The two-time world champion on the road Anna van der Breggen, who has combined her first year as a team leader in women’s cycling with studying the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute, talks about her new role in a rapidly developing sport where opportunities and new challenges go hand in hand
Anna van der Breggen is one of the top Dutch cyclists who, thanks to her international success, has put women’s cycling on the map and as such has contributed to the sport’s growing interest. She won the first gold medal in road cycling for her country at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. She went on to win two world road titles in 2018 and 2020, one time trial in 2020 and has won many stages in the most prestigious races, such as the Giro Rosa, the women’s edition of the Giro d’Italia.
Last year, she ended her cycling career to continue as team leader of the same team, Team SD Worx, and she studied the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam with a Telesport scholarship. This program served her well in her new role as team leader. “It was nice to have an environment where I could introduce things that I encounter in my role as a team leader, which I could immediately apply in my work,” says Anna.
In the first part of this interview, we speak with Anna van der Breggen about her role as a team leader of women’s cycling, coaching as a profession, and what she applies from the Master in Coaching in her current role. In the second part of the interview, we will talk about the rapid growth of women’s cycling and the challenges this entails.
What things from cycling, do you apply as team leader?
I still am the same person I was on the bike. So, in that sense you take everything —or yourself as a person— with you in your new professional life. The question is when do you tell someone ‘you should do so-and-so like that, because that’s what I always did, and it works well’? Or when do you ask someone ‘hey, what do you think you need, to improve so-and-so’?
How do you apply that in your new role?
It depends. If I think my cycling experience will help a rider, then I’ll share it with them, but you know, every person is different, so in most cases it won’t help them much if I tell them how I did things. It never means they should do it the same way as I did. It can serve as an example, but it’s always about themselves. How does a rider feel, and what does she need to get where she wants to be?
I can also imagine that you have built up a certain authority, with your experiences and successes, and that riders would like to hear what your opinion is. Do you recognize that?
Yes, and of course it also gives me security. I have cycled for years, and I observed those individual differences within our team at the time. I learned a lot from the things I did, that others sometimes did differently. For years I have interacted with other cyclists, and I have seen a lot. As a result, you now know that your own experiences are interesting, but you also know that they do not always work for others.
“You now know that your own experiences are interesting, but you also know that they do not always work for others”
In fact, often it is even like: ‘I did it like this, but I don’t think it works for you’. And that is also what you learn on the Master in Coaching: trust your intuition. By talking and listening well, each and every one finds out for themselves what they need. And I often dare to rely more on that now, thanks to the program.
What are your goals at Team SD Worx?
We have not established our objectives and protocols as such. We think it’s important that the girls feel good —so to speak— and that they develop themselves and get better and can feel confident. As a team, you need a lot of things to arrange that. You use all the resources how you can build a team. So, a safe environment, respect for each other … these sort of things.
How do you apply that in the team?
We have 13 riders this year. We determine the composition of the team with three team leaders. You have a build-up phase towards a peak moment. So, you don’t just ride the races where you want to achieve the successes. You can also participate in a race to gain experience there. There is an individual program for everyone, in which they work towards moments where they perform as well as possible, or perform their task as well as possible, but they do not always have to try and win a race, for example.
“There is a program for everyone, in which they work towards moments where they perform as well as possible, or perform their task as well as possible”
Where can we see the riders of Team SD Worx perform?
The Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France for women are the two most important races in women’s cycling. Everyone is preparing for those events. For example, we have taken part in The Women’s Tour, a program in England that is part of that preparation. We do a training program—a stage—in France, in Brides-les-Bains, which is at the bottom of a valley, and then they cycle to the top, where we have a house at around 2,000 meters. We were there for three weeks.
Within that context, they all have their own races and training program, and working with that you try to time it well, so that everyone gets what they need, to be in top shape for the important races.
How was the Master in Coaching useful with that?
On the Master in Coaching, you learn to think in a different way, or to look at things differently. We all had the same ideas about what a course was like—if you ask something, you will receive an answer from the teacher, and you do an exam to be assessed. Those are features you expect from a typical course. But on the Master in Coaching, it wasn’t like that at all!
For example, when we gathered together for a morning session and we were all chatting, it didn’t go quiet… You expect at a certain point that you will hear something from the leader, because normally you get a reprimand, if you talk too much in class. Well, those kinds of rules or habits do not apply on the Master in Coaching because, there is something beautiful in the chatter, and we can learn from chatting, too.
How confusing was that?
Enormously! When someone asked a question, everyone was full of expectations, and I thought: ‘What an interesting question’, and ‘I am curious about the answer’. And then we only got back from the professor-coach: ‘Yes, that’s a good question’, and that was it (laughs).
In the beginning everyone was stunned, like: ‘Give us the answer!’ But at a certain point, you start to understand that the answer will not come from the professor-coach, but that instead you are invited to ask yourself: ‘Why do I want to know this?’, or ‘How does this question affect me?’ In short, you do this study program for yourself, and you decide what you get out of it.
Is the Master in Coaching suitable for every coach?
The difficult thing for me was —and I think that was the case for others too— that I didn’t have a clear idea of the master’s beforehand. There is no fixed program with modules, and you decide yourself what you want to learn. You learn a lot about yourself. And that’s very useful of course, when you’re doing something new, or differently in your life, like I was.
In retrospect, I think this master’s is very useful for many people, but you have to be open to it. You should above all be honest with yourself, and ask yourself questions during the program like, for example: ‘Why do I actually think this?’, or ‘Why do I always do things this way?’, or ‘Why does this feel so good?’
So, you need to be ready to pick up on those things. And if you do that—and I must say that we had a very nice group of people who were open and willing about this—then the program will bring you a lot of beautiful insights. And those insights are very different for every person, and everyone gets something different out of it. It depends largely on what you do in your life, what you are thinking about, and what you want to work on.
You do the Master in Coaching for yourself, and you have to work on your things yourself. And if you’re not ready for that, or if you won’t pay attention to your beliefs, then maybe it’s not the right time. The right timing is therefore decisive, but then I certainly would recommend it.
Do you apply those things that you’ve mentioned in coaching your team?
Sure. I tended to do things the way we always did them. Now I think much more often: ‘What is a good timing?’, or ‘What does someone in particular need?’ It is more person-driven, so to speak. You look differently at each person you have before you. But also the group; For example, I had planned to do something, but I don’t think now is a good time to do it that way and they are ready for something different. Now I adjust things more easily.
Sounds like more flexibility. Is that it?
Well, I think I’ve always been flexible, but nothing is on autopilot anymore. You don’t do things just because you’ve always done them that way.
Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and a pillar of the master program is that it’s all about the individual, and the team, and the environment… In cycling, is the individual above the team, or vice versa?
Yes, it always differs… Look, there are a lot of differences between the girls in our team, and sometimes it’s very individual and sometimes you have to organize something as a team. Of course, you pay attention to the individual anyway, and what that person needs, because you can see immediately when someone is not feeling well, or if something is wrong or goes wrong. But to form a team, you not only have to pay attention to all the individuals, but also to the group process.
“I learned to leave it more to the other person, to see if someone can get the answers themselves”
On the Master in Coaching, we also learned to be hesitant about leading the conversations, and to observe much more, to really see the other person, and to be able to steer the conversation in such a way, so that the other discovers his or her insights. That also means that you are less concerned about what good question you should ask to find the solution. You leave it more to the other person, to see if someone can get it themselves. And that really requires a different way of thinking, the moment you enter a conversation. That doesn’t just apply to coaching. It has to do with shifting attention to another point or place, and also paying more attention to the environment and the things that are in play there and helping discover what that’s like.
Credits cover photo: GettyImages, Team SD Worx