The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Werner Helsen

Werner Helsen

Professor of Motor Learning and Control, KU Leuven / Co-founder and chairman, Topsportslab (1959)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m a full-time professor at KU Leuven, where my research interests focus on expert perception and performance in time-constrained, decision-making tasks in sports, as well as other professional settings. I’m also a sport scientist and training expert for UEFA, FIFA, and KBVB; as well as in preparing match officials for the Champion’s League and Europa League games. As such, I’ve been involved in five European Championships, three World Cups and quite a few Olympic and international youth tournaments around the world.

In 2009, I founded with my partner Jan Van Winckel the Heverlee-based, KU Leuven spin-off, Topsportslab, (TSL). It’s a web-based application to better monitor professional teams and individual athletes, and is used by many European professional teams across various fields in Europe; including the Belgian men’s national field hockey team that won the silver medal during the last Rio Olympics. And just recently, my research group was selected by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to collect all the relevant global data regarding the potential use of video assistant referees in professional football. Based on the conclusions of this very challenging research project, we may change the future of football in a way that was never considered before! I enjoy teaching at KU Leuven, since I feel that students represent the next generation. My main passion though is in bridging the gap between theory-driven research and its practical implications.

Given my involvement in international and professional sports, I feel like a world citizen. But I’m also very proud to be a Leuvenaar!

How do you perceive Leuven?

Originally, during the Middle Ages, Leuven was in competition with Brussels to become the capital of the Lower Countries. Building the Town Hall was part of this, of which we can still be very happy about! In respect of my employer, KU Leuven was founded in 1425 and the city can be very proud to host one of the oldest, most prestigious and competitive universities in Europe. It’s noteworthy however that our famous brewery of Stella Artois was founded even before the university! In any case, Leuven is a very international city thanks to the University and its numerous spin-offs.

Leuven is a vibrant city, even when the academic year is over. There are in fact so many festivals held throughout the summer that Leuven is always crowded. So many students and visitors from abroad end up staying here for many years, if not forever! Both the City and its citizens react positively to such new vibes, and warmly welcome in its international guests.

Given my involvement in international and professional sports, I feel like a world citizen. But I’m also very proud to be a Leuvenaar!

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

The University, Imec and the brewery – in this very order! Specifically, Imec R&D, a KU Leuven spin-off, has a world-renowned reputation in nano-electronics and digital technologies.

Altogether, Leuven boasts a total population of approximately 100,000 citizens, with an addition of around 40,000 visiting students from all over the world. This makes Leuven a vibrant city with an international and multicultural character, where the students and university staff are very present!

How would you say has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

I was very fortunate to be able to go to the KU Leuven for my university education in sports sciences. Many people still don’t realise our University’s global reputation – in fact, my own sports sciences faculty was recently awarded a ranking in the top ten institutions worldwide. Within this ranking, we are the first as far as non-native English universities go.

I’m also happy to have my two lovely daughters, their husbands and my three grandsons live in and around Leuven as well. They, too, have a very international involvement, but we’re all very happy to come back to our homes and family after being away. Since Leuven is centrally positioned, other nice Belgian cities like Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent and Bruges are easy to travel to both in time and distance.

It’s very unfortunate we don’t have a first-league football team in Leuven anymore, as we do in basketball, field hockey, and volleyball team.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

In respect to sports events, I used to play for Stade Leuven myself, in the second and third league. It’s very unfortunate we don’t have a first-league football team in Leuven anymore, as we do in basketball, field hockey, and volleyball team.

But on the other hand, from a cultural point of view, we do have the magnificent M-Museum, and I hope to see even more cultural events of this calibre.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

I would certainly recommend hiring a professional guide that could show you around the city. I’m certain that many people in Leuven are not aware of the heritage of our city. The Groot Begijhof beguinage, for example, is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! But the traffic-free centre of the city holds many great, conserved architecture such as the Town Hall, St. Peter’s Church, the newly renovated hotel The Fourth. In the peripheries, we also have a nice provincial park in Kessel-Lo, with little ponds and playgrounds for children. There’s also the huge Heverlee forest with an impressive network of beautiful (mountain-)bike routes around Leuven.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

Maria Jacques wrote two very interesting books on how women organised themselves in the previously mentioned beguinage, while the men went off to fight in the crusades during the Middle Ages. In her novels, she successfully mixes history and fantasy, really walking you through the beguinage as an eye witness. It is indeed a perfect way to tell many interesting things about the spirit of the microcosm within the city of Leuven, proving its definitely worth a visit!