Master in Coaching student Bart Heuvingh started his sports career in 2011 as an intern at professional football club AZ Alkmaar and has since become a well-known face in the world of talent development. “It is easier to educate strong children than to fix damaged adults” is one of his slogans
For more than seven years, Bart Heuvingh has been the top sports coach at AZ Alkmaar, where he supports and guides players in their football and personal development. In addition, he guides international players from the youth academy in the field of social involvement in society and helps them with their integration both on and off the pitch.
Heuvingh has an important role at the youth academy of AZ, where he has to deal with players’ problems, issues and needs. “Our vision within the academy is to educate top athletes preventively, with a better lifestyle so that they are optimal prepared to perform in the first team,” the sports and performance psychologist says passionately. “Youth players often don’t feel the need to work on their lifestyle because their bodies can still handle a lot. For example, they don’t feel the need to go to bed on time, to read a book about dealing with setback or eat properly. They often don’t experience much stress because they live in the ‘here and now’, win a lot of matches and get quite some positive attention. But once they start playing for the first team, they suddenly start feeling this need much more and a need for a top sports lifestyle. But at that moment, there is too little time to teach them this. Everything that they are learning now is therefore directly applicable. But they mainly take this knowledge with them in their backpacks for future moments, when they will really need it. During the youth academy we mainly try to teach players a certain way of thinking that they can always develop themselves.”
Heuvingh explains how this philosophy is translated to the approach within the club: “It is easier to educate strong children than to fix damaged adults. That’s why we work preventively at AZ. We are often combating symptoms when we should really be looking at the source of the problem. Only then are we able to solve something sustainably. Therefore, we firstly study where the problem comes from and then advise our players to set goals themselves on the area where the problem comes from. We stimulate them to think for themselves, to be independent and to take their own responsibility. In this way, they will set goals intrinsically instead of us ordering them what to do.”
“There is no glory in prevention,” Heuvingh continues. “If we have preventively helped our players well, they have never experienced certain problems and will never knock on my door to thank me. We often see it with players who go to a different club. Only then do they realize what they have learned about top sports at AZ. If you have been learning something since you were a little kid, it becomes normal and you won’t know any better. Until you go somewhere else.”
The movement scientist has developed a great passion for talent development over the past years and his focus is mainly on the so-called ‘grow mindset’: the belief that talent and skills can be further developed from the gift that they got when they were born. He even wrote about it in 2017, in a book called ‘Talent van Morgen – Groeimindset als basis voor talentontwikkeling’. He also runs SportMindset, a website that aims to spread knowledge about the mindset theory of Carol Dweck, and gives presentations, workshops and implementation advice on this topic.
“I am convinced that we can get more out of athletes when we think, learn and work from the belief that further development and learning is always possible. The term ‘natural talent’ is deceptive. Athletes who believe that they are a natural talent will lose motivation, because why would they work hard when it’s all about having the right genes? My mission is to make sure that athletes don’t see talent as something they just got when they were born and is a given fact, but that talent is something that they can further develop and is dynamic.”
Someone who is working with development every hour of the day is logically also working on his own growth. That’s why he is currently studying the Master in Coaching from his role within AZ. It is a special edition, because Johan Cruyff Institute provides this master’s program in-company for the youth trainers of the AZ Youth Academy. “The most important thing is that we want players to develop, so how strange would it be if trainers didn’t pursue the same goal? In addition, the grow mindset stands for the belief that people can develop. The message that we send out by doing the Master in Coaching shows that we also want to keep developing ourselves. We show the players that we still not complete coaches. That is powerful. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them, James Baldwin once said beautifully!”
On the question of whether he sees similarities between the grow mindset and the Master in Coaching, Heuvingh answers firmly: “I don’t like models that put people in certain boxes. Even though I understand that this can help with awareness, these typifications will have a life of their own. This conflicts with the grow mindset, which specifically indicates that talent is partly a natural ability but mainly can be developed. Precisely the latter is implemented in the Master in Coaching because there is no framing and thinking in boxes. There is room to think outside the existing theories. Tools are offered but this is not the truth per se and we debate it. This open attitude fits perfectly with the grow mindset, because that is also a way to stimulate development and curiosity and that is exactly what is happening during the program. They have the same philosophy.”
A group of 16 professionals from the youth academy, including Heuvingh, is doing the course of 10 study days and five coaching conversations with an assigned personal coach, in which they are working on the Cruyffian way of coaching, together and individually. According to Heuvingh: “The coaching issues that are being treated during the program are a perfect addition to what we are already working on at AZ. It is great to treat these issues together as a group instead of everyone working on their personal development separately. We are now diving into issues as a team and that is very valuable.”
What has the likeable top sports coach learned from his Cruyffian journey so far? “Normally, I am the coach but during the conversations with my personal coach I am suddenly the coachee and that is new to me. It is therefore very educational to sit on the other side for a change, because now I can experience what I like and don’t like as a coachee and this is what I implement directly during my conversations with the players. Now, I try to have a less lecturing role. I make myself equal to the player, which makes the conversation real and sincere,” Heuvingh explains. “I also learned to observe,” he continues, “and then I mean observing what’s really happening, without any assumptions and interpretations. I thought I already implemented this, but during the practical classes, I realized I can still develop this skill.”
Heuvingh also finds the network of the regular Master in Coaching very useful. For example, he is already part of the book club of current and former students. “We give each other tips and have nice discussions about the content of the books and how to put this all into practice.”
Lastly, he concludes by saying: “I believe that this program should be the basis of every coach’s training and that the football technical and tactical part should come after it. It’s the same if we tell a pilot: ‘We teach you how to fly, but you have to do a separate course for taking off and landing’.”