athletes at a much younger age. We are working with athletes in age groups that were not there in my time. In retrospect, it would have also been nice, if I had the opportunity to train full time when I was 15 or 16. But it wasn’t, so I think I made the most out of it in the given circumstances.

Christian: You became the National Coach of the development team, the Junior National team in 2011. How many riders have you delivered to the Senior National team? Niek [Kimmann], Harrie [Lavreysen], Niels Bensink, Jay Schippers, Koen van der Wijst, Justin Kimmann, and Kevin van den Groenendal.

Rob: Actually quite a few riders moved up to the National team, and some switched sports and moved up to the Track Cycling National team, like Harrie and Koen.

Rob’s best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Rob: I had already mentioned it a bit, my best moment was competing at the Olympics 2008. I was there in the best shape. I came 5th in the Olympic final. Reaching the finals was my goal. That was my goal.

Reaching the Olympic final was my goal, and I finish 5th.

At that time, I wanted to be at the Olympics. For the first time, BMX was made an Olympic sport so we didn’t know what to expect. So that meant it was all new for us, but we were already working for a few years towards that goal. And I was really convinced, I did everything to reach that goal and to be at my best at the Olympic Games. And I was in my best shape, so that was kind of a relief for me. I had no pressure at all and I felt quite happy.

And I think the other athletes were a bit more stressed, I just felt really good, really comfortable. And yes, from the 3 best guys who were competing for the Netherlands in the men’s event, I think I wasn’t necessarily the one who should perform the best. However, I think by feeling the way that I did and with all the team around us, it made me to perform the best out of the 3 Dutch riders.

I think I wasn’t the best rider from the team, but during the two days of competition, I think I was the best of them. So that felt good. I felt like, I couldn’t have been done better, so I’m actually really proud of that performance from myself, even though it wasn’t a medal, it felt quite good.

I think I wasn’t the best rider from the team, but during the two days of competition, I think I was the best. Everything fell into the right place at the right time.

If I look back at the time, normally I was always looking up to some riders who normally performed better. However, at the Olympics, I felt that I could show what I have and I thought I was good enough to be a top-eight guy and it happened. It felt like everything fell into the right place at the right time.

Rob’s advise to a younger Rob van den Wildenberg

Christian: If you could travel back in time 10, 15, 20 years, what advice would you give your younger self?

Rob: If I look at it as an athlete, I think I needed a goal in my sport. I mean, there was no Olympic status for the sport at that time, so I did it, because I liked it and there was no real goal setting. I would give the advice to set some goals that you can try to achieve.

I did it because I liked it and there was no real goal setting. I would give the advice to set goals.

And I think that would make you become grown up grown earlier. I felt a bit dependent on my parents, what they would do, what they decided for me. It’s good to set goals and also failing at achieving them will make you a better person in the future.

So yes, that would be a piece of good advice that you should also set some goals that you want to achieve and work for it, even at a young age. This will also create moments to look back on what you did wrong, what you did correct and you can learn from them. In my time in my sport, it was just about having fun and no goals to achieve.

It’s good to set goals and also failing at achieving them will make you a better person in the future.

Christian: Do you use that experience of goal setting or not having set goals with your athletes nowadays?

Rob: Yes, we set goals on an individual basis. Not everyone is the same, but what I try to teach them is that I have an opportunity to develop them as an athlete. What I try to tell them as much as possible is, that they have to realize that they probably have only one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become one of the top athletes in their sport, so they should not waste any time or their efforts, they have to stick to their goal.

What I try to tell my athletes is, that they have to realize, that they probably have only one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become one of the top athletes in their sport. So they should not waste any time or their efforts, they have to stick to their goal.

And it’s just difficult at a young age for you to sacrifice a lot of things, and at times it’s quite egocentric if you go for one goal. At the age of 15, 16 you have a lot of friends and it’s hard to stand up and say that you want to achieve a goal and make sacrifices for that. The ordinary 15 or 16-year old that goes to parties and needs a lot of friends and do what they want to do. I try to tell them, that in order to reach the goal that is a few years ahead of you, you need to stick to the goal and believe in the program. Believe in what you’re doing and believe what you’re capable of.

Believe in what you’re doing and believe what you’re capable of.

From time to time you also have to look in the mirror and tell yourself whether or not you’re doing all the right things in order to achieve the goal. And I think that’s the biggest challenge with younger athletes and that’s also one of the nicest challenges. I think that’s the main thing when you’re a young athlete, you have to realize that it’s special that you’re chosen and you get an opportunity to become one of the best in your sport and achieve your Olympic dream.

Christian: And then for example, with the guys that have come through your program, who are now at the top of the world in their sport, like Niek [Kimmann] and Harrie [Lavreysen]. How quickly did they buy into the process?

Rob: To be honest, especially these two guys, who perform at the highest level in their disciplines, they quickly realized, that they had the opportunity and that they are capable of becoming one of the best. And they quickly realized, that they have to put aside some things and that they have to look in the mirror from time to time to find out if they were doing the right things, and that made them really quickly be one of the best.

Especially these two guys, they quickly realized, that they had the opportunity and that they are capable of becoming one of the best in their disciplines.

I think that in the environment that they were in and still are in, it’s good for them that someone tells them to realize what they have. And that they don’t have to be afraid to fail from time to time, because you can also learn from that.

But with other athletes, it sometimes takes a bit longer. It doesn’t mean that they won’t achieve the same as them. It also requires a different way of working with athletes. Sometimes you have to be a bit more patient and tell them that they still have to believe in themselves, and the results will come if they keep believing in the program and themselves.

Christian: That’s interesting, because we have worked with them for a few years now, and especially with these two guys, I have noticed, that there was never a lot of drama in the training process.

Rob: That’s true, they are eager to work hard and they are also not afraid to fail from time to time, which I think that makes them strong. If they fail, they know that they need to improve something and they look at themselves to see what they can do differently. I think that’s one of the biggest qualities they have as a person, and that’s what makes them one of the best in their sport.

Rob’s success habits

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

Rob: I was an athlete, I wanted to be one of the best BMX riders, and for me, it was really easy to accept that some habits are not good and that they didn’t help me to become better. For me, it was really easy to accept it and I didn’t have the need to try it or to do it. That was one of my strong points that I could easily do sacrifices, I didn’t feel I missed something because of my goal.

I wanted to be one of the best BMX riders, and for me, it was really easy to accept that some habits are not good. I could easily do sacrifices, I didn’t feel I missed something because of my goal.

I see that some athletes are still attracted to the things that are not good for them or not the best for them. And for me, it was really easy to not eat junk food or to not go to bed late. I could easily do it, but I know it’s not easy for everyone.

Rob’s morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine?

Rob: Not specifically. Now I have two kids, and of course, I always hope that they’re still asleep when I wake up. One thing I do in the morning is that I take a shower. It doesn’t matter, if I have to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, I always take a shower and if I don’t take a shower I feel a bit… I don’t know. It’s just that 5 minutes, you can think about what’s going to happen that day, or what you need to do today or what’s difficult that day. I always feel good by taking a quick shower and have a good breakfast.

I always take time to wake up. So if I have to leave at 7:00, I wake up at 5:45 and I take my time to be ready. It feels a bit like going prepared from home for what I need to do. For me it’s important to be on time, especially if I have an appointment, that’s also why I take time in the morning.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How did you prepare for important moments?

Rob: As an athlete and still as a coach, I want to be prepared. When I have a competition as an athlete or a coach, I always want to make sure my gear, my bike, everything was in perfect condition and I didn’t have to do it the last minute. I knew everything was in a good condition.

I want to be prepared. I always want to make sure everything was in perfect condition and I didn’t have to do it the last minute.

I also prepared myself for what was coming. So for example, I informed myself about what I was carrying, what I will have to pack. I felt really good by doing that, knowing that I was ready for it, even if conditions weren’t as I would like. So this way I already knew in advance what could happen.

And as a coach, I always check if everything is arranged, that you have everything ready to travel or go to a race, and knowing that everything is done. Sometimes it really takes a lot of time to check it or to do it, but I always make time for it and try not to be surprised at the moments you need to shine. That’s important. That’s how I approach preparing for big events or big things in life.

I always check if everything is arranged and that everything is done. Sometimes it really takes a lot of time, but I always make time for it and try not to be surprised at the moments you need to shine.

Christian: That is interesting, Raymon mentions that he believes in preparation. Is it something that comes from Bas [de Bever], that you guys have learned from him?

Rob: Yes, I think so. He always mentioned that everything needs to be in order, especially in the beginning years, when we started working with him, he was an experienced top and he always emphasized preparation. I mean, you can prepare yourself well, but if your bike or equipment wasn’t also prepared then it also doesn’t help you to get the best results or to reach your goal.

He helped us also look at that part of being an athlete. Not only do you need to prepare yourself, but you also need to prepare your equipment and your environment. I think he was really telling us, that we need to arrange our environment as we want it to be. That can be different for everyone of course, but I think he helped a lot, that you should not step into something not knowing or not well arranged.

And also, by failing at those things we learned that it’s better to be prepared than not prepared and we can invest a lot of hours in training, but if your bike is not good, it’s a stupid and costly mistake. Not looking only at yourself, but also looking at what’s around you.

Christian: I’ve done a previous interview with Mark Tuitert, the Olympic champion in speed skating 2010 and one thing that he said, which was really powerful and has been stuck in my head is ‘The best preparation is to be prepared.’

Rob: Yes, that’s true. Sometimes you see, that athletes are trying new things when they are working towards a big event. I don’t think that is a good idea. We learned, and I also believe in that, you take a path to a goal, you stick to the path and afterward, you look back on what can be done differently for the next goal or next event.

Surround yourself with the people that you believe in, make a program you believe in, and then stick to it.

But I think it’s important to stick to something and not go out of the way just because someone else tells you that’s better. Try to surround yourself with the people that you believe in. Make a program you believe in, then stick to it and maybe adjust a bit if you as a team agree. But don’t go left Monday and go right on Tuesday. That makes you really doubtful in the program, in yourself. So I think to be the best prepared, it’s also in the preparation before. You need to really believe in what you’re doing.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?

Rob: Setbacks are always difficult. Especially if you well prepared, you go into something and it doesn’t happen the way you want, that’s always a disappointment. But the way I always think is, to take time to look at things, to think about it, so that I can have a clear opinion about how it happened or why it didn’t happen. And then I think it’s quite good to put a mirror in front of myself and assess what happened, what I did wrong, what I did good and what can be done differently in order to not get a setback.

I take time to look at things, to think about it so that I can have a clear opinion about how it happened or why it didn’t happen.

I take time to think about it and sometimes it’s quite good to not change things immediately, I  have noticed that sometimes you think well of it and if you dig a bit deeper into what happened then you might think differently than one day after some setback. So that’s also the work. You have to be able to think about it and giving it time helps you to overcome setbacks.

Christian: You’ve also mentioned that what you teach your athletes is that they can allow themselves to fail if that was the same for you. So you say that failure is just part of the process and you don’t look at it as a setback more.

Rob: Yes. And at the moment, of course, it’s a setback. It’s really disappointing for the person, but you can really learn from those things.

Sometimes, especially for younger athletes, you can tell them or give them advice and they don’t listen. Then it is really better for them, that they really get the experience for themselves. And then you have a really good opportunity to talk with them afterward and say, ‘I’ve already given you some advice and now it happened.’

That also helps to have your athlete believe in you. It helps, that if you let them feel, especially if you have told them already, ‘Hey, think about it. Think about it.’ and they don’t do it, it helps your relationship with your athletes and from then on you can take another step.

However, it only works, if you have belief in each other. Sometimes it needs to be developed and sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it works within one day, but everyone is different so you need to also find a way to have a good relationship with an athlete that works best for him/her.

Rob’s role model 

Christian: Who is your role model?

Rob: I find that a really difficult question to answer. When I was younger, I didn’t have any real role models. I always looked up to people who were achieving great things in their sport.

Christian: Any examples?

Rob: My dad was a former motor cross rider, not at a great level, but I was also into that sport and I looked up to riders at the time. You had some American riders at that time that I always looked up to, but it was more because I like the sport. You had some guys that were winning titles year after year and then you have respect for them, but I didn’t know exactly what they were doing or that they put time into it what they were doing exactly.

I always looked up to people who were achieving great things in their sport.

But when I started as a professional athlete training day in day out, then I started looking at other people in other sports and what they were doing. We started to look more into the ice skating program, we had the same strength & conditioning coach at the time, and we were looking at what they were doing. There were other top athletes in their sport and you try to look at what they were doing and what I could do, or what I could copy or what not to do. That was how I looked up to role models, not as an individual but more as a training group and knowing, that they were performing at the highest level and that was something that we also wanted.

The best advice he has received

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

Rob: I think I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from different people around me. One of the best advice is, that you have to believe in what you’re doing and don’t change the plans too often or too frequently. In order to have a plan you believe in, make them with your people around you that you believe in.

You have to believe in what you’re doing, don’t change the plans too often or too frequently. In order to have a plan you believe in, make them with your people around you that you believe in.

I think that will be a piece of good advice for me. I’ve also seen it, where people step into something not thinking that well about everything, and then during their path, they choose a different route and end up not achieving what they want.

Another advice is to have a realistic image about yourself and don’t be afraid to say to yourself that ‘This is what I’m doing correct, but this is what I need to improve or what I’m doing wrong.’ I think a lot of athletes are missing that part that they don’t be realistic with themselves. Deep in their heart, they know that they can step it up, but they still believe in themselves that they do all the right things.

Have a realistic image about yourself and don’t be afraid to say to yourself that ‘This is what I’m doing correct, but this is what I need to improve or what I’m doing wrong.’

So that would be the two pieces of advice I would give them.

Christian: And then I would like to come back to the first advice. So you need to believe in the plan. That’s always a bit of no-brainer advice, and I fully agree on that. But what do you do, if the plan doesn’t work?

Rob: When the plan doesn’t work, you will always work towards big goals, right? It’s not a goal that’s achieved within 1 week. It’s always a minimum period of 1 year or 1,5 years. And there are always moments, that an athlete is feeling well or feeling not well, and then the people around the athlete should support the athlete in the bad days.

You will always work towards a big goal, it’s not a goal that is achieved within a week. It’s quite normal, that there will be difficult periods.

Stick to the program. It’s quite normal that there are difficult periods. You need to support the athlete when they have those moments. More often than not, it starts on a daily basis. Then it’s good to sit together and say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re seeing. What can be done that doesn’t change the program so much to get him on track again?’ Sometimes it happens, but sometimes you need to give them some room and give them a week off. That can also help a lot from time to time.

What can be done that doesn’t change the program so much? What can be done differently? And normally I see that only some minor changes, can make a big difference.

When it happens, when it doesn’t work, you see that on a daily basis it doesn’t work. And then you also need to be realistic with yourself or your team that it doesn’t work. So what can be done differently? And what I normally see is just maybe some minor changes, that can make a big difference.

A typical training day in the life of a professional BMX Supercross rider

Christian: How does a typical training day look like whether you’re an athlete or whether you’re a coach now?

Rob: When I was an athlete, we always worked with a really motivated team. We called it a team, even though we were individual athletes. We really believed that we could make each other better and we also showed that in the training.

We always worked with a really motivated team. We called it a team, even though we were individual athletes. We really believed that we could make each other better and we also showed that in the training.

And if there was one guy or girl not feeling motivated or didn’t have a nice day, we were all trying to change it and make it a good day for them. So a good day of training was being surrounded by motivated people, that get the best out of you and that you are going home and say, ‘Okay, today we put in a lot of work, we’ve done a lot of work and we trained hard.’

In my time we had a lot of those days where you were not performing the best in the group, but you always had the feeling that you gave the best you had that day. Sometimes you were the best of the group, sometimes you weren’t and then you always had the opportunity to be on top of the group another day. I always had the motivation to get back to training. That was one of the things I really liked about working in the group we had when I was an athlete. I think we achieved a lot by working together and I still think as a coach athletes need to work together in order to get the motivation.

Every training needs to be done with a 100% motivation and commitment, and realizing that a 100% doesn’t mean that’s your personal best.

Every training needs to be done with a 100% motivation and commitment, and realizing that a 100% doesn’t mean that’s your personal best. The surroundings we are creating here at Papendal with the group, the coaching staff, is the right atmosphere to give the best as an athlete every day, day in day out.

Where can you find Rob van den Wildenberg

Christian: Where can people find you?

Rob: Normally on a daily basis it’s at the Olympic Training Center here in Papendal. So that would be my daily work office. If not, probably on our way to some event, race or training camp with the same group that we are working over here in Papendal.

Christian: What online channels are you using?

Rob: I’m not really into the social media myself. I always follow people, but not posting myself that much. I look Instagram, I look Facebook to see what other athletes are doing in our sport, but also athletes from different sports, other coaches and keep up-to-date what they are doing. But it’s not my daily routine I check everything, I often have social contacts around here at Papendal.

Christian: We’re still old school. We prefer normal contacts, not online.

Rob: Yes, I’d rather sit face-to-face, have a coffee and talk about things. I like the personal thing, that may be old school.

Rob’s interview nomination

Christian: Who do you want to nominate to be interviewed?

Rob: I find it quite impressive that Sven Kramer is still is one of the best in his sport, and not only for 2 years but already for almost a decade. So I would like to hear what he is doing differently now versus 10 years ago to keep on top of the game. And also in what ways it is getting more difficult for him.

I would like to see, what his challenges are and hopefully one of our athletes can also learn from that. I mean, we have young athletes in our group and they are performing at the top level and of course, we want to keep them at a top level. Maybe he would have some advice from his side that he can share.

Christian: Rob, thanks a lot.

Rob: Thank you.

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