What Olympic Swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband has to say about Top Performance

by | Sep 14, 2015 | Achieving goals, Coaching, Focus, Learning | 0 comments

I was invited to an ONVZ hosted event about how to improve wellbeing, employability and productivity within organisations. ONVZ, a Dutch Health Insurance company are taking a different approach: providing care, not just a cure.

Pieter van den Hoogeband spoke about what we can learn about working smarter, not harder, to achieve peak performance. Rik-Jan Modderklok, International Health Manager at Pon, spoke about how they used these principles at PON.

Shift approach from Reduce to Invest

The argument in a nutshell: shift focus of health at the workplace from “costs to reduce absenteeism” to “invest in people to increase productivity and well being”.

This article focuses on my conversation with Pieter.

In case you don’t know who he is, he is the only swimmer in history who has managed to win both the 100m and 200m freestyle double gold medals at the Olypmpics.

Pieter spoke about how he achieved top performance: the team effort and getting the help you need from experts. The dedication and commitment to working according to the plan they created. But there is something special about Pieter. Many of us know what we can do to help ourselves but we don’t. Pieter did and does take action. When I asked about how he built the mental strength to follow through, this is what he had to say: (paraphrased by me)

Keys to Achieving Top Performance

  • Discipline – know what you need to do and exercise discipline
  • Choices – know what the consequences to your different choices are and then you can make discerning choices: will this action take me a step closer to my goal or not?
  • Focus – on what you want to achieve. Your choices should take you closer to your goal.
  • Passion – know what you want to do and what you are good at. “since the age of 15 I knew I wanted to swim”
  • Team – get a team around you to support you with their knowledge and expertise
  • Plan – have a really clear plan of how you are going to achieve your goal. When in doubt, look to the plan.
  • Fun – make sure you bring fun into what you do

So if you’re reading this, comparing yourself to Pieter and wondering why you’re not as driven, then don’t worry. You’re not doing anything wrong. There’s just something missing in what you are doing. And it’s something that Pieter has tons of, but maybe doesn’t even realise he has.


People are motivated by meaning. It really is as simple as that. And although I can’t tell you what swimming means for Pieter, I can tell you that he is swimming in meaning. It is clear from the way he talks about what he wanted to do, from the age of 15

“ik zei met mond vol: zwemmen”

I think I’d translate that as “with great enthusiasm: Swim” (leave your translation in the comments). Immense clarity and focus.

Everything we do is done for a reason – whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

Think of your favourite thing to do. Something you never miss out on, that thing that, no matter what, you make sure you get to do. Whatever this is, this has meaning for you. It creates a positive experience in you: from the anticipation, the actual activity and the reliving/reminiscing afterwards. It all has meaning.

Meaning is the foundation of Meaning Centred Coaching. It’s the Simon Sinek “Start with Why”. It’s the Coaches Training Institute’s “Life Purpose”.

Meaning is the answer to these questions

  1. What are you doing it for?
  2. What’s the pay off?
  3. What values are you honouring?
  4. What does it say about you?
  5. How does it make you feel?

And pay attention when you answer these questions. If the answers don’t fire you up, then it’s not meaning you have found, but rationale. Meaning should light you up, lift you, make you feel that the world is full of possibilities.

When your goals, plans and actions are tied to Meaning, then the list that Pieter gave fall so easily into place

  • Goal and Plan
  • Discipline
  • Choices and Consequences
  • Support



Are you Ready for Change? Do you want to find out more about meaning and motivation? Join me at the Ready for Change workshop hosted by the International Leadership Academy at Meet Berlage. 14th Oct.

Uniquely Yours


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