A Framework for Creating U.S. National Team Success (PART 2: GRASSROOTS PROGRAM)

Part 1 identified some of the challenges with creating a successful U.S. National Team Program and laid out two underlying premises. Namely, the U.S. needs to develop athletes at a younger age and provide a path for those athletes to become professional. Part 2 describes why a good grassroots program is needed, what it should look like and how it can feed into national team success.

Grassroots vs. National Teams

A good Grassroots Program should be part of the overall USA Team Handball program in the U.S. for a number of different reasons. Fundamentally, one of the missions of a sports federation is to promote the sports growth and give its members opportunities to play the game. Establishing strong local programs nationwide is the best way to support that objective.

Another key mission of a national sports federation, however, is fielding successful national teams. Most people will argue that these shouldn’t be competing interests. After all, grassroots programs are a pretty good way to identify and train athletes that will eventually make the national teams. Conversely, solid national team programs and the opportunities they provide athletes can be a strong marketing tool to support grassroots development. Obviously, both are needed, but what do you do if you have limited resources?

For many years, the U.S. Federation found itself caught in a trap as it related to Grassroots vs. National Team support. Its primary source of funding, the U.S. Olympic Committee, increasingly tied its level of funding support to national team success. Without success there would be less funding. So predictably the U.S. Federation spent most of its limited budget on its National Teams in the vein hope of successful results. The biggest chunk of which was spent on National Team Residency programs in which players trained together full time and periodically traveled abroad for competition. These short term pushes resulted in a degree of respectability at the 1984 and 1996 Olympics, but fell short of a medal.  (The women’s team did come close in 1984, though)

To many observers these short term stop gap efforts were seen as long shot ventures that were hogging all the funding that could have been better spent on grassroots programs. Grassroots programs, in their opinion, that if properly funded and supported would still be in place today and developing a constant stream of players feeding into the national teams.

After the 96 Olympics to a certain extent funding was shifted to grassroots development at the expense of the national teams. I say to a certain extent, because arguably funding streams had fallen so sharply that a national team resident program was simply impossible to fund anymore. Aside from a scaled down two year program at Cortland University for the Women’s team, there has not been a National Team resident program since 1996. Predictably, the performance of the National Teams has fallen sharply, with the respectability of the score lines getting progressively worse and the U.S. starting to lose to teams that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. But whatever funding that was spent on grassroots since 1996 also has very little to show for itself in 2009.

But the point here is not to argue how money was spent in the preceding decades. The point here is that in upcoming decade, even with new funding coming in to the Federation, the Grassroots vs. National Team debate will undoubtedly return front and center. This will especially be true if Chicago is selected as host for the 2016 Olympics. Ideally, there will be money to both continue grassroots efforts and field competitive national teams, but that remains to be seen.

Grassroots Program Goals

So let’s throw aside the old Grassroots vs. National Team debate for now and assume that these two programs can work in tandem with each other. And let’s also throw aside the grassroots goal of simply helping the membership play the sport. Instead let’s look at Grassroots purely from the standpoint of “what can it do for the National Team”. In those terms I would argue the goals of the Grassroots Program would be the following:

1) To expand the player pool. The U.S. is a big country and it’s a numbers game. The more people playing the sport the more “diamonds in the rough” there will be waiting to be discovered.

2) To train and develop athletes as much as possible before direct national team involvement. National Team programs are expensive. The more that is done to develop athletes at the local level the more time and resources that can be spent transforming club level athletes to elite athletes.

3) To identify athletes with National Team potential. Expanding the player pool is only half the battle. Correctly identifying the players with the most potential to one day contribute to the National Team is the follow on goal.

Grassroots Programs

So those are the goals, but how can we achieve them? Below are some of the programs and activities that can support a national grassroots programs. Many of these programs have been done in the past or are being implemented as we speak. While it may be intuitive that these are the things that should be done, it’s worth discussing the “why for?” analytically since limited resources might mean that some of these programs are more worthwhile than others.

1) Conduct clinics:  Clinics are one off events intended to introduce the sport to people (generally youth)
Benefits: It cannot be underemphasized how important it is to increase the name recognition of Handball (Team Handball) in the U.S. Before a player can even enter the “player pool” he needs to know that the sport exists! (A short diatribe here for illustration purposes: I attended a clinic conducted by Olympians Bob Djokovic and Tom Schneeberger at the Air Force Academy in 1984. That one clinic had a profound impact on me as it helped set in motion a lifelong devotion to the sport. It’s highly probable that I would not be typing as we speak if that clinic had never occurred.)
Costs: Variable depending on the availability of volunteer support, availability of balls/goals and travel requirements
Return on Investment: Highly variable. Undoubtedly, many clinics result in a few kids simply learning that the sport of Team Handball exists. But, undoubtedly there are also many clinics where new devotees get their first taste for the sport. It’s also important note that new devotee may never make a National Team, but on down the road he might be that one person who finds the next big star. This is known as the snowball effect.
Overall Assessment: In most cases, I don’t think it’s cost effective to conduct clinics where there is no local base of support. Travel costs for Federation staff and equipment could probably be better spent elsewhere. But, anywhere that clubs or players are residing in sufficient quantities there should be at least one clinic conducted on a yearly basis. The Federation should facilitate clinics occurring through engagement with clubs. Additionally, the Federation should consider modest incentives such as balls or reduced club fees to encourage clinics being held.

2) Engagement with schools to add Handball to their P.E. Curriculum: Believe it or not, one of the top internet related handball searches comes from teachers throughout the U.S. looking for information on how to teach Team Handball to their classes.
Costs: It depends. Of course, it would be nice to conduct a clinic for every school in the country, but that is simply not practical. And even in the locations where clubs exist, it’s often not practical for adults to take off work to go demonstrate handball. But, a cheaper alternative exists and that is providing instructional material on the Federation website.
Return on Investment: Highly variable: Much like clinics, it’s a numbers game. Rest assured, though, the more people exposed to the sport the better.
Overall Assessment: The Federation has some written information available for schools, but in this web 2.0 internet age this should be taken to the next level with a web streaming video specifically geared to teaching handball in P.E. classes. The video should include an introduction to the basics of the game, drills and demonstrations with actual school age children. If there’s enough funding available a slick, high quality video should be produced. If the funds aren’t there, though, just get a camcorder and post it on youtube.

3) Engagement with community organizations to add Handball to their sports programs:  Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA are strong candidates to develop a program in which youth play and practice Handball on a regular basis. Such programs might be considered a half way step between simply exposing an athlete to the sport and that athlete joining a fully fledged club program. The Boys & Girls Clubs, in particular, have a proven track record with eventual National Team players getting their first taste for the sport at B&G clubs in California and Georgia.
Costs: It depends. Again how much this engagement will cost will be dependent on where the program is based and whether local volunteer assistance is available to get it started. Additionally, the Federation could consider equipment (balls and goals) donations or reduced costs as an incentive to get programs started
Return on Investment: Highly variable with the key being the motivation of the program staff involved
Overall Assessment: Clearly these programs have merit, but only if interest is sustained over a period of time. Sustaining that interest will require continued Federation and club volunteer engagement.

4) Support youth clubs/teams (11-18): Youth clubs are clubs that are independent of supporting organizations (e.g. the Boys and Girls Clubs) and totally devoted to the sport of Handball. This is more than an “after school” program and these teams would be comparable to an all-star or traveling team in other youth sports. In many cases the youth team would simply be one team that is part of a Handball club. Such a club would mimic the European model and would include a Senior Men’s team, Women’s team, Veteran’s team, etc. Alternatively, youth clubs could be established with no real ties to other clubs. The Federation could support youth clubs in a number of different ways. These ways include reduced or donated equipment, sending coaches to conduct advanced clinics with teams, organizing youth club championships on a regional and national basis, subsidizing teams for travel to competition
Costs: Substantial for Federation involvement
Return on Investment: Limited due to high costs involved
Overall Assessment: The short summary above is a simplification, but the point I’m trying to make is that establishing legitimate youth clubs comparable to existing adult clubs would be expensive. If the parents of the youths involved are so motivated to pay the costs involved in establishing such clubs that would be great, but it would be foolhardy for the Federation to expend limited resources to try and make it happen. Sure it would be great for such clubs to exist as they would undoubtedly feed into our senior clubs and National Team programs. The reality is, however, that most athletically inclined youth will want to focus on the more mainstream sports. And what clubs that could be created would likely have to travel significant distances for competition. (As an aside, I’m aware that the old federation actually subsidized travel for youth teams on a few occasions. This, in my opinion, was an incredible waste of resources)

5) Support the establishment of Junior High and High School Handball programs (Ages 12-18): This program would be a major concerted effort to convince a number of schools to establish Team Handball as a varsity sport just like basketball or football. And once the convincing was done a significant amount of resources to sustain the program(s) the first couple of years.
Costs: Substantial
Return on Investment: Very high, but only if successful
Overall Assessment: I will have to claim a fair degree of ignorance on this topic. It would have been impossible at the schools I attended, but my school experience is very dated. Convincing schools to add sports can be a challenge, but if they’re playing lacrosse in Las Vegas, why not Handball. My sense is that it would probably take significant effort from a Federation staff member, a cabal of dedicated volunteers and some amenable school administrators. Before such a program is green lighted a well thought out plan would be needed.

6) Support collegiate clubs (Ages 18-22): This program would seek to establish more collegiate clubs and regional competitions throughout the country. It would involve engagement with colleges to start new programs and continuing assistance until each club is firmly established.
Costs: It depends; if volunteer assistance and established clubs take an active role the cost can be minimized.
Return on Investment: Medium Impact; These programs will identify and develop quality players. Unfortunately many of these players will be also be too old to make the transition from club level to elite level in a timely manner before “life issues” impact their ability to continue playing handball
Overall Assessment: Collegiate clubs have been an integral part of USA Team Handball for years and the first place that many in this country have touched a Handball. And in all likelihood, it will continue to be the first time that top athletes in this country choose to make Handball their chosen sport. Sure, we’d like more athletes to make that choice at a younger age, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. Colleges also have the infrastructure and social structure already in place so starting clubs is comparatively easy. Other sports (rugby for example) have thousands of collegiate club athletes. The model is there it just needs to be copied.

7) Support the establishment of NCAA Varsity Handball programs: This would seek to establish Team Handball as on official NCAA sport. This would take an organized effort and direct engagement with schools in the NCAA. The NCAA actually has an office that addresses emerging sports and a defined pathway to Varsity status
Costs: Significant
Return on Investment: Extremely high, but only if successful
Overall Assessment: NCAA Varsity sport status and the legitimacy it provide would be a major, major accomplishment for the sport as it would lay the foundation for the development of hundreds of elite athletes. At first glance, it might seem the impossible dream, but a combination of Team Handball’s Olympic status and Title IX requirements might make such an achievement possible. In the 1990’s Team Handball was recognized as an emerging sport and there was reportedly some talk of the South East Conference (SEC) setting up a Women’s competition. Alas, this never materialized and the NCAA removed Team Handball from its emerging sport status due to a lack of collegiate clubs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If Arizona State University (in the middle of the desert, for god sakes) can have a varsity women’s rowing team and grant scholarships to athletes that have never rowed before than why not Team Handball?

8 ) Support adult clubs (Ages 18+): This program would seek to establish new clubs and support existing clubs in the U.S. regardless of the age and citizenship of its members.
Costs: It depends; if volunteer assistance and established clubs take an active role the costs can be minimized.
Return on Investment: Minor direct impact, but potentially major indirect benefits. In most cases these programs will not identify and train players with national team potential. Where these programs have long term value is in their potential to provide volunteer support to many of the other grassroots program and in particular to youth club development.
Overall Assessment: Most of the players who play club level handball in the U.S. do so because they love to play the game. In many cases, these clubs are top heavy with expat players who couldn’t play for the U.S. in the first place. The U.S. needs more of these team for their long term benefits and potential for volunteerism. And, yes we need the Expat clubs to show newcomers how to play the game. Speaking from experience there is nothing more motivating to a young American Handball player than being schooled by an out of shape, chain smoking Euro in his 30’s.

9) Conduct regional and national camps: Regional camps would be highly organized 3 to 7 day camps where youth players would receive instruction in Team Handball techniques from experienced coaches. The camps would also include games and scrimmages where coaches could evaluate players for their national team potential
Costs: Substantial, both for players and the Federation (Regional camps have some advantages on reduced travel cost for participants)
Return on Investment: Potentially significant depending on the quality and numbers of athletes that participate
Overall Assessment: Camps may be expensive, but they also have tremendous value. If athletes can be brought into a competitive and challenging environment at ages 14-18 they may get sold on Team Handball as a sport to pursue. And if they are athletes with the raw athletic ability to become elite national team players we may have solved the age conundrum that has plagued USA Team Handball since it’s inception.

10) Establish Junior National teams and send them to International competitions: This is pretty self explanatory. A true junior national team would need to have at least one training camp prior to departure. Additionally, a fair and equitable process for selecting these players would need to be established.
Costs: Very Expensive
Return on Investment: Debatable; Does the cost of an overseas trip justify the expenditure?
Overall Assessment: I’m skeptical as to the merit of sending youth teams overseas to play in competition. There’s no debate that for the players involved it would be a tremendous experience, both on a Handball and personal level. Additionally, it’s a tremendous carrot to attract talented athletes to try give Handball a try. But, it also costs a lot of money and we currently have a very, very small pool of athletes to draw from. History, if I’m not mistaken, also paints a pretty dismal picture as far as Junior athletes eventually becoming Senior national team members. There’s been a few, but I suspect that it would be difficult to argue that there was a justifiable Return on Investment.

Evaluating Grassroots Program Success

Admittedly, the costs, return on investment and overall assessment on each of the programs above are a gross simplification and just one person‘s opinion. There are just too many variables to factor in and determining whether a grassroots program is successful or not will always be fairly subjective, particularly in the short term. This is one of the reasons the USOC prefers to grade simply on National Team success as it is entirely objective and very, very easy. You just total up medals awarded and the wins and losses. On top of that you can even look at the final scores to make a further detailed assessment of where a program stands.

But while measuring Grassroots program success can be challenging there are a few reliable metrics that can be tracked. Here are a few for consideration:

– Total number of USA Team Handball Memberships
– Total number of USA Team Handball Youth Memberships
– Total number of registered clubs
– Total number of registered collegiate clubs
– Total number of registered clubs competing at the National championships
– Total number of clinics conducted
– Total number of schools inquiring about P.E. program instructions
– Total number of athletes inquiring about U.S. National Team programs

Along with these numbers, the amount of time and money spent supporting each Grassroots program can and should be tracked carefully. It may not be readily discernible what the “return on investment” will be for a particular program, but it should be relatively easy to track what that “investment” is. At each board meeting this information could be presented to the Board of Directors so they can better assess whether the investment for each of the different programs is indeed worth the time and money spent. For instance, if conducting a national camp costs a lot of money then a compelling case should be made as to why it’s worth it. Conversely, a less expensive program might get lesser scrutiny, unless of course it’s assessed as totally without merit.

Another big part of the evaluation process should be an assessment of the overall program. The needs and goals of the program shouldn’t be entirely static. The importance for some programs (clinics) may fall by the way side as the sport becomes more well known and popular. Conversely, other programs (Junior National Teams) might become more important as the player pool expands. I’m not an expert on US soccer, but I expect the emphasis that they’ve placed on different programs has evolved substantially since its explosive growth in the 80’ and 90’s so should the programs for Handball as the sport broadens its base of support.  Finally, we should also not forget that while a major reason for supporting Grassroots programs is to feed athletes into the National Team pipeline it’s not the only reason. It’s also important to simply seek to further develop the sport for the benefit of it’s members.

While Grassroots programs are great for identifying talent and developing athletes into good club level players that won’t count for much on the International stage. In the next section of this manifesto, I will describe a new concept (National Developmental Teams) that I think will effectively transform club level players into elite level players with National Team potential.