The International Handball Goalkeeper Camp: The Chance of a Lifetime for this American Goalkeeper

USA goalie Joey Williams with Hungary’s Roland Mikler, fellow camper, Alex Djurdjevic, and getting tips from Croatia’s Mirko Alilović

USA goalie Joey Williams with Hungary’s Roland Mikler, fellow camper, Alex Djurdjevic, and getting tips from Croatia’s Mirko Alilović

Joey Williams is a 20 year old goalkeeper from Farmington Hills, Michigan. He plays for the Hope College Team Handball club, and was a member of the U.S. Junior National Team for the 2015 Partille Cup in Sweden. Last summer he attended the International Handball Goalkeeper Camp in Croatia and the following is his account of his experience.

One of the many perks of handball is that it presents the opportunity to connect with new people and places through a shared love of the sport. As the level of competition increases, so do the opportunities to make lifelong memories and friendships. For an American goalkeeper, chances to get proper coaching and bonding time with fellow keepers are few and far between. However, for one week this past summer, I was able to both meet goalkeepers from across the globe and receive personalized coaching from some of the best goalkeepers and coaches on the planet. To any goalkeeper seeking to bring their game to world-class standards, I would recommend attending the 2017 International Handball Goalkeeper Camp in Split, Croatia.

Split, Croatia is somewhere I never imagined myself traveling to when I first started playing handball in 2012. I discovered the camp while scouring the internet for handball drills, and was at first hesitant to travel half-way across the world for a sport that my friends were convinced that I had made up. Further research into the camp’s coaching staff (which had included superstars like Thierry Omeyer, Mirko Alilovic, and Roland Mikler, to name a few) and the realization that time was ticking away at my dream of playing professional handball convinced me that I had no choice but to attend. After months of frugal saving and hernia-inducing lawn work, I was on my way.

My leap of faith had paid off immediately as I brushed shoulders with handball superstar Nikola Karabatic when I was picking up my bags at the Split airport (a complete coincidence considering he was not affiliated with the camp, but I took it as a blessing from the handball gods nonetheless). From there, the sense of awe and wonder only continued. My driver happened to be German national who played professional American football in Germany (ironic,right?). It was difficult for me to chat about football or handball though, because I was busy picking my jaw up from the ground as I gazed at the scenery on either side of the road. To our right were striking mountains that provided a geographic backdrop to the city of Split, while to our left was the stunning blue of the Adriatic Sea. When I arrived for the opening meeting I was greeted by a round of applause from about 100 parents, campers, and coaches as handball goalkeeper guru Vanja Radic pointed me out as being the first American to attend the camp (and probably the first American handball player many of them had ever seen in person up to that point). Although being the lone American did little to help my handball skills, it did provide me with some humility that comes from both being a newcomer to the game and a representative of my country. Not to mention a level of gratitude that came from finally being immersed in the world of handball goalkeeping.  

The week was filled with sweat, memories, and more sweat. We had 2 training sessions a day with different coaches and a new emphasis at each session. The coaching staff included a variety of legendary coaches and players. Coaches Haris Porobic (KC Veszprem), Vladimir Vujovic (Croatian National Team),Vlatko Đonovic (Buducnost), and many others led practices and provided input and guidance for campers. Roland Mikler (KC Veszprem), Jelena Grubisic (Bucharesti), and Mirko Alilovic (KC Veszprem) both demonstrated drills and offered feedback to players. Some of the world’s finest young goalkeepers were in the mix among the campers. Egypt’s junior national team goalkeeper, a former Mauritius national team keeper, and an 18-year Serbian who rose through the ranks of Veszprem to be on the first team behind Mikler and Alilovic, were in attendance. Campers and coaches alike were able to bond during the 2 hour training sessions as well as during a half day boating excursion to a few of Croatia’s thousands of islands.

In addition to physical development, the camp offered a unique opportunity for both mental and social growth. Karina Aas, a sports psychologist for several Norwegian national teams, lectured on ways to increase mental toughness and resilience in both goalkeeping and life. I gained a lot of confidence and perspective from these sessions and they were definitely a highlight for me. Socially,  I was able to make friends with people from all over the world, from Scandinavia to Egypt. My friends Eske, Alex, Ludwig, Lovro, Sindre, and Magnus immediately took me in as one of their own both on and off the court. Their patience, kindness, and knowledge of the sport made my time in Croatia exponentially more memorable and fun.

In addition to creating new friends, this camp created an opportunity to expand my handball network, which is essential for anyone aspiring to play handball in Europe. The connections I made both personally and professionally, in addition to the experience and expertise I gained, made attending the 2016 International Handball Goalkeeper camp an incredible investment. To any handball goalkeepers seeking to take the next step in their development, make plans to attend the 2017 International Handball Goalkeeper Camp. I’ll see you there.

International Handball Goalkeeper Camp website: Link 

For information or questions, please email me: 14williamsj@gmail.com

Podcast:  Craig Rot Talks Youth Development in the U.S.

USA and Alberta Youth Teams at recent XPS Network North American Cup. Coach Rot is on the far right.

USA and Alberta Youth Teams at recent XPS Network North American Cup. Coach Rot is on the far right.

For the past 7 years Craig Rot has been at the forefront of youth development in the U.S., first in Minnesota and now in the Chicago area.  In this wide ranging podcast we discuss his efforts to introduce handball in schools and his after school program which is starting to produce more technically sound players.  Players that are playing key roles on youth national teams that Rot has coached at the Partille Cup, IHF Challenge Tournaments and most recently a 3 game series vs Alberta.

And, what’s a podcast without a little controversy so we debate the following topics:

  • The pros/cons of focusing on lateral growth to expose the sport at a top level to as many athletes as possible vs more in depth training on a select group
  • The challenge of getting “elite” athletes to play handball vice a more established sport
  • The pros/cons of dual citizen athletes playing on USA youth teams

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

USA Beach Handball Men’s National Team vs Brazil

USA and Brazil in action this past weekend.

USA and Brazil in action.

This past weekend the U.S. Beach Handball Men’s National Team traveled to Niterói, Brazil (near Rio de Janeiro) to take on the Brazilian National Team in a couple friendly matches to celebrate Brazil’s first world title in Beach Handball in 2006. The U.S. lost an informal match Saturday 2 sets to 0, and an official match on Sunday, also 2 sets to 0. The score of the first set was 22-16 and the second set was 28-11.

The U.S. roster consisted of Darryl Yarbrough, Ebiye Udo-Udoma, Taylor Lapin, Kenneth McKagan, Bill Bigham, Matt Singletary, Bryan Cook, Ethan Pickett and Michael Hinson. Singletary, Cook, Pickett and Hinson each made their international debut as players. Brazil is a world power in beach handball, placing 2nd at the 2016 World Championships after winning the title in 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2014.

The Sunday match was broadcast on Brazilian TV and when video is made available we will add a link to it.

Canadian National Team in Brazil

Canadian men on defense against Cuba.  Cuba won the match played yesterday in Brazil 35-30.

Canadian men on defense against Cuba. Cuba won the match played yesterday in Brazil 35-30.

This past week the Canadian Men’s National Team traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil to participate in a 4 Nation tournament with hosts Brazil, Chile and Cuba.  The Canadians finished last, but Coach Alexis Bertrand was quoted on the Brazilian website as being pleased, stating “We need this type of tournament to evolve our handball. It is important for us to play against skilled teams, just so we evolve in the sport.”   Both Brazil and Chile had several of their European based players competing as club teams were on break due to 2018 European Championship qualification matches being played this week.

Results

Friday, 4 November
Chile 37 x 24 Cuba
Brazil 46 x 12 Canada Canada Goals: Vachon (4) Larouche (2), Touzel (2), Chaduvet (1 .) Dupéré (1) Fischer (1) and Rousselle (1)

Saturday, 5 November
Canada 21 x 37 Chile
Brazil 45 x 17 Cuba Canada Goals: Larouche (5), Vachon (4), Touzel (3), Gaudet (2), Rousselle (2), Danulet (1), Van Wijk (1), Mercier (1), Dereck Dupéré (1) e Chauvet (1)

Sunday, 6 November
Brazil 40 x 29 Chile
Cuba 35 x 30 Canada Canada Goals: Vachon (11), Gaudet (7) Rousselle (3), Chauvet (3) Fischer (2) Mercier (2), Gordulic (1) and Dupéré (1).

The EHF Champions League Group Stage:  Mostly Meaningless, but Still Entertaining

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”.  I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

ehfTV Commentator Tom O’Brannigain wrote an interesting commentary a while back taking issue with a German blogger Sascha Staat’s characterization of the Group Stage of the EHF Champions League as meaningless.  Staat’s commentary pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between placing 1st or 6th place, rendering many of the matches meaningless.  And, that this was particularly true for the German clubs that had to cope with the more competitive Bundesliga (HBL) while clubs like Barca and Kielce could coast along in their easy national leagues.

O’Brannigain, counterpoint was that it sure didn’t seem that way from his viewpoint watching the hotly contested matches.  He also pointed out that except for last season, the HBL has largely been dominated by Kiel.

Staat has followed up with a counterpoint which I largely agree with.  I hadn’t seen it, though until I was mostly finished with this commentary.  I’ll amplify some key points though as to why the matches are mostly meaningless, but still quite entertaining.

Round of 16 (if seeded after 5 rounds)

First off, as a reference point let’s take a look at what the Round of 16 matchups would be today after just 5 rounds of group play.  Below are the pairings and how the teams would be grouped for quarterfinal matches. (Barca and Kielce are in first place in Groups A and B respectively, so they would both get a bye to the Quarterfinals.)

Barca (A1) Bye
Szeged (B4) vs Flensburg (A5)

Kielce (B1) Bye
Veszprem (A4) vs Brest (B5)

Paris S-G (A2) vs the winner of Logrono (C1)/Besiktas (D2)
R-NL (B3) vs Bjerringbro (A6)

Vardar (B2) vs the winner of Nantes (D1)/Montpellier (C2)
Kiel (A3) vs Kristianstad (B6)

Taking a look at these pairings, I’ll say with around 95% confidence that the quarterfinals would be

Barca (A1) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) vs Veszprem (A4)
Paris S-G (A2) vs R-NL (B3)
Vardar (B2) vs Kiel (A3)

Honestly, I think the only 2 teams capable of crashing the quarterfinal party are Szeged and surprising Nantes.  But, even then it’s a long shot.  Of course, as Zagreb showed last year, anything can happen.  It’s just not likely, though, that an undermanned team will prevail in a 120 minute aggregate format.

While that’s the scenario for the current standings there’s sure to be some fluctuation over the course of the Group Stage.  Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that in Group A, there is a significant gap in quality between the top 5 (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg) and the bottom 3 (Bjerringbro, Plock and Schaffhausen).  At least I will be very surprised if any of those last 3 teams crack the top 5.

Group B is a little harder to read, and overall I think it is significantly weaker than Group A.  With this group I think the separation line is between the top 3 (Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) and the bottom 5 (Szeged, Brest, Kristianstad, Celje and Zagreb.  Maybe Szeged or Brest are above the line, but I’ve got my doubts.

With Groups C and D (also known as the little kids table) I think whoever gets matched up against the 2nd seed in Group B will have a puncher’s chance of making the quarterfinal, particularly if they play Vardar, but it’s still a longshot.

All told, shuffle the standings for the top 5 in Group A and the top 3 in Group B, however you want I’m betting those 8 teams (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem, Flensburg, Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) will make the quarter-finals.  But, unlike the round of 16 every single one of those quarterfinal clubs will have a realistic expectation of making the final four regardless of who their opponent is.  There won’t be a gimme matchup for any club.

So what’s the point of all this analysis?  Well Staat is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if you make 1st place or 6th place.  At least it matters, if you want a relatively easy round of 16 matchup.  If you’re a top team in Group A, you can be happy with 5th place, but you’ll want to avoid 6th place.  And, if you’re a top team in Group B, you’ll want to avoid dropping down to 4th place.  But, once you are firmly established in the top 5 of Group A or top 3 of Group B it doesn’t matter very much where you end up.  You’re going to get a Round of 16 match you should win and then you’re going to get a challenging quarterfinal.   But Staat has the right sentiment; Win, lose or draw doesn’t it matter a lot, as long as you don’t slip below the demarcation line.

Odds according to Nordic Bet

And, it’s not just me that’s come up with that analysis.  The oddsmakers also see a huge gap in quality as the odds of winning the title drop off dramatically after the top 8 teams.

Paris 2-1
Veszprem 3.4-1
Barca 4.5-1
Kielce 7-1
Kiel 7-1
Flensburg 11-1
R-NL 11-1
Vardar 12.5-1
Szeged 94-1
Plock 94-1
Brest, Celje, Zagreb, Nantes, Bjerringbro Silkeborg, Logrono, Holstebro, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen, Bucharest, Medvedi 249-1
Kristianstad, Metalurg, Elverum, Presov, Besiktas, Braga 749-1
Still Entertaining

But, I’ll give O’Brannigain his due regarding the competitiveness of the matches.  Despite the lack of meaning, so to speak, there’s been a lot of quality, entertaining handball being played.  Players are playing hard and they clearly want to win.  There’s even been a few surprise losses to the top 8 teams, but I still have a hard time believing that those top teams will slide below the demarcation lines in their groups.  For sure they won’t rest their best players in a CL match if that’s in danger of happening.

Other Formats to Consider

Staat also has a point regarding too many teams (6 of 8) reaching the knockout stages.  This all but ensures a team with a losing record will advance.  But, the old format with four teams qualifying wasn’t much better.  This is because the groups had more 2nd tier teams, again ensuring that a top team would reach the Round of 16 unless they suffered a total meltdown.  So, basically the only real difference in the format is that the group stages have more matchups between elite teams.  Overall, this is a good thing even if there aren’t any real consequences to these showdowns.

There’s no perfect format for a league, but in principle when the match outcome has significant consequences you’re going get a more compelling match.  This is why the knockout stages of the CL are so compelling.  And, it’s why the Group Stage matches are not.

If you want to make the Group Stages more compelling you will need to have fewer clubs advancing, but the EHF would also need to make the groups stronger top to bottom.  And, right now the only way to do that would be to add some more German Clubs, which wouldn’t make very many people happy.  The German clubs don’t want more challenging matches in the first place and here you would be adding even more German teams to the fray.  Scandinavia and other leagues are already not happy with the creation of Groups C and D and under this scenario they would be totally pushed out.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you really wanted to get radical you could make the knockout stages more compelling by having more matches of consequence between the elite clubs. Why just play two in the Quarterfinals?  Why not a best of 3 or best of 5 NBA format?  Or better yet skip the Final Four weekend and give handball the full NBA treatment:  play a best of 7 for the semis and finals.  That would be phenomenal!

But, I know that won’t be happening anytime soon due to the number of matches that would have to be played and for how it would mess up the domestic league schedules.  Still, I can dream, can’t I?

Podcast: A Discussion on Handball in California and Argentina

femebal

Femebal: The regional federation centered around Buenos Aires has been the developmental force behind Argentina’s rise in the handball world

Cal Heat’s Martin Bilello and I discuss the state of handball in California and why there’s only been 2 major clubs there for several years.  In this free flowing conversation Martin also explains how handball is organized in Argentina and what the U.S. might learn from successful development programs there.

Femebal Website: Link

 

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

Need balls, socks or shoes?  Check out the sponsor of this Podcast:  Team Handball Nation

Podcast: High School Handball in the Bay Area

The Lycée Français de San Francisco and Sterne School exchange high fives after the first every High School Handball match in California. The Lycee de Francais won the historic affair 19-17.

The Lycée Français de San Francisco and the Sterne School exchange high fives after the first every High School Handball match in California. The Lycee de Francais won the historic affair 19-17.

It’s not every day that U.S. high schools compete against each other in handball.  Outside of a league in Montgomery County Maryland this is the only other league that I’m aware of.  To find out more, I interviewed Martin Bilello to discuss how Cal Heat has been developing youth Team Handball in the bay area and worked with 4 high schools to establish the new league.

Cal Heat Website article: Link

Youth League Website: Link

Need balls, socks or shoes?  Check out the sponsor of this Podcast:  Team Handball Nation

 

Flashback Friday: A look back at past USA Team Handball meetings and some optimism going forward

club-symposium

Yes, We’ve been here before… As USA Team Handball gears up for what has unintentionally become a quadrennial meeting to discuss the state of handball in the U.S. here’s a bit of history regarding the past two meetings. And, a bit of sunshine optimism going forward.

USA Team Handball is holding a Club Symposium next weekend “to share the vision and programs being planned and for clubs to know that they are the pillars of the organization and your input is most valued in this planning process.”

Meetings similar to this were held in 2008 and 2012.  In June 2008, Dieter Esch hosted a Team Handball Summit meeting in St Louis which was essentially an open forum opportunity to educate him and newly hired General Manager, Steve Pastorino on issues related to handball in the U.S.  I attended and here’s my summary of that meeting: Link

The meeting was a positive sharing of information and I was optimistic about the future.  Alas, 3.5 years later both Esch and Pastorino were gone: Link

Jeff Utz replaced Dieter Esch as Board President and Dave Gascon took the reins as the interim General Manager. Working with the USOC they held a Strategic Planning Meeting in April 2012.  This meeting included a professional facilitator and was designed to be the kick off for the development of a comprehensive strategic plan for the organization.  There was lots of good discussion at the meeting and in my podcast interview Jeff Utz discussed the major focus areas for follow on work: Financial Stability, “Pipeline” Athlete Development, Promotion/Marketing and Governance/Management Structure. (This podcast interview is available for download  at the top of this post) These areas were later expanded to the following committees:  Link

Again, I was optimistic about the future of the sport in this country as USA Team Handball was finally beginning to think strategically about its future.  But, as I’ve pointed out before this effort never continued.  The committees were not empowered to do anything and were simply told to submit their brainstorming ideas to the Board of Directors.  In 2013, most of the committees were quietly removed from the federation website as if the strategic planning meeting had never occurred.  (For some reason, promotion/marketing and fundraising are still identified even though the individuals listed haven’t been involved with the sport for a couple of years.) For sure, no strategic plan was ever written.  My overall thoughts are summed up here: Link

And, so now we come to 2016 with a new meeting and new opportunities to move the sport forward in this country.  I know I come off as a real pessimist sometimes.  (Hey, if you attended both of those previous meetings and saw the outcome you likely would be too.)

But, it’s time yet again for a little optimism.  USA Team Handball’s new leadership, Board President, Dr Harvey Schiller and CEO, Mike Cavanaugh have now had a few years to take stock of the current state of affairs.  The Olympics have recently provided some added buzz to the sport.  There’s a solid possibility of a 2024 Olympics in L.A.  And, if not 2024, then surely 2028 is in the cards.  Some solid youth programs have been established in Chicago and other locales. Our Men’s Beach Handball team won a Pan American Championship and played in a World Championship.  Maybe there’s even a good TV deal on the horizon.  All these developments and possibilities could lead to what I think is an inevitable tipping point for handball in this country.  A tipping point by which the sport moves from quadrennial, marginal niche sport to a solid niche sport with a significant fan and player base.

I hope to be a part of the planning that speeds up the timetable for that inevitable tipping point.  Yes, time for a little optimism.

Documentary on 1972 Men’s Olympic Team in Development

Archival footage of the U.S. Men’s 22-20 victory over Spain at the 1972 Olympics

Archival footage of the U.S. Men’s 22-20 victory over Spain at the 1972 Olympics

Mark Wright, a former USA National Team member is developing, “The Boys of ’72” , a feature length documentary about America’s first Olympic team handball squad.  The 72 Olympic team, largely consisting of Army personnel went from knowing nothing about the sport to beating Spain in the space of two years, still the only U.S. Men’s team win over a European side in Olympic competition.  The film, anticipating a 2019 release, is currently seeking funding.   For more information regarding the film contact contact Mark at mark@sangamonhouse.com.

Video Introduction: Link

Sangamon House “The Boys of ‘72” webpage: Link

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but Perhaps Some Key Decision Makers Don’t Fully Appreciate the Professional Aspects of Today’s Handball

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back in 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight how many in the U.S. have a narrow view of the sport and don’t fully understand how the sport is professionalized in Europe

What’s the Bundesliga?

Time for another war story that might give you further insight as to why some folks in the U.S. actually believe a Residency Program can develop a national team capable of competing on the world stage.

The scene:  February, 1993.  The USA Men’s National Team is reviewing the tape of their match played the day before against Finland.  The U.S. was conducting a training camp in Finland in preparation for the upcoming World Championships in Sweden.  Finland has only ever qualified for one World Championship, back in 1958 and is considered a 2nd or 3rd tier nation.  (i.e., in theory, a team the U.S. should be able to beat.  U.S. National Team coach, Vojtech Mares, a former all-world player from the Czech Republic is savaging the team’s performance, a 30-22 loss.

Personally, I hadn’t played very well and that’s because I had to play defense against, Finland’s best player, Mikael Kallman.  As we watched the film I got to relive him beating me and the rest of my teammates leftwards, backwards and forwards for 11 goals.  Quite simply he had a combination of speed and power that I had never seen before.

In the 2nd half we were making a bit of a comeback and Finland needed a goal to stifle our momentum.  Kallman, who had been playing left back, moved to center back and spoke to the backs on either side of him.  I don’t know the Finnish words for “clear out”, but they had clearly been said as both backs shaded to the side to give him a bit more room to work against the slow American.

And, as Kallman started his move from 12 meters or so, I crouched down as probably as determined as I’ve ever been to stop someone 1 on 1 defensively.  No swim move on me this time.  I’m staying in front of him and by God, he’s going to get hit hard.  But, this time Kallman did something I’d never seen before.  He came toward me as usual, but instead of picking a direction to beat the slow American, he stopped at about 10 meters, jumped straight up off of both feet, cocked his throwing arm and threw a bee-bee into the upper corner of the net.

At which point, Coach stopped the tape and rewound to the point where he released the ball.  There right in front of Kallman was me, crouched ready to stop him in either direction only now just realizing Kallman was instead going to shoot.  My lanky arms were only just starting to rise for a shot block.  Coach continued the sequence in slow motion and my reaction speed was comical.  It was if a high school baseball player was batting against a 100 mph fast baller and started swinging the bat only after the ball was already in the catcher’s glove.

Coach looked at me and said, “John, what were you thinking?”

I started to respond, “Coach, that guy is really good and I wasn’t going to…”

Coach Mares, exasperated, cut me off, “Of course he’s good.  He’s the MVP of the Bundesliga.”

To which, I replied, “What’s the Bundesliga?”

Coach, then just through his hands up in the air as if to say, “What I’m doing here with these Americans” and “Oh, this is just hopeless.”

Really, I’m sure to Coach Mares I pretty much sounded like Libertarian Presidential Candidate, Gary Johnson, when he asked, “What is Aleppo?”

Ignorance is Bliss

So, I’ll defend my ignorance a bit.  This was 1993, pre-wide spread use of the internet.  There was no handball on TV.  Heck, there was no European sport of any kind being shown on TV.  I had never ever heard the word, “Bundesliga” before, let alone did I even know it was a German word.  We were playing in Finland after all.  I had no concept of how sports were organized in Europe.  Handball wise, I had some vague notion that there were handball clubs in Europe, but simply thought that they were just more organized versions of what we had in the U.S.  Heck, I even assumed that European national teams had residency programs similar to ours.  All really bad assumptions, that, but understandable given my total lack of exposure to any handball outside of an American context.

Of course, I can look back now and laugh at how totally clueless I was.  Kallman was the best player ever for Finland and had indeed been the MVP of the Bundesliga the year before.  The first non-German to win that award and only one of three Non-Germans to ever win it (the others are Nikola Karabatic and Filip Jicha).  I’d say he was in good company.  (For a pretty good example of his effectiveness check out this video from the 1993 EHF Club cup:  Link.  He’s number 3 in blue.  At the 22:40 minute mark on the tape you can see him draw a two minute after he goes by 2 defenders.  And, then at 23:25 mark is the jump stop shot that made me look foolish.  At least I made him shoot a little further out. I don’t feel so bad now…)

Regarding the Bundesliga, I’m now such a fan that I relish watching that league more than the Champions League, which really only gets interesting in the knock out stages.  Heck, I’ll go further.  A good HBL match, in my opinion beats an Olympic match.  Much the same way an NBA playoff game beats Olympic basketball.

But, all of my greater understanding and appreciation for professional club handball can mostly be attributed to the happenstance of living in Europe for five years and following the sport very closely ever since.  In fact, I suspect if that hadn’t ever lived overseas, I would be more supportive of a residency program because quite frankly, I wouldn’t know any better.  Ignorance is bliss…

Ignorance is also Dangerous to Long Term Strategic Planning

Flash forward to today and the internet abounds with lots of information regarding professional club handball.  EHF Champions League matches can be watched at ehfTV.com and it’s fairly easy to research your would be competition.  One would think that it would be nearly impossible for an American to be as clueless as I was 23 years ago.  But, trust me the average American is pretty clueless when it comes to professional club handball in Europe and the impact it has on today’s game.  How big it is.  How professionalized it has become.  How, it is the principle training ground for virtually all of the world’s top handball players. And, this might seem shocking, but it’s even largely true for the few Americans that actually care about the sport in this country.  Their context is the clubs in the U.S., the U.S. national team and the Olympics every four years.

But, what will really having you scratching your head is this:  It’s even true of some USA Team Handball Board Members, National Team players and other key players in the USA Team Handball community.  I guarantee you that some if asked could not name one of the top clubs in Europe.  Couldn’t tell you which nations have the top leagues or when the club season begins and ends in Europe.  Couldn’t even begin to tell you what the relative strengths are between national leagues or what it means to play in the 2nd division in Germany vs the 2nd division in Poland.  For sure, in some respects, such information could be considered trivial.   (Here’s a primer on European Club Handball: Link)

But, this overall lack of knowledge or full appreciation of European professional club handball has real consequences in that it enables smart people to think that a Residency Program is a feasible strategy.  Because if you think that handball in Europe is amateur or perhaps just somewhat professionalized it is somewhat reasonable to think that a group of determined and athletic Americans can rise up from rural Alabama and shock the world.

Of course, I can’t say for sure what the key decision makers know as it relates to the professionalism of the sport in Europe.  These decision makers have varied backgrounds and experiences.  Something tells me, though, that these decision makers have an impression that handball is just “somewhat professionalized” and nothing on par with American professional leagues.  I’m thinking a bit of education and exposure to what’s going on in Europe at the club level would result in some fresh perspectives and a change in direction.

“Somewhat professionalized?”  What does that phrase mean or imply?  In the next part of this series I’ll elaborate and explain how since the 80s and 90s the professionalization of the sport has resulted in amateur teams falling further behind.

 

Podcast (Throw Back Thursday):  August 2012 Interview with 1972 Olympians

72 Team Handball Olympians (From left to right: Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert

72 Team Handball Olympians (From left to right: Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert

While I’m on the topic of “Glory Days” there’s not better way to continue the discussion then a re-listen of my interview with members of the 1972 Men’s Olympic Handball squad.  Back in 2012 the team had gathered in Las Vegas for their 40 year reunion.  I sat down with Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert and we discussed how the team was formed, how they prepared for the games, their qualification tournament in front of a packed house in Elkhart, Indiana, their experiences in Munich and their thoughts about what had happened with Team Handball in the U.S. the past 40 years.

As many of you know, since this interview Dennis Berkholtz has re-engaged with the sport as the new chair of USA Beach Handball.

1972 Results

Group Play (0-3)
USA vs. Hungary 15:28 (8:16)
USA vs. Yugoslavia  15:25 (9:11)
USA vs. Japan 16:20 (9:9)

Placement 13-16th place
Semi: USA vs. Spain 22:20 (8:11)
Final: USA vs. Denmark 18:19 (6:12)

Overall Placement: 14th out of 16 teams

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Program… True Statement, but How Glorious were our Glory Days?

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson… Glory Days, Glory Days…

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson.  I was his worst nightmare.  The Swedes thought they would have an easy time against the American.  We showed them…   “Glory Days, In the wink of a young girl’s eyes, Glory Days, Glory Days…”

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight the need for thoughtful retrospection on our past performances.

The classic Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days” tells the story of a couple of old friends running into each other a at bar and reminiscing about their “glory days” in high school.  This song is apropos to the discussion you might have with me on a bar stool talking about my handball career.  Here’s how I might sound after “I get my fill…”

 John Ryan “Glory Days” Talk: Oh, yeah, the 93 World Championships were great.  I will never forget how we went toe to toe with Sweden, in Sweden, no less.  They weren’t expecting the Americans to do that.  You should have heard their crowd gasp when Darrick Heath leaped in the air on a 9 meter throw and fired a bullet well over the Swedish wall for a goal.  I’m not kidding, you could hear the collective gasp.  Oh, and the home crowd was not happy about how close we were playing them.   Even heard a few boos.  Why if Robert Mayfield hadn’t gotten stopped by a lucky save on a fast break we would have been down just 2 goals at the half.  Oh, and I probably played my best game.  I shut down Staffan Olsson.  You know the coach for Sweden.  I don’t think he had any goals and the Swedish newspaper gave him a 1 Underkand (failing) out of 10 for his performance.

At which point, you might ask me what the final score was and at which point I’ll ask for another round…

And, here’s how some discussion regarding the 1984 Olympics, arguably the high water mark in terms of USA Team Handball performance might sound:

84 Olympics “Glory Days” Talk:  The U.S. Men were great.  Probably, the best team we ever had.  Did you know they were competitive in every single game?  They didn’t lose any match by more than 3 goals.  In fact, the four matches they lost were by a total of only 9 goals.  Against the Germans, the eventual silver medalists the U.S. lost by just 2 goals.  And, I’ve heard the refs screwed em.  As good as the Men were, the Women were even better.  We finished in 4th place.  So close to a medal.  Leora “Sam” Jones was unstoppable.  If only the U.S. team had had a bit more experience they would have surely medaled.  Why, with the home crowd behind us it’s not too crazy to think that Gold was out of the question.  If only we could give our national teams today a similar environment to train in.  With some decent recruiting and hard work we could put together some similar quality sides.

But does the “glory days” talk on the bar stool pass muster in the cold light of day?  Well, here’s a more analytical (some would say critical) assessment of those performances of yesteryear.

93 World Championships Analytical Assessment:  Just another typical lackluster performance by Team USA.  6 games played, 6 games all lost by an average of 16 goals.  The great game against Sweden? Well, we really did have a decent first half against Bengan’s Boys.  But, that World Class side was just going through the motions on their “off day” against the weak team of the group. That U.S. team did have some top notch talent like Darrick Heath who parlayed his performance on the World stage into a professional contract.  And, by golly I really did hear the crowd gasp on that jump shot, but that might have been because the Scandinavium was half empty since most of the locals stayed home for this meaningless pool play match.  That second half was downright ugly as the Swedes woke up and ran us out of the building.  They only beat us by 16 though, so that wasn’t so bad.  I don’t even want to talk about the embarrassing 26 goal loss we had against a very mediocre Norway team in consolation play.  Probably the ugliest handball performance I’ve ever been a party to.

1993 World Championship Results

Preliminary Group Play
USA vs Hungary 18-33 (8-16)
USA vs Sweden 16-32 (9-13)
USA vs Iceland 19-34 (7-14)

Consolation Play
USA vs Austria 19-31 (12-14)
USA vs Norway 15-41 (6-22)
USA vs S. Korea 28-35 (16-18)

1984 Olympics Analytical Assessment.  Overall, I think it’s pretty easy to assess that this was the best performance by the USA Men and Women at a World Championship or Olympic tournament. For the women there is no debate whatsoever:  1 goal from a bronze medal.  No other women’s team has even come close to such an achievement.  The men placed 9th as did the 96 Olympians, but no other team has played so many teams closely.

All this being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the 84 Olympics were also the Warsaw Pact boycotted Olympics.   Every American sports team did well.  There was no better time to be a McDonald’s fan:  Why you couldn’t even go to a McDonald’s without walking out with a free Big Mac or Quarter Pounder w/Cheese for all the crazy medals the U.S. won in sports that we never did well in.  While the U.S. didn’t medal in handball, at least part of their “success” can be attributed to a weaker field with the likes of the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia not participating.  And, while competitive the U.S. couldn’t quite knock of the European sides they played.  The men finished 9th out of 12 teams, a 1-4-1 record with a draw against 11th place South Korea and a victory over 10th place Japan.  In that bottom line context it sure doesn’t sound so great.

1984 Olympic Results (Men)

Group Play
USA vs W. Germany 19-21 (8-12)
USA vs Sweden 18-21 (6-10)
USA vs Denmark 16-19 (7-8)
USA vs Spain 16-17 (9-10)
USA vs S. Korea 22-22 (12-12)

9th Place Match
USA vs Japan 24-16 (9-5)

The women finished 5th out of 6 teams.  Yes, only 6 teams participated back in 1984 and a round robin format was used.  The U.S. beat China and Austria, and lost to Yugoslavia, S. Korea and W. Germany.  It has been often quoted that the women finished 4th, and this probably can be attributed to their last match which they narrowly lost to West Germany.  A win would have resulted in a bronze medal, but alas we lost a close match and actually finished 5th.  As with the Men, the Warsaw Pact boycott resulted in a significantly weaker field.   And, as Women’s handball was somewhat in its infancy the overall technical level of play was lower, providing an opportunity to the generally athletically superior USA team.

Arguably, it was a near perfect set of circumstances: A weak field, a smaller gap in technical skills and a home court advantage.  And, one that the U.S. came so close to capitalizing on.  But, we didn’t and barring a crazy European wide boycott at a 2024 LA Olympic Games it’s a set of circumstances that will never be repeated.

1984 Olympic Results (Women)
USA vs China 25-22 (9-12)
USA vs Yugoslavia 20-33 (10-14)
USA vs Austria 25-21 (11-9)
USA vs S. Korea 27-29 (16-11)
USA vs W. Germany 17-18 (7-10)

Final Ranking
Yugoslavia 5-0-0 10 pts
Korea 3-1-1 7 pts
China 2-2-1 5 pts
W Germany 2-3-0 4 pts
USA 2-3-0 4 pts
Austria 0-5-0 0 pts

Analytically, an Epic Pile of Losses

So, what’s the point of these comparisons?  Well, one of the arguments often put forward is that U.S. National Teams had their best performances by teams that were the product of residency programs.  Yup:  That’s a true statement.

What’s left unsaid, quietly forgotten or not looked at closely enough, however, is that those “best performances” were to put it mildly, not very good.  In fact, if you take a cold hearted analytical, composite look at historical U.S. performances you’ll quickly conclude that it’s essentially an epic pile of losses.   Here are the composite results for the U.S. Men and Women in Olympic and World Championship competition.

Men’s Olympic record: 4-24-1
Men’s World Championship record: 0-16-0
Women’s Olympic record: 4-19-0
Women’s World Championship record 4-24-0

On the world stage Team USA has a combined 12-83-1 record or a .13 win percentage. Of those 12 wins only two are against European sides.  The men beat Spain 22-20 in consolation play at the 1972 Olympics and the women beat Austria 25-21 at the 84 Olympics.  And, suffice to say neither of those European sides are anywhere near the quality of a top tier European side today.

A Time and Place for Glory Days Reflection

Does this mean that all of the athletes that participated in a residency program, put in countless hours of training and made enormous sacrifices shouldn’t be proud of what they achieved?  No, of course not.  Success is not always measured with wins and losses.  In many respects, if you take the handicaps those teams had in terms of experience and regular competition, the fact that competitive teams were fielded is somewhat remarkable.  It’s no wonder that these athletes many years later look back with pride and that the bonds between teammates are still strong decades later.  They are more than entitled to some glory days talk regardless of the results.

But, there’s a time and place for “Glory Days” reflection.  And, one of those places it doesn’t belong is when it comes time to strategic planning for USA Team Handball.  No, that’s when you got to get analytical, not nostalgic for achievements that simply don’t pass muster.  In short, you’ve got to take that critical eye and ask yourself:  Do we really want to try and recreate a residency program model if it never really worked very well in the first place?

Compounding the reality that the U.S. was never very successful under the residency program model is that the competition is also better today.  The next part of this series will tackle how the increased professionalization of handball makes it even more challenging for a residency program model to succeed today.

Podcast: Interview with USA Beach Handball’s Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Team USA’s Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Ebiye Udo-Udoma is a member of Team USA’s Beach Handball side.  With just a few month’s training the U.S. Men were able to win a Pan American Beach Handball title and qualify for the World Championships this past summer.

The interview covers Ebiye’s journey from regular handball to the beach version and how the U.S. team was able to quickly put together a competitive “sandlot” team with a little help from Brazil.  Later we discuss some of the advantages the beach game has over the court game and vice versa.  We close with a discussion of the future and the sports potential inclusion in the Olympics.

USA Beach Team Handball Facebook Page: Link

Video: Ebiye’s viral 720 degree handball shot and highlights from the Pan American Championship: Link