Team sports get rehabilitating soldiers out of bed

Gold medals come in all shapes and sizes. According to Jeroen Hulst, board chairman of the Military Rehabilitation Center in Aardenburg, soldiers who come back mentally and physically strong after rehabilitation deserve a figurative gold medal. For the real standouts, the crowning achievement of their rehabilitation process is success at the Invictus Games. Starting in April, Hulst will be taking part in the Sports Leadership Program at Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The bar is set high at the Military Rehabilitation Center in Aardenburg, where civilian rehabilitation patients are also welcome. Most other centers focus primarily on getting people to function independently again, but Jeroen Hulst and his colleagues go further: “Of course it’s important that someone can brush their teeth on their own or eat a meal without help, but these practical actions are not enough to offer that person a meaningful outlook for the future. We strive for peak mental and physical fitness.”

What gets you out of bed?

Hulst does not shy away from what might seem to be an impossible task. If someone is missing a leg, that inevitably imposes limitations. The key is then to find out what will still motivate that person to get out of bed. Hulst: “We have to figure out what the rehabilitation patient wants to get back to, what their personal objective is: their own gold medal.”

Playing team sports helps people to realize that they can also be meaningful for someone else

It’s no coincidence that Hulst works with sports-related metaphors. Sports and exercise – preferably as a team – play an important role in his programs. Playing team sports helps people to realize that they can also be meaningful for someone else. For the past three years, Hulst – as chief of mission – has taken the rehabilitation center’s top performers to the Invictus Games, the tournament initiated by Prince Harry of Great Britain for soldiers who have sustained a permanent disability during their time of service.

Resilience and perseverance

According to Hulst, it’s more than just a sports event. “People regain prospects for the future there together – and make no mistake, at a high level!” The former chief of mission finds it disappointing that the image people have of athletes with a disability often comes from misguided empathy.

“Participants in the Invictus Games are not pathetic. On the contrary, they show resilience, perseverance and tenacity by pushing themselves as far as they can possibly go. They aren’t trapped by a permanent disability, but instead seek out their capabilities and utilize these to the fullest.”


This year, Hulst is making the transition to the parent organization of the Games. The goal is to familiarize more people with the tournament and expand it internationally. Partly because of the founder’s background, the event is a rather British affair at the moment. Hulst wants to continue developing his skills so that he can make his contribution on an administrative level.

This is one of the reasons why he will be part of the third cohort starting the Sports Leadership Program at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in April. “I considered it previously, but I was too busy at the time. With my new work duties for the Invictus Games on the horizon, it’s a one-two punch and this program is just what I need.”

Mission-oriented leadership

Hulst hopes to learn a great deal from others, of course, but he’ll also explicitly be bringing his leadership experience from the Dutch Ministry of Defense. This organization works with mission-oriented command and control. That sounds more restrictive than it actually is.

Hulst: “This method is effect-based: it’s about the outcome. You discuss the goal with your team beforehand, as well as the conditions under which that goal must be achieved. Autonomy is also very important when it comes to the implementation. The team must be the owner of the process.”

Whether it’s building a hospital, conducting a military operation or competing in a sports event: the coach is ultimately on the sideline and has to trust his team

On the sideline

In saying this, Hulst doesn’t mean to imply that the leader avoids his responsibility. When push comes to shove, a leader will indeed be held fully accountable for the result, but not under the false assumption that everything can be controlled. “Every plan is already different from the moment you cross the starting line. Whether it’s building a hospital, conducting a military operation or competing in a sports event: the coach is ultimately on the sideline and has to trust his team. The trick is to intervene at the right time, or even take a step back. I hope to further develop that skill in the future.”

The Nyenrode Sports Leadership Program is a 1-year international program. It’s developed for and by the best executives in the world of sports. The Phoenix Education coaches will accompany you during your Personal Leadership Development Journey. The Program will teach you in a challenging way how you will become an inspiring leader and how to deal with complex, challenging and often emotional situations within sports management and coaching.