Helle Thomsen inherited a considerable challenge when she was appointed head coach of The Netherlands only months before the EHF EURO 2016, with the weight of expectation following the team’s silver medal at the 2015 IHF Women’s World Championship and a semi-final appearance at the 2016 Olympic Games. With just two months to prepare with the squad, Thomsen did not disappoint, as she led The Netherlands to their first ever silver medal at the European championship.
One year later, Thomsen is three matches in to The Netherlands’ campaign to claim a World Championship medal once more, which has so far been a slightly bumpy road as the team opened with a 22:24 loss to Republic of Korea before claiming their first win, 40:15, against PR of China. They followed that victory with a 29:22 result against Cameroon in Round 3, which puts them on four points on the Group D table.
As the silver medallists at the previous World Championship in Denmark in 2015 and considering their other recent successes, The Netherlands entered Germany 2017 as one of the favourites for the title — but Thomsen thinks the external pressure is not something her players are concerned about.
“A lot of players are playing in big clubs in Europe, so it’s normal for them to have a big pressure,” says the 47-year-old Dane. “I think the most important thing is that you talk in the team and the team behind the team – where are we, what can we do, where do we have it difficult, where it is easy for us. The press will always be on the shoulder for us because we have the two silver, and we have players who play in the big clubs and they have won the Champions League. I think what the press and the people are talking about – I think it’s more important what we are talking about in the group.”
A smooth beginning
Joining the team at the time she did could have been much more difficult for Thomsen, but she was pleased with how easy it was to cooperate.
“When I came in, it was two months before the championship in Sweden. I think it was an easy group to train, they were really nice with me the first trainings I had,” says Thomsen. “They work the same way I work, and then it’s more easy to come to a team. If I should come to a team and change everything it could be hard, but they work the same way I like to work.”
“I always try to be myself”
Thomsen has had considerable success prior to joining The Netherlands team, having won the Danish championship twice as well as the EHF Cup with club FC Midtjylland, and the bronze medal with Sweden at the EHF EURO 2014. Now, along with her national team responsibilities, she is head coach of EHF Champions League 2015/16 winners CSM Bucuresti, where she leads a very strong squad that includes three-time World Handball Player of the Year Cristina Neagu. It is clear that Thomsen has a very good relationship with her players and teams, so what can she tell us about her approach?
“I always try to be myself, so I think the players can answer this much better than me, but I try to have 100% focus, be ready for all things that can happen. I try to be honest for them, for the players and the team, and I try to be a coach they know they can trust.
“I will always be behind them if something is happening, if a player plays a not-so-good game then I will try to be behind her. I try to make a team, not have one or two or three players – but have a good team. I hope the players think I do everything 100%, and I hope they know they can trust me and I always will support them if they need it.”
Rising to the top as a female coach
Looking at team benches at international and club competitions, one cannot help but notice the small number of female coaches, even in women’s handball. Thomsen says this is something she has been asked about for years and that it is difficult to pinpoint one reason for this.
“I can see not only in sport, but also in big jobs in the world, there are more men who have the jobs than females. In the sports world I can see there are girls and women who coach younger teams, but when it starts to be more difficult, when the press starts to be hard on you, when the players start have some questions, then I think a lot of women are quitting. I think if women have a hard situation it’s sometimes hard for her to go to the next one and think ‘I’m the best’. I think men are better at that, but it’s not only in the sports world – it’s for all jobs in the world,” says Thomsen, who has clearly overcome many such situations herself to arrive where she is today.
One current difficulty for Thomsen, as former coach of Sweden and considering her club position where she leads a diverse international squad, is how she hopes for so many players at Germany 2017 to do well.
“Sometimes it’s difficult, because of course I hope all my players will play good. I hope Sweden and Denmark will go really well for them, and I have trained Sweden so they have a special place in my heart.
“Last year when we beat Denmark [in the semi-final at the EHF EURO], you want to run in the hall and scream because you were so happy, but then when you look to your right you see a lot of girls you really like, a team you like, who were almost crying then I think it’s hard – but then, our team couldn’t win a gold medal, so it’s a little bit difficult!”
Norway remain the biggest threat
The Netherlands are considered a strong threat to claim the title at Germany 2017 — but who does Thomsen see as the other most dangerous teams to raise the trophy?
“I’m a little bit ‘ah’ because I say Norway – Norway have strong players, they have a good concept, they have good trainers, they have good players, the team behind the team is big. It’s not only now that it’s like that – it’s been like that for 15 or 20 years. They are a really good tournament team, but in the World Championship it can also be difficult because if they play one bad game they can be out.
“I think Korea have played good, but now they have the two best players injured – number 24 and 11 – so I don’t think they can surprise anymore. Germany maybe, they are playing at home, and you know all the people in the hall can lift them up. Russia are playing good, I also see Denmark can beat a lot of teams, but they can also lose. But I will say Norway – like all other people!”