30 years IBU: Coaching with Wolfgang Pichler

Wolfgang Pichler could be considered the “Dean of Biathlon Coaches” with a career that dates back to the early nineties and the founding of the IBU in 1993, mentoring a long list of Olympic and World Championship medalists including Jens Steinegen, Magdalena Forsberg, Anna Carin Olofsson, Helena Ekholm, Bjorn Ferry, Hanna Oeberg and Sebastian Samuelsson.

“Unbelievable how it changed”

“Biathlon has changed so much in the last 30 years. It is unbelievable how it changed. Biathlon was a really small sport and this was our luck. Our nose was never too high to not change something. Secondly, in the IBU every nation has only one vote so we always work together. By working together, we built up a big sport. If we had not worked together, we would never have the mixed relays. It gave the smaller nations a chance to be competitive in relays. Now winning the mixed relay is a big deal, but it is the hardest to win. And all of these other sports like athletics and swimming followed us with these mixed competitions.”

Total Score Importance

In an era filled with coaching specialists for everything from stretching to nutrition to shooting, Pichler recalled that coaching thirty years ago, “was much easier. In 1992-93, we did not have all of this help. We had a video camera and lactate tests. The World Cup Total Score was introduced and became very important, so you had to change the whole training plan. Before this, you really just trained for the World Championships, but with this new organisation, the IBU and the TV contract, the whole World Cup season was suddenly important.”

The IBU Academy and New Coaches

Pichler feels the level of professionalism in the coaching ranks has and continues to improve. Coaches can come up through coaching academies in their home nation, but not all have this option. The new IBU Academy fills an important void that will benefit the sport long term. “Finding good coaches is really hard. Now we are taking the first step, building up the IBU Academy. Many nations have no coaching school. So, you have people who do not know the basics. After the schooling you need the practical experience. After some experience, you need a second level, with mentoring. You can learn a lot of theory, but next is the experience. Seeing how a coach handles ten athletes is an important part of the learning experience, creating discipline and order is something you learn with experience, not in school. You have to know how to handle both the training and preparation for competition, which only comes with experience… I think the academy works really well, but it takes time. We will really see the results in 10 years.”

Beyond the Academy curriculum, Pichler feels mentoring is the next step, “bring an old coach to a nation’s camp to observe training. Then in the evening you could evaluate, ‘this was good, and this was not so good and maybe you could do this to improve.’ Young coaches have to learn how to say the right things at the right time. For example, on the last loop you can tell the athlete he is 5 seconds back which is positive or you can say the negative, ‘you are in 70th position.’ It is really important to be able to pass on the positive mental cue, because sometimes the difference between a good result and a super result is only five seconds.”


Thinking about this new generation of coaches, Pichler admitted one characteristic is crucial: passion. “It is their biggest asset. If you do not have this, you can forget it. It is the same with any job.”

“Fought for things to make the sport better”

Pichler has been passionate about biathlon from before the time he entered the coaching ranks until today when he is imparting some of his knowledge in the IBU Academy. “My whole life has been this sport. I was a tennis player as a child and then moved into cross-country and biathlon. It has been my life. My wife is angry with me because it is always sport. Sweden was a small nation with no money like many others and it seemed like the big nations were taking over the sport. Over the years, we were many times fighting against some of the decisions. In the coaches meetings, it was often a war, but in the end there were good results…We always fought for things to make the sport better. I have always been a person who fights for what I believe in. The fights were never personal, always for the good of the sport. In the end, after 30 years, we made so much progress. It was biathlon’s luck to get these TV contracts. All of the races are broadcast and that helped bring prize money to the sport and develop these new races like mass start and the mixed relays. Biathlon is the one sport where the coaches influenced the sport.”

Organisers and Venues High Standard

A huge part of biathlon’s growth over the past thirty years has been the organisers and their venues. “It all started with the three traditional venues, Oberhof, Ruhpolding and Antholz. They set a high standard and built up these huge events and a system that the others could follow, showing the way for places like Nove Mesto and Annecy. Now Lenzerheide is growing up and Annecy is super! Hochfilzen, Kontiolahti and Oestersund have all improved and everyone has benefitted.”

A keen and very opinionated observer, the 68-year-old Pichler is sure that biathlon and the IBU will continue to move forward. “We have a really good history now, but the question is where do we go next? We have to keep open our mind to new ideas. That has always been one of our strengths.”

“Coach’s job to hold the spirit”

As for coaches, Wolfgang Pichler admits one thing has not changed in the past 30 years. “Look at how we (Sweden) won all these medals at the end of the World Championships this year. This is coaching. It is the coach’s job to hold the spirit; to help the athletes believe. The coach has to be a psychologist today, something that is just as important as in the early days when you were alone with no help.”

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Archive

Share this article

Header iconSign up for our newsletter