U.S. National Team Plans: Part 5: Head Coaches (Does USA Team Handball need full time coaches? And, if it does, did they hire the right ones?)


Team USA’s Head Coaches (Javier Garcia Cuesta and Christian Latulippe): Did it make sense for the cash strapped Federation to hire 2 full time coaches at this point in time?

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 focused on National Team Residency Programs and whether the time was right for USA Team Handball to start these programs.  This installment addresses the related questions of whether we need full time head coaches and if we do, whether the recent hires have the right skill sets to meet USA Team Handball’s current needs.

What does a national team coach do anyway?

Before I tackle the question of whether it’s the right time to hire full time head coaches for the U.S. National Teams I’ll first try to identify the roles and responsibilities of a national team coach and some semantics in regards to what it means to be full time.  In many respects being a national team coach is like being a coach for any team.  You train players, conduct practices, scout opposing teams and make coaching decisions during a match.  Where being a national team coach is different from being a club coach is that the actual periods of competition are fairly limited and in many nations players are attached to their clubs most of the time.  Accordingly, actual coaching consists of periods of intense activity and periods of relative inactivity.  We could argue about how just inactive the slow time between competitions is, but without a doubt there’s less to do when a coach doesn’t have players to train and matches to prepare for.

Because of these realities National Federations have come up with several different models of employment for their National Team Coaches.  Here’s a short summary of the most common models of employment:

  1. The part time coach (with full time employment elsewhere):  Rather than pay a coach to sit around and do nothing most of the year, many nations choose to have a part time coach that spends the bulk of their time working for someone else.  This is currently the most common model use with the national team coach often also being the coach of a club team.
  2. The part time coach (with other Federation responsibilities):  Some nations expand the job jar of the national team coach to include other responsibilities that might be related to coaching (e.g., Technical Director), but aren’t coaching per se.  It’s also somewhat a semantic distinction; the individual is a full time employee, they just aren’t a full time coach.
  3. The full time coach:  Some nations prefer to have their coaches fully engaged with their national teams year round.  They recognize that there’s quite a bit of down time, but they don’t want their coaches distracted.  I haven’t personally seen the day to day itinerary of these coaches, but they apparently spend quite a bit of their time attending club matches to keep tabs on their players.
  4. The full time coach (with a developmental team to train):  Some nations actually do have players that are available for training almost year round- the U.S. when it had Residency Programs, for example.  With players to train on a daily basis a full time coach is pretty much a necessity.

What employment model is right USA Team Handball?

In recent years, USA Team Handball has gone with a revolving door of part time coaches being selected in conjunction with qualification tournaments.  And when the U.S. had Residency Programs, full time coaches were hired to run the programs.  But, setting aside history what makes sense right now for USA Team Handball?

Well, first off let’s clearly establish that at this point in time it makes little sense for the U.S. to hire full time coaches.  The U.S. cannot afford the luxury of having someone 100% focused on its National Teams (model 3) and it also does not have Residency Programs in place (model 4) that would necessitate a full time coach.  So unless USA Team Handball can find coaches willing to work for pauper’s wages part time coaches will be the reality.

The part time coach (with full time employment elsewhere) certainly has its limitations.  It can be challenging for a fully resourced coach in Europe to take professional athletes and organize them into a cohesive and competitive team in a short period of time.  To expect a marginally resourced coach with amateur athletes to do the equivalent is asking quite a bit.  Certainly, the U.S. National Team results in recent years haven’t been very good.  I would argue, however, that poor results in recent years have had little to do with the coaches being part time.  Instead the poor results are more related to the quality of our players and other systemic problems related to a very thin talent pool.  As further proof, it should be noted that the U.S. has also piled up quite a few losses against other developing nations with part time coaches.

The part time coach (with other Federation responsibilities), could be a beneficial arrangement, particularly if that coach is also well suited for “other responsibilities.”  In effect, such an arrangement becomes a great “two for one” deal.  During the “down time” the coach can spend the bulk of his time taking on other tasks and still remain engaged with National Team related responsibilities.  Then when competition and training camps ramp up the coach can smoothly shift their focus to the National Team without the start/stop problems that a coach employed elsewhere has to deal with.

But, this only makes sense if the coach is well suited for the other responsibilities.  Otherwise it can become a “half for one” deal.  In other words, the Federation gets a part time coach for the cost of a full time employee.  And even worse, that part time value of “half” might not be the right fraction.  If the Federation has a lot of tasks that are not coaching related and the employee keeps finding ways to work on coaching related tasks that they are more interested in doing the Federation might even end up getting a 1/3 or 1/4th deal.

The recent USA Team Handball hires:  Huh?

With funding in short supply I would argue that it would probably make sense in the near term to stay with part time coaches that still receive the bulk of their employment income elsewhere.  There’s just too many other things that the Federation could fund or focus its efforts on.  But, perhaps if the right multi-talented candidates can be found a case could be made to hire them as full time employees to take on coaching and other responsibilities.  As this is apparently, what USA Team Handball has decided to do so here’s a look at the “High Performance Coaches” and whether they are a good fit.

Coach Javier Garcia Cuestas: The perfect coach to run a Residency Program; If only we had one

If one looks at USA Men’s National Team Coach Javier Garcia Cuesta’s career resume one cannot help but be impressed.  Not only is he arguably the most successful National Team coach in U.S. history, he’s also turned around programs in Egypt and Portugal.  He was never my coach, but I’ve heard dozens of friends and former players speak highly of him and his ability to understand the psyche of the American athlete.  Give him the talented raw athletes and the resources and he’s proven that he can assemble a competitive team.  If USA Team Handball starts up a fully resourced Residency Program similar to the one that was at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he should be the first coach interviewed to head that program.

Problem is, of course, we don’t have a Residency Program in place, it’s not certain when it will start and it’s doubtful that it will be resourced as well as the program Coach Garcia ran so well in the 1980’s.  Taking this reality into account in then becomes a question as to whether Coach Garcia is the right hire to take on the “other responsibilities.”  As anyone who’s followed or been involved with Team Handball in the U.S. knows there is no shortage of things needed to be done to further advance the sport in this country.  I haven’t seen the list of responsibilities in his contract, but the hiring announcement does indicate that Coach Garcia as well as Coach Latulippe participated in the development of a long term strategy focused on the “recruitment, training, development, and elevating the stature of our National Teams.”  A follow up email from CEO Matt Van Houten further indicated that he would be “focusing his efforts on collaborating with the USOC Coaching Education department to develop several different projects for athlete identification and coaching education” and that he would “also be conducting athlete identification clinics focusing on bringing in new talent.”

These are certainly logical areas that need to be addressed by the Federation and it doesn’t take much investigation to determine that the U.S. is really lacking in the recruiting department.  This problem can be attacked in a number of different ways either through short term fixes, (primarily through cross over athlete identification) or through the slower development of grass roots program.  (This article provides a top level overview of issues related to recruitment/development.)

What’s highly debatable, however, is whether there is anything in Coach Garcia’s background that suggests he has the right skill set to take on recruiting challenges in the U.S.  Don’t get me wrong; give him the players with the raw talent and I’m sure he can evaluate their potential and develop them fairly quickly into decent Handball players.  He’s a proven quantity in those areas.

But, asking a Spanish National to navigate the American sporting culture and develop an effective recruiting strategy?  That’s a tough ask and this huge challenge might actually even suggest someone with a strong understanding of the U.S. sporting landscape and only a minimal knowledge of Team Handball.

This skepticism doesn’t mean that Coach Garcia can’t become the recruiter extraordinaire.  Just that I don’t see that as his strong suit.  From the outside looking in, I can only think why didn’t USA Team Handball just wait and consider hiring this outstanding coach when it would truly need him.

Coach Christian Latulippe:  How bad a record do you have to have in order not to get a 2nd chance?

Unlike with Coach Garcia there are some very pronounced question marks with Coach Latulippe’s record as a coach.  In particular, his stint as the USA Women’s coach from 2004-07 was downright dismal.  They were routinely beaten by many other developing programs in the Pan American Federation and couldn’t even win the Quebec Women’s club league.  Depending on your perspective Coach Latulippe was either fired or resigned his position under a cloud right before a second chance qualification tournament for 2007 PANAM Games.

Following this departure Coach Latulippe got some experience as an assistant and head coach for several women’s club teams in France.  But, again the record here is mixed.  Coach Latulippe’s current club, le Pouzin is leading its pool in Division N2 with a 16-2-1 record.  All well and good, but he left his previous club, La Motte Servolex, before the end of the season.  A season in which La Motte Servolex ended up with a record of 3-22-1 and resulted in their relegation from D2 to N1.  Further, it should be noted that the two clubs are on significantly different levels as N2 is down two levels from the more prestigious and professional D2.  Or to put it another way, there are 48 coaching positions in France above N2 and 48 coaching positions at N2.  To be sure fully assessing the coach’s culpability in club performance is an inexact science especially when your research consists of club records and a few articles on the internet.  Still looking at these results they are nothing to write home about.

There’s also no denying that Coach Latulippe’s program at Cortland was a shoe string operation and he deserves credit for holding it together.  Still, results are results.  It’s not credible to look back at the Cortland years and state anything along the lines of “Look at what he accomplished with negligible resources; Imagine what he could do with a real program.”  Instead, there’s almost nothing to show for.

And, on top of all this poor W-L record there is still no Residency Program in place so the issues highlighted with Coach Garcia also apply to Coach Latulippe.  Further, if one looks at the recruiting that took place during his years at Cortland it should be noted that very few high caliber players were identified.  So, there’s even hard evidence to suggest that recruiting is not Coach Latulippe’s strong suit.

Does all this mean that the 2nd time around can’t be different?  No it doesn’t; and on the plus side Coach Latulippe surely has some ideas on what needs to be corrected.  Still, one has to wonder at what point does such a poor record preclude the opportunity to get a 2nd chance?

Which leads to the next part of this series; Just how exactly did USA Team Handball make the determination that residency programs were the best course of action, that the time was right to start them and apparently hire coaches to run them? Part 6