SwimSwam Exclusive Interview With Jacco Verhaeren

It was a week ago that the Swimming Australia brass, John Betrand AM and CEO Mark Anderson announced that they had ended their seven month search for a new National Team Head Coach and hired Dutch coach Jacco Verhaeren.

“Our goal from day one was to find, and recruit, a world class Head Coach who was aligned to our current direction for both the team and the organization,” Anderson told the media on October 17th.

“We believe Jacco will continue the momentum we have created across our high performance team of quality coaches, swimmers and staff. The team’s cultural fit was always a high priority and Jacco will contribute significantly to this area. As National Head Coach he will provide a high level of technical expertise that will complement and strengthen our existing knowledge base in this area.”

His success as a coach and a national director can not be debated. He has coached at every Olympics since 1996, coaching seven Olympic medalists (Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Marleen Veldhuis, Inge Dekker, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Inge de Bruijn, Marcel Wouda, Kirsten Vlieghuis) and since becoming the Director of Dutch Swimming seven years ago he has continued to keep the Netherlands at the top of the Olympic medal latter finishing sixth at the 2008 Olympics and fourth in 2012.

Verhaeren will officially start his new position in January.

On his way back from meetings in Great Britain Verhaeren took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to with SwimSwam.

In his current role in the Netherlands Verhaeren is in charge of a lot more than just the development of elite talent, something that will change once he begins his new role in Australia.  As the National Team Head Coach it will allow him to have a more narrow focus, something he is looking forward to,“In Australia I am basically focused on elite sport trying to get higher performances with the senior team on the international level,” said Verhaeren.

“It will narrow my focus that is for sure, because I am not going to change the organization there.”

“My focus will really be on elite sport, the coaches that work within elite sport and the programs that are scientifically involved in elite sport.”

There are many differences the sport when examining the Netherlands and Australia, but Verhaeren feels that there are two major ones that he will have to adapt to. The first being the difference in size of the two countries, “In the Netherlands there are 16 million people and there are around 22 million in Australia so in terms of population there is a difference, but it is not that big. The Netherlands as a country though is very small, if I want to visit all the coaches involved in elite swimming and talent development I can do it all in one day.”

“This makes it easier for communication, it makes it easier for implementing scientific development in the sport. So there is a big difference geographically.”

“One of the big things will be communication.”

The difference in total area between the two countries is astronomical:

Australia – 7,692,024 km²

Netherlands – 41,543 km²

The second major difference being culture, “I think there is a big difference in the culture. Swimming is really in the Australian culture and in the Netherlands we think it is an important sport, but not like it is in Australia.”

Verhaeren points out that because the sport is so engrained in the Australian culture that the size of the talent pool and the way that talent is developed is very different in the two countries, “I think the point is that in Australia it is known as a very strong swimming country, with a great culture, with great coaches, great swimmers and a big talent development program, which is beneficial seeing what we have in the Netherlands.”

He feels that by combining the strengths of the way talent is developed in both countries will be a great benefit to Swimming Australia, “We have talent coming through, but not the numbers that are in Australia. I think in the Netherlands what we are really good at is if we have talent that has a small chance at becoming an Olympic champion or Olympic medalist we are quite good at developing this. We are careful with our talent, we have to give them all the support; medical, nutrition, strength training and be really detailed.”

“I think this will be beneficial to bring the two cultures together.”

One aspect of his new job Verhaeren is excited to begin is working with the coaches, “For me the first thing is to know what coaches want to know. It is individual with each coach and each program. It will vary from place to place.”

“In general the Australian coaches are well educated, they know what they are talking about, they run strong programs, strong physically and technically.”

“In a program I have to know what they are dealing with in a daily situation, what will be beneficial and where they think I can add value.”

“I think every coach in the world benefits from having a sparing partner to be able to share things with.”

This is something that many swim coaches in Australia are looking forward to being able to do with the Dutchman, “I can’t wait to work with Jacco, having someone of his calibre in Australia will have an impact,” AIS Coach John Fowlie told SwimSwam. “He is one of the most highly respected and influential coaches in the world. Just having an opportunity to talk with him on a regular basis will be great.”

Olympic silver medalist James Magnussen shared those same thoughts with ABC News, “(He brings) experience in the 100m freestyle event. There is a lot of pressure and expectation that surrounds that event and he’s been there and dealt with that over a number of Olympics,” said Magnussen.

“At the end of the day Brant Best is my coach, but certainly any advice or experience that Jacco can share with the two of us can only help.”

The point that Magnussen made about Best being his coach falls inline with one of the messages that Verhaeren wanted to make sure was clear, “It is important to point out that the coach runs the show, not the Head Coach,” said Verhaeren.

“He or she has to make the decision on what is best for their athlete.”

“I will never go and take over the role as the individual coach, what I am trying to do in several ways is give them what is needed to add value to their program.”

One area where the Dutch swimmers have been especially strong in the last number of years has been in the skills involved in starts and turns, Verhaeren shared a bit about the process they developed to address the enhancement of those skills, “We developed in the Netherlands a really good system to give feedback on starts and turns. I think in knowledge and systems across the world we are leading in that and I will certainly bring that to Australia.”

With the use of video and technical analysis they have developed an effective way to cut down the athletes learning curve, “It is what we call direct feedback systems, that is in technical details and also direct feedback on speed, angles and strength. It is feedback on what you can see instantly and the technical details.”

“What we learned is what took us in the beginning six weeks or six months to improve we can do now in five, six or seven starts to fix it.”

It is clear that the leadership within Swimming Australia feels extremely confident in their new Head Coach’s technical skills, but something that John Betrand, the President of Swimming Australia expressed was how he felt that the Verhaeren fit the new culture that the National Team is cultivating, “High performance teams require strong cultural values of trust, integrity, transparency of communication, respect for others and having fun. Jacco lives all of these values.”

Verhaeren commented on his role in changing the team culture, but pointed out that at this point and time for him it is very early in the process, too early give specific strategies that he will employ, “Taking care of team culture; the thing in team is it is always about respect and giving people the chance to be themselves and know that they bring value to the team.”

“It is a bit to early to give you a clear answer. I would like to meet and talk to the staff and team first before going into action, but it is clear that I’m looking for a team environment where there is mutual respect between all members and an atmosphere where anyone can be the best version of him or herself.”


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7 years ago

Can you get any reaction of some of the Austrailian coaches to this move? Another would be what about coaches potentially being picked for National staff when coaching other counties competitors in non-college situation not being student athletes.

About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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