Feature29 Mar 2018

For Belgium’s ‘Wafel’ women, compassion is among the key ingredients to management success


Helena van der Plaetsen and Kim Vanderlinden (© Wafel Management)

Kim Vanderlinden and Helena van der Plaetsen met at their local athletics club when they were nine years old. Today they co-own a company, Wafel Sports Management, and represent the likes of world and Olympic heptathlon champion Nafissatou Thiam and European decathlon champion Thomas van der Plaetsen.

From a young age the pair realised they had a common passion for the sport, far greater than that of the rest of their friends, and knew they wanted to work in athletics eventually.

“We early on knew we wanted to do something with and for the sport, but we also knew quite soon we would never be world class athletes ourselves,” recalls van der Plaetsen.

“We were super passionate about track and field and we soon noticed we had common goals. We always knew we wanted to pursue a job in athletics and have an impact on the sport on a global level,” adds Vanderlinden.

The ‘Belgian waffles’

In order to gain hands-on experience in the industry, the duo went stateside to work with Paul Doyle of Doyle Management in 2007.

After a three-month internship they continued growing their network and working towards setting up their own company. In 2010 Wafel Sports Management came to life – a name owed to their nickname ‘The (Belgian) Waffles’ coined by Doyle’s wife and adopted by many on the international circuit. 

As young women, starting out in an area of the sport that is still largely male wasn’t easy in the beginning, but embarking on the task at hand as a team rather than individuals paid dividends, as Vanderlinden explains: “There’s definitely challenges in being women or even younger women in a male dominated environment, (situations) where we haven’t been taken seriously. But instead of letting that get us down, we have been focusing on ourselves and our convictions of how a manager in track and field should operate.

“It’s certainly been a huge advantage that Helena and I are a team and we have each other to stay motivated and to keep our eyes on the bigger goals and the long-term vision.”

Right from the start both women knew they wanted to follow a different, more “bespoke approach” than the one they had found common across the industry, with attention to their athletes’ individual strengths and stories, rather than a one-template-fits-all strategy.

A generational shift

Vanderlinden, who acts as director of marketing and communications, focuses on contract and sponsorship negotiations, PR and image building, while Van der Plaetsen deals mainly with training, competition and logistics-related responsibilities as a director of high performance.

“It’s probably also a generation thing,” Van der Plaetsen said, explaining their position in the industry. “I think we’re the first generation that really sees a few female leaders in the sport and that will definitely bring a change as well. I think when we got into the sport, we were young women, but we knew we didn’t want to change our principles and our beliefs and our typical female characteristics that bring a different way of thinking to the sport.

This mindset shows in the way they interact with their athletes and other stakeholders. “I think women are a lot stronger in interpersonal skills for example,” elaborates van der Plaetsen.

“Women leaders are often more compassionate, which I think is becoming more and more important. Ultimately that’s what leads to the most success because athletes know that they are taken care of.”

Vanderlinden reinforces that notion. “We listen to our athletes, get to know them, their personalities. We focus on their well-being and we want them to feel comfortable.”

As any athlete will attest, being successful on the track requires 100 per cent focus, the less outside pressure, the better. Both women are conscious of the importance of their role with regards to the athletes they represent, but also in inspiring other young women that a breadth of exciting careers in the sport are available, even if you’re not a world-class athlete.

Michelle Sammet for the IAAF