Moneyball Handball: Part 2: Pushing the Outside of the Recruiting Envelope.


The blue boxes represent the recruiting envelope for USA Team Handball National Teams.  Where should the USA push the outside of the envelope?

The blue boxes represent the recruiting envelope for USA Team Handball National Teams. Where should the USA push the outside of the envelope?  (Answer: In the direction of the green arrow; not the red arrow)

In Part 1 I provided some top level definitions to define the types of potential athletes USA Team Handball should recruit.  In this installment I focus on the recruiting envelope or the athletes USA Team Handball can or should recruit.

As a former flight test engineer at Edwards AFB in California it should come as no surprise that one of my all-time favorite movies is “The Right Stuff.”  The movie which depicts the lives of test pilots and the first astronauts popularized the phrase, “pushing the outside of the envelope.”  The “envelope” refers to the flight envelope for an aircraft which is the combinations of speed and altitude an aircraft can fly during level flight.  Every airplane has limits based on its engines, aerodynamic characteristics and the altitude that it’s flying.  Inside the envelope the plane can fly.  Outside the envelope is where the plane can’t fly.  In theory, this envelope can be determined by engineers.  In reality, however, it needs to be tested and that’s where the test pilot pushes the outside of the envelope by flying higher and/or faster than the paper design.

This graph depicts a flight envelope and you can perhaps see how I’ve adapted it to create a team handball recruiting envelope with “speed” and “altitude” being replaced with “raw athletic ability” and “age.”  The blue boxes are the recruiting envelope.  Inside this envelope are the athletes that USA Team Handball can or should recruit.  But, just like a test pilot, USA Team Handball can push that recruiting envelope.

The “Should Recruit” Line

On the top left hand side of the recruiting envelope is the “should recruit” line.  Above the line are athletes that should not be recruited because are either “too old to start,” have “insufficient athletic ability,” or in the worst case, both of those characteristics. Below the line are athletes that are should be recruited as they have the requisite athletic ability and enough time to develop into world class athletes.  As previously discussed it certainly can be debated as to where these lines should be drawn, but such lines surely exist.  I doubt that anybody thinks USA Team Handball should be recruiting 35 year old athletes or athletes that couldn’t earn a varsity letter in high school.  It gets a little more muddled, however, when we started talking about athletes in their mid 20s with respectable athletic skills.  Certainly, USA Team Handball could push the envelope along this line by recruiting older athletes or athletes with borderline athletic skills.  Maybe there are some outliers that will stick with the program into their late 20s or early 30s to become productive national team members.  Maybe there are some hard workers of modest athletic ability that will develop the requisite handball skills.

Historically, USA Team Handball has indeed pushed the envelope along this line.  Why?  Well, because if your talent pool is thin and you are limited in what you can offer prospective athletes it might be the only way to field a national team.  Further, if you establish a residency program you need at least 14 athletes to conduct decent practices and scrimmage.  It remains to be seen whether the current incarnation of U.S. National Team residency programs pushes this envelope line too much.  Certainly, given the current state of the USA talent pool it won’t be too surprising if this line is crossed quite a bit to start out.  As the program matures, however, crossing this line should become the rare exception.

The “Athlete Available” Line

On the bottom right hand side of the recruiting envelope is the “athlete available” line.  Above the line are athletes that are readily available to be recruited since they are not currently competing in either high school or college athletics.  Below the line are athletes that are unavailable because they are focused on high school or college athletics.  But, are all of these athletes truly unavailable?  Is this a solid line that can’t be crossed or can USA Team Handball push the envelope here to snag some quality athletes at younger ages?

The answer is that it can indeed be done.  In fact, it has to be done if the U.S. wants to become more competitive.  In particular, waiting for the best athletes to become available after their collegiate careers are over at age 22 will time and time again result in eventually losing too many of  those athletes to “life decisions” to pursue other activities.  This isn’t theoretical conjecture and anyone who’s followed the sport in this country can think of dozens of high quality players who bowed out of the sport in their mid to late 20s.  More recently, I discussed this very issue with USA Team Handball Circle Runner, Jordan Fithian. He’s not totally bowed out, but some life issues precluded him from signing a contract with a Div 2 German Bundesliga side.  (The relevant discussion starts around the 12:40 mark: Link)

It may not seem like a big deal to land a player at age 20 rather than age 22 or so, but those two years can make a world of difference on down the line.  It can easily be the difference between keeping an athlete focused on handball for two Olympic cycles, vice 1.  It could even change the calculus of a European club’s decision to offer an athlete a pro contract, and the U.S. actually keeping some world class players into their 30s.  Additionally, for many young adults graduation from college represents a turning point in their lives.  The thought process on future plans for many changes abruptly and the prospect of a handball adventure while appealing suddenly seems less practical.

Collegiate Athletes for Targeted Recruitment

But, how can top quality athletes be convinced to give up their collegiate careers for Team Handball?  Well, in many cases they can’t be.  In particular, it’s simply unrealistic to think that an athlete with a full ride scholarship to a Division I NCAA school could ever be convinced.  Fortunately, though, the percentage of collegiate athletes that fall into that category isn’t as high as one might think.  Many sports offer only partial scholarships and have rosters filled out with walk-ons with no scholarship.  Breaking it down further, here are some categories worthy of extra focus.

  • The high quality walk-on.  Often the term walk-on immediately conjures images of perhaps the most famous walk-on of all time, Rudy.  Let’s be clear, USA Team Handball does not need or want any Rudy’s on its roster.  Perhaps the right attitude, but clearly Rudy lacked in terms in raw athletic ability.  No, instead the focus should be on the high quality walk-on.  The type of athlete that could have played and might have even starred in Div II or Div III, but for whatever reason, chose to seize the brass ring and play Div 1.  In their junior year when it becomes clear that they are never going to be that walk-on who surprises and makes the big time they could be enticed to give handball a try.
  • The marginal scholarship athlete.  Many Div 1 athletic careers don’t turn out the way that athlete hoped it would.  This happens for a number reasons.  Sometimes the athlete isn’t good enough, has injuries or simply doesn’t get along with his coach.  When these athletes are relegated to the bench or sometimes even lose their scholarship altogether they should be ripe for the picking.
  • The motivated senior (not good enough for a pro career). Some athletes have productive, but modest careers all four years of college. They’ve been dedicated to their chosen sport, but just don’t have the skill required to continue playing at a professional level.  This is the type of athlete USA Team Handball has recruited for years, but rather than waiting for graduation the recruiting campaign to secure this player’s interest starts earlier while the athlete is still in school and hungry to continue competing.

Characteristics to Consider

While plenty of athletes fit these categories not every athlete should be targeted.  Instead a little investigation is needed to further assess whether an athlete might be a good candidate.  Some characteristics to consider are:

  • Multi-Sport athlete. A good indication as to whether an athlete might make a good handball player is whether the athlete has played and excelled at multiple sports.  This is because playing multiple sports suggests adaptability and the ability to perhaps pick up a new sport more quickly.
  • Handball build and skills.  This is not easily definable in words, but some athletes just look and move like a handball player.  And they just may be the type of athlete that is pretty good at his current sport, but could be perfectly suited for handball.
  • Whole person traits: This includes many traits such as leadership, hard working, team player, fondness for Olympic ideals and worldliness.  Playing on a USA National Team will not be a pampered experience and will involve personal sacrifice.  Team players are definitely a requirement for this team game.  Athletes with a fondness for Olympic ideals, a desire to see the world and wear a USA on the back of their shirt are also more likely to fit in and stick around.  Again these traits are not necessarily easy to define, but should be factored in.

A Simple Investigation:  Auburn Football

Last Saturday, nearly 88,000 fans poured into Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch Auburn upset Alabama in one of the more remarkable endings in college football history.   In attendance were some of the current members of the USA National Team Residency Program which has been started on the campus there.  But, might there also be some future handball players on the field or standing on the sidelines for the Auburn football team?   Some athletes that fit the rough categories and characteristics that I’ve identified above?

Focusing on the QB and Tight End positions which I previously highlighted there might indeed be some candidates worthy of further investigation.  Using the roster and depth chart of the Auburn football team and a little bit of internet searching I’ve identified a few prospects.  To the best of my knowledge none of these athletes have played a single down for Auburn so far in their collegiate careers.

  • Ben Durand:  A 6’3’’ sophomore walk on QB who starred in four sports in High School.  The most famous pass he’s thrown at Auburn was one over the jumbotron.  I’m guessing he could probably throw a handball fairly well too.
    Auburn Football Profile: Link
    Hometown Newspaper story: Link
  • Wirth Campbell: A 6’3” walk on TE who also played QB in High School.  Somebody that apparently can play both of the targeted football positions that often make good handball players.
    Auburn Football Profile: Link
  • Wade Norberg:  A 6’6’’ TE who played junior college football and basketball in high school.  At 210 lbs he needs to bulk up for football, but probably less so for team handball.
    Auburn Football Profile: Link
    Hometown Newspaper Story: Link

Who knows whether further investigation would lead to an assessment that they are strong candidates for USA Team Handball?  Or, for that matter that their long shot bids for Div 1 participation materialize with a break out performance during Spring Football?  Identification and recruitment inevitably leads to many, many dead ends.  The good news is that this is just an assessment of 3 players on the 113 man Auburn roster.    Surely, there’s a few more for consideration at other positions and at other sports and at other colleges.

But, a top level identification of potential recruits is just the first step.  In the next installment I’ll address the challenges of identifying, recruiting and convincing athletes to give team handball a try.