Ireen Wüst: “Fortunately, athletes can talk about their mental health without fear of being stigmatized”

Ireen Wüst, the Netherlands’ most successful Olympian, talks to us about her work as an athlete mentor at TeamNL Center North, and as a performance and mental health expert within the Dutch Olympic Committee. This year she graduated from the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam

Ireen Wüst belongs to that select group of athletes to whom the term GOAT (greatest of all time) applies. The Dutch athlete is an example and inspiration, with a remarkable tenure at the highest echelons of the sport of speed skating, which she dominated for 19 years, many more than perhaps even she herself could have imagined when she began her journey as a skater. After the last Winter Olympic Games, Ireen put an end to her illustrious sports career by closing an impressive streak of five consecutive Olympic gold medals—between Turin 2006 and Beijing 2022—and securing the title of world champion in all-around skating on seven occasions.

When she finally retired in March 2022, thousands of fans gathered at the Thialf Arena in Heerenveen, the epicenter of Dutch skating, to pay a warm tribute to her and her compatriot Sven Kramer. Since then, the ice rink palace has had two curves named after them. The Netherlands’ most accomplished Olympian embarked on a new exciting journey in January 2023, when she started the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam with a Telesport scholarship, from which she graduated successfully on November 10th.

This academic training has provided her with a valuable opportunity to enhance her coaching skills. Ireen is currently leveraging her extensive years of experience to mentor athletes within the top sports and training programs at TeamNL Centrum Noord. At the same time, she has taken on a position at NOC*NSF as an expert in performance behavior and mental health, aiding talented athletes in their growth, particularly in areas such as resilience and self-sufficiency.

We had the chance to interview Ireen Wüst regarding her role in guiding aspiring sports talents, the increasing emphasis on mental well-being and resilience of athletes, and how she applies her valuable knowledge and experience to enhance her current work.

Can you explain your work with sports talents?

I devote most of my working hours to Topsport Noord, an organization dedicated to nurturing sporting talent in the northern region of the Netherlands. Within this framework, I serve TeamNL Centrum Noord, who orchestrate the provision of facilities and services for elite athletes across various disciplines, such as gymnastics, judo, swimming, and short-track and long-track speed skating. With the wide range of programs offered, a significant number of athletes have the opportunity to reach out to me.

In my capacity as an expert in lifestyle coaching of elite athletes, I play an important role as the initial point of contact for them. I am often at the playing field, in the training hall, in the weights room, or at the ice rink, ensuring my visibility and accessibility to athletes. This approach aims to create an environment where athletes feel comfortable coming to me with any concerns or challenges they may be facing.

“As an expert in lifestyle coaching of elite athletes, my role at Team NL Centrum Noord is to offer support in any aspect of their lives that may be affecting their performance”

Athletes approach me with a wide array of issues, encompassing competition anxiety, academic planning, emotional challenges, injuries, apprehensions about upcoming surgeries, and rehabilitation from injuries, among others. Sometimes things don’t go well with the coach, or with the teammates. It is very diverse.

Essentially, my role is to offer support in any aspect of their lives that may be affecting their performance. If I identify a situation that requires more specialized assistance, I refer them to the experts working alongside me. In close proximity, we have a sports psychologist and a clinical psychologist, ensuring that the athletes have access to a comprehensive support network tailored to their specific needs.

Do you also have an advisory role towards the organization?

No, not as such. In my role, the structure of our organization allows me to work relatively independently when it comes to directly assisting the athletes. We have a weekly 2.5-hour meeting where we discuss various matters, but I primarily function as a confidential support system for the athletes, distinct from the staff. This setup ensures transparency for the athletes, as they can confide in me with the assurance that their conversations remain private. It’s a rewarding and incredibly valuable aspect of my work, and I find it immensely fulfilling to provide this level of support to our athletes.

Ireen Wüst -Fortunately, athletes can talk about their mental health without fear of being stigmatized - Johan Cruyff Institute

Ireen Wüst (right) and top hockey player Eva Drummond-De Goede both followed academic training at Johan Cruyff Institute in 2023, to facilitate the transition to a new role in the sports sector after their sports career.

And what is your role at the Dutch Olympic Committee NOC*NSF?

In my capacity at NOC*NSF, I serve as an expert in performance behavior and mental health for eight hours a week. This work is different, as I only engage with a few elite athletes who seek expert insights. At NOC*NSF, my focus shifts more towards content creation and encompasses two primary projects. One of these projects revolves around “performing under pressure“, and is overseen by the main performance behavior expert, who is a clinical psychologist. This project approaches the subject from a more scientific perspective, and I contribute by sharing my practical insights and experiences, evaluating how theoretical knowledge translates into real-world application. ‘Performing under pressure’ primarily caters to coaches, enhancing their understanding and abilities in this critical aspect of elite sports.

“At NOC*NSF, I serve as an expert in performance behavior and mental health for eight hours a week. This work is different, as I only engage with a few elite athletes who seek expert insight”

Furthermore, I collaborate with the chief expert on integrity, helping to develop a training program on this subject targeting young, promising athletes. These sessions are specifically designed for what we refer to as the ‘S-1 athletes’, who occupy a tier just below the highest level. The objective is to bolster the resilience of these athletes and equip them with the skills and confidence to voice their concerns if they encounter inappropriate behavior. We are actively crafting this training program and plan to introduce it across numerous sports associations, aiming to provide this valuable training to a wide range of athletes.

Transgressive behavior is unequivocally unacceptable, of course. Crossing boundaries can amount to nothing less than abuse, which we categorize as the ‘red area’. On the contrary, the ‘green area’ represents the space where we engage in athletic activities and interactions that are deemed appropriate and respectful for all. It’s essential to ensure that the ‘green area’ prevails, fostering a safe and supportive environment for all athletes.

“Whether a sports career ultimately ends successfully or not, our goal is that issues have been thoroughly discussed, contributing to a healthier and more transparent sports environment”

But often there is an ‘orange area’, where friction and tension exist, for example in the athlete-coach relationship. There are common scenarios where issues may remain concealed, leading to potential regrets in the future. Athletes might come to realize at a later point in their lives that certain situations were unacceptable to them. We also believe that coaches are often willing to engage in these conversations. To address this, we are working on creating a training program to empower athletes to speak up. We believe that by fostering open communication, many of these issues can be resolved and potentially prevented from escalating into more significant problems. Thus, the intention behind this training is to encourage athletes to voice their concerns and to ensure that these concerns are appropriately addressed. Whether their sports career ultimately ends successfully or not, our goal is that, in retrospect, those issues have been thoroughly discussed, contributing to a healthier and more transparent sports environment.

Transgressive behavior is a current topic of interest, and you see a shift in what society now considers transgressive or not …

Yes, I agree. A significant cultural shift is taking place in the world of elite sports. It’s crucial that we navigate this transformation with care and ensure it doesn’t become overly influenced by being what we might refer to as ‘too woke’. In the realm of top-level sports, a high level of commitment is expected and needed. So top sport is not an endeavor suited for everyone, nor is it solely about enjoyment. The pursuit of excellence in elite sport often requires individuals to push their boundaries. However, it’s essential to emphasize that this should be done in a constructive and non-transgressive manner.

In the past, discussions about the mental well-being of athletes were often considered a taboo, also among the athletes themselves. Typically, when athletes are identified as a promising new talent, the focus is on projecting success rather than acknowledging the potential for setbacks. How crucial is it for top athletes to share their moments of disappointment and adversity?

Indeed, there have been substantial changes in recent years. Reflecting on my own experience in 2008 when I faced overtraining—and here it’s important to note that overtraining isn’t just a physical issue, but it also takes a huge toll on one’s mental well-being—seeking assistance from a psychologist was still a significant taboo. I had genuine concerns that such an admission might result in headlines like ‘Wüst is struggling’, or worse. As a result, I would discreetly schedule appointments after hours and enter through the back entrance, which reflected the stigma associated with seeking mental health support at that time.

“Reflecting on my own experience in 2008 when I faced overtraining, seeking assistance from a psychologist was still a significant taboo; I had genuine concerns that such an admission might result in headlines like ‘Wüst is struggling’, or worse”

Thankfully, such precautions are no longer necessary in today’s climate, and athletes can openly discuss their mental health without fear of stigma. Athletes now receive support not just for their physical needs but also, increasingly, for their mental well-being. Professionals in roles like mine at TeamNL Centrum Noord are actively contributing to this transformation, breaking the long-standing taboos surrounding mental health in sport. There is a notable and positive shift between the situation 16 years ago and the current state of openness and support.

That’s precisely why I make an effort to be present at training sessions and engage in conversations with everyone. The athletes’ comfort and ease in approaching me are apparent, and fulfilling my role this way, it’s clear that people find it easy to reach out. The atmosphere surrounding these interactions is remarkably open and conducive to meaningful discussions.

The transformation is evident. Sixteen years ago, I entered through the back entrance in a discreet manner, but now, my role is integrated into the expert areas within NOC*NSF. Both athletes and coaches are aware of where to find me. It’s clear that we’ve made substantial progress. The openness and accessibility that athletes now have to mental health support is a testament to the positive changes that have taken place.

How important is this change?

I firmly believe that when you’re competing at the Olympic Games alongside your rivals, the individual with the strongest mental composure, the ability to maintain control over their nerves, and the highest level of mental preparedness, emerges as the victor. While having a proficient coach is crucial for devising an effective physical training regimen, leading to optimal performance during the critical moments, it’s the athlete’s self-assuredness and adept emotional regulation that often make the difference. In my view, the one who possesses the greatest self-confidence and emotional self-regulation consistently turns out to be the winner.

“The relationship between mental health and resilience can be influenced by both personal expectations and external pressures; it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario, as it largely depends on the individual and the specific circumstances they are facing”

Does mental health and resilience have more to do with your own expectations or with the environment and what others expect of you?

The relationship between mental health and resilience can be influenced by both personal expectations and external pressures. Some athletes may be more affected by external factors and the expectations placed upon them by others, while others may place excessive pressure on themselves. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario, as it largely depends on the individual and the specific circumstances they are facing. Both dynamics are at play and are heavily contingent on the unique situation at hand.

Ireen Wüst -Fortunately, athletes can talk about their mental health without fear of being stigmatized - Johan Cruyff Institute

Ireen Wüst at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam.

How do you determine whether there is a challenge or a problem and how do you turn it around?

In my role, athletes approach me with their specific questions, and based on the nature of their inquiries, we assess what kind of support is required. As I said earlier, each situation is unique, and although I’m willing to provide concrete assistance when needed, our primary objective is to foster autonomy among the athletes. We want them to become self-reliant, to understand their needs, and to take the lead in shaping their own path. It’s not about me telling them what to do but equipping them with the tools to make informed decisions. We emphasize the importance of not becoming what in the Netherlands we call ‘curling parents’, who sweep away all obstacles for the athletes (like in the sport of curling), as this hinders their growth and learning.

The athletes must engage in independent thinking and identify what strategies work best for them. Particularly with talented athletes, the ones just below the elite level, I encourage them to try things and learn from them. In sport, it’s often through these very mistakes that the most valuable lessons are learned. It’s a gradual process of development, and errors play a pivotal role in building resilience and strength. To excel in elite sport, you need to make mistakes so you can come out stronger.

Many athletes are active on social media as influencers with lots of followers. To what extent do social media contribute to an unreal image of top sport or top athletes?

In today’s world, I believe it’s widely recognized that social media present a more curated, more idealized version of reality. In sport or in any other business, individuals tend to showcase only the positive aspects of their lives and work.

“In my role, athletes approach me with their specific questions and we assess what kind of support is required; although I’m willing to provide concrete assistance when needed, our primary objective is to foster autonomy among the athletes”

Social media platforms offer top athletes valuable opportunities to increase their visibility and engagement. Athletes can use social media to establish connections with companies, leading to increased financial resources and heightened exposure. Take ice skaters and short-track speed skaters, for example. They are no longer limited to visibility only during the winter months. Through social media, people can now see that their training and preparation begins well before the winter season, often as early as March or April.

There is another facet to social media, which is the potential for anonymous comments and opinions. This can pose challenges, but in the current era, it remains a valuable medium for promoting one’s sport and personal brand. Social media serve as a powerful tool for athletes to market themselves and their disciplines to a wider audience.

Did you consciously use social media in your sports career?

I certainly did. I actively employed social media during my sports career. It was also stipulated in the contracts that I had to make a certain number of posts each month. This requirement makes sense because traditional advertising in newspapers or on TV do not effectively reach the younger demographic and, as a top athlete, one can have a substantial following on social media. So, I recognized the importance of social media and made use of it. Presently though, I’ve chosen to abstain from using social media as I’m aiming to keep my private life as private as possible.

For Johan Cruyff, a dual career was very important. Were you able to study yourself?

I have never been able to combine sport and studies myself. I became an Olympic champion at the age of 19. That was about seven months after I had obtained my pre-university education diploma. It turned my world completely upside down. I didn’t have any opportunity to take up studies, although I do consider I have something valuable few people have: the knowledge and experience of participating in five Olympic Games and performing well at them.

“I do like to see young athletes taking up studies, and I encourage it too; in a certain way, top sport can also be a small world, and through studying something you are able to develop in other areas”

But I do like to see young athletes taking up studies, and I encourage it too. You don’t know if you will succeed, and when things don’t go so well, or you get injured, you have something else. In a certain way, top sport can also be a small world, and through studying something you are able to develop in other areas.

Ireen Wüst -Fortunately, athletes can talk about their mental health without fear of being stigmatized - Johan Cruyff Institute

Ireen Wüst, at the bottom right of the image, graduated successfully from the Master in Coaching in November 2023.

What did you learn from the Master in Coaching that helps you in your job guiding young athletes?

Above all, my journey through the master’s program taught me to listen. In the past, I tended to be more inclined towards offering advice, but this experience has transformed my approach. I now refrain from dispensing advice outright. Instead, I’m really coaching now, and to me that means observing, seeing, and listening, without any prejudice. I’m able to embrace this fully now in my work.

“On the Master in Coaching, you will not only look for the coach that you are, you also discover who you are as a person”

When you look back on your sports career, are there things in coaching that you would have preferred to see differently?

Not really. There were some very difficult moments, for example when I was overtrained, and I also had serious clashes with my coach. But clashes are not bad in themselves, because they set the relationship straight and the expectations towards each other. Those were not the easiest moments, but they were the most educational ones. I learned a relationship of trust is super important. That you can make the connection based on integrity and trust in a safe sports climate. I think that is the basis of a healthy coach-athlete relationship.

How would you describe the Master in Coaching to other athletes?

You mainly have an image of yourself as a top athlete, but who else are you? You already know some of this, of course, but on the Master in Coaching you consciously start working on it. And in this process, you will not only look for the coach that you are, no, it‘s much broader than that. You also discover who you are as a person. That is a fun and educational process for everyone, and perhaps extra fun for somebody who was an elite athlete for so many years.

Header image: BSR Agency.

ON CAMPUS PROGRAM

Leadership in Coaching

The Leadership in Coaching Program in Amsterdam is developed for everybody (in or outside sports) who seeks self-knowledge and self-development with the aim to improve oneself as a (sport) coach and/or manager. This 10-month program is delivered in Dutch and based on the vision of Johan Cruyff in which sport coaching is more than using tactical and technical knowledge. It is about knowing yourself and developing your own unique coaching style, and to apply that to the players / staff, the team and the environment. We believe that you can only coach others, if you know how to coach yourself.

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