‘The scoreboard never lies.’ Dr. Dénes Kemény – Olympic coaches interviewed Episode 101
Dr. Dénes Kemény, the ‘creator of the Hungarian water polo dynasty’, the Hungarian water polo team won three consecutive Olympic games under Dénes Kemény’s guidance. Dénes outlines how it can actually be very difficult if you always win. Why he believes the athlete-coach relationship is like a marriage, how he always tried to see the world through the eyes of his athletes, and the secret behind the success of the Hungarian Water Polo.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How his team got inducted into the International Hall of Fame
- The love for Water Polo in Hungary
- His darkest moment
- His best moment
- The sweetest Olympic title
- His coaching philosophy
- What he did differently when he took over as a Head Coach compared to the previous coaches
- His core values
- What sparked the fire to become a successful coach
- How to choose your support staff
- His interview nomination
- What is going on in the life of Dénes Kemény at this moment in time
- Where can you find Dénes Kemény
Christian: In this interview, I am honored to be joined by Dr. Dénes Kemény. Dénes is the creator of the Hungarian water polo dynasty, which won three consecutive Olympic games from 2000 to 2008.
Under Dénes ‘ guidance, the Hungarians men’s water polo team won 24 international medals in 29 competitions. Dénes was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 2011. He is considered one of the most successful water polo coaches in history. I’m honored to welcome Dénes. Welcome.
Dénes : Welcome Christian.
How his team got inducted into the International Hall of Fame
Christian: Dénes, I saw your team, the Hungarian water polo team from 2000 to 2008 was also inducted in the Hall of Fame, and to date, it’s the only team that is in the Hall of Fame, correct?
Dénes: Yes, this is correct. This was in 2016 October in Santa Clara. It was just for one season for one year when the premise and the induction ceremony was moved from Fort Lauderdale to California.
Six players who have played in all three Olympic events, that we won, have been inducted as an honoree under the name of Team Hungary. Even individually, these six players are the goalie, Zoltán Szécsi and Péter Biros, Tibor Benedek, Tamás Kásás, Gergely Kiss, and Tamás Molnár. They played different positions in the game.
Six players who have played in all three Olympic events, that we won, have been inducted as an honoree under the name of Team Hungary.
And this is very interesting that this team with one more player, they could play a match because we had all playing positions covered. These are only six of them, but altogether 21 players have won Olympic gold in the three events in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Beijing 2008. So, to win three of the events you also had to be a bit lucky to be young at the first one at the Sydney Olympics, so that you could go on to participate in 2 more Olympics.
So probably some others could have won three as well, you never know, but I think that probably these six players have been the most valuable players of the twenty-one.
The love for Water Polo in Hungary
Christian: Dénes, for those of us who are not familiar with the sport of water polo, how can we understand the love of water polo in Hungary?
Dénes: Traditionally in Hungary, we always had a lot of thermal water springs. So we had warm water good enough for training for 12 months a year.
Traditionally we always had a lot of thermal water springs. So we had warm water good enough for training for 12 months a year.
Probably the historical first two gold medals, 1932 and 1936 in the 20th century, was created by the chance that Hungarian players could train all the year and much longer than other nations where the water was colder. When the water was colder you could swim a lot because then your body is heated by swimming, but for ball handling practices, you don’t produce so much heat in your body.
So ball handling, passing, and shooting practices were much shorter. So the skill of Hungarian players between the two World War was much higher than the concurrent nations, like Germany as well or England or Italy or Spain or US or Australia.
And because Hungary had the historical background and this way in Hungary, the popularity of water polo became much higher because we won, the Olympics in 1932 and 1936, then 1952 and 1956, and then 1964. So a youngster in the second part of the 20th century, who wanted to make some sport in Budapest or in Hungary, being a water polo player was a nice aspiration, as they could see that Hungary is five or six times Olympic gold medalist.
As a youngster in the second part of the 20th century, being a water polo player was a nice aspiration, as they could see that Hungary is a five or six times Olympic gold medalist.
So we always had a lot of kids in the swimming pools who wanted to become water polo players because of the previous team’s results. The previous team’s results came from the geological background at the advantage of Hungary, the Valley of Carpathians.
We’re full of all these springs and I remember when I was a kid, that we didn’t have the filter, which is using the same water for all year in the swimming pool. So every Sunday at noon, the big swimming pool water was going out and was reviewed for Monday morning every week and always 26/28 degrees’ centigrade water, which was excellent for swimming for water polo.
His darkest moment
Christian: In your coaching life, what was your darkest moment?
Dénes: Any semifinal or final that you lose, that’s always very dark. I didn’t have only one dark moment. I had a lot, but the most difficult situation in the life of a team is when you always win. If you always win, you are not motivated to check the way to improve, the check to avoid all the mistakes you did because you won the game.
The most difficult situation in the life of a team is when you always win.
And this leads to conflict between the players and the coach, because the coach is worried about the next game, and is checking the mistakes of a game that the team has won.
However, the players are not motivated to listen to the coach because they are telling the coach that they just won and are wondering what else is needed from them. The coach tells them he wants them to win again but if they repeat all the same mistakes, then they will not win again. So this is a classical conflict.
When I was Head Coach of the Hungarian team we had seasons with maybe only one defeat. You can imagine that we play for 12 months, 35 games and we lost only once, then it becomes very difficult to improve. The team thinks they are the best and they will always win in the future as well.
When I was Head Coach of the Hungarian team we had seasons with 35 games and we lost only once, then it becomes very difficult to improve. The team thinks they are the best and they will always win in the future as well.
So some defeats, which are delusion are shocking the players and the coach, but in the end, it’s very important to improve. I heard that there are some coaches who, in an important events like the Olympics or Worlds or Europeans, during the group games, they want a defeat early in the tournament.
You cannot tell your players to lose, but you can mix the cards, maybe that if you lose, you can put together your team, restart, and then the second part, you will play better. If you always win, that can be a difficulty for the semifinal or the final. We got to know it very early.
My first season was with the national team and the European Championships were in Seville in 1997, and we played very well until the final. Fortunately, we won even the final against Yugoslavia.
We played a very bad game and at that moment, I realized that it doesn’t help at all if we play very well until the last game because it gives mental security to your players that we cannot lose, and this doesn’t help. It doesn’t give you the right motivation for the final.
The same thing always when you play an important opposite team, let’s say Croatia, you played two times in an event, Hungary, and Croatia, it is very, very rare that both games can be won by the same team. Normally the second time they meet, they play again and the team that lost the first encounter wins, and the winner of the first game, the players, can’t believe that they can lose.
When we have the chance to criticize ourselves, it gives a lot of power for the imminent future.
Then at the end, they realize that they can lose. So your question was the difficult moments, the crisis, all games you lose are a moment of the crisis but they help. When we have the chance to criticize ourselves, it gives a lot of power for the imminent future.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Dénes: Every year, you have an important event, like European championships, World Championships, or the Olympics. Then you work a lot and you work much more than average people can think is possible.
The players have six to seven hours of training a day. But then they have rest moments and some spare time to go for a walk or something, which can help them to recover mentally.
Every year, you have an important event, and then you work a lot and you work much more than average people can think is possible.
But from the first training day, until the end of the event, which can be more than three months, the head coach works 16 hours a day. When the training is over, you have to analyze the training to prepare the following day and the two weeks that are coming to prepare, let’s say, for a friendly tournament, which is an important part of the selection of the team.
You start to work with a squad of about 18 to 19 players, where at the end two weeks before the event, you have to pick your team of 13 players. And that part for the players is difficult because they are not sure that they can make the team or not.
But for the coach, it is much more difficult because once the coach makes the decision, you can’t turn back. And then if you made the wrong decision, you will pay the price. Because you can’t go back and re-change.
And this part is very difficult, because for a wrong decision and you will pay the price. And everybody thinks that choosing is an easy situation because you have 18 excellent players, and you can choose 13 players, and that’s it.
But these 18 excellent players are very close to each other and you have to think sometimes you have chosen 12 of the 13, and you have only one more choice to do. You are thinking about two players, and you are not sure that you have to choose the better one. You have to choose the one, who will complete the team to become a better team. Not necessarily the better player.
You have chosen 12 of the 13 players, and you have only one more choice to do. You have to choose the one, who will complete the team to become a better team. Not necessarily the better player.
And then you fly to the event, the first game starts and one player gets injured, or you have an illness, or you can have maybe some problem of the actual form of a player and you have to rebuild the team.
What you have built for two months, you have to rebuild from Monday to Tuesday and to mix the players for other positions and so on. So let’s say that the answer is that you work long, you work hard, and then you have two minutes to go into the final. You see your team is three goals up.
It means that you realize that two times in two minutes and the opposite team will attack two times. So if you are three goals up, it means that the gold medal is in your pocket. So these are the moments that you were suffering for months.
You were working 16 hours a day for months, and then you arrive at this moment when you can feel the joy – only joy. Everything is like you on the street or on the seaside or anywhere and the big, big rain is coming and you’re just there, but these raindrops are happiness, only a lot of happiness.
These are the moments that you were suffering for months, you were working 16 hours a day for months, and then you arrive at this moment when you can feel the joy – only joy.
So you can imagine that it’s real Olympic goals or any other gold medals, it is the repayment of the long suffered period because you will get to know that all the work you did is successful only in the last second of the final.
The sweetest Olympic title
Christian: And out of the three Olympic titles, which one is the sweetest one?
Dénes: Probably the first one. I was talking about, Seville 1997, when we won the European championships and that was our first gold medal. Because if you start as a new Head Coach and one part of the players have worked with the previous Head Coaches, then they have an idea how to lead a national team.
Then there is the new arrival and I was the new arrival, and I had maybe different ideas than the previous Head Coaches. They believe me, but they don’t know that I’m right or not.
Then, the first result made them believe that the ideas I started to work with them were good and can be successful in the long future. They start to believe you, and they start to do the work you ask them to do or any other changes in their sport or private life that you want.
They do it because they want to win because if you do your job in a company a hundred percent, then your colleagues know that you are a very good colleague. Your bank account knows that you are a good specialist and your wife knows.
However, if you win in sport, then all the country’s happy. So the glory they can reach is more motivating than the financial part of the motivation. So the cooperation of the players and the Head Coach has to be like a marriage.
There are good marriages, and there are marriages that end in divorce. So we were lucky because our marriage was good but we needed the first result – the first gold medal to make everybody realize that this way can bring us to the highest level, which is the Olympic gold.
The cooperation of the players and the Head Coach has to be like a marriage. There are good marriages, and there are marriages that end in divorce.
Another important gold medal was in 2003 in Barcelona at the World Championship, because after Sydney 2000, we had two years with delusions and only got a bronze and a silver medal, and we really needed the gold medal that we had the last time in Sydney. And that moment came at the World Champs 2003 in Barcelona.
It was a very difficult game against Italy in the final, we drew with them, then overtime two times, three minutes. Then we won 11:9, a two-goal difference, and we had the gold medal and our confidence was back.
We won a World League final in New York three weeks later, then we won another World League the year after in Los Angeles. Then we went to Athens where we were confident because in the last three events we won gold medals, so we had a good chance to win at the Athens Olympics, even if we were not the only team with the chance of a gold medal.
The final in Athens was a very difficult game, and we had to change the game in the last quarter. But because we had won the previous 3 events, we had the mental power to do it and win. But as we spoke earlier about the scoreboard, the scoreboard never lies.
The scoreboard never lies.
Christian: That was a historic final, you were two goals down in the last quarter and then your guys came back and brought it home.
Dénes: Yes, we scored three goals, 3:0 in the last quarter.
His coaching philosophy
Christian: What is your coaching philosophy?
Dénes: The most important one for me, when I started to coach, I decided I will always think with the head of the player. As I was a player for 30 years, I presumed that I will know the effect of my decisions on the player, my decisions affecting the player.
When I started to coach, I decided I will always think with the head of the player.
So if you have an idea as a coach, and you’re convinced that this will bring you to the victory, but you don’t think with the head of the player, then you don’t have the player as a partner. You need the player as a partner who is happy with the way you want to reach the victory, who is ready to work hard, and who is having fun during the training.
It was very important for me that if we have some goal in a training session, such as aerobic resistance or anything which is important, such as the eggbeater leg kicks, which is fundamental in water polo. If you do the training, which is boring because you did the same thing the day before or two days before, they do it because they are obliged to do it.
But if you do it that they can do it with fun, then they do it much more voluntary and the activity of the training is much higher and they come to the training session, then they do it much more voluntary and the activity of player helps a lot to reach your target. This is certainly one part of your philosophy.
The other part is, that in a team sport that you always have to identify, which are the pillars in the team. What are the players who are the most important, not in my eyes, but who are the most important players in the team seen by the other players.
You always have to identify, which are the pillars in the team. What are the players who are the most important, not in my eyes, but who are the most important players in the team seen by the other players.
As a coach, you can say who is the leader in the team, but if you present the leader in the team because this is decided by the teammates, the value is much, much higher. I hope I’m clear enough. So if you know, which are those three, four players who are the most important for the rest of the team, then many times is enough to deal with these players.
If you can convince these players that the way we are working to reach our goal is the right way, even if it’s difficult, then the full team will be convinced because they just follow the leaders. So this is another important part of my philosophy.
If you choose the right players, in the beginning, it will be much easier for the future of the team, than to change the players. And I don’t speak about the technical part of water polo, because that is interesting for water polo players or coaches.
But I speak about a team sport, which can be football or ice hockey, or any other sport, you need to choose talented players for the position in the game you need, but you also need to choose the player with the right mentality. The one where the team result is more important than the personal achievements. And then if you choose the player who trains and plays with humility always, it means that you cannot miss the winning team.
You need to choose the player with the right mentality. The one where the team result is more important than the personal achievements. Only a lazy coach is choosing the best players.
Only a lazy coach is choosing the best players. The best players move the team together, to work together as a team, it means that the player is not only a dreaded weight in the team, but I’m helping the team. The player is doing his best playing in the team, but I play for the victory of the team, not playing for himself.
What he did differently when he took over as a Head Coach compared to the previous coaches
Christian: I would like to dig a bit deeper into that. The Hungarian water polo team won an Olympic medal from 1928 to 1980. After 1980, they didn’t win a medal anymore.
You took over in 1997 and in 2000 you won the first Olympic title. What exactly did you do differently in the three years as opposed to the period before?
Dénes: I think that the main change was that I explained to the most important players, that they are one of the most important players. So if you have three/four important players and all the team relies on these three or four important players, you can beat anyone.
But when these three or four players, have a bad day, they don’t play their best, then you lose because you cannot substitute them inside the team. So I explained the biggest names that there will be games when they will play like a winner player and the others will help.
But in some other games, when the teammates playing very well, the player has to assist the other players. And this way we have the chance that any of the big players can play badly, but we will win the same way because we have others.
I explained to the most important players, that there will be games, where they will be the key player, but there will also be games where they have to assist the other players.
So if you can increase the number of key players from three or four to seven or eight, and this is only a mental part, because as a player, all of them can play very well. But if you change in their mind that in some games they are an assistant player, some other games, you are the main player, you have a very big advantage. We decided who will be the hero of the day game by game. This way we are not dependent on one or two players.
We decided who will be the hero of the day game by game.
And this was very difficult for the big leaders to understand the first time because they thought that they are not the main player of the team anymore. But I needed to explain that they will remain the main players of the team, but not every game. When the others start to play better then your duty is to help them.
And this way, the first time to listen to it, it was strange for them and difficult. Because we’ve won a lot of games when players like Tamás Kásás or Tibor Benedek who were those times, one of the best of the world or the best of the world, could play 50% because it was not abnormal that we have other players to make the game victorious.
I think this was the main change. And first, it was strange for them, then as we had the feedback of the results, they started to enjoy it.
Christian: I believe that.
Check out this short documentary Dénes Kemény Water Polo Hall of fame
His core values
Christian: What are your core values?
Dénes: For the athlete, the most important value is humility. It means that you make your part a hundred percent every day. It starts when you wake up at home. You wake up early to have your breakfast.
A lot of players, they arrive, they sleep as much as they can, and they arrive to the training and they didn’t have time to eat enough and they cannot do the morning training, which is a training session, an hour and a half in the gym and two hours in the water. It means three and a half hours.
During the training, they can drink, or they can have some snacks, but the best is if your day starts that you prepare your training a hundred percent of your part. Then the coach’s duty is to prepare the training 100% of his studies or of his mental power and then we can do the training. If the training is well done, we have a good chance that the game will be well done.
The coach’s duty is to prepare the training 100%. If the training is well done, we have a good chance that the game will be well done.
Many times, the players prepare their private life for the game a hundred percent. They want to play well. So they eat four or five hours before the game not to be heavy during the game. They do their prior private life, a hundred percent.
And then I had to explain to them that the training session is as much as important as the game. So if you don’t prepare for the training, the training session will be not valuable the same way when you prepare it.
And this way we arrived that all the training, they were doing a hundred percent of their mental power. Then we had much more chance to win the important games.
What sparked the fire to become a successful coach
Christian: We’re getting to the end of the interview there. There are so many questions I would like to ask you. Let’s bring it down to the most important ones.
You represented your country, Hungary, as a player between 1974 and 1986. However, from my research, you didn’t represent Hungary in the Olympic Games. Did this spark the fire to become a successful coach later?
Dénes: You know the fact that I was a national team player for a long period, meant that I was always very close to the national team, but I was not one of the most important Hungarian players. I was on the border of the team, sometimes in, sometimes out.
This meant for my players, that I was a national team player. So I had experience in the Hungarian national team. This was from playing tournaments and training together with the best players of the world or to play against the best players of the world.
But I was not as good as the best we had. So I think that it was important that I had a good water polo player background, and probably was a help for them and was helpful for me that when you are an Olympic gold medalist player and you become a Head Coach, your importance, your highness, can be depressing for your players.
So even if you don’t talk about it, they want to win the same medal that you have at home and that can bring some distance between the coach and the players. So, during the trainings, the coach is the leader, but during the game, the players are the leaders.
Because I haven’t ever seen a coach, saving a shot or scoring a goal because the coach is on the bench. So that’s the biggest mistake and winning an Olympic gold medal.
As a player, you can easily make this mistake that you remain a leader after the training, even in the game. The game, you have to be an assistant to your players who are in the water, and they can win the game and you assist them. You assist them with changing in the right moment and the right player.
During the training, the coach is the leader. But during the game, the players are the leaders, and you have to be an assistant to your players who are in the water.
You assist them with changing their tactics. You assist them with the things you see from the outside, during the timeouts, or during the intervals. You assist them, but they are the prima donna. And if you remain the prima donna, then you lose.
How to choose your support staff
Christian: You talked about the importance of choosing the players for your team. How do you choose the support staff? What qualities are you looking for in your support staff?
Dénes: You need a coach for the goalies, you need a general assistant coach; you need a good doctor who understands water polo. Fortunately, we have a lot of doctors in the water polo world in Hungary, so it was very easy always to choose doctors who have played water polo.
So even my doctor could think with the head of the player and that was important, and we had physiotherapists too who understand the game. The most important that they should have to be specialists; very good specialists on their part, and they need to be loyal to the Head Coach and their staff.
The most important, they should be specialists, and they need to be loyal to the Head Coach and their staff.
If they have any problem with me, they have to tell it to me. If the players have any problem with me, they cannot listen to them. If they start to listen to the players’ problems, then it can become anarchy which doesn’t help.
So they have to send back the players to the locker room and to explain that these problems are to discuss with the Head Coach because Head Coach is the boss. So if your staff members are very good specialists in their duty and they make a team like the team players make the team, they make a team with the Head Coach, then you have a good chance to win.
Christian: Yes, I think that’s a very important point.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Dénes: Any of my 21 players, but maybe you want to choose one of the three-time gold medalists. In the history of water polo, there are only nine players with three Olympic gold and six of them of these nine players have played in my team.
In the history of water polo, there are only nine players with three Olympic gold and six of them of these nine players have played in my team.
Unfortunately, Tibor Benedek died of cancer. However, five of them are ready to be interviewed anytime, if you need, I can help you and I can transmit your request to them.
Christian: You know, that I’m actually in contact with two of them, but they are a bit hard to get [by the time of this release I got the chance to speak to 3-time Olympic champion Tamás Molnár and 3-time Olympic champion Kiss Gergely].
What is going on in the life of Dénes Kemény at this moment in time
Christian: What is going on in your life at this moment in time?
Dénes: I do a lot of work for FINA [international swimming association] as I’m the Vice-Chairman of the Coaching Committee. And I cooperate with the Technical Committee of FINA, the governing body of the swimming and water polo activity.
Then I’m teaching water polo at the Hungarian Physical Education University and it’s very interesting because a lot of my players are students there. And we have wonderful discussions.
They should be recorded because I’m sure a lot of coaches could learn, but I enjoy it very much. And I’m very often invited by multinational companies to give my experience how to coach, how to lead a winning team and I have the experience.
Christian: You have the successes speaking for you.
Dénes: Yes, but successes are made up of important big things, and a lot of important small things altogether. I was talking with my former player who was playing in the national team at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and the London 2021 Olympics, and now he’s the coach of a first division team. His name is Daniel Varga.
I’m teaching at the university, a water polo subject and I asked him, what is his opinion about what is the percentage of effectivity of a water polo coach on the end results? And my opinion was 70% and after two years of coaching, he answered me 50%.
So it means that you can do your best, but a lot of things are independent of you and you can make an influence on the end result. And in the end, the only thing that is important is the end result because this is an Olympic sport.
So what you working for is the scoreboard and the scoreboard is the god in our sport. And of the games, normally the fans they’re arguing and the winner teams’ fans, they always just show the scoreboard. That’s their opinion.
Where can you find Dénes Kemény
Christian: Where can people find you?
Dénes: People can find me on Instagram or Facebook, anyone can message me. I always answer to anyone, even a fan in Hungary. Maybe not a long answer, but I answer, that’s for sure.
Dénes Kemény’s social profiles
Christian: Dénes, thanks a lot for your time. You’ve been very generous with your time. Thanks a lot.
Dénes: Thank you very much, Christian. Thank you.