Wolfgang Pichler: 30 Years of Coaching

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, mentoring a long list of Olympic and World Championship medalists including Jens Steinigen, Magdalena Forsberg, Anna Carin Olofsson, Helena Ekholm, Bjorn Ferry, Hanna Oeberg and Sebastian Samuelsson. Pichler is one of those rare coaches who forged a highly disciplined philosophy, stuck to it while cajoling athletes to medals and titles while doling out hard work mixed with compassionate caring.

“They are like my children”

Now “a pensioner,” but still a talent consultant for the Swedish Olympic Committee, he keeps close tabs on the Swedish team. “They are like my children. I brought them up from zero to world elite.” Taking athletes that others may have scoffed at and building them into champions has always been a Pichler speciality, starting when he brought accomplished cross-country skier (Forsberg) to biathlon where she became a legend.

Total Score Importance Changes Training

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. I was one of the first ones to use lactate testing. I worked a lot with the fax. You could not see what the athletes were doing at home. 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 organization, the IBU and the TV contract, the whole World Cup season was suddenly important. The training had to be changed so the athletes would perform well all season and still have the top performance at the World Championships.”

Developing a System

Pichler was prepared for this new season-long preparation with a program that had its roots when his wife was in university, studying sports. “My mentor was my first wife, who needed a thesis subject; her advisor suggested cross-country and lactate, based on the studies of Alois Marder who brought lactate testing to the West from East Germany. We knew nothing about this. Our only (training) tool was a heart rate monitor. In those days, we thought that you could only go 3-4 minutes at threshold level, but through using lactate levels we found out that you could go much farther.”

Those studies fit perfectly into his budding philosophy that involved multiple training levels, strength and quality work. “My training philosophy came together in 1990 when I read Yuri Verkhoshansky’s book on training methodology. I am quite proud that I was the first to bring power training to biathlon and a system that goes up step-by-step with strength and endurance training in zones. Before that, there was really no system but mostly volume and no quality. I built up this five-zone system, but that was not the end. Every year I learned more. If you do not continue to learn, it is over.”

Continuing, he added, “Coaching today is so much different. Today you need an expert for everything. Anyone who thinks that he can do it alone today is not a good coach. Back in the nineties, you did everything, alone.”

“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.”

Serious Personalities: JT, Ole, Martin, Magdalena, Sebastian and Hanna

All of the names on the long list of champions and medalists developed by Pichler had a common thread that ensured success. “All of the best were serious in training and trained a lot. They were serious personalities. None of them were super talents, but I taught them to train really hard; to live their life as a champion. They focused on recovery, food, everything. To be the best in the world, you have to do it like the best in the world. Johannes Boe, in my opinion, has changed his life and become more serious. He is an extraordinary talent. All of these superstars like Boe, Ole, Fourcade and Magdalena are super serious. To win the Total Score six times like Magdalena, you have to be serious. Sebastian Samuelsson may not have that same talent but he can really train and knows how to be prepared for the big events. Hanna Oeberg is a champion in the same way. Before the 2018 Olympics, she was not that good, but became an Olympic Champion because she was so serious.”

Finding Talent

In the very competitive world of biathlon in 2023, finding big talents is a never-ending task. “Finding talent today is much harder than in the early days…In places like Germany, athletes might be professional at age 17. In Sweden, I never looked at the IBU YJWCH, because our results were in the middle and athletes have a different background; they go to the sports schools. The difference between Sweden and the big nations is that we can hold the athletes. If we take one into the team, we believe in them and then you get many chances (for success). In the biggest nations, these young athletes need really good results immediately or they go out of the team. Still for any coach, you never know who will make that last step.”

“Coach’s job to hold the spirit”

Pichler thinks one thing holds true for coaches today just as it did 30 years ago. “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

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