Several weeks ago the USA Team Handball made a couple of very significant announcements. First on 27 December in a notice regarding open national team tryouts it was briefly mentioned that the U.S. intends to start a long-term flexible residency program aimed at 2016 Olympic qualifications. Shortly thereafter it was announced that high performance coaches had been named to develop national teams. After some additional dialogue with USA Team Handball I was then able to confirm that these coaches are full time hires, although Coach Latulippe is not arriving until later this year.
Tucked away amidst typical news items like the location for the club national championships some readers might not have fully realized the significance of these two announcements. Make no mistake. These are major developments and a clear signal that the Federation has decided to dedicate more resources to its national team programs.
On the one hand, I see these developments as a welcome sign that USA Team Handball is finally going to start taking its national teams more seriously. The revolving door of coaches and the cobbling together of players a week or two before major events clearly was not working. The U.S. was not competitive and the results were dismal. Even worse the previous Federation sometimes decided to not even send our senior national teams to World Championship qualification tournaments and initially even resisted supporting PANAM Games qualification, the path to the Olympics.
On the other hand, though, I’ve got some serious concern as to whether the residency model is the right long term strategy for developing our national teams. And, even if it is the right strategy, I’m skeptical as to whether now is the right time to start it. Going further I’ve got even more doubts as to whether now is the time to hire full time coaches and whether we’ve hired coaches which match our current needs. What follows is a devil’s advocate review of Federation plans with the intent of influencing what appears to be a still evolving program for our national teams.
Residency Program (Right Strategy?)
First a short explanation of what a residency program is or at least was in the past. As the name implies U.S. National Team athletes essentially lived and trained together full time. Athletes were housed in a dormitory setting and coaches conducted daily practices (often 2/day). In many cases the athletes coming into the program were exceptional crossover athletes from other sports who were unfamiliar with Team Handball. As such, the program was often focused on teaching those athletes fundamental handball techniques. Typically, however as the U.S. approached an Olympics the rosters would settle and the dynamic would switch from individual development to putting together the best team possible.
There are several good points to be made about the residency model. First off, this model clearly resulted in the best teams the U.S. has ever produced. The U.S. was able to qualify for several Olympics, routinely beat other developing nations and while we still rarely beat European sides, we could put some scare into them on the way to some respectable score lines. Additionally, the residency program provided a tangible aspirational goal for every young player in the U.S.
All that being said, let’s be totally clear and honest about how successful Team USA was with that model. We never won a medal and sometimes didn’t even qualify for the Olympics. Let’s face it; in many respects talking about the heydays of USA Team Handball is roughly the equivalent to talking about the heydays of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Montreal Expos. Americans aspire to win, not for respectable score lines.
Next and probably most importantly, residency programs are not cheap and over the years a lot of money was spent on a few chosen athletes, many of whom have barely touched a handball since punching their Olympic ticket. While at the same time far less funding was channeled to grass roots programs that may have resulted in the establishment of a broader player and fan base in this country to develop the athletes needed.
Yes, I’m talking about the never ending debate between grass roots and national teams. National Team proponents will argue that our grass roots haven’t producing the talent needed to compete. Grass roots proponents will argue that funding residency programs is simply throwing money away on a handful of athletes that aren’t going to win anyway.
Of course, both proponents are absolutely correct in many respects. Back in 2009 I wrote a three part series titled, A Framework for National Team Success (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) that addresses these issues in greater detail. In part 3, I identified six shortcomings of the residency model, many of which I had experienced firsthand. Those shortcomings were
- The athletes were often too old to warrant the spending of development resources: Often the athletes were in their mid to late 20s
- Lack of whole person development: Athletes didn’t have many opportunities beyond handball
- Uneven Funding: Sometimes the funding wasn’t there to fully support it.
- Lack of competition: Practicing against each other can get real old
- Unclear commitments (both from the Federation and athletes): Players didn’t know where they stood; sometimes athletes bailed out
- Uneven player skills: Athletes would plateau when there weren’t better players to push them
(This is just a short synopsis; for a further explanation read the whole article)
What’s the Alternative?
Of course, if a residency program is not the right strategy it begs the question: What’s the alternative? Cobbling a team together a couple of weeks prior to an event, as I already pointed out, hasn’t worked for the U.S. very well. Thing is though, that’s pretty much what the rest of the world does nowadays. Long gone are the days when the former Eastern Bloc countries kept their national team players on a short leash. On the men’s side, all of the players on world’s top national team are professional athletes with club commitments. Training and playing with the national team is an important, but secondary part of their handball careers. The same is mostly true with the women’s teams, albeit for less pay, with the possible exception of South Korea.
The nations with middling success (Argentina, Brazil, Tunisia, Egypt for the men; Brazil and Angola for the women) have teams with mixed rosters (some professional, some semi-professional and amateur). The teams with very little success (USA, Canada, Great Britain and Australia to name a few) are almost entirely amateur. And, adding to their level of difficulty is the reality that their domestic amateur competitions are also at a very low level.
These facts all point to a logical, inescapable conclusion: If you want to have sustained national team success you’re going to have athletes capable of playing at a top professional level. So, the right strategy has little to do with how a national team trains and prepares for competition. Sure, it certainly is beneficial to train together, but the quality of the players is far more important. Accordingly, the right strategy is all about identifying, recruiting and developing quality athletes.
For nations with a quality club system and a professional league everything is already done for them. For other nations they can either try the quick fix (the residency program) or go for the long hard slog to develop the grass roots, which is by no means guaranteed to succeed either.
A Third Way?
But, perhaps there’s another way. A Residency Program that eschews the quick fix and seeks to develop quality athletes for the long haul. In part 3 of my earlier series I outlined a residency model with limited objectives that was focused on taking college age athletes and boosting their handball skills so that they could play competitively in Europe. The rough pathway I envisioned was an 18-21 year old player training at a residency program then at at 22 making his/her way to Europe playing in the 2nd or 3rd division to start, continuing to improve his/her game and then making the ranks of top sides around age 27 or so.
I won’t say that the model I’ve identified is the definitive one. What I will state, definitively, though, is that going back to the future to a residency program that mirrors the ones put in place in the past is a highly questionable strategy.
As of right now, it’s unclear as to what the Federation plan or overall objective is. In particular, will the residency program be the key element of an intense effort to qualify for the 2016 Olympics? The Federation announcement indicates that it’s aimed at 2016 qualification, but its certainly possible to seek qualification with an eye wide open towards the more feasible prospects of qualifying in 2020 or even 2024. A key indicator will be the ages of the athletes participating. Other signs of intent will be the overall cost of the program and how much funding it siphons off from grassroots efforts. To date, the U.S. Federation hasn’t released a whole lot of details other than to indicate that it will be “flexible” and that they would like to start the program in the fall of 2013. Information will surely trickle out as the program moves closer to actually starting.
Which leads to the next question I’ll tackle in this series: Does it make sense to start a residency program now? Part 2