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05.02.2016, 14:12
Courtside success in handball needs more than just Icelandic madness
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FIRST-HAND INSIGHT: With Thorir Hergeirsson leading Norway to Women's World Championship glory and Dagur Sigurdsson winning EHF EURO gold with Germany, there seems to be something special about Icelandic handball coaches. Andri Yrkill Valsson has tried to find out what that is
 

Courtside success in handball needs more than just Icelandic madness

There must be something in the water up there – it is a common phrase heard when talked about the Icelandic success in various areas of sport.

Although the outcome of EHF EURO 2016 in Poland was a big disappointment for Iceland's national team, the island nevertheless had its representative with a gold medal around his neck: Dagur Sigurdsson.

The German head coach's name is on everyone’s lips after claiming EHF EURO gold with Germany last week, a result which came as a huge surprise to many handball pundits. He follows his fellow Icelander Thorir Hergeirsson – the coach of the women’s national team in Norway who also is the holder of EHF EURO gold from 2014.

Hergeirsson’s team furthermore reclaimed its title at the World Championship 2015 in Denmark last December, and his success with Norway is no less than spectacular.

Norway are now the holders of the three biggest titles in handball; European and world champion and Olympic gold. It is the second time since Hergeirsson took charge in 2009 that he is the holder of the big three with Norway.

But it is not only Sigurdsson and Hergeirsson who are worth looking at. Icelandic coaches also are in charge of Denmark (Gudmundur Gudmundsson) and Austria (Patrekur Johannesson).

Also, there are two Icelandic coaches in the German Bundesliga; Erlingur Richardsson is in charge of Füsche Berlin, where he took over from Sigurdsson, and Alfred Gislason has been extremely successful with THW Kiel. No surprise that people wonder how they do it up here in Iceland.

Gislason: The coach and the press officer

So what’s the secret? Or is there even a secret to talk about? I sat down with two of the most experienced sports journalists in Iceland, Guðmundur Hilmarsson and Ívar Benediktsson, who have been covering Icelandic sports for decades for Morgunbladid. Have they cracked the code of the Icelandic coaching method over the years?

“What I feel the biggest difference is between Icelandic and other coaches, is that they do a lot of the work themselves. They don’t have big team of assistants with them. Gíslason was for example his own press officer at one point at Kiel,” says Benediktsson, and Hilmarsson agrees.

“What is unique about the coaches mentioned before, they were all really good leaders while playing. They have been building on that as coaches which is something that has really characterised them courtside,” says Hilmarsson.

And he has a point. Sigurdsson was for example the captain of the Icelandic team for years, and is no stranger to taking responsibility. Gislason and Gudmundsson were also known for their leadership on the field and it is clear that is something they have built even more on. Alongside a tad of the Icelandic madness.

They have earned their respect

“The Icelandic hardiness has been something that has symbolised Icelandic handball throughout the years and they all can deliver that to their players. What they have in common I feel is that they are all extremely dedicated. Those four mentioned before are all not afraid to leave the normal path and try something different,” says Hilmarsson, and adds that the amount of work the coaches put in themselves is perhaps more than other head coaches do.

“What is unique about them as well is that they are always around. Doesn’t matter if their players are just in the gym, they are always on lookout. It doesn’t matter if the player is a big name in the handball world or how much he earns, they expect everyone to deliver. From that, they have gained a lot of respect for how involved they are,” says Benediktsson.

But hard work can’t be the only thing that there is to say about Icelandic coaches. If we look deeper into things, there is surely something unique going on.

No ivory towers in Iceland

“The Icelandic coaching-community is rather small, and they are not afraid to change opinions. Coaches in the Icelandic league often contact each other and talk about their teams, giving each other tips when it comes to coaching. This would be impossible abroad,” says Benediktsson. And their fellows in other countries have not forgotten where they came from.

“I think each and every coach here in Iceland can contact Alfred Gislason and ask for advice, how to react to different situations and so on. Everyone is ready to give and receive tips about what is going well and what could be done better. Nobody sits in their own ivory tower, which is something unique I would say,” Benediktsson adds. “I’m not sure if coaches in the German Bundesliga for example are in much contact, but surely they are not giving each other advice!”

Next coach should be local

But even though the Icelandic coaches have been successful, the Icelandic national time is going through rough times. Aron Kristjansson left his post as head coach after the disappointment in Poland, so what is next for Iceland? Are all the good ones taken, or are there some hidden gems in the closely-connected Icelandic coaching community ready to take over?

Two names have been on many people’s lips: Kristjan Arason and Geir Sveinsson. The latter was sacked as head coach of SC Magdeburg in the Germany Bundesliga earlier this season and is also a former captain from his playing times.

Arason has not been involved in coaching for some years now but has a lot of experience, both from Germany and the Icelandic league.

Hilmarsson and Benediktsson agree that it would be hard to lure the big names back home from Germany, Denmark or Norway. They say the step between the Icelandic league and the national team would also be too big to take for coaches in the league, but they have strong opinions of where the Icelandic handball federation should look for its next coach. Home.

“I would say the focus should be to hire an Icelandic coach, especially becayse we have them. But the coach who will take over next, whoever that will be, has to be more involved in the development of young players. It’s not enough to do some work twice a month, we can see that the Norwegian development squad practices two days a week!” says Benediktsson.

Hergeirsson’s and Sigurdson’s success didn’t come on a silver platter; they are a clear example of how far hard work and dedication can take you. It seems clear there is not just something in the water up here; it is much more than that. But I bet, however, that many would like to have access to the close community of Icelandic coaches. Like we say in Iceland: No bullshit is being spoken there!

Andri Yrkill Valsson is a sports journalist in Iceland where he works for the Morgunbladid newspaper. He has worked as a chef before and also in a post office once, but since 2008 he has found his love for journalism. He started working for the EHF with a focus on Iceland's teams and players ahead of the EHF EURO 2016.


TEXT: Andri Yrkill Valsson / ts
 
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