Ljubomir Vranjes (SWE), USAM Nimes: “Find your own style, do not copy someone else, stay authentic”

As a player he was three times EHF EURO champion, world champion and Olympic silver medallist with Sweden; as a coach, winning the EHF Champions League in 2014 with SG Flensburg-Handewitt was the biggest success for Ljubomir Vranjes. Vranjes has coached the Serbian, Slovenian and Hungarian national teams and top clubs including Flensburg and Rhein-Neckar Löwen in Germany and Telekom Vezsprém in Hungary. Since the start of the 2022/23 season, the 49-year-old coaches French side USAM Nimes.

Was it obvious that you would become a coach after your playing career?

I did not know exactly what I really wanted, but I had several options. Firstly, I wanted to become the sports director of a club, but I received so many requests asking if I wanted to become a coach. Then I thought: if others believe that I would be a good coach, I shall try. I had nothing to lose. I went to become a coach of Skövde in Sweden, then my former club Flensburg signed me as sports director, later I became their coach, and then it started.

What are the key characteristics of a good coach?

You have to have a philosophy of how you want to coach and how you want to play. And always do what you believe.

My main mission is to make players individually better year by year, therefore you have to know exactly what you want to implement. If you form individual top players, you will form a top team. And therefore you have to educate as many top players as possible. And of course it is harder and more intense work for the players than for the coach, I only accompany the players on their way, I advise them.

As a young coach, you put a lot of energy and effort into any decision you take for the team, later, you can rely on your experience. I have worked in many countries and learnt from many cultures what is the best way to communicate with players and how they want to be treated, as this is essential to know. This is and was an interesting experience for me, you grow as a coach from every job you do. I have become something like an explorer. You have to be innovative and you have to have the courage to do something new as a coach – you definitely cannot rely on your experience.

What attributes do young people need to become a coach?

At first, not every top player can become a top coach. I had the advantage that I was a team captain and played in a key position. When you play a key role in your team, it is much easier to switch from player to coach. But this is not all what counts.

Your interaction with players is key – how you communicate with every single player – because you have to adapt your communication to all kinds of players, and even your communication tools. For some players a spoken explanation is enough, some need pictures, some need a demonstration, and some need it in written and spoken form and the demonstration. This means you need to be strong in understanding the needs of your players if you want to raise their quality and to make the best of them.

Then you need to find your style of leadership, more democratic, more like a dictator – this is strongly connected to your coaching philosophy. You have to have in mind the structure of your team. In an ideal world, older players guide the young ones. If those young guns get older and guide the next generation, then you can achieve a circle of harmony in your team.

What are the differences between coaching clubs and national teams?

As a club coach you have daily contact with the player and the daily impact on his performance. You prepare this player mentally and physically, and you are constantly involved in his or her development. You can bring him to the peak performance, being on his highest level when the season is culminating. You can decide how much he plays in which matches and whether he plays despite injuries.

As a national team coach you have almost no influence on the development of a player, on how he trains over the season. As a national team coach, you should have three strategies and work on details of those three focal points in the time of preparation. You never know how fit a player really is, you never know if he is lightly injured or out of power when he comes to your team. But you have to understand both sides. Of course, it is an honour for every player to play for his country, but on the other hand, the time of a career is not unlimited, you have to take care of your body physically and mentally. And of course, the clubs pay the players, and have certain rights.

What is your advice for young players who want to become a coach, or young coaches who want to improve?

If you have already taken the decision to become a coach, you have the idea of what you want to achieve. If you have not decided yet, you have to answer the question of what you want do, what are your strengths, how much experience do you have from playing and how can you adapt this experience for your career as a coach.

The most important thing is: take as many best practice examples from your previous coaches or when you watch coaches and matches on TV, but do not try to copy another coach. You have to find your style, you have to stay authentic, you have to go your own way. But always look to the left and to the right, what others do and ask yourself, what is useful. And: everything you do must come from the heart.

Monique Tijsterman (NED), Dutch Handball Federation: “Huge difference in coaching men and women”

Monique Tijsterman has been a leading force in Dutch handball, coaching many of the women who would be become 2019 world champions when she was the head of the famous Dutch girls handball academy in Papendal. She was also the first female coach in the EHF Champions League Men and Men’s EHF Cup, coaching Dutch champions OCI Lions. Today, Tijsterman is part of the EHF Methods Commission and lecturer for the EHF Master Coach courses – and still works for the Dutch Federation.

Why did you become a coach?

It was in 1991 and I was just 21 years old and had my second severe knee injury followed by a surgery. My doctors told me: “Stop playing handball”.

It took me some time to think it over, but when the former Dutch national team coach Ton van Linder asked me to become a coach, I agreed. I had my first coaching course, and in 1992 I started on Ton’s staff with the Dutch women’s team. When Bert Bouwer became national team coach, he asked me to build up a new junior team – and this was the starting point for more than 20 years of working with youngsters. I had no experience before, but my start at the federation worked well.

Later, I was responsible for our academy, then coached Lions men’s team and was interim coach of our women’s national team at the 2021 World Championship, which was a huge experience, but now I am back with the youngsters.

What was the major difference between coaching male and female players?

A big one! It is not about the intensity of the training – both genders are used to working really hard. It is more about the communication with the players. You can say more things in a harder way to men, but when the training is over, it is over. Women are more unforgiving, even a decade later, they come back to certain things I had said in one particular training session or match. They remember everything. Communication is the major difference.

How does it feel to coach coaches today?

It means a lot to me if I can be part of their development and if I recognise they learn a lot. It is exciting to see the results of those coaches I had coached, that they do their job in the right and successful way. But it is never about copying anybody: every coach must find his or her way and style of coaching.

What skills do young coaches need?

They must be willing to learn and to develop. Being a coach is completely different to being a player, you need to have a deeper understanding of handball, or tactics. You need knowledge and experience, but the most important factor is your personality. It is about your behaviour and communication towards players, and this is a process of development. So never stop learning.

Xavi Vegas (ESP), WAT Fünfhaus women: “Patience, motivation and passion for handball”

Xavi Vegas played for a small Catalonian club before going to Barça at the age of 13, where he met great coaches such as Xavi Pascual and Toni Gerona. Even as a player at his club Handbol Sant Esteve Sesrovires, Vegas started to helping coach other teams. In 2014 he took over his first team, during a year in Norway on the Erasmus programme, coaching the senior girls’ team in Ørsta and the U14 boys team in Volda. On his return to Spain, Vegas started coaching beach handball too.

In 2021, Vegas moved to Austria to work for the EHF media department, and started coaching the second team of WAT Fünfhaus, Vienna's handball club. Currently WAT Fünfhaus Damen are his team, and they top the third Austrian league. He also plays at WAT Fünfhaus for fun.

How and why did you start to become a handball coach?  

The truth is that I was first referee for 12 seasons. I like anything to do with handball. And I always want to know more. When I arrived in Austria I didn't like the organisation of the refereeing team and I decided to give myself a chance on the bench. And I love it. It takes a lot more time and is very little money, but the personal goals are worth it. I am happy creating a team and achieving small goals.

How do you structure your coaching life?

We train twice a week, 90 minutes per session. So we usually train one day more physical and the other session more dedicated to technical-tactical content.

The big difference between Spain and Austria is the lack of tactical knowledge of handball in Austria. It is a much more physical and less elaborate game. It is a big challenge to be able to teach the handball that I have learned and that I think is the best.

The match preparation is simple. As it is an amateur team, I basically try to work on certain aspects at the beginning of the week. At the beginning of the season, we focus more on general aspects and as the season ends, more on specific things.   

What are the most important keys for you as a coach?

In Spanish we say that experience is a grade. I think it is important but, especially in amateur handball, the most important thing is desire and passion. You don't do it for money. You do it because you like handball. You like teaching. It is vital to create a good atmosphere in the team. That your team laughs with you, that you know how to make them feel comfortable. Every player needs something different.

I think the coach must have the ability to create a family atmosphere. In the end, a united team is a strong team. Handball is a sport of sacrifice. It's about helping your teammate, of playing for the other player. If you want to play alone, swimming or tennis is fine. But in handball you depend on other teammates. That's why helping each other all the time makes more sense if the one next to you is your friend. You feel like part of your family.

Who is your role model as a coach?

My favourite player was always Chema Rodríguez. He was different. I was a centre back and so was he. Now he is a successful coach so I can't name any other than him.

Although, Xavi Pascual has always been an example for me. What he did at Barça is simply unbelievable. And now he continues to make history in Romania. If I had to complete the trio, I would choose Jordi Ribera. I think his passion and love for handball is incomparable.

What is your advice for young people thinking about becoming a coach?

I would say “enjoy”. Forget about money and think about learning. When I talk to veteran coaches, they all talk about how easy we have it now. Before you had to go to other coaches to learn. Now we can go on YouTube or watch hundreds of games on EHFTV. If you don't learn it's because you don't want to. You have hundreds of free books online at your fingertips.  

Besides, I love watching interviews and videos of coaches. I don't care about the sportive point of view, you always learn a lot. In the end it all comes down to human relationships and you have to know how to treat each person as they deserve. I am a demanding coach with my players, but even more so with myself. And what do young coaches need? Patience, motivation and passion for handball, treating your players well and not being afraid to lose.