Interview: USA Team Handball General Manager, Steve Pastorino: Part 2: Overseas Players and Future’s Program

In part 2 of our interview, Steve Pastorino provides an overview of USA Team Handball’s efforts to place athletes with overseas clubs and to develop more youth athletes through its Future’s Program.

[b]Overseas Players[/b]

John Ryan: Helping athletes find playing opportunities with European clubs is clearly a priority. Why has USATH made it a priority?

Steve Pastorino: Better culture, better training environment, better coaching, better competition. The gap between training environment in the USA and Europe cannot be bridged at this time – we’re too far behind the rest of the world.

JR: How many athletes are playing overseas? What are their ages and what levels are they playing at?

SP: They range from early teens to 30+, but the majority are 16-25 years old. Athletes who have succeeded in Varsity sports (at HS or college level) are preferred. (More info on U.S. players abroad is available here: )

JR: I’ve seen some of these athletes play, so I’ve got my own rough opinions on their current skills and potential. Others, I’ve never seen play. Still, with this limited information, I would assess that for many of these athletes their “age” and “current level of play” is mismatched. In other words, I think it’s unlikely that they will develop into “world class” athletes on our national teams before they become “too old” and reassess what role handball plays in their lives. This, of course, is debatable. Do you think we have the right match in terms of talent and age?

SP: Not necessarily But at the same time, athletes who go to Europe to train are getting a rare and memorable experience. We will continue to encourage athletes of all levels to go. Identifying opportunities for teens to live and train is critical and this is the second consecutive school year where we’ll have at least six teens abroad. We’re also finding more and more dual-passport young Americans to incorporate into the pool.

JR: What assistance is USATH providing these athletes? Is there any financial support being provided? How much are athletes doing on their own initiative?

SP: USATH is heavily involved in coordinating the HS program; Matching athletes, families, schools, clubs, etc. College and older athletes have to do much more on their own, but we regularly contact clubs and agents to help us find appropriate places for our athletes to play. Some financial/transportation support has been given as well.

JR: Several of these athletes are active duty members of the U.S. military training under the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Can you briefly highlight what this program is and what its advantages are?

SP: We have five men and one woman in Army WCAP right now; There are three men in Air Force WCAP. Army and Air Force provide different levels of support for National Team members during Olympic cycles. As long as we are eligible for 2012 Olympics, these athletes are paid as Army/AF officers but given the opportunity to train full-time in their chosen sport. These individuals have had some of the best stateside training you can get in handball. They are natural leaders. They are good athletes. They are motivated and committed. It has been an important part of the puzzle for multiple NGB’s. We’d be foolish not to try to take advantage of it.

JR: Air Force and West Point have produced some great talent, but it’s never been more than 1 or 2 athletes every four years or so. Military commitments can also get in the way sometimes. Are you concerned that there might be too much focus on military athletes?

SP: If we get 1-2 great handball players out of the military every four years, it’s well worth the time and attention (there is very little cost to us). It also provides ongoing motivation to the two Academy programs. AFA hopes to restart a women’s program this year – it can only help.

JR: Several athletes with dual citizenship have been identified in Europe. Is this a stop gap measure until we develop more youth programs in the U.S.?

SP: No, I think it’s an ongoing reality. Michael Williams is SG Flensburg’s top youth player; Karoline Borg is playing in Norway’s first division; Sophie Fasold is being asked to join the German Women’s National Team program; They are all under 20 and dreaming of representing the USA in the Olympics – they can be part of the solution!

[b]Future’s Program[/b]

JR: My rough understanding of this program is that it is an attempt to get more high school kids playing handball. Can you give me a rough overview of how the program works?

– We identify volunteers to run HS age programs in various USA markets. Unlike our grassroots programs, we target recruit “elite” athletes to train in handball. We had a dozen applicants for coaches in 2009-10, and chose six coaches who we felt had the coaching & organizational skills to be successful. Kathy Rex administered the program. We selected as coaches: Dawn Lewis (Bozeman, Olympian), Kathy Rex (Colorado Springs, Olympian), Julio Sainz (LA, experience from Cuba), Robert Michalik (NJ, ref & exp from Poland), Attila Agoston (Denver, ref & exp from Hungary); Angie Webb/Marko Brezic (SLC). All six programs recruited 15-30 girls and trained them for one season, culminating in HS National Championships in Colorado in May.

– Next year, we anticipate 12 programs, and expanding to include both boys and girls. Possible markets include Chicago, Florida, Atlanta, North Carolina, Texas, Las Vegas, Fresno. We need to be more consistent with age groups and/or develop two levels of teams in each market, especially as kids grow older each year, and we continue introducing younger players annually.

– We’re also getting experience in training parents as coaches, volunteers and refs – we need all these people at a local level as well.

JR: I heard some good things about the Utah program that new board member Jeff Utz has started. Can you provide some background on what’s been accomplished so far?

SP: Salt Lake Handball Club has taught the sport to thousands of athletes in schools; and recruited 100’s who want to play on an ongoing basis. We’re developing a 4-6 team fall league with teams in Provo, SLC, Murray, West Valley, Park City and/or Ogden (see Utah map). Each team has its own coach and facility, and the best players come together at least once a week in a “all star” environment. It’s designed to be self-sufficient, with local families and sponsors providing funds for coaches, equipment, gym space, etc.

JR: If I’m not mistaken USATH has never really tried to engage younger players on such a large scale. Is it tough to convince top athletes to give up their primary sport, even if only for a couple of weeks?

SP: We have to try… and we feel like we’re making progress. It has been hard to find our “season” because of all the sports conflicts. But I think in most markets, we’re a Fall/Spring/Summer activity – but winter is tough everywhere because of competition from basketball and other sports for gym space. We have found many athletes ready/willing to devote time to handball and in most cases, we’re not asking them to give up other sports entirely. Even in Iceland/Denmark, some of our teens have/will play other sports – not just handball.

JR: Talent identification at younger ages can be tricky. One just has to look at all the college scholarship players that don’t really pan out in college. Are you concerned that a lot of resources have to be expended to find the athletes that will pan out?

SP: There is no alternative. We have to recruit younger. That’s one of the reasons we need more numbers – we have a better chance to find National Team caliber athletes if the pool is 1,000 (or 100,000) – not just 100.

JR: Does USATH plan to participate in PATHF championships/qualification matches for youth and junior World Championships? If so, when?

SP: We plan to… if we have the resources to do it right. Again, 2013 is the year we’ve targeted to re-enter international competition, but it could come sooner.

In part 3 of our interview, we discuss college programs and U.S. Clubs

Interview Part 1 (National Team Planning):