Inge Dekker, former European, world and Olympic swimming champion, explains how coaching is helping her in her transition from professional athlete to director of her own swimming school
When half the world was still taking the first steps, she was already in the water for two hours every day; when her friends made plans that could not include her, she was going over the schedule for her next competition; when she could rest, the others were busy. Her family was her team and inside a pool was where she lived her best years as a professional swimmer. It has been a year and a half since Inge Dekker, European, world and Olympic champion, began to view all the medals obtained in her most glorious times in a different way. The pride remains, but the nostalgia has disappeared. She is once again focused on achieving new challenges and has turned to coaching to feel like a fish in the water again.
The transition has not been easy, but the Master in Coaching from the Johan Cruyff Institute is helping her to discover who she is, among other things. At 33 years old. “I knew who I was when I was a swimmer, but that changed the moment I retired,” the Dutchwoman confesses. She has set up her own swimming school where she wants to nurture new swimming talents in her country. “I hope to contribute by transmitting my knowledge and developing a unique coaching method,” she says.
Inge Dekker opens up in this interview to tell how she is adapting to her new life. Recovering her self-confidence outside the world of high competition and knowing how to manage outside her comfort zone were some of her priorities. Has she achieved that?
European, World and Olympic swimming champion—you have achieved everything in a pool. How do you feel outside of it?
I’m used to life outside the pool now, since I quit swimming about a year and a half ago. But it is quite a big transition, to be honest. In the beginning, I really missed having a well-defined goal. In swimming, everything is very clear. You train, you recover and after that you have a big competition coming up. That’s about it. Whereas in “real” life, my goal is not so clear, and the path is less structured. It took some time to adjust to this new way of living.
As someone used to getting up at six in the morning for so many years and spending so many hours alone in the water, how do you prepare to change your routine and have other goals in life?
I don’t mind getting up early in the morning because I’m a typical morning person. I don’t wake up that early anymore but I never stay in bed for too long. At first, it was quite hard to find a new way to structure my life. I’ve started my own swimming school and for the most part, lessons are in the evening. Preparation, planning and handling social media are some of the things I do at home. When I had just started my company, it was hard for me to find a balance in working from home and other things in life (like meeting friends). I was not used to managing my own agenda, but it didn’t take long to learn.
How did you experience competitive swimming all these years? As pressure, fun or a way of self-expression?
For me, swimming was always about having fun. Of course, it isn’t always fun, but for the most part was. As soon as I didn’t enjoy swimming anymore (for a longer period), I knew it was time for a change. So, I moved to different places to swim with different coaches and I took a sabbatical after London 2012. Of course there was pressure and it took me quite some years to learn how to cope with that. When I look back at my swimming career, I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to swim at a high level for such a long time. To be an elite athlete pushes you to develop yourself and I’m not sure if I would be where I am today without that.
What is the most important lesson you want to pass on to the children you train?
That the most important thing in swimming (and in everything else in life) is to have fun. If you don’t love what you are doing, it’s so much harder to reach your goals. Therefore, my training programs always contain something different, new or just fun. I hope my training sessions teach them that there is time for serious things, but also time for fun (even when you want to become an Olympic champion).
As a well-known person and a reference in the world of sport, what aspects of your personality do you show the most in front of the other students of the Master in Coaching , your strengths or your weaknesses?
I think I show my strengths more than my weaknesses. I’m used to not showing how I really feel. I’m not sure whether this is a result of coping with the world of high-performance sport or if it is my personality regardless.
What do you think you can learn from the Master in Coaching group?
Most of the group members have a lot more experience in coaching than I have. They have practical solutions for a lot of things. Also, they are really open and share their feelings. For me, it’s hard to open up to people but I’m doing it more often because I get inspired by the others. And of course, the nature of the Master in Coaching is that sometimes you are pushed out of your comfort zone, whether you like it or not!
How do you define yourself as a person and as a swimmer? Do you have the same character in and out of the water?
After all these years of professional swimming, I knew what I wanted and how I was going to get what I wanted. I was pretty self-confident, sometimes maybe a little too much. Out of the water, I’m more insecure (even though I might not always show it).
Do you recognize yourself when you started swimming in any of the children you train?
Sometimes, but definitely not always. I recognize the “puppy behavior” and pure love for the sport. I do think some of the kids have bigger goals than I had at a young age. Nowadays, it’s easier to know everything there is about swimming. When I was younger, I didn’t know there were international competitions, like European youth championships or rankings where you could compare yourself to your peers. So, I always raced to get better than I was before. Practically all of the kids I train are well aware of almost everything (like time standards, competitions, rankings, swimming heroes, etc.). I think that because they have to cope with all the information, they are more mature than I was at their age.
What ultimately made you decide to get into coaching?
For me, it would be great if I could use my experience (and newly learned skills and knowledge) to help young swimmers reach their potential.
What motivates you in your daily work as a trainer?
Seeing young kids being happy in the pool (like I was when I used to swim) and seeing them improve.
What do you bring from your swimming career into your current job as a coach?
I strongly believe in an individual path to success for every athlete. The challenge is to find the best way to train and guide someone. During my swimming career, I learned that the best way for me is a unique way. An approach that worked when I was 18 didn’t work anymore when I got older. I think that works the same for every athlete and as a coach your job is to find out what works for a person at this moment in time.
How have you found the Master in Coaching so far?
I enjoy the challenge and the way you are pushed into really digging into your personality to find out who you really are. I think I knew who I was when I was a swimmer, but that changed the moment I quit swimming. Right now, I’m starting to see who I am outside of the pool. I really like the way the teachers guide us. It’s very unconventional but I like not knowing what to expect.
What have you learned so far in the Master that you didn’t know about yourself?
I’ve learned that the way I see myself is very different from the way that other people see me. I know that in the “swimming world” people see me as an authority, just because of my accomplishments. I am realizing now that in the “normal world” I don’t have to be insecure just because I feel inexperienced.
How do you see the future of Dutch swimming? And how do you think you can contribute to this future?
I hope I can contribute by passing on my knowledge and by developing a unique coaching style. I would like to combine being a trainer and being a coach. The future of Dutch swimming will be very bright because we’ve always had great talents. I hope I can work together with them to help them reach their goals.
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