A Framework for Creating U.S. National Team Success (PART 3: NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEAMS)

In Part 1 of this series I put forth two underlying premises for the U.S. to have successful National Teams. Namely, the U.S. needs to develop athletes at a younger age and provide a path for those athletes to become professional. Part 2 described some key aspects needed in our Grassroots Programs to find Handball athletes and help them develop basic handball skills. Part 3 describes a new concept, National Development Teams that would take those talented athletes and set them on a pathway to professional status.

Why a National Team Program?

In countries where Handball is a major sport the National Team is essentially an all-star team that only trains together a few times a year, principally before major tournaments. The players, most of whom are professional spend most of their time playing for the club teams that also pay their salary.

In the U.S. the sport is entirely amateur with most clubs practicing 1 or 2 times a week. Simply getting the best athletes from these clubs together for a week or two of training prior to major international tournaments is (as has been shown by recent results) a recipe for embarrassment. In order to field more competitive teams, some program or plan is needed to take amateur club level athletes and turn them into elite athletes on a competitive U.S. National Team. Here are some ways such a transformation might be accomplished.

1) Develop the Grassroots infrastructure to the point where our amateur programs are turning out top quality athletes that are ready for the National Team
2) Set up a Resident National Team program to further develop club players and intensively train newcomers from other sports
3) Send players overseas to established clubs in Europe
4) Set up a National Development Team program targeted to further develop promising Handball athletes aged 18-22

Why Grassroots alone can’t get the job done

As much as everyone would like to have a Grassroots program that can deliver ready-made athletes for the U.S. National Team that is clearly not going to happen any time soon. In fact, I would argue that our Grassroots program will probably never get developed to the point where we are churning out athletes with all or most of the requisite skills necessary for a competitive National Team. The infrastructure requirements, challenges and competition from other more established sports are simply too overwhelming.

But while our Grassroots program can’t make that lofty goal, they can do a much better job at identifying more athletes with potential. As discussed in part 2 of this report, there are a number of Grassroots programs that can identify talent and develop their skills. We just can’t expect those programs to take us all the way. Something will still be needed to take players to the next level.

Why Resident National Teams couldn’t get the job done

The previous U.S. Team Handball Federation recognized that the Grassroots infrastructure wasn’t in place to field competitive teams. To bridge the gap Resident National Team programs were established to further develop the skills of club players and to train promising newcomers to the sport. The programs varied over the years, but some aspects remained fairly consistent. The majority of the players were provided room and board in a dormitory setting and they practiced daily (often twice daily) as a team. A monthly stipend was also usually awarded to athletes as “walking around money” and assistance was also provided for schooling and job placement. The quality of coaching varied, but often a “name” coach from Europe was hired to coach the teams on a full time basis.

Before I go into the litany of problems inherent with this model, let me say a few positive things first. Namely, these programs clearly demonstrated their ability to transform many athletes entirely new to the sport into fairly skilled players. Considering how far these players had to go in a short period of time, this was a substantial achievement. The U.S. teams produced by these programs, in most cases, also achieved a measure of respectability. They could beat the other also-run teams of the World and make the top teams occasionally sweat a little. The won-loss and medal count still had a lot to be desired, but these teams were not an embarrassment. All this being said, though, my assessment is this still was an expenditure of substantial resources for unsatisfactory results. Herewith are the major problems I saw with the program both from personal experience and observation:

1) The athletes were often too old to warrant the spending of development resources: Throughout the years the residency program was in existence there, to my knowledge, was never any consistent policy in place regards to the age of the players. Athletes in their mid to late 20’s were often a part of these programs. This might make sense in that the goal was to put together the best possible team, but it was short sighted in that these players were less likely to be around long term. Partly, this was due to legal concerns, but I expect that it was also due to the lack of suitable and available younger players. (Note: As a short aside here it’s probably worth mentioning that my own personal experience with the National Team clearly puts me in the category as “too old”. During my short stint from 1991-93 I was 26-28 years old.)

2) Lack of whole person development: There was some lip service provided concerning opportunities for players to continue their education, but the practice and travel requirements did not fully support it. Additionally, job placement was often very limited in terms of meaningful work that would enhance long term career prospects. Bottom line: If you were participating in these programs you were making a decision to put your life on hold. While some individuals were willing to chase their Olympic dream, I think many others were more practical. The merits of either choice can be debated, but it would be so much better if that choice didn’t have to be made.

3) Uneven Funding: The funds supporting the National Team programs seemed to ebb and flow substantially from one year to the next. In particular, funding support would spike in Olympic years as sponsor funding and USOC support increased. This resulted in a lack of continuity and required the program to essentially start over every four years.

4) Lack of competition: Practicing and residing in the U.S. as a national team resulted in U.S. players having very limited opportunities for competition. Trips overseas were arranged on a periodic basis and some foreign teams were coaxed into traveling to the U.S., but there clearly were never enough matches played to sharpen skills. Additionally, there is no better way to improve as a player than to compete against better teams on a regular basis. As a result of this many athletes hit a plateau once they got to the point that they had no one better to practice against.

5) Unclear commitments (both from the Federation and athletes): A common complaint, particularly from athletes who were not part of the starting team or player rotation was that they never knew exactly where they stood with the program. Were they there because they had a legitimate shot at making the next Olympic team or were they just fodder for practice? In between Olympic Games was the team focused on developing new players or continuing the development of its veterans? Conversely, were the players in it for the long haul (perhaps 2 Olympiads) or just to punch their one time Olympic ticket?

6) Uneven player skills: In the immediate run up to an Olympic Games, the National Team was focused on putting the best possible team on the floor. But, prior to this run up gifted athletes new to the sport were periodically brought in for tryouts. This mixture of uneven talent was a boon to the newcomers who benefited from training with veterans, but held back the development of more experienced players.

In terms of overall results few would argue that these programs were successful. The U.S. was able to field teams that were competitive, but with the exception of the 1984 Women’s team never came close to medaling. Even more dismal is the U.S. record in World Championship competition. The Women’s team has only participated twice and the Men’s team has the distinction of never winning a game (0-0-25) in 6 appearances.

Why we need to be judicious about whom, why, when and where we send promising talent overseas

So if we don’t have the Grassroots Programs in place and Resident National Teams are a failed model we’re still left with the same problem. Namely, how are we going to turn our promising athletes into skilled athletes that will fill out the roster of a U.S. national team that can compete for medals at the Olympics? The 3rd option I proposed in the opening paragraph is to send the up and coming players overseas. As I postulated in the first part of the series the only way we are ever going to be competitive is for the preponderance of the players on the National Team to also be Professional Players. Why not just focus on placing as many athletes as we can with foreign clubs and let them turn our athletes into world class talent?

The short answer is that it’s not just that simple. While I’m a huge proponent of American athletes playing overseas we need to make sure that the athletes we are sending overseas have

1) The potential to become a full-fledged professional
2) The requisite skills to start near the top of the club pyramid structure
3) The maturity to handle a foreign environment

1) The potential to become a full-fledged professional First off, to be clear, I’ll define a full-fledged professional as someone playing for a club in one of the top 4 leagues in Europe (German, Spain, France and Denmark) or a perennial Champions League club in one of the other nations. I’ll also throw in the German 2nd Division, but won’t go any further down the pyramid. (For more on what it means to be a professional handball player: http://teamhandballnews.com/2008/10/defining-a-professional-athlete/)  The importance of being a full-fledged professional goes to the heart of my basic premise about professionals almost always beating amateurs. If the U.S. is ever going to be competitive the preponderance of our athletes are going to be playing at this level.

So I’ve defined what I mean by full-fledged, but what do I mean by “potential”. This is not always an easy task and it is why professional clubs pay talent scouts good money. Certainly, a raw skills test, such as the one the USA Federation has used ( http://assets.teamusa.org/assets/documents/attached_file/filename/9310/National_Team_Tryout_Athlete_Guide_ch2.PDF ), can measure raw physical talent. A high score on such a test doesn’t mean that the athlete is going to be a great Handball athlete, just means that he has the potential. With sufficient training and proper attitude, in theory, that athlete can become a great handball athlete. A less gifted athlete is going to have a harder time reaching that higher level and arguably will never get there. Therefore only athletes with the raw talent should be sent packing to Europe.

2) The requisite skills to start near the top of the club pyramid structure: Simply having the raw talent, though, isn’t enough for a couple of reasons. Reason 1: Not all European clubs are created equal and the intensity of training and quality of play varies greatly from nation to nation. In general, though, the higher divisions will offer better and more structured training. If a player heads off to Europe with limited skills he may have to start at the bottom of the pyramid at a club with less quality training and competition. Still better, than anything in the U.S., but it will be a long slog to the top of the pyramid, which leads to Reason 2: The farther down the pyramid a player starts the less perceived potential that player will have in the eyes of the professional clubs. This will be particularly true for older athletes. Much like minor league baseball in the U.S. there’s a rough age to level correlation that’s considered appropriate. An 18 year old prospect playing at the bottom of the pyramid has time to work his way up to the majors, while a 23 year old prospect will find Father Time hanging around before too long.

3) The maturity to handle a foreign environment: So, the solution then is to send 18 year olds overseas. Right? Well, in theory the answer is yes. Assuming that we had dozens of prospects it would be great for them to be headed off to Europe to play Handball regularly even for lower level clubs. The reality, however, is that we don’t have that many prospects and even if we did there are very few 18 year olds ready to move to a foreign country with a different language and culture. There might be a few unique individuals ready for such an experience, but the vast majority of young adults need a little seasoning first.

National Development Teams (Adapting the resident model to new goals)

To sum up: 1) Are grassroots programs aren’t up to speed; 2) Our Resident National Teams couldn’t get the job done; and 3) We’re sending players to Europe in which their combination age/skill level is a few years further behind what we’d like it to be. The solution: National Development Teams. As the name implies these teams would be National Teams that are focused on player development. In short, I’m proposing that we adopt the best aspects of the Resident National Team program and adapt them to new goals. Those goals are:

1) Further develop handball skills in a structured environment
2) Provide higher level playing opportunities for athletes (ages 18-22)
3) Further evaluate athletes with National Team potential

Program Aspects

Collegiate Scholarships: The U.S., more so than any other country in the world, closely ties its sporting programs with its education system. We can debate the merits of this model, but we can’t change the reality that this model is not going away anytime soon. The dream of many aspiring high school athletes in the U.S. is a collegiate scholarship to play their chosen sport. As such, the National Development Team would mimic the structure of a full-fledged collegiate program.

This program would be similar to the Women’s National Team program that was set up at Cortland University in New York, but with several enhancements, most of which would require additional funding and/or sponsorship. Key features:
– The program would be co-located with a sponsoring college
– All athletes would be required to attend college (either 2 or 4 year programs)
– All athletes would receive some financial aid and some would be on full scholarship
– All athletes would receive full room and board while participating in the program
– All athletes would be treated as scholarship athletes with the accompanying benefits and responsibilities

In short, the overall goal would be for the Handball Development Team athletes to be treated like Division 1 Collegiate athletes. Conversely, the athletes would be expected to train and prepare themselves like Division 1 Collegiate athletes.

Recruitment: The program would recruit athletes much like a collegiate program does. A select number of athletes would be recruited straight out of high school. In many cases, these targeted athletes would be all-around athletes not heavily recruited for Division 1 football or basketball. Much like a Division 2 college, the National Development Team will have to successfully find and recruit quality athletes that are missed by the big schools. Ideally, these athletes will also have already been identified at training camps and youth competitions. Faced with a decision to “walk on” in Div 1 or play Div 2 for their chosen mainstream sport these athletes might very well be swayed by the option for a full or half scholarship to play Handball at an established college with a good academic reputation.

The second type of recruited athlete would be collegiate club players that have shown promise in club competitions. These athletes would be encouraged to transfer to the college where the National Development Team is located and would be awarded scholarships based on performance/potential. And any athlete wanting to walk on at the College where the National Development Team is located they would also have the opportunity for an extended try-out.

Age Limitations: This program would be limited to athletes that are between ages 18-22. Occasionally, this requirement might be waived for an athlete that is turning 23 his senior year of college or who is going to grad school, but it should be an infrequent exception. Sorry, to those guys and gals that never pick up a Handball until their senior year of college. You might be that rare example of someone who’s willing to put the time and energy to developing into a world class athlete at age 28. And you will still have that opportunity- you’re just going to have to pursue that goal independently outside of this program.

Regimen: The overall training regimen would be similar to a collegiate Division I athletic program without some of the restrictions. In particular, there would be no out of season restrictions prohibiting formal practice. Teams would practice daily and have separate strength and agility training sessions. Athletes would reside in dormitory style housing and have training meals similar to other athletes at the school.

Competition: The National Development team would participate in club competitions in the U.S. and would periodically tour overseas. Overseas clubs would also be invited for tournaments at the college and the college would also be a logical location for National Team Competitions. The National Development Teams would also participate in the Collegiate National Championships. As full time scholarship athletes they should dominate the competition and if for some reason they don’t, the coaching staff should have a good idea on where to get new recruits for the program. Athletes on the National Development Team would also be candidates for National Team competitions, but would be required to try out like anyone else.

Program Management: A National Team Development Trainer would run the program. This trainer would not necessarily be the national team coach, but rather a coach with proven ability to teach the fundamentals of the game. (i.e., Phil Jackson of the LA Lakers might be a great floor general for professional athletes, but not necessarily the best coach to teach someone the cross-over dribble). Athlete performance would be reviewed periodically and athletes could be cut from the program.

Overseas Preparation: Athletes will be encouraged to study a foreign language and potentially study a semester abroad. Such an overseas program would be done in conjunction with a club program and serve as a springboard to a later overseas contract.

Program Feasibility

Obviously, this program won’t be free, but I would argue that it could be implemented at several different funding levels. As the program is similar in scope to the Resident National Teams of the 80’s and 90’s one could infer that it could be implemented if the USA Team Handball budget approaches the funding of those years. The substantial difference between the two models is the scholarship cost and the partnering arrangement reached with the TBD College would impact this bottom line. A high funding level and a sweetheart deal with the TBD College would result in full ride scholarships for 15 men and 15 women athletes. A low end program would simply be in-State tuition as was offered to Cortland program athletes. And a low, low end program would be the simple declaration that those wanting to train with the development team should move to the TBD location. Of course, no scholarship benefits and/or other carrots would also mean limited participation.

Another issue that would have to be addressed is the timing as it relates to the 2016 Olympic Games. Assuming Chicago is selected as host city (they’re the favorite, but it’s not a foregone conclusion) the pressure to focus on the Senior National Team will increase with each passing year. Seven years may seem like a long time to prepare, but the reality is that it is a lot closer than we think.

In the final part of this series I’ll take a closer look at the USA National Team Programs, the types of players needed, how they would transition to European sides and the U.S. prospects for 2012, 2016 and beyond.

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  1. Pingback: Commentary: USA Team Handball National Teams: Are there too many guys with short haircuts and accents? (Part 2: Dual Citizenship Athletes) | Team Handball News

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