Moneyball Handball Part 3: USA Team Handball Recruiting (Past, Present and Future): Time for a Change in Mindset

Despite a questionable decision in the closing minutes of the Auburn – Alabama football game, Alabama Coach Nick Saban is considered to be a pretty good sideline coach.  Where he truly excels, though, is in behind the scenes recruiting to convince 5 star athletes to come play at Alabama.  Arguably, a good recruiting program is the single most important factor in determining a collegiate program's success.  It's also the key to USA Team Handball success and more emphasis is clearly needed in that department.

Despite a questionable decision in the closing minutes of the Auburn – Alabama football game, Alabama Coach Nick Saban is considered to be a pretty good sideline coach. Where he truly excels, though, is in behind the scenes recruiting to convince 5 star athletes to come play at Alabama. Arguably, a good recruiting program is the single most important factor in determining a collegiate program’s success. It’s also the key to USA Team Handball success and more emphasis is clearly needed in that department.

As I reviewed parts 1 and 2, it became clear to me that while I was zeroing in on the envelope for USA Team Handball recruiting, that I had neglected to define what recruiting means in the first place.  So stepping back a bit here’s the Merriam-Webster Definition:  Link 

  1. to find suitable people and get them to join a company, an organization, the armed forces, etc.
  2. to form or build (a group, team, army, etc.) by getting people to join
  3. to persuade (someone) to join you in some activity or to help you

Keep this definition in mind as I take a closer look at USA Team Handball recruitment, past, present and future.

Athlete Recruitment for USA Team Handball (Historical)

First, here’s a brief review of how USA Team Handball has recruited in the past.  For the most part athletes came from the following sources:

Military Athletes: The U.S. military at different times has identified national team players through tryouts.  Most notably, several members of the 1972 Men’s Olympic Team were identified through a U.S. Army program.  Over the years other athletes have been identified by U.S. military programs for National Team tryouts and have become members of the U.S. National Team.   (Note:  This category doesn’t include collegiate athletes from West Point and Air Force Academy.)

College Club Athletes: Several athletes that played Team Handball for collegiate clubs have gone on to play for the national team.  Historically, three clubs, West Point, Air Force and North Carolina have provided the bulk of those athletes.

Club Based Athletes: Non collegiate clubs have also identified and developed athletes that have moved on to the National Team.  The New York Athletic Club (formerly known as Garden City) has been the most successful in this regard developing several athletes in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  The Condors (both the California and Atlanta incarnations) were perhaps a distant second.

Dual Citizen Athletes: In most cases these athletes are American citizens who have lived and developed their handball skills in Europe.  Recruiting has primarily consisted of advertising that the U.S. was looking for handball players with a U.S. Passport.  Prior to the advent of the internet this was done through letter writing campaigns to European Federations.  Additionally, many Americans over the years have self-identified their availability to the Federation and the internet has made it much easier to find these athletes.  Finally, a handful of athletes have played for U.S. National Teams after moving to the U.S. and obtaining citizenship.

Post College Career Athletes: This category consists of collegiate athletes with virtually no prior Team Handball training.  Many of these athletes were identified through letter writing campaigns to college coaches in other sports like basketball, football and volleyball.  The letter would identify the qualities desired and provide dates for a tryout.  Athletes that answered the call were provided room and board at the Olympic Training Center and in a few instances, even provided with transportation costs.  Another prime recruiting opportunity were national team tryouts for other sports conducted at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  The Women’s program, in particular, identified several top players who were introduced to the sport while unsuccessfully trying out for basketball teams.

Olympic Festivals:  Another important tool for recruitment was the Olympic Festivals that were held from 1978 to 1995 in non-Olympic years.  In total, 120 athletes (60 men/60 women from all of the above categories participated in these two week events that provided structured training and competition.  Selection to the regional teams was competitive and the Festivals were undoubtedly the single most effective tool for recruitment and player evaluation at levels below the national team.

Athlete Recruitment for USA Team Handball (Recent and Current)

In more recent times recruitment has focused heavily on dual citizen and club athletes.  I would assess that USA Team Handball has by now most likely identified every passport carrying citizen with decent handball ability and done a pretty good job at convincing them to wear a U.S. uniform.  Collegiate club athletes have primarily come from 3 programs (West Point, Air Force and North Carolina) with the service academy graduates having the additional benefit of financial support from the military’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP).  A handful of athletes have also come from at large clubs with many of those athletes picking up the sport and joining local clubs after having seen Team Handball on TV during the 2008 or 2012 Olympic Games.

With few exceptions, however, the bulk of these athletes haven’t involved much recruitment effort.  At least, not by the dictionary definition.  In most cases these athletes were already committed to the sport and were essentially just raising their hands and asking to be considered for USA National Teams. In some respects this shouldn’t be too surprising:  Recruiting the already committed is a piece of cake, while recruiting brand new athletes (such as post collegiate athletes) is always going to be more of a challenge.  And, asking newcomers to pay all their costs to attend tryouts when there’s no clear path forward was probably a near impossible sales pitch. 

Athlete Recruitment for USA Team Handball (Going Forward)

With a Residency Program now in place, however, USA Team Handball can now sell prospective recruits on a pathway for further development.  Assuming the Residency Programs follow the basic tenets of previous incarnations athletes can be assured that they will be provided with a good training environment and the opportunity to represent their country in international competitions.  Auburn University is also a brand name school with both a great sporting and academic reputation.  There are now enough positives to make a credible pitch. Credible, but still challenging and additional benefits like scholarships, room/board and stipends would certainly help especially when competing for talent against other college and post college options for athletes.  Quite frankly, in my opinion, it’s very uncertain whether USA Team Handball can successfully recruit the athletes needed (younger with more raw athletic ability) without those types of benefits, but it’s too late to backtrack.  For better or for worse the decision to move forward quickly with Residency Programs has been made.

To make the expense of a Residency Programs truly worthwhile it needs to populated with great athletes with great potential.  It may be tough to make that happen, but one thing is for sure.  It has no chance of happening without a dramatic change in mindset as to what recruiting means for USA Team Handball.  USA Team Handball cannot  be satisfied with simply announcing open tryouts on its website and then hoping some good prospects show up.  Maybe, that would be feasible if the U.S. had a substantial existing talent pool or a guaranteed Olympic slot, but neither of those are true.  More time and resources have to be dedicated to recruiting brand new prospects to make the trek to Auburn.  In short a change in mindset is needed.  One that clearly puts recruiting at the very top of the agenda.

This means effective talent identification methods that can scour the U.S. and find athletes that are

  1. As young as possible
  2. As athletically gifted as possible and
  3. Willing to consider playing Team Handball

This means effective talent evaluation methods to fully assess whether talent that has been identified is a good fit for USA Team Handball programs.  And, as we are talking about athletes prior to showing up for tryouts, this may even mean methods of evaluating athletes before seeing them play handball.

This means effective recruiting practices to proactively engage prospective talent and persuade them to commit to the USA Team Handball program.

Fortunately, USA Team Handball doesn’t have to write a new book on how to do effective recruiting.  The model is there in the tactics and techniques that U.S. College sports programs have developed into both an art and science over the years.  College recruiting is a big business and arguably recruiting is the most important aspect of a college coach’s job.  Why is this behind the scenes aspect of coaching so important?  Because while X’s and O’s are important and running finely tuned practices are important more often than not wins and losses are simply determined by which team has the better athletes.  That’s why college programs have assistant coaches fully dedicated to recruiting.  That’s why coaches like Nick Saban at Alabama are hitting the recruiting trail to make face to face pitches to potential recruits so that they join their program and to committed recruits so they don’t change their mind.  Coaches like Saban know they can’t win without the horses, so they pull out all the stops to get those horses.  And, USA Team Handball needs to adopt a similar mindset when it comes to recruiting.

USA Team Handball, of course, doesn’t have the resources of Alabama or Auburn football.  Why, it’s doubtful that it has the resources of Auburn softball or even some random NCAA Div 3 basketball program.  That being said USA Team Handball does have some advantages.  For instance, it doesn’t have to follow the voluminous NCAA recruiting handbook:  Link.  The U.S. is also a large country and USA Team Handball should be able to more effectively recruit nationwide than all but a handful of colleges.  As outlined in previous installments while we may be looking at only a small percentage of available athletes our large size means there’s still quite a few rocks to turn over in a search for athletic gems.  But, those rocks won’t turn over by themselves.  USA Team Handball needs to start working the recruiting game harder.

So, a change in mindset to put more emphasis on recruiting is in order and the practices used in college recruiting are the model to follow.  Easier said than done; In the next installment I’ll take a closer look at the college recruiting model and how it might be adapted to best fit the unique circumstances of USA Team Handball.