The desire for achievement seems to have had a devastating effect on the Dutch sports landscape. Alberda has also wondered in recent years whether he has not seen things in his long career. He calls the sport an ‘island’ that is looking for a new balance. ‘In any sector where people depend on someone else’s assessment or attribution, there is probably something going on. People are willing to sacrifice a lot for success. They often don’t realize how bizarre it has been until they’ve stepped out.’
The former volleyball coach made a furore in 1996 as coach of the gold volleyball men in Atlanta. As technical director at sports umbrella organization NOCNSF (1999-2004), he stood at the basis of the professionalization of Olympic top sport in the Netherlands. After that, as a ‘bond doctor’, he used his knowledge to visit various sports associations: football, rowing, athletics, swimming. He finished this month as technical director at the volleyball association, in the sport where his career began.
Top ten ambition
Under Alberda’s leadership, 25 medals were won at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia. That success was the start of the so-called top ten ambition: the Netherlands had to be one of the best ten sports countries in the world. The bar was raised, money went to the promising sports and programs, dozens of coaches and technical directors were hired full-time. This focus policy was refined by his successors Charles van Commenée and Maurits Hendriks.
At the Tokyo Games, the national team came back jubilant with 36 medals, breaking Sydney’s old record. At the same time, a broad investigation has been announced into cross-border behavior in the entire Dutch top sport. In addition to gymnastics, where (especially) girls came out of their top sports career damaged, abuses have been identified in triathlon and hockey. The top ten ambition is therefore up for discussion.
Has Dutch top sport gone too far in the pursuit of reaching the top?
‘I don’t have that answer. We are looking for a new balance. You can question the top ten ambition, but I don’t think people care about that anymore. It remains a personal choice to get it. You can’t just push that ambition back. You have to make it transparent. Let’s see what went wrong. Whether in volleyball or gymnastics, there are always people who like to push boundaries. You do have to monitor and guide that critically.’
Alberda thinks that the current top sports climate, with the emphasis on performance, has come over from America. “A lot of our policies come from there. In America, talent and excelling was much more a thing than with us. Those parenting values have come downwind to Europe. If you have talent now, you are almost obliged to do something with it. Sport has become a business model. TeamNL is in fact the commercial team of the government.
‘In the past, having talent was already the main prize. Sports was a hobby that took place after five o’clock. After the war there were more important things to worry about. The damage had to be repaired. After that, social security had to be arranged. Pensions, housing. Even earlier, after the First World War, things happened that could not bear the light of day. My pake (Alberda comes from Friesland) took the last people out of the caves around 1920. You can’t imagine it now, but those people lived underground with rats, dogs and goats. There was much misery there. Sexual abuse, incest.’
What does that have to do with sports?
‘Things have also happened there that make you think: Gosh, that’s not right. Everywhere we’ve made a pillar, things happen that aren’t right. Whether in the Catholic Church, the film industry or in the sports world. In any group that relates to each other like a cult, you run the risk of being used by someone else. There are those who have the power and have lost their moral compass.
“But the coach is also vulnerable. I’ve talked a lot about that with swim trainers. You put an arm around someone once, a photo is taken with a story underneath and you have to be on the defensive. It is now much more about how people experience things. You didn’t talk about that before. Just like the pedagogical tick. We liked that then. Now we think differently.’
Has top sport started to think differently about training talent in recent years?
‘I think so. When gymnastics trainer Boris Orlov from Holy Russia started to tell us how to train, we thought it was wonderful at the time. Centralization, training every day. But it was not based on our knowledge about the work-rest ratio, about nutrition, about maintaining a normal relationship with your parents. In China, talents still only come home two days a year. They don’t play, just train and are pushed into a split. That’s normal there. Fortunately, we don’t like that here.’
Is there something wrong with the knowledge of coaches?
‘If I could train a new movement of sports teachers, philosophy would be the most important subject. You learn to realize that people are different. Everyone has a different starting point in life. It has helped me to accept that people think differently. That you come across all kinds of things in a team, that such a group is not homogeneous and that you cannot treat it that way. I think it is better to have coaches for different phases of life, such as in education.
‘In sports you often have a long-term relationship between athlete and coach. I find that strange. You don’t get lessons from your primary school teacher at university, do you? Some people who are just starting to coach already say that they would like to train the national team. That’s a completely different job, isn’t it? Someone who is good with children does not mean that they are also good at coaching people in their twenties.’
You worked for several unions. Was it difficult to get people on board?
‘When I asked the rowing federation what we were going to do to ensure success in Sydney, they said: Joop, it’s not volleyball. A rowing boat looks different from six volleyball players on a field. Like: you have no idea about this. You come from volleyball and you can’t say anything about this. Locking out people is one of the biggest culprits in maintaining the pillar. You are therefore not welcome to come in.’
Have you been too fanatical yourself, causing the people around you to copy that?
‘I have learned that the ‘be like me player‘, or the ‘be like me coach’, does not exist. If I e-mailed at four o’clock in the morning, I would make sure that the e-mail did not go out until nine o’clock. Technology is now helping with that. Otherwise people will think it is normal to work at that time. I usually worked until late at night. Until eleven o’clock, when my girlfriend wasn’t there. I always thought: if I work harder than my Italian colleague, start training earlier and continue a little longer, we will be further than the Italians in four years.
‘My head never stops. I wake up once or twice every night. Then I’m going to write things down. I used to write out entire constellations at night. Who should be where and what consequences did that all have. What might the game of the future look like and how would that relate to Americans Russians Brazilians?’
Are you afraid you are not doing enough?
‘Things can always be better. I have a sense of responsibility to the people who enable us to do the things we do. The government, society, the sponsor. I am a perfectionist. I want it all neat. You can also see that in this house. It’s not chaos here. I don’t have piles of books. If I have a book, it’s where it should be.’