A year ago, field hockey player Ireen van den Assem saw her Olympic dream shatter into pieces. After that dreadful episode, she approached her hockey career differently, and she studied the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam. She applied the lessons she learned from those experiences, to get the best out of herself, and out of others
The career of every top athlete comes with ups, and also with downs, like not winning an important title, or getting an injury. What goes through your mind at those moments? How can you turn it around, so you can still get the best out of yourself? How do you move forward in your sport, and in life?
In the summer of 2021, just days before she was due to fly to Tokyo, field hockey player Ireen van den Assem suffered a serious hamstring injury and was forced to miss the Olympic Games. Olympic gold at those games would have been the crowning moment of her hockey career, but suddenly she had to deal with tremendous deception and frustration. She decided to put her international hockey career on hold and, having already changed teams, went from playing in the top division with Den Bosch to playing in the promotion class with Tilburg, who had adjusted their team line-up dramatically at the start of the season. And, thanks to a Telesport scholarship, she studied the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam.
This is the inspiring story of Ireen van den Assem. We look back with her on the lessons she has learned in the past academic year and hockey season, and look ahead to her dreams and ambitions for a future, in which she not only wants to do the best she can herself, but also wants through coaching, to help others in getting the best out of themselves.
How do you look back now on that period when you missed the Games?
I made a lot of progress in processing everything that happened there. In that sense, time does indeed heal all wounds. There may always remain a scar, but I have learned from it, and it has given me insight.
What exactly did you learn from it?
I think that I was focused blindly at that time on participating in the Olympics. I had made it a very big thing, and felt the high pressure building up. At the same time, it was a difficult period with many injuries, and I didn’t really find the time to recover from them, because of all the pressure I felt.
When you don’t have the space mentally, it is of course also very difficult physically. I knew it all rationally, but when I missed the Games, it was just unbearable at that moment. I saw it as an ending but of course my career has not failed now.
Did you feel back then that your career had failed?
Well, honestly, I don’t think that I had those feelings back then either, but it just hurt so much. I always felt that I would come out stronger, and that it could —strangely enough— be valuable baggage for my future. But it was very disappointing of course. You see, at my previous team Den Bosch, many of the players were also my competition. The pressure was very high there. I didn’t want to miss any training sessions.
“Now I have noticed that I dare to take charge much more myself. I indicate much better what I need”
I didn’t indicate well enough —nor did I realize enough myself— what I really needed to perform well. Now that I have played in the Promotion Class, with girls with a completely different background, I have noticed that I dare to take charge much more myself. I indicate much better what I need.
Based on that insight, what would you have done differently?
I would have asked myself more often what I need, what I think, instead of focusing so much on what the team needs, what the team does, and what the coach decides. I now let my voice be heard much more. I am also much more aware of my real needs.
One of the core ideas of the Master in Coaching is also that you start with yourself. Did you develop that insight through the program?
Yes, certainly. And also —and this is related to that— something that I know all too well, which that I’m good at working very hard. But hard work isn’t always necessary.
“By taking a step back, I have learned to trust and listen more to my own intuition”
I have noticed and experienced that by taking a step back, and by working a little less hard, space is freed up for new or different things, for observations, for truly listening to yourself. Instead of working hard and checking everything, I’ve learned to trust and listen more to my own intuition.
It was recently in the news that you had spoken to the coach of the national team. Will we see you playing again with the Dutch national team?
Jamilon Mülders –also an alumnus of the Master in Coaching by the way– called me in February, and we explored that possibility together. He then invited me to join in. I must add that the program with the Dutch team is pretty light so far. Due to the busy club competition, we have not been together often.
I didn’t really want it to get into the press. For me, it is a period to see what it can bring me. The moments that we have had so far, yes, they really felt good. It is also convenient that I can first focus on club competition, and later, when that is over, I can step up and see what’s in store for me.
When it starts to get more intense, will it get more serious?
Yes, I am on board, but it is very difficult to estimate what the physical strain will do to me. That will play a part. And also, how I will perform in the group. But we’ll see how it all goes.
How are you now physically?
The longer you are injury-free and pain-free, the better you can build it up again. That’s going very well!
Sounds good! How was last season playing in the Promotion Class with Tilburg helpful?
We are together as a completely new team this year. That was a great experience because we have made great strides. The results were marvelous too, because we will play in the Dutch top division (Hoofdklasse) next year. But we mainly focused on the team itself, and besides that, we achieved a great result.
What will the international program for the Dutch team be this summer?
A lot of Pro-League games and a World Cup. The Pro-League is basically an ongoing competition. This summer’s World Cup is being co-hosted by Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Terrassa in Spain.
Will you be there?
Who knows? I’m also the manager of the under-18 girls’ team, and they have their own tournament in Terrassa. And when I’m not there in that role, I’ll be there with my partner, Abi Raye, who plays with the Belgium team. So you see, I’ll be there anyway [laughs].
Have you become a different coach because of the Master in Coaching and everything that happened?
Yes, I do think so. You can certainly rely on your own experience and your own intuition, but coaching should also be very careful, I think. As a coach, you need to know who you are facing. You have to take an interest in someone. I now ask myself even more: what are their motivations, what do they believe in, what drives them?
“Coaching should also be very careful, I think. As a coach you need to know who you are facing”
It also helps me to simply take in knowledge, so I, for example, delved into what the current generation needs. I think it is important to let the approach also be determined by research that has been done, and how you can try to recognize and base certain behavior on it.
Do you have an example of what the new generation needs?
It is a super-fast-living generation, that lives digitally, a lot on their cell phone. They want to create their own opinions, have influence, take initiative and have freedom of movement. This requires clear frameworks within which they can discover and decide for themselves. My approach is fairly direct, and I prefer to hold face-to-face conversations. Everyone has a different preference in this respect, but I would like to inform my coachees that a cell phone is not always the best means of communication. At the same time, I think it’s important to delve into the experiences of my younger teammates. If they come up with new apps to share photos, I’ll join in. Whereas previously, I would think something more like ‘not for me, I’ll skip this’.
Were there any other eye-openers that you developed on the Master in Coaching?
What emerges very clearly in the Master in Coaching is ‘learning by doing’, or experiencing. I think that is a very nice technique to apply. You don’t have to put everything on a plate for them. On the contrary, it’s different for everyone! Everyone deals with certain things differently, but you have to ask the right questions to help them find their answers. So, help someone find their own answer!
As a player, do you now look at coaches differently?
If you’re playing a game yourself, you don’t have time for that, because you’re in the middle of the action. But I do pay attention to how they use or solve things, and often you can take some of that for yourself. What I have experienced is that leadership behavior is very contagious. It is important that you realize this, not only as a coach, but also as a leader, or manager. People are constantly looking at you. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or anything like that, but it’s important that you’re aware of that. All the behavior you display, also non-verbal, can have an effect on others.
“Leadership behavior is very contagious. It is important that you realize this, not only as a coach, but also as a leader, or manager. People are constantly looking at you”
For example, I can come across as very committed and passionate, and maybe as an experienced force within the team. But I also need my things. If you don’t speak out, you probably won’t get something in return from the group. During the winter break, we had a good conversation about this as a team. I spoke out, and, yes, that also applies to our staff members, and coaches and ultimately to everyone; it’s important to speak out!
The knife cuts both ways: as a player you are more open and as a coach you are also more open to the players …
Yes, I think that way of coaching suits me, to show my own vulnerability in that way. And I think that every coach has their own style; this becomes evident in practice. I think that you need to have the right baggage, to determine what is important to you and how you want to coach. At least, that is part of my search for who I am as a coach. I think I used to do it in the past as well, but now, in my new environment and after the Master in Coaching, I am more aware of it. And because I am more aware, I can really apply it and use it as a tool.
“I think that you need to have the right baggage, to determine what is important to you and how you want to coach. That is part of my search for who I am as a coach”
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I recently started working at my old high school, Koning Willem II College, where I coach the top sport talents. I’m discovering if that’s something I would like to do in the future and I really like it so far, especially the one-on-one moments with the students, the issues they deal with and how I can help them with that.
Are you a personal coach of young student-athletes?
Hmm, I think my strength lies in the one-on-one contact with these kids, but the exact role is still open. I can express my passion, to get the best out of others, but also in a team; who is good at what, and where can we use each other’s strengths. That is a lot of fun!
I work together with Lotte de Vries, who also studied the Master in Coaching. Together we organize –what we call– a ‘talent hour’ for first-year students, about all kinds of themes that apply to top sport, for example planning, performing under pressure, and self-regulation.
Finally, do you think you will continue in coaching?
This year I was able to notice again that I just really enjoy working with groups, also on a deeper level. The emotions that are released, and the insights of others too, I think that’s just really nice to see and share with each other. I also find myself wanting to know more about it. A subject that fascinates me now is the family system. I’m reading a lot about that.
But, you know, I see myself as a bit of a jack of all trades, so to speak, and someone who enjoys learning by doing. I just want to experience all kinds of things, to see if it’s for me or not. Every now and then I have these moments when I stop and ask myself ‘How does this feel? How is this going? Does it give me energy? What does it give me?’ and ‘What does it cost?’ That’s how I weigh things up and, yes, in general I do see myself playing a role in the coaching field.