By RJ Mitchell
In the bid to achieve optimum sporting achievement, the use of ‘mental coaches’ by stars across the whole sporting spectrum of elite competition has grown exponentially.
Basketball legends Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of American Football, golfing immortal and multiple major winner Nick Faldo, England rugby captain Owen Farrell and Irish boxing icon Katie Taylor have all enjoyed the benefits of top sports psychology advice.
Now in an exclusive interview with the PSA website, Paul Coll’s ‘mental coach’ Bart Wijnhoven has revealed that the primary goal of his work is to help ‘Superman’ soar to the World No.1 ranking.
Wijnhoven, the man behind The Champions Factory, is based in Hamburg at his Sportwerk club and was introduced to Coll by his partner, World No.13 Nele Gillis, who had already been working with the former PSA World Tour player for 10 years.
Now by getting the Kiwi to trust in the process and live in the now, the Dutchman believes he can play a key part in removing the obstacles between Coll and global ranking supremacy.
Wijnhoven explained: “It must be my goal as Paul’s mental coach that I bring him to World No.1, that must be my target, but my primary goal is also to allow him to fully express himself on court.
“Calling Paul ‘Superman’ on court is nice but it is limiting. He has great racket skills and there is much more to his game than the athleticism that the ‘Superman’ tag implies.
Nele Gilis (left), Bart Wijnhoven (centre) and Paul Coll (right)
“So even if he is in a World Championship final, I want him to be able to display to the world what he has to offer and to enjoy that while he is doing it and not be scared of the result.
“I would say Paul is quite a conservative player who tends to rely on his fitness, but if you look at the amount of attacking and front court shots he played at the Black Ball Open there is an amazing change. In his last match against [Marwan] ElShorbagy he has never played as many drop shots, flicks, attacks. For me, he was like a new person on court.
“If you are top 10 in the world, you can play each shot in the book, but if you don’t have that mindset you may be too impeded by not wanting to make the error. Now Paul is playing drops from the backcourt and cross court drops more than ever, so basically the amount he plays attacking shots is through the roof.”
Wijnhoven, a former Belgian assistant national coach, believes that getting the mental side of things right is a percentage game for any elite athlete: “If you ask any World Champion, everyone will come up with numbers, but the mental aspect and improving it can benefit up to say 80 per cent. They all say if you do the work it’s nice, but this is the aspect that makes the real difference.
“That is why I stopped being a squash coach because it was nice that I could work on the 20% (performance) but better that I could work on the 80% (mental) that will make the real difference.”
Wijnhoven has been working with Coll for around two years as the New Zealander has risen to a career high ranking of World No.4.
Famed for his adherence to a brutal fitness regime and total dedication, Wijnhoven believes that getting Coll to take a more holistic approach will reap the ultimate rewards: “When I met Paul, I think he realised that he could still be very performance driven and critical with himself but that at the same time he could be accepting of who he was in the present.
“It was not that he wasn’t good enough at this moment, because he had not achieved his goal yet. In essence, it was to help him see that he could still be self-critical and self-loving at the same time.
Bart Wijnhoven (right), Nele Gilis (centre) and Paul Coll (left)
“That was for Paul the first time he realised he was doing all this hard work and that he could enjoy that process. Really, he began to enjoy what he was doing instead of focusing mainly on his goals.
“Targeting being World No.1 or winning a Platinum event should never be at the expense of living life just now. If we have a car accident today and we die it’s nice we have been working for this great goal, but then we never achieved it.
“I really think that Paul made some huge steps over the last few months and I believe we have not seen the best of Paul yet. As soon as you realise that you should enjoy the process and the moment more you will also feel more liberated when you are performing.
“You still want to achieve your goal but because you are more focused on the now you worry less about achieving your goal.
“I think that all athletes are very much performance-driven, disciplined to do the work and focused on it every day and have their goals, but if you are so performance-driven and eager to attain your goals you forget to enjoy the process. You lose a bit of who you are.”
Wijnhoven’s long-term collaboration with Nele Gillis has enabled him to give his view on the differences between elite female and male athletes: “Although it may sound a bit stereotypical, there is a huge difference between women’s sport and men’s sport, it doesn’t have to be squash. That difference is that women talk more about their feelings whereas men are blunter, shall we say.
“The insecurities that women have maybe from 15 years old until their early 20s does not help when you are playing on a world squash tour. On top of this, Nele had the tragedy of losing her dad at a young age 10 years back and that has a huge impact on a young person.
“But Nele is similar to Paul in that she is a super hard worker, and I doubt there are many people who will work harder than her and are as dedicated to her job as a squash player, and if you saw her training schedule you would be amazed.
“But that dedication also means that she is super critical with herself, so it is a similar process with Nele.”
The challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted on the world of top-level sport across all fronts, yet Wijnhoven says there has been a silver lining to this particularly stubborn cloud.
He said: “We always talk about the negatives but I think, strange as it may seem, for both myself and my players the corona pandemic has been great. This has been a good time for self-reflection.
“People ask me as a mental coach: ‘What do you do?’. I would say that behind each individual athlete who we admire, like ‘Superman’, are normal human beings.
“Just people like you and I who have been experiencing the same issues as us. For example, because of the pandemic Paul has not been able to see his family in New Zealand for almost two years.
“Using Paul as an example, that triggered a self-reflection process where he said to himself: ‘I’ve been away from my family for so long, is it really worth it?’. That made him look at the pros and cons of being a professional athlete.
“It makes my job easier as being at home, whether you are a squash player or in business, and not being able to train or work, that is when you don’t feel great whereas when you are playing and winning matches you are never going to self-reflect as your ego is pretty happy.
“But when things are not going well, as we have all experienced during the pandemic, people in all walks of life are experiencing self-doubts, depression, then that is a great time to self-reflect. Truly look in the mirror and revaluate what you are doing.
“But I guess basically, people have to really mess up before they truly listen to me. In essence, my work is the same at all levels, we are all human beings, we all have an ego and within that we all have insecurities and that is the same no matter what level you are playing at.
“The only difference is a guy like Robin Ebert [World No.370], who we call ‘Picasso’ at Champions Factory, can do everything with the racket, whereas Paul is a real hard worker. For my work, I need to crack open the ego, so I go about it in similar ways.
“Of course, it’s easier to talk with Paul who is a mature person and World No.4 and has achieved a lot already compared to a younger person who still has to achieve. That means you need to be easier going with the younger people.”
Looking back on the origins of Wijnhoven’s Champions Factory, which was established in 2011, the mental coach recalled: “I was into many sports, but when I was at University studying, I started to focus on squash and after being a teacher for six years I quit my job and wanted to play full-time squash.
“I was around 30 when I made that call and I just realised my passion was with squash, but I also realised that I liked my work at university which was centred around the psychological side.
“But first I had to go deep into squash, and it had been a dream for me to be a professional player and I played PSA for a while until I was 37 or 38 back in 2017 and also played Premier League in Holland and Germany,
“These two parts of my life came together through the Champions Factory, which I established in its formal basis in 2011. I was not getting the most out my sport through mental blockages or whatever you want to call them, and this proved to be the solution.
“So, I want people to enjoy their sports and get the maximum out of it by combining my experiences as both a squash player and through my academic background.”