HOCKEY PRO BJORN KELLERMAN:
‘IN SPORTS, MENTAL RESILIENCE IS AT LEAST AS IMPORTANT AS TALENT’
By Stephen Teeuwen, Rebelieve.nl
For many athletes, participating in the XXII Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo this July 23 to August 8, will be a dream come true. 31-year-old Dutch hockey forward Bjorn Kellerman was hoping to crown his career in Japan this year – until a call from the coach just before the summer shattered his childhood dream.
‘The Olympic Games are an important event in many ways. I dreamed of participating as a boy of seven, when I started playing field hockey for the local club in the Dutch town where I lived, HC Zeewolde. Later on, every time I experienced a major disappointment in my sports career, I said to myself: I’m going to keep going until I reach the Games. I always reminded myself of that when things got tough. My guess is that every player wants to reach the Olympics, to feel what it’s like to be a part of them.
Every event except the Olympics
‘My goal in hockey has always been to play in every major tournament. From the European Championships, the World Championships and the Olympic Games to the big club events: the Euro Hockey League, the Dutch Hoofdklasse League and the Dutch Gold Cup. I’ve made it to every one of them – except the Olympics. Another personal goal has been to win a medal at every one of them, and I have – except, again, at the Olympics. I’ve won numerous prizes with Kampong, the club I play for in the Netherlands, and also with the Dutch national team.
With Kampong, winning the Euro Hockey League in 2016 was one of the greatest moments in my sports career. The EHL is Europe’s most import important club event. It was the first time in our club’s history that we were champions, and it was my first season with Kampong. Another absolute highlight was winning the Men’s Indoor Hockey World Cup in Germany, in 2015. However, I was looking forward to the greatest experience of them all: the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. In the runup, I felt certain I was going to be there.
The call from the coach
‘The call from Max Caldas, the Dutch national coach, came as a massive blow. He didn’t give an explanation for dropping me from his Olympic team, and I didn’t ask for one. He just said it was a difficult decision. And all I said was, ‘Max, it’s clear.’ Then I switched off the phone.
‘Sure, I’ve had other big disappointments. Two come to mind. The first was when I did not make it into the Dutch selection for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The second was the World Cup in 2018. That time, I really felt ready to make the cut. But the coach didn’t feel good about me, so he left me behind. Both were deeply painful experiences. Missing out on the Japan Games is painful too, even more so – a childhood dream shattered in one moment. After the call, I took a good break away from home to let it all sink in. For the first few days, it was surreal, I just couldn’t grasp what had happened.
You have a choice in your response
‘Disappointments are part of being a professional sportsperson. It’s a tough world, you eat or get eaten. But coping with losses is something you have to learn along the way. I learned from earlier situations that it’s good to express your emotions, but a lot better and healthier to do it privately, with a few trusted people, rather than in the media. Obviously, being dropped from a team makes you mad and frustrated, and that’s okay – you just have to learn how, where and when to vent those feelings.
Back in 2018, I connected with a mental coach for athletes and that has made a huge difference. Talking things through, reflecting on your own behavior, recognizing that you have choices in how you respond, and learning to allow for emotion while also listening to reason – all that makes you more resilient as a person, better able to navigate the ups and downs, not just in sports, but in life itself. In my case, it helped me to realize there are other positive things going on in my life, besides the disappointment of missing the Games.
I started working in digital media alongside my sports career two years ago and recently launched a startup in low-cost legal advice. I enjoy both jobs, and being able to spend some time on them this summer, in between holidays, is a positive thing. It will also give me time and space to think about the next steps.
Mental resilience matters
‘In professional sports, mental coaching is often seen as something you resort to only if you have major issues. In my experience, the preventive impact of good coaching is huge, and I believe a lot of professionals in sports could benefit from it. I did and still do. The focus in sports tends to be on your technical skills, playing style and physical condition. Those are all important, but I believe the combination of physical and mental resilience may matter more than anything as to how you come through in the long run. Learning to do what you really believe in, taking the knocks and getting back up to start over, again and again. Staying true to yourself, while also reflecting honestly on what you can and should do differently.
Learning to hear what people say about you – which can be pretty harsh, especially on social media – and separating the harmful from the helpful. It’s a great boost to have someone support you in discovering it all.
Process the low, move onto new highs
‘In sports – as in life – the ability to recognize and act on what you need before it becomes a problem is a huge asset. As for disappointments, I do believe they can make you stronger as a person. If you turn them into something positive, the low is often followed by a new high. I know that from experience, too.’