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Exclusive interview with Gjermund Nesland - The man behind the rise of Norway as a Kickboxing powerhouse

From lef to right: Gjermund Nesland, Thea Therese(world Champion), Daimi Akin

Skill, mental toughness and boundless belief. These traits are a must-have entity to ensure success in any sport that a person plans on pursuing especially if it were a combat sport.

Combat sports such as MMA and Kickboxing are on the steady rise of the popularity ladder and is counted as being one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Kickboxing, in particular, has seen a tremendous rise and countries such as Holland, Russia, Hungary and others have produced some noteworthy fighters on the world stage.

These powerhouses, though, are witnessing a rising contender in Norway, that in recent times have been on top of their game and have been consistently producing World Champions. For a country with a minimal history in Kickboxing, the Norwegian Kickboxers have attained some enviable accolades with a great emphasis on producing female World Champions.

The man behind the rising stature of Kickboxing and the successful national team in Norway, Gjermund Nesland, recently spoke to us about the team’s accomplishments among other topics.

Lennard Surrao: Just to get our readers initiated, with the Kickboxing tournaments that the Norwegian team has been winning laurels in, what kind of rules does WAKO have in place when it comes to the in-ring action? Are knees and elbows allowed or is it the point fighting system followed from the Karate system?

Gjermund Nesland: Norway has two teams within the kickboxing sport. One team fights in the style called “full contact”, which is with full power and with a knockout. Kicks and punches to both body and head are allowed, but knees and elbows are not allowed. The other style is “point fighting”.
This is more similar to what is known as “American sports karate”, and here the referee stops the fight and gives a score for each valid attack or defense where one fighter scores a point. Kicks and punches to both body and head are allowed, but a knockout is not allowed, so the fighters need to adjust the power in their techniques.

LS: With the recent history showing the dominance of the Russian and other European fighters in the world of Kickboxing, what do you attribute the rise of Norway as a kickboxing powerhouse?

GN: Norway has been a fortune and has two of the best kickboxing coaches in the world, Daimi Akin in full contact and Gianpaolo Calajo in point fighting. These two amazing coaches have been important keys in our success. Norway is a small nation, but we have long traditions within elite sports in several sports.

With less than five million inhabitants in the entire nation, we need to take well care of every talent and potential athlete that show interest in sports, whether it is kickboxing or other sports. So I believe we put more effort into working long-term with our athletes that several other nations because we cannot afford to lose athletes in the same way as others.

LS: You are in a unique position where you have gone on from being an athlete on the team that you coach and manage at present? how difficult was the transition and what attributes do you think that the coach needs to possess, different from that of an athlete competing at the highest level?

GN: Being a coach or manager and being an athlete is very different, and requires different attributes. A great athlete does not necessarily qualify as a great coach, but having the background as an athlete is absolutely an advantage in the coaching role. However, a coach also needs a lot of interpersonal skills that is not as important for an individual athlete.

When going from being a team member to become the team leader it was important for me to have a clear understanding on what the team expected from its leader and work hard on delivering quality performance on these tasks. Even though I am the leader, it is very important to remember that I am there for the athletes, not the opposite. As a leader, I shall lead, but I shall also serve and support my athletes in the best possible way. The athletes are the most important ones, not the manager or the coach.

LS: Europe, in general, has produced world class kickboxers over the years, particularly Russia, Hungary, Italy, and Germany. What is the reason in your opinion for the same and how has that translated over to the Norwegian sports scene?

GN: I believe that one of the keys to success within kickboxing and other individual sports is to also focus on the social aspect of the sport. Elite athletes dedicate most of their time and life to the sport. If they see it as only work and no pleasure then they will not stay for long. But if they also have their friends, their loved ones or family within the sport as well, it is easier to stay longer with the sport and also move into other roles within the same sport when they end their career as athletes.

LS: With the explosion of MMA on the world stage, the question begets itself - is MMA on the radar for many of these champions or is Kickboxing a viable sport for a fighter to pursue in Norway?

GN: We see that a few fighters within WAKO, our world kickboxing organization move over to MMA and become successful. My friend Michael Page from the United Kingdom has moved into MMA and is one of the upcoming stars in Bellator in the US.

Kickboxing is not a sport where you are able to get rich as an athlete, but it is still a very viable sport with a high recognition. I am sure none of my current fighters feel the need to move into MMA, but we need to be aware of the challenge we face from MMA when it comes to media coverage and popularity for upcoming talents.

LS: Alongside being a coach, you also have a few business interests that you pursue passionately. Can you talk about them in some detail and how has your background in martial arts helped you in other facets of your life?

GN: Yes, I am also pursuing a leader career in a large international company and work as a serial entrepreneur in addition to being the national team manager in kickboxing. I have always had an urge to be successful in several fields. I have some business within real estate, an indoor play park for kids, a consulting company and some other investments.

I believe my background in martial arts has given me a strong will, mentality, and physical capacity to push myself into working hard and performing on a high level at several areas at the same time. When training martial art and doing sparring you need to be focused. This focus takes your mind off other issues and problems in life, and thereby gives you new energy to work on the same issues after the training.

The team to watch out for

LS: Norway, which has a minimal tradition when it comes to MMA and kickboxing, and only 3 400 members in their kickboxing federation went on to become one of the strongest kickboxing nations in the world. How did that happen and what was the process for the same? How do you think you can increase the reach of the sport in Norway?

GN: Yes, with 3400 members we are a small nation. Several European nations have 50 000 – 150 000 members and Russia has over 600 000. Still, in full contact kickboxing we are ranked as the 2nd strongest nation, after Russia.

15 years ago we built a quality development system for athletes together with experts from the Norwegian Olympic Organization for Elite Sports. This system and very dedicated coaches who focused on creating a strong and supportive team spirit within the national team were important keys to success.

One way increase the reach of the sport is to include it in school sports. That would encourage kids as young as 5 to get into Kickboxing, who can go on to hone their skills. One of our champions Therese started when she was 15 and went on to be a World Champion.

LS: Norway has done a commendable job in producing female World Champions in kickboxing and has some legends in the sport when it comes to female athletes. What is it that makes the nation produce credible female World Champions like no one else? What can other nations learn from this and take away?

GN: It is true that we have been very successful in creating female World Champions for a number of years. In the last World Championship in 2013 we entered the Championship with nine female athletes in full contact and point fighting and came home with four World Champions, one silver medalist and one bronze medalist.

In order to create successful female athletes I believe there are some key elements to be aware of as a coach and as a sporting nation. First of all, we treat our female athletes with the same respect and give them just as much of our time and focus as our male athletes, maybe more actually. In many parts of the world, businesswomen and female athletes are the most valuable untapped resource they have for creating extraordinary successes.

When training and coaching female athletes the key attributes are patience and understanding. You need to be patient and willing to listen to their challenges or worries. You do not need to have the answer, but you need to be willing to listen. Female athletes often require closer follow-up than men, but they are just as dedicated and hard working.

Often it is a bigger challenge for them to stand out and set high goals than their male counterparts. I have deep, deep respect for female top athletes that go beyond peoples’ expectations in their athletic performance. Especially if their sport is male dominated so that they also have to justify their presence within the sport.

LS: Finally an advice for the prospects in India and around the world who wish to take up Kickboxing as a viable career.

GN: I have to say that kickboxing is truly a great sport. I have myself competed in several different sports, but no sport has given me the same combination of a physical, mental and tactical challenge as kickboxing, in a positive way. Kickboxing is most likely not a sport that will make you rich, but it will give you a physical and mental foundation and self-esteem that will help to define your personality in a positive way. So for Indian prospects I have two suggestions.

Firstly, focus on mental training and tactical training as well as physical training. Your mentality and your tactical skills are just as important as your fitness. Secondly, the two important keys to success in sports are the willingness to train and the willingness to learn and improve. Most great athletes were not born with a natural talent or with any special physical advantages. They gained their level of performance through tireless training and step-by-step improvements. If you focus on these two keys you can achieve anything within sports.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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