- Interview by Jake Bambrough, Qatar
Sportsmen and women are role models for an active, healthy lifestyle. While many work to promote these values, few have had such a hand in shaping the policy of a nation as former Serbian water polo star Vanja Udovicic, who retired as an athlete to join the Serbian Government as Minister of Youth and Sports.
His illustrious career in the pool saw him play in four countries, winning six domestic league titles and six domestic cups. He is also a two-time winner of the LEN Champions League – Europe’s premier club competition for water polo.
Internationally, due to the restructuring of the Balkan states, Udovicic played for three national teams (Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Serbia), winning gold twice at the FINA World Aquatic Championships and three times at the European Water Polo Championship. He also won the FINA World League a staggering seven times and the World Cup twice.
After captaining the Serbian national team since 2009, Udovicic became a national leader for all sport after accepting an invitation to become a cabinet minister.
Water polo is a sport with a lot of contact. Do you think this increases the risk of injuries?
Every sport is specific and every carries a specific risk of injury. I wouldn’t say water polo is rougher than other contact sports.
Do lots of things happen under the water that spectators might not be able to see?
That might be the appeal of water polo – it is the only team sport where the spectators and the referees cannot see absolutely everything that is going on. Things happen underwater, of course both intentionally and unintentionally.
What are the most common injuries for water polo players?
Shoulder and finger injuries are the most common.
Did you ever use injury prevention strategies, either as part of a team or individually?
Proper warm ups are the best injury prevention strategy. It is essential to prepare the muscles for the huge efforts the body has to endure.
What is the worst injury you had in your career?
I’ve broken my fingers, toes and nose, and had a ruptured shoulder tendon. Fingers are the worst because, obviously, they are essential to the game, and the recovery takes longer than in other injuries. When my nose was broken I was out for a week. For the fingers and shoulder recovery took two weeks. But being out doesn’t mean that you don’t train, only that the training is different, so that it does not affect the injured area. For instance, with a broken finger you will still train in the pool, but without contact with the ball and other players.
What medical staff do professional water polo teams generally have?
A team doctor, two physios and a psychologist.
What characteristics do you think medical staff need in order to be successful working with athletes?
They have to have full insight into all the specifics of the sport of the athlete they are working with. The other equally important thing is great interpersonal skills. Doctors are considered to be the best friends of athletes, with one of the key roles in bringing the tension down before big games.
You have played for clubs in Serbia, Montenegro, Italy and Croatia. What were the differences in the approach of the medical teams in these countries?
They all have more or less the same approach, differing in the equipment they have at their disposal. Out of the mentioned countries, Serbia has the longest tradition in sports medicine, and I am proud that the athletes from other countries are coming to Serbia to be treated by our professionals.
Water polo is a skills-based game, but also demands great strength and endurance in the pool. How much time is spent doing swimming and physical training compared to skills training?
Equal amounts of time. Strength and skills are what makes the game, but you can never be a complete player if you don’t have both.
How much time on average would you spent in the pool each week for training?
Our daily routine consists of gym once a day and training in the pool twice a day. The daily training used to last for 7 hours, now they are 4 and a half to 5 hours long. As for the time spent in the pool, in addition to regular training sessions there is pre-game training and, of course, the game itself.
Spending a lot of time in the pool can increase the risk of illness or infections. Is this a problem that is common among water polo players?
Yes, all athletes in water disciplines have a higher risk of infections and most have had an infection because we are changing pools all the time. This is why building a strong immunity is so important to us.
Your career as an athlete spanned 15 years, did you notice a progression in how sport science was used in water polo over that time?
The sport has changed over the past 15 years and medicine has followed. The sport got faster, rougher and more intense, so the medical routines had to be adjusted to these new demands. Also, because of all the money in professional sport now it has become necessary to shorten the recovery time without harming the athlete.
Did you ever follow a nutrition programme or use supplements as an athlete? How important do you think these are?
Following a nutrition programme and using the supplements is something an athlete cannot do without. The right programme improves performance.
You won many medals at both club and international level, what was your proudest moment as a player?
I am proud to say that there were many moments and milestones I’ll never forget and that will always bring smile to my face. Joining the Serbian national team, becoming the captain, winning my first World Championship, playing in the Olympic Games final... are just some of the great moments I’ve shared with my teammates.
You played in many finals, how did you mentally prepare yourself for these?
Every athlete has his own special mental preparation. It is a habit and a process during which, in my case, I tried to clear my mind of all the problems and issues that might burden me. Music helps many athletes achieve that total relaxation. The other thing that I found extremely helpful was an active massage warming up. I felt that these 15 minutes were what most helped me to prepare for the game.
Have you ever worked with a sports psychologist?
My colleagues and friends have, and they had very good experiences and results. There are moments in the career of an athlete when a psychologist’s advice can push you towards greater success.
What made you decide to go into politics after your water polo career? Was it something you had planned to do?
I did make a transfer from one career to another, but I wouldn't call my current one politics. I am a member of Serbian Government with the duty of maintaining the good image of Serbian sports, promoting good values that sports bring to the nation and further developing policies in sport that will, hopefully, earn our athletes even more success in the global sports arena. We are not a big country with huge population, we are not a rich country, but we certainly are a nation that has given the world many, many, great athletes, more than one would expect just by looking at the territory and number of citizens. Through our history we've been among the best in all the most popular team sports, we've held the world champion titles in basketball, volleyball, handball and water polo, and we have numerous Olympic medals in both team and individual sports. Our players have been and are essential to globally renowned teams in the most popular leagues; including the top football leagues in Spain, England, Germany and Italy, as well as the NBA. I see it as my task to be a part of continuing this great tradition, one that we are very proud of.
What was it like making that career change?
It certainly has been a big decision. You could say that one day I was playing, the next day I was in an office. But, as a responsible person, I gave it a lot of thought, and realising that I could contribute to making a positive change, the decision to put all my efforts into helping Serbian sport be even better was a logical one. As an athlete I have a strong belief that every individual has to push one’s limits, has to try to achieve what might seem impossible. Without effort and hard work, status quo reigns – and status quo is enemy of progress. I always play to win.
Which of these careers do you think is more challenging?
Life in public administration is different to one of the athlete in terms of the daily routine, but looking at the bigger picture, many same principles apply – be the best you can, motivate your team to be the best they can, work to succeed. That was my motto as the captain of the Serbian water polo team, and that's my motto now I am in charge of the whole sports system of Serbia. I must say I am very pleased and proud that we are making progress in all fields, especially in individual sports.
As a minister of Sport, how do you think the sport sector can promote a culture of physical activity and exercise in the community?
Physical activity and exercise are prerequisites for the health of the population, so it is obvious that promoting the benefits they bring should be high on the global agenda. Every penny invested in sport schemes pays itself back through building a healthy society. So, it is quite clear that the sport sector has an important role in promoting healthy lifestyles, but the media and creative industries also have an obligation to use their huge influence towards making people, especially parents, realise how important physical activity is for all the segments of theirs and their children’s lives. It's all summed up in the centuries-old Roman saying "mens sana in corpore sano".
How could elite athletes help in promoting physical activity among the public?
Elite athletes, before they became professional competitors, were all children interested in sports at a basic level. By building a wide base of recreational athletes, you also build a strong base of future champions. And once they become elite and earn recognition in the public, they have a strong role in promoting exercise as a desirable lifestyle. Athletes are always heroes of their nations – the best role models to the general population. Their influence on children and young people is an advantage that every country uses to promote the benefits of physical activity.