WPPLANET Exclusive Interview with Dejan UDOVICIC
During the 4 nations tournament in Belgrade, and on the eve of the World Championship in Barcelona, WPP had an WPPLANET exclusive interview with Dejan UDOVICICexclusive chance to get an interview with USAWP head coach Dejan Udovicic.
Name: Dejan Udovičić.
Born: 26th July 1970, Belgrade
Clubs: Partizan, Radnički
National teams: Serbia, USA
Trophies – senior national team: two Olympic bronze medals, gold and silver medal from World Championship, two gold medals, one silver and one bronze from European Championships, one World Cup title, 5 titles and one third place in the World League, gold and bronze medal at the Mediterranean games gold medal at the Universiade. Junior selections: two World gold medals, teo gold medals and one bronze medal at European championships Club titles: Eurocup with Radnicki, third place in the Euroleague with Partizan, numerous national titles and cups with Partizan.
M. Udovicic, there is no need to discuss your coaching career and results, because they are well known worldwide, and the medals speak for themselves. Could you tell us something more about your water polo beginnings? Why water polo? Did you have as much success as a player like a coach?
My twin brother and I were predestined for sport. We had a bit of luck that in a certain point of time in our life somebody showed up who had the possibility to streamline our enormous childish energy and use it in the right way. We stepped into the pool for the first time in 1978 at the age of 8. At the age of 14 I became a professional, and since then I have been earning for living from water polo. I owe it all to my old high school teacher. My brother Darko and me were swimming, running, playing team and individual sports, actually we were best in soccer, basketball, volleyball, in everything at that age!
And when we turned 14, and entered in the senior team of Partizan, the time caught up it’s pace. I played until I was 26. I never played abroad, because I was simply not good enough. I have pulled out the maximum from my physical abilities, I could not have played the top water polo simply because I am only 178cm high, and nowadays water polo athletes need to be 2m high and to bench press 15kg. The only thing that mattered to me was Partizan. That was a real role model for a club: discipline and natural elimination since the beginning. No sympathies and antipathies, no moms and dads following each training. And there is only one goal, and that is – first place! No second or third, only the first.
How did your coaching career start? Did you have any role models? How could you define your water polo philosophy?
When I first started coaching, Nikola Stamenic told me “You don’t know anything, and if you think that you learned something as a player, you are seriously wrong. Only when you really accept that you are starting from scratch, you will give yourself a chance to create something as a coach”. I appreciated him very much as a person, and as a water polo expert, but I was sure at that time that he was exaggerating. I was convinced that, if someone is involved in water polo for 20 years, even if he didn’t want it, must have learned at least something.
But, as I was entering deeper into the coaching sphere, I realized that the best thing for me is really to start from the position in which I know nothing. The preparation of any competitions and any team is like building a house foundation. And there are no two foundations alike, so there are no real success models for successful trophy winning. Only work, commitment, persistency and responsibility. The same thing is actual today…
As a player and as a coach you come from the world renowned Partizan water polo school. What makes that school so special and successful?
Hard work, discipline and organization. Partizan, not just as a club, but also as a system that teaches players to become responsible men, made of me a winner. I used to be the captain of all junior selections in the club and in the national team. I won World junior championship two times, but I never forgot that the absolute commitment and constant work is the only model for a healthy relation towards yourself and the work you do.
You used to work as a junior and senior team coach, both in clubs and in national teams. You were involved in forming the young players, but also in managing the top professionals. What to you prefer?
Well, it all depends of the period. Curiosity is that I am currently doing both! Managing the senior selection of a country, but forming future star players. In fact, every form of work gives me pleasure, if the product of that work is a positive and successful result.
What would you say is the recipe for the success, and why are Serbian players so successful throughout the years?
First of all, their individual quality cannot be denied. But what is also essential is the harmony in the team. Good results and wins bring confidense, and that is the real power. Every individual player goes through a specific development proces, which culminates in the winning attidute. Although these things might seem irrelevent when glanced from outside, they are actually very important. Serbian players are in fact marked by this winning mentality.
European players have one starting advantage compared to the others, and that is that they start to play games on the high level very early. They enter senior competition in their teen ages, and throughout the season ,which last for 9 months, they play numerous games against much experienced and older counterparts. For example, it is not the same for one young player with 17,18 years to play continuously against players aged 30, or to play only against his own age group like they do in USA.
Winning of the Olympic gold is still a dream that did not come true…
My philosophy is that without setting high goals in your life, you will never achieve them! Off course, winning the Olympic Games has always been my great wish. Now, when I look back on the situation I try to be realistic. In the systematic plan that was conceived for the Serbian national team, it was planned that this team should be dominant in the world water polo for the 2012-2016 period. Regarding the London Olympics, we were very close to achieving this gold, but due to some unexpected circumstances, like the injuries and sicknesses of key players, we just weren’t able to finish were we wanted, and of course there will always be sorrow for that missed opportunity.
During your career as the head coach of Serbia, you were under constant pressure from the public that only recognizes trophies as the success. What kind of pressure do you expect from the American public, and how do you feel working under pressure?
I do not have problem to work under stress, and I think that in sport, you need to make your own targets and in a way put yourself under the pressure. For a sport player it is good to have a certain dose of that positive athletic stress. As far that pressure is only related to sport results and performances, that is ok and acceptable. But if that pressure goes in a completely different direction, and moves away from sport, than that is not ok, and it should be avoided.
This is basically your first time to coach a team outside Serbia. What are your reflections on that?
Extremely positive. I look at this entire process as a high quality and substantial exchange of information, like let’s say in science. And this is a good thing in order to keep the sport going further and continue its development. I believe that me as a person, American water polo and water polo as a sport in general will benefit from it.
Are you familiar with the USA water polo system?
I think I know it very well. For several years I have been intensively following what has been going on in the States. For years now, I wanted to come and work in USA. In any case, American water polo represents a complex system. It is a huge country, and in the existing system there are specific rules. I was not brought to break those rules and drastically change them, but instead to try to upgrade them and to participate in it with my experience and knowledge. Our common goal is to define and set the USA water polo system to be a leader in the American sport and in the water polo world in general.
USA has more under 16 players than all other European countries combined together, but the only organized competitions are in high schools and colleges. If you had the power to change something, how would you deal with this issue and provide young players with the opportunity to continue practicing water polo after the age of 22?
This issue was discussed many times, and these facts are nothing new. There is no place on Earth with bigger water polo potential than here. The structure of the system is the base for all. It represents the “spine”, and it is essential for the right course and future results. If it’s set up properly, it will boost itself in time. Since I am officially active for only 45 days now, I still need more time to adapt and to gather more information. I am familiar that Premier League is planned to be formed starting from 2015, and that the focus will not be only on the ODP. Some changes are definitively needed, in order to add additional quality to the existing quantity. This is a long lasting process which needs to be done step by step with the consensus of everyone involved. We are all on the same side, and the idea is to network everyone into one entity.
It is evident that the USA national team is facing the shift of generations. Do you have a plan how to do it, and are you still counting on some older experienced players?
I have been working for only 45 days, and that’s quite a short period of time, so I am still getting to know all the players, and their possibilities. On every position where there is a perspective and quality young player I plan to put them into the team and see how well will they perform. But for some positions in the team, which are most sensible, and for which we still do not have an adequate solution at this time among the younger generation, experienced players will have the advantage. During the course of time, we will hopefully introduce some new players into the squad, and it is certain that young players could always learn a lot from their older teammates. I believe that with an adequate selection program, we can have an extremely quality choice for not just one, but two Olympic cycles.
In what way do you plan to follow the development of the junior players and do you intend to be actively involved in the work with them?
I would like that very much, but I am not sure will my duties in the incoming period allow me to do that. Starting September, we are planning to gather a coaching team which will be in charge of following players and assisting me with the selection. It is important that everybody in that team is completely involved in the system and capable of fulfilling all the given duties. It is essential to set up the control and follow up in all age groups, from under 10, older ones and up to the high school.
You have achieved great successes in a relatively short period of time as a coach. During your career, you must have had an excellent cooperation with some assistant coaches. Have you considered the idea of bringing some of them to work with you again in this new position?
As I mentioned before, starting this September we will be focusing on the creation of the high quality coaching team. When I decided to come, I never insisted in bringing some of my assisting staff with me. My wish is to create a system which will involve American coaches who are in accordance with the needed criteria, and whose hard work and commitment will add to the overall upgrade of USA water polo. Only in the case that we estimate that in this moment there is no adequate solutions for a certain position will we be consider engaging someone from abroad, but I repeat that that is not option 1, nor option , but the last option.
Which elements of the game do you consider to be the most important and what will you be insisting on while working with the USA team?
- Defense and counterattack.
Would you prefer to have a group of players working together through the entire year with you or having them playing in professional teams in Europe?
It all depends how and when. I would prefer to have the players under my control, but the training could never substitute the real game. Let’s say it this way – I would like to have my players play in pro teams in the first period, but in the preolympic year I would prefer a certain form of joint training camp, but off course with a sufficient amount of international matches.
How would you describe your short term goals (World Championshio in Barcelona) and long term goals (Rio Olympics)?
Our first and most important target in this movement is the qualification for the Olympic Games. USA team is currently in a situation, which is relatively new for them, that it needs to fight through uncertain qualification rounds for the place in the Olympics. I would very much like if we could do it as soon as possible, preferably in 2015, in order to have a calm preparation period for the final tournament. regarding the expectations for the upcoming World Championship, our first objective target is to qualify for the 1/8 finals in a very tough group for us. We are still a new team which is going through a phase of getting to know each other and it is very difficult to predict some results. But off course, we are always looking forward in making the best possible result and surprises.
Some people mentioned our good results in the preparation period and in the World League finals, but honestly I am not satisfied with those results. I always strive to better and top results.
Projecting the situation in Rio, I think that Serbia is leading the group of teams which will have a dominant role and be the most serious contestants for the title. Croatia, Montenegro and Italy are certainly belonging in that group. The second and third quality group is consisted of Hungary, Spain, Germany, Australia and USA. It is a fact that these latter teams need to work more and harder to approach the quality of the first four, and to make the competition as tough as possible.
An interesting fact is that you are not the first Serbian head coach of one USA national team. Before you, there was Bora Milutinovic in soccer. He made an historic success with a sport which was relatively not that popular in the States. Water polo does have a longer tradition, but besides the silver medal in Beijing, there were no major successes. In the recent years.
I came to participate in the upgrading of the system that will produce good results in continuity, not from time to time. But that comes with good organization, hard work and quality and planned actions.
You said you like skiing and basketball… Do you plan to follow some other American sports during your stay?
Firstly, I need to organize my work and life in the USA. I don’t think that I will be having a lot of problems in getting used to the life over there. In this moment I do not have much time for additional activities, but once the “life machine” starts working, there will be time for that too.
I read somewhere that one of your favorite cities is Los Angeles, now you will be living and working most of your time in California…
Well, our base will definitively be in Los Angeles, but I would like to spend as much time possible at Colorado Springs, where we have the best conditions for work.
You have a wife who is a successful business woman in fashion industry, a little daughter and a pet cat. Your family has always given you support during your career. Can you tell us something more about them and how they look at your new job? Will they be coming with you?
- Travel, trainings, competitions are constantly taking me away from home, but my lovely wife and me got used to adjust our numerous duties. Mirjana has been leading a fahion agency for more than 20 years, and it was actually the birth of our precious daughter Danica Ana that really brought us to calm down more in our home. My favorite cities are Los Angeles and Madrid, and my wife usually critisize me when we are at the vacation, that I rather go take a shower than go out swimming in the sea. Since I stopped playing water polo, I went into the water only a few times. But I adore skiing. One day on the snow recycles me more than 5 on the seaside. Of course my family will follow me to America, even our cat Lisander.
Thank you very muchor this interview , we wish you all the best in the future!
[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]