Henk Groener, professor of the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute and coaching the Dutch women’s handball team reflects on how the team is facing a historic opportunity to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time
Every professional athlete dreams of living, if only once in their life, the experience of the Olympic Games. It is the competition with the most media coverage, the one everyone wants to be at, with few teams, and also the event most difficult to reach because of a rating system that offers few possibilities. “We’ve never been to a Games, but we have also never been through a time like now”, says Henk Groener. He has been the coach of the Dutch women’s handball team since 2009 and is also professor of (and was the main driving force behind) the Master in Coaching taught at Johan Cruyff Institute in Holland. “In the Master in Coaching I share my knowledge and experience with students, both athletes and professionals from other sectors. The training helps them to develop a personal style of coaching and to improve performance, both of themselves and of their teams”.
It is not every day that you have the opportunity to interview a top-level coach and learn how a national team is facing a historic opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. Here we offer you his reflections.
It seems that the Netherlands has reached its best level – second in the World Cup after reaching the final for the first time in its history. How has the team transformed since 2009?
In fact, we’re talking about two different teams. In 2009, we inherited the team of my predecessor and we didn’t get past the first qualifying round. So we immediately started to rejuvenate the team. We gave space in the national team to new talent who showed interest in joining the team. The generational change began with Danick Snelder, who is currently the captain of the team, and, six years later, a part of the team that was already consolidated. And we have been continuously developing the team; there is always room for improvement with the arrival of new talent.
So, your focus is on giving new players the chance to show their skills.
Yes. We faced qualifying for the Games in 2012 and we got left out because of just one goal! In 2010, we qualified for the 2011 European championships and in 2011 for the World Cup but missed the chance to qualify for the Games by one goal. In addition, the Dutch Handball Federation decided not to organize the European championships, so we were left out. That coincided with a time when some older generation players decided to retire. So we decided to rejuvenate the team even more, look a little further and start building ahead of Rio. We started with a team with an average age of 22, which is fairly young for a handball team, but they will reach the Games with an average of 24. And, again, we didn’t close ourselves to making new additions and we continued dealing with how the players were growing outside the team itself: encouraging them to develop their own style of play, helping to make the right decision to change clubs, and to take the necessary steps for their own development. And in the moments when we were together, we focused on our vision of the game. There is continuity in this regard. The national team comes together for short periods, so you can’t make drastic changes, but we could start from the qualities of our players and build our game from there.
With that second place in the World Cup, the team has shown that it has the level to be at the Olympics, but they still have to qualify. Does this generate more pressure or more motivation?
I would say more motivation. We all know how the rating system is and we can’t change it. Basically, you have four options: to be organizer of the tournament (which is not an option for the Games), world champion, European champion or one of the top two in the pre-Olympic tournament. Those are the ways to be at the Olympics. So for us, we have to play in the Olympic qualifiers. And I think everyone is very motivated to do well and get to the Games.
In this Olympic qualifier tournament, the first game you face will be against the host team France. How will you approach it?
It will be a good game. In the last World Cup, we played in the quarter-finals for the first time and it was against France. And for the first time in many years, we managed to beat them. That was very good for the team’s confidence. Similarly, that means that France will be looking for revenge. So it will be a very interesting match between two teams with a similar level. I am confident that we can play a good game against France and have a chance to win. We will face the match with that attitude.
What should your rivals expect of this team?
The same enthusiasm, and the same drive and experience that we showed at the World Cup. In fact, this has always been our hallmark – all the players have the courage to play to win, to achieve higher goals. And to enjoy all together this collective spirit.
They are at a historic moment: to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time ever. Can they benefit from this?
In what sense? In terms of enthusiasm and commitment, I don’t think so, because we would have them anyway. And also our rivals would love to be at the Games. Whether it’s the first time or the 25th time. In addition, as an athlete you have only two or three chances to go to the Games throughout your career and few teams qualify. It’s the smallest championship there is; 16 teams go to the European championships, 24 teams to the World Cup. So it is very difficult to qualify for the Games. All the teams in the qualifying round will have the same goal: to be in Rio. It is the competition that gets the most attention and the one where everyone wants to be and that makes an athlete’s desire even greater.
You have coached both men’s and women’s teams. In your experience, what are the differences between leading men and women?
From my experience, I would say that women in general have a different way of dealing with problems. Men take more risks, try new things. The girls are not so daring, but have a greater commitment to the team project. However, above all, they are all professional athletes who want to achieve the highest goals and work towards them. There are many more similarities than differences.
We wish Henk Groener and his handball team all the best of luck!
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