Slovenia’s Uros Velepec: Small Team Coaching Challenges
Coaching a small team is always a challenge. Striving for success with a limited number of athletes and equally limited funding can be a burden, but also a blessing with more focus on the individual, especially when it results in podiums and medals.
Success for Slovenia
Slovenia, with a World Cup team that currently numbers just four men and one woman has been successful over the years, mostly under the leadership of the caring guidance Coach Uros Velepec. Jakov Fak has 21 individual podiums, two IBU WCH Gold medals and two OWG medals, including a 2018 20K Individual Silver medal. Teammate Klemen Bauer has multiple top 10 finishes, including a 4th in the 2010 OWG sprint. The team collected a 2012 IBU WCH Mixed Relay Silver medal and last season, the men’s relay finished fifth at the IBU WCH; all with a team that has never numbered more than 8 athletes. The current squad is stretched razor thin. “It is the smallest team I’ve had.”
The small team is an advantage and disadvantage for the Slovenians who will host the 2021 IBU World Championships at Pokljuka. Velepec is not discouraged by coaching a small group. He relishes it because the athletes get much more individual attention. “It is much easier coaching five people rather than ten. If you have the same number of staff, it is easier because you can then focus on the best. I do not think there is a problem with a small team; the bigger problem is a small budget! If you think about it, some of the best athletes have almost private or small teams, like Ole Einar Björndalen, Kaisa, Kuzmina and others.”
Staying Healthy; Juniors Back-up Plan
Biathlon is currently dominated by the nations like Norway, Germany and France that have both a wealth of talent as well as significantly more funding to support those numbers. Those two factors keep them at the top of the Nations Cup Score, guaranteeing them the maximum number of starts and always strong relay teams. The biggest challenge for every team but especially a small team fighting to maintain their World cup starts, is keeping everyone healthy. The veteran Slovenian coach explained, “If you only have four men like I have, you cannot afford the flu or sore throat. Then you do not have a relay; you cannot afford to miss relays because of the importance of relay points in the Nations Cup standings. Luckily for us, we have some good juniors like Alex Cisar (two-time IBU YJWCH Gold medalist) who can jump in if needed. That is the back-up plan. You never know what might happen to any athlete like Jakov (Fak), who had some problems last year for the second season. Still sometimes, Fak had to do it. With only four men, I have to make everyone the best they can be, because they are needed on my team.”
For athletes like Rok Trsan and Miha Dovžan, that individual attention comes into play as relay team members. “We have no room for mistakes in the training program with anyone…I work with them to make them the best shooters possible so we can compete in the relay. We did that successfully last season, with the best shooting results, just five spare rounds in the WCH relay.”
The possible key to success for any small team is a top athlete or two. “It is important to have top athletes like we have with Jakov and Klemen. If your best athlete is 60th place, then the federation and public will wonder why they are paying you to coach. But if you have some top 10 results, you can “hide” the others because no one is interested in them. That takes the pressure off them and they can develop at their own pace, a big advantage for the athletes not at the top level.”
Slovenia is definitely challenged on the women’s side of the ledger, with a single World Cup qualified athlete. They have potential but, “They are all talented, but young… a group of 15, 16 and 17-year-old girls that are unbelievable. If they work right, you can visualize four moving up and in six years, we will have a very strong women’s team.”
Finances are always a problem, for teams big and small. “We have been very successful with our small team, but we are always fighting that philosophy that says, ‘if you can make it with this amount, then you can still probably do it with less money.’ When I returned from Ukraine and we had an Olympic medal, one of only two that Slovenia won, our budget was 10-15% lower.”
Home IBU World Championships
The upcoming 2021 IBU WCH represents a huge challenge but Velepec sees it as an opportunity to be better prepared and win a medal. “Having the IBU WCH here is good; it is easier for us. We know the courses and know the service team will do better because they know the snow and every inch of the course. It will be easier to get ready because we spend almost 100 days per year here; it is our home. We live here. We need to have a medal in the home Championships.”
110% Every Day… “I Really Do Care"
Despite the constant battle to develop and maintain talent, keep everyone healthy while also juggling finances, Uros Velepec puts out 110% every day for his small team. “Coaching is fun for me, because I like to be alone. In training camps, you work with the team and then you are alone and can get away, cycling or hiking. I need this time, because sometimes my processor is really hot. I suffer too much when things are not right or did not go as I planned… because I care. Recently, an athlete asked what I thought about his training. My reply was, ‘It was good; you are on a good level.” He replied, “Thanks. I like the fact that you care; you are watching.’ The most important thing is: if you have an athlete, he gives you years of his life and he is asking, ‘Please give the best you can.’ The athlete is saying make me better; give me good advice.’ I try to do this every day. My wife always tells me, ‘You are taking your work too seriously. Of course, I smile a lot and tell jokes, but at the end of the day, it is never an easy sleep, because I really do care…”