Leadership Culture Partly To Blame For Lack Of Dutch Medals In Pool

Despite bringing a two-time Olympic gold medalist on its roster for the 2016 Games in Rio, the Netherlands fell short of their swimming goals at the world’s biggest international competition this past summer.

In 2012, Ranomi Kromowidjojo was rendered the undisputed sprint queen, as she claimed both the women’s 50m and 100m freestyle Olympic titles, while also contributing to her squad’s silver medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Dutch teammate Marleen Veldhuis also took home some hardware from London in the form of a bronze in the women’s splash n’ dash event.

Rio was a different story, however, as the Dutch squad swam away with zero medals from within the competitive pool. Kromowidjojo made the final in each of her sprint freestyle events, but settled for a 6th place finish in the 50m and a 5th place finish in the 100m. Teammate and promising 200m freestyler Femke Heemskerk fell short of making the final in her specialty, while the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay failed to defend their silver medal, falling to 4th place overall.

The men’s side was also medal-less across its pool events, with its best hope, Sebastiaan Verschuren, finishing out of the final in both the 100m freestyle and 200m freestyle races.

The bright spots for the Netherlands were in the form of Sharon Van Rouwendaal and Ferry Weertman, who both came away victorious in the 10k open water races.

Now more than 2 months removed from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the Netherlands is undergoing an after-action review of sorts to help explore routes to medal improvement come Tokyo and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Royal Dutch Swimming Federation (KNZB) Evaluation Committee conducted its own investigation into the overall culture, training approaches, and personnel involved with its entire squad. A report including the committee’s conclusions was then delivered to the KNZB Board, of which the Board says it agrees and will be taking recommended steps.

The report indicates that the talent and overall form of the Dutch squad as a whole was where it needed to be in order to win medals in Rio. A There was strong evidence supporting the hypothesis that ‘the swimmers were good enough physically to produce medals, but lacked a motivating and positive social environment in order to deliver good performances’, according to the report.

From reviewing the committee’s findings, the Board is convinced that the KNZB has ‘good, qualified people, but it’s clear that optimal conditions were not in place and this impacted the results.’ There was an overall lack of positive and motivating social environment with an additional lack of open and secure communication, the report states

Joop Alberda, KNZB’s Technical Director since 2014, made the somewhat surprising announcement ahead of the 2016 Games that he would not be joining his team in Rio. Entering the Technical Director role after Jacco Verhaeren left to take over Swimming Australia’s head coaching role, Alberda did not have any experience in the sport swimming. Instead, he came in with a successful history in the sport of volleyball, not only as a player, but as a coach. In 1996, he led the Dutch men’s national team to an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta.

At the time the announcement of Alberda’s not going to Rio was made, the KNZB Board said that they were in support and agreement with Alberda’s decision. “We are extremely concerned about the current atmosphere, which has been caused by several people, but at this stage there is one interest above all: tranquility in and around the team with 100 percent focus on the Olympics.”

Alberda’s staying home was preceded by his decision last December to leave the Technical Director position after the Rio Games. “It’s good to make way for a younger generation,” he said at the time of his resignation announcement. Alberda expected that after the Games, a “new generation with new energy and ideas” would emerge, with these new insights aimed at making Dutch swimming “a bit better again.”

In its post-Rio investigative review, the committee found that ‘Joop Alberda was never given a fair chance to adequately fulfill his command.’

Although communication and culture among the athletes themselves was described as positive, the committee now calls the communication between athletes and federation leaders as ‘substandard.’ The report states that what was once initially seen as a positive change in team values was later seen as ‘oppressive’ and ultimately ‘led to friction’.

In Rio specifically, the staff let ‘its own issues dominate instead of rendering themselves at the service of the athletes’ and in-pool deliverables of the federation.  ‘The unrest in the staff took a lot of energy with both swimmers and coaches.’

The Board is committed to taking recommended actions in the near future, with a progress report targeted to be released in early December.

One recommendation is for an annual elite program assessment to be performed, in order to evaluate the development path of athletes with the goal of attaining medals at Olympic Games. An Athletes Commission is another proposal the board will be considering, as well as the idea of adding a sports psychologist to the coaching staff for a more prolonged period of time.

You can review the KNZB Committee’s report in its entirety here.

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About Retta Race

Retta Race

Swim analyst, businesswoman.

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