The USA sent two youth teams recently to participate in International Handball Federation (IHF) Olympic Solidarity Program and the Partille Cup in Sweden. The Olympic Solidarity Program is an IHF funded program held to support developing handball nations and the Partille Cup is a massive youth tournament with club teams from all over Europe and the world participating. While I think it’s great that a handful of young American players are getting this exposure to Handball, some of the ugly score lines from the tournament got me contemplating whether the USA is maximizing this opportunity.
Boys Team Results from Partille Cup
Olympic Solidarity Camp Friendly Games
USA National Team 26-22 China
USA National Team 44-29 Singapore
Pool Play (16 and Under)
USA National Team 7-32 OV Helsingborg
USA National Team 9-22 Kärra HF
USA National Team 16-14 BK Ydun
USA National Team 17-22 TV Birsfelden
USA National Team 9-19 HC Eynatten-Raeren
Knock Out Tournament
USA National Team 8-21 Elverum IL
Girls Team Results from Partille Cup
Olympic Solidarity Camp Friendly Games
USA National Team 10-18 Scotland
USA National Team 12-23 Scotland
Pool Play (15 and Under)
USA National Team 3-22 Vorup FB
USA National Team 4-28 Kungsängens SK
USA National Team 4-27 Skövde HF
USA National Team 1-27 Klaebu IL
USA National Team 4-30 Skedsmo HK 1
Knock Out Tournament
USA National Team 5-14 Röyken og Hurum Graabein
A quick assessment of the score lines show that the boy’s team had some measure of respectability. They won their two friendly games against China and Singapore at the Olympic Solidarity Camp and compiled a 1-5 record in their Partille Cup games, with an average score line of 10-19. The girl’s team results were more lopsided. They lost both of their solidarity camp games to Scotland and were totally overwhelmed in every Partille Cup match losing their 6 games with an average score line of 4-25. (Note: These matches were 2X15 minutes, so to get a true picture you might want to multiply the scores by 2)
Top Prospect or Any Prospect?
While these score lines were ugly we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this was a wasted trip. I’ve written before about lopsided scores and the benefits the learning experience provides to the losing team. And in that commentary I was talking about much older teams. The two teams sent to Sweden were far younger and coupled with the training at the Olympic Solidarity Program this event was surely worthwhile for every athlete that attended. All that being said, however, I think USATH needs to be more low key as to the composition of this “national team”. This was clearly a developmental team and I would classify the participants as more any prospect then top prospect.
The play on words refers to the current youth focused effort established by the USA Federation: the Top Prospects program. There are a lot of positive things about this program as it’s providing funding, curriculum and structure to different regions of the country. There’s a clear application process and it may be presumptuous on my part, but I think if someone is motivated and takes the time to fill out an application they probably stand a good chance of getting some support to develop a local program. In short, the Federation is providing much needed support and incentive to start new pockets of development throughout the U.S.
But, while what I’ve just described is all well and good it appears that the program is probably falling well short of its stated mission of identifying “talented” future Olympic Players. I say this based partly on the ugly looking score lines from the recent Partille Cup. While those poor results can be partially chalked up to the vastly more experienced European clubs I think a team of future Olympic athletes could use that superior athletic ability to keep the game a little more respectable. This is especially true when you factor in that most of the clubs participating at the Partille cup are only drawing athletes from one small dot on the map, not an entire county or 300 million people.
But, then again the current reality is that the U.S. is probably working with a youth talent pool smaller than what many of those clubs are working with. In fact, based on Federation articles written promoting the trip and tryouts a cynic might even assess that just about anyone willing to pay for airfare probably could have put on a USA jersey.
The challenges of identifying top young talent
But, even if USA Team Handball had thousands and thousands in the talent pool vying for Partille Cup spots, identifying the future Olympian at ages 15 and 16 is probably a futile mission. Out of curiosity I checked out the USA Basketball website to see what kind of Under 19 and Under 18 rosters they’ve sent to assorted FIBA tournaments in the past 15 years. I didn’t do an in-depth review, but the typical roster only had 1 or 2 players whose names I recognized and with a few notable exceptions (Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh) I didn’t see a whole lot of Olympians. And this is for a U19 roster for a major sport where colleges spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recruiting and assessing potential high school prospects. So, with all those resources being applied they are either missing some talented players or more likely those talented players are still developing as athletes. And this is at ages 18 and 19! If you look at ages 15 and 16 players like Michael Jordan (he got cut from his HS Varsity team as a sophomore) would never ever get selected.
Recommendations: Focus on maximizing exposure
So, if you take into account that a sport like basketball can’t do a great job of identifying Olympic talent at young ages, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to do the same for Team Handball. And if you couple that fact with the other challenges our sport faces competing against other more established sports, we need to make sure were maximizing the potential benefits of Partille Cup participation. And in my opinion, maximum benefit equals maximum participation. With that in mind I have the following recommendations.
1) Maximize nationwide participation: The rosters for the Partille Cup had fairly heavy representation from only a few Top Prospect programs. Notably, the girl’s team was mostly from New Jersey while the boy’s team was spread out a little better with 3 players each from Salt Lake City and Chicago. I would argue that it would be better to further spread out that representation, so that only 1 or 2 players be allowed to participate from a local youth program. Such a quota would give more players from clubs and Top Prospect programs exposure to the Partille Cup experience.
2) Limit participation to “one and done”: Attending an event like the Partille Cup can be life changing for a young athlete. It is a totally unique opportunity and has the distinct possible outcome of creating new Handball fans for life. Attending the same event in subsequent years, however, will not have a significant multiplying effect. Therefore, it would be far better to maximize the numbers of kids who get that opportunity. Hence, my one and done proposal to ensure that as many kids as possible get that experience. Undoubtedly, this will mean the official USA teams that are sent won’t be as strong, but results are really secondary at these ages. (A short side note here: There’s nothing to prevent anyone participating or creating their own team to play in this event. I’m simply talking about the teams that are getting resources from USA Team Handball.)
3) Come up with a new name for the team: Since the criteria above will keep us from sending our best team forward the USA team should be given a name like “USA Select” or “USA Development Team”. This is semantic, but in terms of promotion to the rest of the world it will help to at least partially explain ugly score lines.
4) Continue to promote the event: My compliments to Kyle Hanson and the USATH staff for their regular reporting on this event. This isn’t the first time a team from the USA has attended, but it’s the first time it’s gotten the exposure it deserves. Future prospects will read those reports and target this as an event they want to play in. Promotion is key to getting the word out and expanding the talent pool.
USATH: Top Prospects Program Overview: http://assets.teamusa.org/assets/documents/attached_file/filename/37770/Top_Prospects.pdf
USATH (18 Feb 11): 20 Athletes Converge on Colorado Springs for Youth National Team Selection Camp: http://usateamhandball.org/news/article/41031
USATH (10 Jun 11): USA Team Handball youth taking on the 2011 Olympic Solidarity Program and Partille Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden: http://usateamhandball.org/news/article/42763
USATH (15 Jun 11): U16 Boys and Girls Rosters Named for Partille Cup: http://usateamhandball.org/news/article/42855
USATH (28 Jun 11): U16 Girls Training Camp in August at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center: http://usateamhandball.org/news/article/43135
USATH (13 Jul 11): Youngsters shine at Partille Cup: http://usateamhandball.org/news/2011/07/13/youngsters-shine-at-partille-cup/43521
Partille Cup VIDEO: Olympic Solidarity Overview: http://partillecup.com/eng/index.php/home/webb-tv/?film=4407
USA Basketball (Under 19 History): http://www.usabasketball.com/mens/u19/history.html