Why aren’t the U.S. National Teams at the London Olympics?: Part 2: Where do you find and/or how do you develop great Team Handball players?

Targeted recruiting for national teams or grass roots development? Or Both? And why is it so hard?

In Part 1, I provided some top level analysis as to why our current national teams didn’t qualify for the London Olympics.   This analysis simply looked at our current team and compared that team to former U.S. Olympic teams and our current Pan American competition.  That analysis highlighted that our current teams are lacking in the following areas: 1) Raw athletic talent, 2) Conditioning, 3) Individual technique/skills, 4) Team cohesion/experience, 5) Coaching strategy/preparation.  In this second part I start to look at the underlying reasons for failure.

The Underlying Reasons:   A complicated web they weave.

I’ve been asked a number of times over the years, just why the U.S. isn’t any good in Team Handball.  I usually reply with “How much time do you have and where should I start?”  As I started to map out the reasons on paper in a systematic way it became even more clear to me just how complicated it is as all of the reasons are interlocking in multiple ways so there is no clear root cause to failure.  In short, there is no straight line cause and effect like the old “For want of a nail” proverb by which if we just solve this one thing we’ll become a great handball nation.  Perhaps, some reasons like the lack of funding or lack of marketing exposure come close, but there is no “silver bullet” guaranteed to solve all the problems.

So, with that little diatribe in mind I would like to highlight 4 major underlying reasons worth further discussion.  Those 4 reasons are:

1) A lack of good handball athletes
2) A lack of marketing/awareness
3) A lack of funding
4) Ineffective leadership/management

Underlying Reason #1:  A lack of good handball athletes

Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming to the U.S. National teams relates to a distinct lack of athlete with both the raw talent and technical skills to compete at higher levels.  There are two basic solutions or paths to address this problem:

1) Targeted Recruitment: You can recruit some good raw athletic talent and have a dedicated and intensive training program to build up their technical skills
2) Grass Roots:  You can develop broad based grass roots programs to increase the number of players in this country and out of those greater numbers some good athletes with strong technical skills will emerge.

Over the years the U.S. has tried both approaches to varying degrees of success.  In a series of articles I wrote 3 years ago, “A Framework for Creating USA National Team Success” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, I provided an in depth review of some of the problems with each strategy and proposed a hybrid model for implementation.  Here is a somewhat shortened version of that analysis.

Targeted Recruitment:  The obvious solution?

With the Olympics going on various media observers have been watching the Handball matches and have been zeroing in on the Target Recruitment strategy.  All we need is NBA D-League players or mediocre NCAA talent from the Big Sky conference and train them up a little.  Even USA Team Handball is in the act taking the more modest approach of 1 (all we need is just 1) athlete from each NCAA conference.

It’s easy to see why so many people immediately come up with this strategy as one only has to watch the teams currently playing in London and assess that there are indeed thousands, if not tens of thousands of athletes in the U.S. with the raw athletic talent necessary to compete.  But, it’s just not that simple as there are a number of further underlying reasons:

1) Recruitment of the great raw talent athlete is only feasible when those athletes run out of other options:  Many observers fully realize this and that is why the more credible back of the napkin analysis focuses on athletes that aren’t going to make the big time.  Problem is you need to convince those athletes that they aren’t going to be the next D-Leaguer that isn’t going to make the NBA.

2) More athletes have more “other” options:  Not too many years ago the options for former NCAA athletes were pretty limited making an Olympic handball career an interesting possibility.  This is not as true anymore, particularly for basketball athletes who have a lot more options in Europe.  This article highlights how things have change over the years.

3) Older players are more likely to have “life issues” emerge:  Most great raw talent athletes at least having the option of playing their chosen sport in college.  This means the youngest athletes will be in 22-23 age range.  Certainly from a physicality standpoint this age is not a tremendous problem, but with each passing year athletes will inevitably have “life issues” play a greater and greater role in their overall psyche.  The possibility of marriage, needing to start a career or just waking up some morning and deciding that this training isn’t any fun anymore will come into play.

4) The Olympic carrot is less of a tangible reward:  In the past a USA Team Handball recruiter could confidently wave the Olympic carrot in front of a would be player.  Certainly at the 84 and 96 Olympics there was automatic qualification.  The competition in the Pan American region, however, is now much stiffer and some athletes will be less enticed when they realize that participating in the Olympics is far from a guarantee.

5) Lack of funding:  And right now the USA Federation has nowhere near the funding necessary to establish a credible training program for these would be recruits.  The programs in the 80s and 90s provided room and board, overseas travel opportunities and a small stipend.  With the other reasons outlined above even that model might not be sufficient enough to recruit the players needed.

Grass Roots:  Too hard and it takes too long?

While it’s not the solution du jour, Grass Roots strategies have garnered more weight at other times.  All we have to do is copy what soccer has done (or lacrosse, or rugby, or ultimate Frisbee) and then the sport will be popular in this country.  It’s not so simple and in this post I explained why.

Perhaps the biggest proponents to this strategy are the many expats who remember how they learned the sport at younger ages in their home country.  If we could do it in Elbonia then we can do it in the USA.   Grass Roots takes time, but it’s clearly the way to go if we want to have sustained success.  If you have thousands and thousands playing the sport, you will have great players that bubble up to the top and they will be doing so at age 18, not age 25.  But it’s not easy to develop these broad based programs.  Here are some of the reasons why.

1) Starting up a team sport from scratch isn’t easy:  Team Handball is a team game and you need a lot of players in order to have a good training environment.  We can probably quibble about just exactly how many are needed, but at least 10 is probably a good number.   Then, of course, you have to add the challenge of convincing people who’ve never played a sport before to suddenly decide to devote time and money to it.  The internet and Olympic telecast make such recruiting easier, but as anybody who’s ever started a club knows this is painstaking, unglamorous work.

2) Gym space is needed:  Finding a gym to play in can be a challenge as many in the U.S. were built for smaller basketball courts.  And then all those basketball leagues have to be contended with.  The cost of gym rental can be a crippling blow to new clubs which lack the numbers to share the costs.

3) The tyranny of distance:  The U.S. is a big country.  Even if a good club program is started in one particular city, that club often has to travel considerable distance to play another club.  This means that for real grass roots efforts to succeed that one club in a city often isn’t enough.  This is why to a certain extent that there is a little bit more concentration and development on the East Coast where the population has a bit more density.

4) The dominance of basketball: Team Handball is its own game and has similarities with a number of sports.  Still, it should be obvious that there is a great deal of similarity between the two games.  Not every good basketball player could be a good team handball player (and vice-versa), but there is a massive number of players that could choose either.  Basketball was invented in the U.S. and it’s our national indoor sport.  That’s not going to ever change and those would be athletes at younger ages are almost always going to select hoops over handball.

5) The physicality of team handball:  Team Handball can be a rough sport to play and it’s probably better suited for athletes in their teens.  Accordingly, it’s at a handicap compared to other sports like soccer where there is less injury, or at least the perception of less injury.

6) The pressure to succeed now: It’s a given that Grass Roots programs will not lead to immediate success.  In fact, you could argue that it will take at least 10 years to see any success translated to our national teams.  Meanwhile the USOC, a primary funding source for USA Team Handball, requests a yearly High Performance Plan which is supposed to outline how Team USA is going to win medals when the reality is that even qualifying at this point would be a tremendous success.  This pressure has always existed, so it’s not surprising that funding choices have often been made towards supporting National Teams rather than Grass Roots efforts.  And then when those National Teams have only moderate success (if even that) the Grass Roots proponents out in the sticks have complained, if only you had given me the resources I need, I would have developed several athletes that could make your national teams.

7) Lack of funding:  But, again the reality is that even if USA Team Handball zeroed out all funding for USA National Teams there still wouldn’t be enough seed money to support Grass Roots programs on the scale that is necessary.  Sure, it could be argued that these programs should be self-sufficient, but with the challenges outlined above assistance is needed to better enable success.

The Answer?

When you start to add up the underlying reasons it becomes fairly clear that both strategies have a lot of hurdles standing in the way of success.   As I noted in my framework series there are elements of both models that have merits, so that’s why I think some sort of a hybrid approach stand the best chance of success.  And I say best chance, because there are some other underlying reasons that would have to be resolved before any plan to field better teams has a good chance at success.  Those other areas include a lack of funding, a lack of exposure/marketing,  and yes, a history of ineffective leadership/managemen.  In Part 3, I first address the historical lack of funding.