A forum posting a while back about why U.S. national teams haven’t had much success in recent years sparked a lot of discussion. I postulated 3 main reasons why the U.S. hasn’t had much success:
1) The raw athletic ability of national team athletes has been low
2) The handball skill level of national team athletes has been low
3) The quality of other national teams, particularly in the Pan American region, has improved dramatically
I don’t think too many people would disagree with this assessment as to why we haven’t had much success. It’s pretty self evident. Where the big disagreements arise, however, is in the solution to the problem. It’s almost always easier to point out problems, than it is to solve them. And in the case of Team Handball in the U.S., if building a quality national team program had been an easy task, it would have been accomplished years ago.
So, how could the U.S. create National Team Success? I won’t try to lay out all the specifics, but I will try to lay out a basic framework. Along the way, I’ll also point out some fallacies with previous efforts and reasons why I think some proposed strategies also aren’t likely to succeed.
First off, a note on funding: It will be difficult, if not totally impossible, to establish any type of credible program without sufficient funding. Securing the necessary funding is probably the most important task that the Federation has. I and others have written about how important it is for USA Team Handball wean itself off limited USOC funding and establish other revenue sources. Of course, simply stating this fact won’t make it a reality. On top of that the current economic situation makes this difficult task even more challenging. Still, some level of funding will be available, especially if Chicago secures the 2016 Olympic bid. This post, however, is not about how to secure more funding. Instead it is about what to do with that funding to create a successful national team program.
Now, to frame the discussion I will put forward a couple of premises that I’m pretty confident are accurate and hard to refute.
Premise #1: The U.S. will never achieve a high level of success if the preponderance of athletes on its National Teams consists of players who first start playing handball in their 20s.
Handball is a relatively easy game to learn, but one that takes several years to master at the highest level. A player who starts out at age 20 can become a world class player with around 5 years of dedicated training and a handful of American players, in fact, have demonstrated that it can be accomplished. But, it has only been a “handful” of players and a number of “life issues” have usually precluded players from getting to that higher level. These “life issues” are career and family concerns that are typical and to be expected for Americans in their mid-twenties starting to think about their futures. As a result of these outside handball concerns, players often reached a plateau level of performance which was good enough for them to make the U.S. National team. They then participated in an Olympic Games and then promptly retired from the sport once that goal was obtained.
Players in the top Handball nations have a vastly different path to their National Teams. Typically, those players begin playing the sport at a young age and start to master the game in their early 20’s. They also have a different outlook on the sport directly related to the fact that they are professional athletes, which leads to premise #2.
Premise #2: The U.S. will never achieve a high level of success if the preponderance of athletes on its National Teams consists of amateur athletes.
Amateurs will lose to professionals almost every time and an amateur team will [i][b]never[/b][/i] pull off the string of victories needed to medal at the Olympics. Professionals, as they should be, are dedicated full time to their sport. Amateurs can also be very dedicated, but the training regimen and regular competition offered to professionals makes it impossible for amateurs to compete with them on an equal footing.
Years ago the U.S. could achieve a certain level of respectability with top collegiate athletes crossing over to handball. The U.S. was always handicapped by less handball experience, but in terms of raw physical talent the gap was often marginal, and sometimes the U.S. arguably even superior. As the sport became more professional in Europe though, the gap in raw talent and handball skill widened. Even worse, the pool of top amateur athletes from cross-over sports like basketball became smaller due to greater opportunities for those athletes to pursue professional careers in Europe and other parts of the world.
So, if you accept these premises (and I challenge anyone to come up with valid arguments to dispute them) it’s pretty clear that in order to field competitive National Teams you need to develop a framework that will create a National Team in which:
1) Most of the players are professionals
2) Most of the players start playing the sport in their teens.
To accomplish this a framework needs to be established which will support player development at younger ages and create a pathway for those players to develop into professional athletes. This could be accomplished with 3 major program areas:
1) Grassroots Program (with a primary focus on ages 12-18)
2) National Development Team (ages 18-22)
3) National Team Program
Coming up: Part 2: Grassroots Programs