Shaun Huygaerts: A High Performance in Sports Success Story

Shaun Huygaerts is an alumni of UCAM Sports Management University’s MSc in High Performance Sports: Strength and Conditioning program. 

17 Abril 2018

Shaun is originally from Antwerp, Belgium and following graduation from UCAM of 2017, is now working as a Sports Physiotherapist and High Performance Coach at the La Manga Club-UCAM High Performance Center in La Manga, Spain.

We caught up with Shaun recently to see how his career in high performance sports is developing after life as a student at UCAM.

Shaun, can you explain why you chose a career in high performance sports?  What made you interested in the field?

I was always involved in a range of sports from a young age. I always had a passion for helping people and the combination of Science and Sports intrigued me, so I decided to pursue a 5-year Master’s degree in Sports Physiotherapy. At 23-years old, I graduated from the University of Antwerp as a MSc in Sports Physiotherapy. Through my internships, I noticed that I developed a real passion for working with athletes and not only helping them in the rehabilitation process, but also to bring their performance to the next level. To broaden my knowledge on doing so, I decided to apply for the MSc in High Performance Sports: Strength and Conditioning at UCAM University and went to study abroad. I graduated in November 2017 and started my professional career in January 2018.

Where are you currently employed and what is your current role? What is a typical day like for you on the job?  

Currently, I’m working as the Sports Physiotherapist and High Performance Coach at the La Manga Club-UCAM High Performance Center (HPC).

I have a dynamic role and every day is different. I’m active as a physiotherapist for the clients and athletes that come to La Manga Club, performing diagnosis and guiding the rehabilitation process. During the rehabilitation process, the hands-on sessions are performed in the physiotherapy rooms in the Wellness Center, whereas the specific rehab exercises can be performed in the pool (Aquatherapy), general gym or HPC.  

Besides physiotherapy, I’m also coordinating the HPC where I’m responsible for the testing and screening of the athletes (VO2max test, Isokinetic Testing, Force-Velocity Profiling, Optogate and Photocells). My role as a High Performance Coach is to interpret the testing results, structure training programs and guide training sessions in the HPC to improve the sports specific performance of athletes (in all sports disciplines). Both professional and recreational athletes are welcome in the HPC to bring their performance to the next level.

What brought you to working where you are today? Was it an internship, contacts, UCAM’s HPS program?

I think it’s safe to say that it was a combination of contacts and the HPS program that lead me to where I am today. After I graduated at UCAM, the Master’s course director Dr. Pedro E Alcaraz told me that there was a job vacancy at La Manga Club. He got me in touch with the right people and they offered me the job position at La Manga Club.

What is your philosophy as a high performance coach of elite athletes?

As a High Performance Coach, I believe it’s important to continuously ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and back it up by science. Create a clear structure. Then trust the (dynamic) process, evaluate (test) and make adjustments where needed. No athlete is the same and they all need an individual approach.

Regarding the individual approach, that also applies to the psychological area. You have to have a good coach-athlete relationship with them, and that relationship works both ways. You have to be able to explain to your athletes why you want them to do certain exercises and they have to believe in you as a coach. On the other hand, the athlete has to be open with you and you have to know what they’re feeling. Are they feeling good? Are they feeling bad? Are they feeling fatigued? Etc. It’s up to the coach to work with their feedback and be able to adapt if needed. The mind and body work as one, therefore you can’t disconnect the physical from the mental aspect. Having a good coach-athlete relationship can help to keep those two in balance, which is crucial to push forward and improve.

What attracted you to UCAM’s High Performance Sports program?  What was the most valuable experience you took from this program and what has helped you most in your transition from being a student to high performance coach?

Although I graduated as a Sports Physiotherapist at the University of Antwerp and I already had a decent level of knowledge about the human body and rehabilitation principles, I still felt like I could improve and learn a lot when it came down to training methods and bringing performance to the next level. That was the main reason why I applied for UCAM’s High Performance Master’s.

The HPS program includes several world class professors and the science-to-practice methodology used in the HPS program learned me how to translate scientific evidence into the practical setting, and it taught me that it isn’t always easy to do so. Finding ways and coming up with ideas to make that transition is a challenge. Often you have to be creative and think outside of the box.

Another thing that has helped me a lot in the transition from student to High Performance Coach was the CSCS® (Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist) certification that the HPS program offers. It served as a useful overview to point out all the different aspects of a High Performance Coach and how they interact.

But I think the most valuable experiences for me came through networking and establishing relations with my fellow international students and professors. It gave me the chance to learn from some great professionals with a lot of working experience, which is exactly what you need if you come straight from university. It taught me that combining knowledge with hard work, the right attitude and a positive mindset can open doors to some great opportunities and learning experiences. Having an open mindset, talking to people, discussing certain (different) point of views is a way to create those learning experiences. You have to get yourself out there and interact, that’s the fastest way to improve as a professional.   

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your personal story and your experiences?

How I see it, a big part of success is being happy with who you are, where you are and where you’re going. So in that sense, success is very subjective, and I believe it’s important to know who you are, what your passions are and where you want to go. Set goals and go after them, have something to chase. That will drive you and keep your mind healthy and focused.

I think I’m on the right path, but I realize that I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. I’m grateful that everything turned out well last year and I’m thankful for the opportunities that came on my path. I managed to achieve consistent grades and we’re planning on publishing my Master’s Thesis. For this year, alongside my job at La Manga Club, I’m planning to start a PhD in Sport Science at UCAM. We have an interesting research line and the possibility to work together with a top level Primera Division football (soccer) team here in Spain. Exciting things coming up this year, and I’m looking forward to it.

In my personal development, my internships as a physiotherapist changed my perspective on how to approach certain situations a lot. I have done internships in hospitals, residential care homes and physiotherapy practices. All of the patients that I have worked with and the patients I still work with every single day have their own story to tell, and some of them aren’t that pretty. Of course, every individual needs a different approach, but there is a noticeable difference in two main types of patients, regardless of their situation. And I think everyone who works with patients on a daily basis can relate to this. The first type of patients are the ones that come in with a lot of negative energy. They usually make really slow progress, complain and feel sorry for themselves. Either they don’t want to get better or they have stopped believing that they can get better and recover. Here, the first task of a physiotherapist is to get through to them and make them believe again. It’s a hard challenge for a physiotherapist, where you actually have to act a lot more like a psychologist. But without this shift in thinking, it’s hard to make good progress. Especially when there’s a severe injury going on. I have seen it several times. You try to give them your energy as a physiotherapist, try to give them advice, but they don’t do anything with it. The energy gets lost. Therefore, the first step is to make them believe again and change their attitude about the situation. On the contrary, the second type of patients are the ones that have this positive mindset when they come in. They work really hard without complaining about their situation and it’s remarkable that they have a certain level of gratitude for what they’re still capable of. But they also work really hard to recover whatever capabilities or functionality that they’ve lost. They have this urge to get better, no matter what, and eventually they do get better. You can see they pick up the therapy very quickly and they make progress from day one. They’re usually really fun to work with as a physiotherapist, because if you do your job well, you can see them making progress each session. You give them your energy and they give you energy in return.

And this theory actually applies to a lot of situations in life as well. What I’m trying to say, is that we all go through situations, some worse than others. But it’s your attitude that will determine whether you will keep going, recover and eventually get better. It isn’t always easy to do so, but try to go about situations like the second type of patients. That’s something that has helped me a lot in my journey and I think a lot of people underestimate the power of your attitude. Your attitude and how you approach certain situations will determine the outcome. At the end of the day, you’re going to go as far as you’re willing to fight for.