Iceland's favorite athlete is Guðmundur Guðmundsson, one of the most victorious handball coaches to come from our tiny island. Leading the Icelandic team to receive the silver medal at the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and the bronze medal at the 2010 European Handball Championship in Austria, Guðmundur went on to become the head coach of the German Bundesliga club Rhein-Neckar Löwen until July 2014 when he signed a three-year contract to become the head coach of the Denmark's National Handball Team.
In 2016 Guðmundur lead his Danish National Team to the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Icelandic nation was ecstatic and proud of their golden coach. The Danes were proud of their team but unfortunately failed to recognize the head coach's part in the victory. As a result, Guðmundur announced he would not be renewing his contract with the Danish team at the end of his three-year term in July.
In spite of the smear campaign in part of the Danish media against Guðmundur, it neither made a dent in his sense of integrity nor his professionalism and dedication towards his team. He signed a contract, and he will honor that contract. Lesser men would have upped and walked away.
When Guðmundur is asked whether his decision will impact the players in his team during the preparation leading to the World Championship, he says he doesn't think so. "They respect my decision, and in fact, the players never get embroiled in conflicts of this nature. It had nothing to do with the team itself. We share the same objective: To win."
Handball has been part of Gudmundur's life from an early age. He started playing with his home-team, Víkingur (Vikings), around the age of 7. For the next ten years, he played both handball and football. "I was totally into sports," he says, "and at that time we didn't have computers or television to distract us in Iceland. I got away with enjoying both handball and football until the age of 18 – when I decided to give up football and concentrate on handball. The reason I chose the handball was the new head coach hired to coach the Icelandic National Team, Bogdan Kowalczyk.
I was intrigued by his approach to training. He was thoroughly professional and placed an extreme demand on the players. I was fascinated by his work, and I knew I just had to be a part of it. He changed everything with regards to training and training intensity. It was an amazing experience. He took handball to a completely different level in Iceland. He didn't just shape us as handballers, but also molded our characters and impacted our thought process. He always set himself sublime objectives and followed them through. He taught us extreme selflessness and discipline and his was a massively tough schooling."
I am still benefitting from those years, even today, and am eternally grateful for the years I trained with him. He met a lot of criticism in Iceland at the time. He made extreme demands, and there were those who found it hard to take. It was a game-changer. The training was completely organized, as was the training approach and the tempo. It has been a guiding force in my life, though obviously there are a lot of things I do differently. Being a coach is a process. You are always learning something new, picking up ideas here and there along the way and processing everything into your approach."
Throughout his years as a handball player Guðmundur played almost exclusively with his home-team, Víkingur, as well as playing with the Icelandic National Team for ten years, from 1980 to 1990 when he quit at the early age of 30. He admits to sometimes regretting leaving at such a young age. "The training with the National Team was incredibly intense, and we were playing much more international games than today. It put a massive strain on my family and my job. Even though I always got time off to play with the National Team, I was dependent on my employer's tolerance and mercy. There comes a time when you've just had enough."
Hard work and discipline
By the time Guðmundur quit playing handball, he was already working as a coach. He started coaching his first team in 1989, which means he has been amassing experience and know-how in the job for 27 years. When asked what swapping roles felt like, he says: "It was a bit strange and, I must say, quite tough. I was a bit green when it came to my new role. It is a widespread misconception that you can move straight from the role of a player to the role of a coach as if it is an automatic process. But, believe me, it is far from true. Those are such different roles. As a player, you are trained to do what you have been drilled to do. You are only responsible for yourself and your place in the team.
As a coach you are responsible for the whole team and you are constantly dealing with human factors. To become a coach is a long and strenuous process. There are so many excellent players who have had the misconception that they could automatically move from being a player to become a coach, only to be rudely disillusioned. Of course, it is a great asset to have trained with an excellent coach and to have taken part in the Olympic games, but it is not enough to become a good coach. You just do not transfer effortlessly between the two roles. Becoming a good coach takes a long time, a lot of hard work – and immense discipline.”
A constant learning process
“Coaching is a constant learning process when taken seriously. I am always looking for ways to become a better coach; better and better by each and every year. I am always competing with myself, aiming to be better at resolving difficult and tricky situations. I read quite a lot and for some time I have been working on Awareness. It has helped me to exclude negative aspects; to enjoy what I have here and now. I must admit, it can be pretty hard to stay in this Awareness, and there are days when I forget myself and need to take time out to remind myself to focus on being appreciative. It totally relaxes me – which I find fascinating. It is what helped me stay calm during the 2016 Olympics. It is an immense pressure to stay focused at all times. And the more matches we won, the heavier the pressure."
Guðmundur says he never thought about becoming a coach when he was a player. "When you are a player, you do not think that far ahead. You are just in the here and now, and being led by someone else. Someone has already decided where you are going next. You do not have to plan anything or think about the future. I quite enjoyed it and had no plans to become a coach – but here I am."
A force to be reckoned with
Guðmundur is educated as a systems analyst with a diploma in management and personnel administration and has a Masters degree in finance and international banking. While playing and coaching in Iceland, he was the Project Manager for Kaupthing Bank, responsible for implementing the bank's computer system and presiding over a large group of people. After the financial collapse in 2008, he left the bank job to dedicate himself to being a full-time coach. He had already led the Icelandic National team to the Olympic podium in Beijing where they received the silver. For the next four years, he coached the German team Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
"The silver at the Olympics provided me with an opportunity to take giant steps as a coach and I made up my mind to become a force to be reckoned with in this field. In 2012 Rhein-Neckar Löwen won the EHF Cup which was an incredible achievement for my team." Which led to Gudmundur's being offered to take over the Danish National Team in 2014.
When you are hard working and efficient in this environment, you will become better and better at your job. The demands placed on me are immense; the challenges ever greater. But, I like that because I have a vision: It is not enough to prepare yourself well; your preparations must be excellent at all times. It is very easy to be a popular coach, but it is hard to be an effective coach who achieves results. When you are an effective coach, you put immense pressure on everyone. Not just the players in the team, bot also on the doctors, the physical therapists, massage therapists, and all the assistants working for the team. And thus, you sacrifice your popularity. When I was hired as head coach for the Danish National Team, I was hired to get results. And that is precisely what I did at the Olympic games."
At the crossroads
When Guðmundur is asked what his driving force is, he doesn't hesitate: "Passion. It must be the driving force because coaching a highly successful team is hard work. During the Olympic Games in Rio last summer, I was working sixteen hours a day; working on strategies, studying the other teams, reading, motivating each player and the team. There is such a short distance between winning and losing. It only takes one goal. It only takes one player to be absent minded for a brief moment and not do what he is supposed to do, and it is GAME OVER."
Guðmundur will be fulfilling his contract to coach the Danish National Team during the 2017 World Championship in the summer. When asked where he will be going next, the great handball coach says: "I am at a crossroads. There are various possibilities in the pipes today. The plan is to keep on coaching."