Because the U.S. has a very limited grass roots base, U.S. clubs have developed only a handful of national team caliber athletes. To overcome this deficiency USA Team Handball has historically relied on the recruitment of “crossover athletes” for its National Teams. There has been a lot of debate as to whether this is a good strategy or not. Opponents blast it as a shortsighted, quick fix strategy that has produced mediocre results (at best) and squanders limited resources that could be spent on building up the grass roots. Proponents argue that the grass roots growth will follow national team success and that the U.S. should take full advantage of its large size and accompanying raw athletic talent pool. I’ve tackled this debate in other commentaries, though, and will not it address here. Instead, I’ll presuppose that focusing on crossover athletes is the right strategy and that finding better ways to recruit these athletes are needed.
While I would have liked to have seen a Board of Directors really tackle the basic fundamental question of whether crossover athletes should really be the focus before starting residency programs I am pleased to see that the current shortcomings in recruiting are at least now being identified as a major challenge. (July 2014 BoD Meeting Minutes) Most troubling to me was that for several months after the start of the Residency Programs there appeared to be almost no recruitment whatsoever. Just simple announcements on the Federation websites for National Team tryouts, which coupled with the athletes having to pay their own costs to participate often resulted in very low turnouts. It’s not clear what else was being done behind the scenes, but one meager solution to address the problem was to hire unpaid interns to focus on recruiting: (Link 1, Link 2) At the last tryouts in July there were 6 men and 14 women participants. None of the male athletes that attended were picked up and to the best of my knowledge every player in residence on the men’s team has come from our existing, but very limited grass roots programs. On the women’s side there have been a number of crossover athlete recruits, but it’s unclear as to the long term potential of these athletes.
There’s a fairly stark underlying reality to the decision to establish full time National Team Residency programs. If you’re going to the expense to have them you better be able to fill those programs with quality athletes. And, if you don’t have established grass roots programs churning out athletes that means you’re really going to need some real emphasis and support to recruiting efforts. Here are some steps that could be taken to beef up USA Team Handball’s recruiting efforts.
- Put someone clearly in charge of recruiting. This might sound somewhat obvious, but I suspect USA Team Handball has not clearly delineated where the “buck stops” on this all important task. Most likely everyone drawing a salary is involved in some aspects of recruiting and if you’re assigning interns and volunteers even those that aren’t being paid. That’s a good use of staff time, but someone needs to be in charge and accountable. This “someone” could be the coaches, the Tech Director, the CEO, or even a newly hired recruiting coordinator. Regardless, recruiting should move very high on their job jar list.
- Assign clear metrics to guide recruiting focus and measure success. In many respects, the real measure of success will be National Team wins and losses over time. But, those results won’t be known for several years and there are other near term metrics that could be established to measure success, such as simply the overall numbers of athletes trying out for the national team. Even better, would be some sort of weighting system that would take into account an athlete’s age and skill level. For sure, signing a pretty good athlete at age 18 should be seen as a major recruiting coup, whereas signing a 25 year old athlete, even a really good one is less desired. Without clear metrics to guide recruiting the temptation may be to simply find warm bodies willing to move to Auburn. That may fool the USOC and perhaps some members of the Board, but it won’t solve our recruiting deficit. And, worse it means that the Federation is wasting resources and being disingenuous to an athlete making significant sacrifices. (For an idea on what those recruiting metrics might be see these earlier commentaries: Link 1 and Link 2)
- Hire someone to be a full time recruiting coordinator. A strong case can even be made that recruiting is so important and at the same time so challenging that it justifies expending resources to hire someone full time to tackle this job. Someone who wakes up in the morning focused on addressing and solving the recruiting challenge. Someone without other tasks distracting them. Someone who knows this is their job and keeping that job means bringing in quality recruits. That wouldn’t mean that this person was the only one recruiting per se, but for sure that individual would be orchestrating other staff and volunteers in their efforts. It’s a tough task and a skill set for which a Team Handball background while desired is not really necessary. Such an individual might be someone with college recruiting experience at the Division 2 or Division 3 levels. The logic being that USA Team Handball could benefit from someone with skills finding athletic diamonds in the rough missed by the Division 1 schools.
- Provide more resources to support recruiting efforts. A lot of recruiting can be done on a budget thanks to the internet and the good old fashioned telephone call. Some recruiting efforts, however, will be more successful with a physical presence. And, this will require a travel and event budget. Some of the travel would be to events where high school athletes congregate like summer camps and tournaments. There would be an art to finding the athletes that aren’t going to get the Division I scholarship, would still be great handball players and be willing to try a residency program. And, this would require a lot of networking and some face time to establish relationships. USA Team Handball could also set up its own clinics/tryout events for high school and college age athletes in select markets. Unlike, the open announcement that have been used in the past, though, there would be a significant amount of legwork up front to ensure that targeted athletes would attend. Phone calls, letters, and perhaps a visit from a former Olympian would all be part of a targeted strategy.
- Provide greater financial benefits to selected recruits. Ideally, USA Team Handball would have the resources to more effectively recruit some of its athletes. In particular, a college scholarship, even a partial one, could turn some heads and entice some border line Division 1 athletes (in their chosen sport), to commit to USA Team Handball. And, it goes without saying, that ideally these athletes have been carefully assessed as athletes with skills that would make them ideal candidates in their new chosen sport of Team Handball.
- More and better recruits being identified. Assuming success it’s hard to find much fault with the concept of better recruiting.
- Diverts resources and attention from grass roots development. The old, never ending argument again: The resources applied to recruiting could be applied to setting up grass roots programs that, in theory, would develop players that would never have to be recruited to play for Team USA.
- Diverts resources from current national team prospects. Again, resources applied towards recruiting and future success may have to come out of the budget lines dedicated to current national team training and competition.
- Inability to recruit desired athletes. Quite possibly the challenges of recruiting athletes, particularly younger ones, to play for Team USA might be too difficult to overcome. The extra emphasis may yield no significant improvement over the trickle of athletes that already comes in. This risk is so significant that it might be wise to reluctantly consider no significant efforts to improve recruiting, and, in turn, a rethinking of the Residency Program model.
- The first two steps identified (clearly assigning responsibilities and establishing metrics) can be implemented at fairly low cost. Increasing the emphasis on recruiting and spending more time on it will, however, mean that some other tasks will get less focus. There are only so many hours in a day and something else will surely no longer get done as well. Clearly established metrics, however, should free up some time as Federation staff will no longer waste time recruiting athletes that don’t fit the desired metrics.
- Hiring a full time recruiter will likely cost in the neighborhood of $40-80K in personnel costs. Alternatively, USA Team Handball could hire someone to work the recruiting issues half time while working other administration issues. A travel/event budget could run upwards to $100,000/year. If trips are judiciously planned it could be much lower, but events like the ill fated summer festival are more expensive and could easily bust the $100K budget in no time, especially if more of the prospective athlete costs are paid for.
- Providing financial support for select athletes could get real expensive quickly. Tuition and other costs for an in-state student at Auburn University runs $29,000/year. Barring a huge increase in financial support it’s pretty unlikely that USA Team Handball will be handing out full ride scholarships anytime soon. That being said even a small amount of scholarship aid coupled with the opportunity to represent your country in international competition might be enough to sway some heads. The big secret is that outside of football and basketball many Division 1 scholarships are really only partial scholarships. This support varies from sport to sport and from school to school. Additionally, athletes are often given preferential treatment for traditional financial aid, which explains at least in part, how the Ivy League schools, which technically have no scholarships, somehow attract Division 1 talent. Bottom line: some level of support; even a small amount could help recruiting efforts.
Timing for Implementation
The first two steps (clearly assigning recruiting responsibilities and establishing metrics) could and should be implemented immediately. The timing for hiring a full time recruiter and/or providing more recruiting resources probably should wait until the current effort to qualify for the 2016 Olympics runs its course. One possibility would be to let one of the national team coaches go and to use that salary towards recruiting. Alternatively, recruiting could be clearly delineated as a coaching responsibility (See below for further discussion on that possibility). And, as always, it sure would be nice if there was more money available to just simply bump up the recruiting budget. Barring that happening, though, USA Team Handball needs to take a hard look at whether some other part of the budget should be lowered to meet the recruiting challenge.
Side Analysis (The American Collegiate Coaching Model and the Traditional Coaching Model)
As, I pointed out in an earlier series success in collegiate sports in the U.S. is very closely tied to recruiting success. And while recruiting is a vital part of success in most team sports, to the best of my knowledge there is no other sporting league or entity where coaches are expected to take on so much of the responsibility and accountability for recruiting success. In professional team sports there is usually a general manager who is responsible for acquiring and hiring players. The coach may be involved in the process, but his primary role is to take the players given to him and coach them to win matches. For national teams it is much the same story and when a nation already has a strong grass roots programs there is virtually no recruiting. Essentially, the nation already has its available players and the coach’s job is merely to pick which players they want on their roster. The only occasional recruiting is to acquire a naturalized citizen or perhaps to coax an aging veteran to continue playing for his nation.
This is a stark contrast to American collegiate sports where success on the field hinges largely on a coaches ability to convince highly touted 17 year old kids to come to their college. Money can’t even be used to recruit athletes, although some like Charles Barkley joke that isn’t necessarily followed. While USA Team Handball doesn’t have to follow collegiate rules the residency programs are essentially competing for the same athletes. Further, with a thin talent pool, a U.S. National Team coach can’t be successful with merely picking the best 16 players available. This means that recruiting will be a big part of U.S. National Team programs for years to come. The question then becomes can the U.S. expect or even find a national team coach that can essentially function like a U.S. collegiate coach? To be responsible and accountable for successful recruiting? That’s certainly a tall order for a foreign national and that’s one of the reasons why I questioned the hiring of the current coaches. Conversely, it’s also surely tough to find a skilled American recruiter who can also coach the finer parts of handball. This suggests that unless someone uniquely qualified with that dual skill set can be found it’s probably necessary to separate the coaching and recruiting roles.