It’s been awhile since I’ve worked on my analysis of alternative strategic options USA Team Handball might want to consider. The recent participation of U.S. Team in 2 Jr and 1 Youth competitions was a good reminder to assess whether a youth movement makes sense and how the U.S. might go about it.
Recently the U.S. participated in 3 Jr and Youth team competitions. While this isn’t the first time the U.S. has played in age based tournaments, historically it has been fairly infrequent. There are a number of reasons for this to include the cost of attending such tournaments and conflicts with school calendars, but the biggest reason has simply been a lack of players in the requisite age groups. And, we’re not talking just about not having enough players in the player pool from which to form a competitive roster. We’re talking about not even having enough players in the entire U.S. to form a 16 player roster.
Today, the situation has improved somewhat with the effective identification of dual citizen athletes and fledgling youth programs in Chicago and San Francisco, but our talent pool is still ridiculously small. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’ve put together a rough estimate as to how many athletes the U.S. has in some different categories.
- Lower Tier Pro (Men-1/Women-0)
Residency Program (M-10/W-5)
Clubs/Post College (M-40/W-20)
High School (M-50/W-5)
A few notes on the number of athletes in each category
Dual Citizens Not Included: It’s great that USA Team Handball is effectively identifying and recruiting these athletes, but they are limited, finite quantity. There’s not much we can do increase this pool short of setting up some military bases in Scandinavia. More importantly, the U.S. doesn’t have to develop these athletes. Other countries are doing it for us.
Lower Tier Pro: I’ve classified a lower tier pro as someone who is a full time or near full time professional, Gary Hines, who is the best player on his 3rd Division German club team, is the only U.S. talent developed in the U.S. that meets that criteria.
Residency Program Numbers are in Flux: USA Team Handball does not highlight or promote where it’s “elite” athletes are playing their handball. The most recent information is the player pool info (Men, Women) on the website that hasn’t been updated in over 2 years. I would theorize that it ebbs and flows, but based on social media posts it’s been more ebb for quite some time. The women for sure don’t have enough athletes to scrimmage and I suspect the men’s program is also thin on numbers.
Expats Not Included: I only considered passport carrying Americans, so expats that are USA Team Handball members aren’t included. This dramatically reduces the number of club members the U.S. has.
Only the “truly dedicated” are included: While it’s great to introduce kids to the sport, having touched a handball at a clinic or P.E. Class, doesn’t qualify as truly dedicated. The youth and highs school numbers are guesstimates based on discussions with Craig Rot and Martin Bilello on the programs in Chicago and San Francisco.
These numbers are ball park and for illustrative purposes: They are wide open to debate. It would be very interesting to take some time to fully define the categories and quantify the numbers. And, for sure, I would be a huge advocate for USA Team Handball doing such analysis because staring at such stark numbers might very well lead to different resource allocation decisions.
A Tower, Not a Pyramid
Most sports have a development pyramid by which thousands are introduced to a sport at younger ages and as athletes get older the level of play gets higher and correspondingly the number of athletes participating gets smaller. In the U.S. this pyramid is primarily based on school grade as most sports are intrinsically tied to schools. Those major pyramid steps are middle school, high school, college and professional leagues. There are some cracks in the school-sport connection with the growing popularity of travelling club programs, but for the most part school based sports dominate.
And, if your sport is not a school based sport? Well, then it’s really tough to build a pyramid. It might even seem impossible. And, the end result is a tower, not a pyramid and a very thin talent pool.
Ways to Address the Tower Reality and a Thin Talent Pool
There are a number of ways a sports federation can address this tower and thin talent pool
1) Don’t even address the talent pool. Just focus on the Tip.
Rationale: The National Team is the primary purpose of a sports federation. Creating the pyramid is an impossibility. The athletes in the “tower” while dedicated, for the most part, lack the raw athletic talent. The best solution is to identify and recruit cross over athletes and train them to be world class handball players.
Historical Perspective: This is the strategy USA Team Handball is currently implementing and has primarily implemented for the past 45 years or so. It drives me batty that smart people, despite a pile of evidence to the contrary still think this is the way to go. All of the resources spent in those 45 years with almost nothing to show in terms of the sports development in the U.S. It’s so frustrating… But, before we send those folks directly to the sanitarium let’s look at the alternatives.
2) Don’t focus on broadening your talent pool; Make your thin talent pool the best it can be.
Rationale: Expanding the sports tower to create a pyramid is a daunting challenge. While the talent pool is thin it’s what we’ve got to work with it, so let’s devote resources toward making these athletes the best handball players we can.
Historical Perspective: This strategy has been implemented to some extent in the past, but for the most part athletes that rose up the tower were bested by superior athletes. Essentially, it all depended on how successful recruitment at the tip was. To a great extent, it could be argued that due to recruiting struggles it is actually the de facto current strategy. Yes, good (not great) athletes are having quite a few resources directed toward their development of handball skills.
3) Focus on broadening your talent pool and the rest will take care of itself.
Rational. The U.S. can try all the quick fixes it wants, but the reality is that the only way the U.S. is ever going to be competitive in handball is to create a pyramid with a broad talent pool. It won’t be easy and it will take years, maybe decades for the strategy to bear fruit, but it’s the only sustainable path. And once you have a healthy sized talent pool fielding a quality national team will become far easier.
Historical Perspective: Outside of the very brief Dieter Esch Era from 2008 to 2011 this strategy has been given lip service. Everyone wants a larger talent pool, but when push comes to shove, very few resources have been allocated towards initiatives aimed at broadening the talent pool.
None of these 3 options is the no brainer that its proponents might think it is. Some will also surely argue that it’s a false choice to say that only one of these options can be chose. And, I could certainly see that argument if resources weren’t so scarce. But resource are scarce and tough choices have to be made. In the next part I’ll take a closer look at options 2 and 3 in terms of pros, cons, cost and timing.