Grass Roots vs National Team Focus: Part 2: Aging Veterans and Expats vs. Up and Coming, Homegrown Talent

Club contrast

USA with two national club titles. NYC takes Canadian title while NYAC repeats as American champions. But, the real winner in terms of development is Alberta: the Canadian runners-up:

In part 1, I highlighted that recent national team performances should at least call into question the U.S. Federation’s focus on National Teams.  In this part, I address the state of club handball and the development of home grown talent in the U.S. and whether the Federation should prioritize improving it.

Last month U.S. club teams pulled off a double championship. NYC Team Handball skipped the U.S. National Championships and instead went to Toronto and took the Canadian title.  Meanwhile, NYAC held down the fort in Reno, and repeated as U.S. Champions.  On the surface one might look at those results and come to the conclusion, “Not too shabby.  Our clubs won two titles and  New York City must be the epicenter for grass roots development in the U.S.”

Of course, anyone with even a casual interest in Team Handball in the U.S. knows that statement would have little basis in reality.  The NYC Team Handball Club is almost entirely comprised of expats and naturalized U.S. citizens who learned the game in another country.  I would also guestimate that the average age of the club’s members is around 33 years of age.  Meanwhile, NYAC does consist mostly of home grown talent, but the average age of the club is an eye-popping 39.7 years old!  As an old timer I take a little satisfaction in that guys that I played with and against in the 80’s and 90’s can still do it.  Why, it almost makes me want to round up the old Condors and take the title away from them next year.  Don’t laugh, with Gary Hines playing for us I wouldn’t count us out. I also haven’t seen Darrick Heath in years, but something tells me that at age 49 he could probably still  make the U.S. National Team roster if he wanted to.  And why stop there, if we want to truly go old, old school I bet the the Sushi Masters with several players pushing 60 could do pretty well.  (Perhaps an update to this 18 year old video is in the offing?) In all seriousness, though, the fact that I am only half jokingly entertaining these thoughts, speaks volumes about the state of club handball in the U.S.   There’s something seriously wrong with our club system if the best team in our country has an average age of 40.

Meanwhile, up north in Canada, most of the teams participating featured rosters dramatically different in composition.  Runners up, Alberta, for example was entirely composed of home grown athletes and had an average age of 22 years old.  With the exception of collegiate participants like West Point, Air Force and North Carolina, the U.S. has no club teams that are comparable.  Heck, most club teams don’t even comes close to those demographics.

Before I continue on, I’d like to make something perfectly clear:  I’ve got nothing against expat and old timer teams.  As I’ve written numerous times before, having these teams around is great for development in our country as they can show newcomers how to play the game.  Nothing perhaps motivated me more as a newcomer to the game then getting beaten by somewhat older, often a little out of shape, Euro players who knew the game.  The problem is not those teams.  The problem is that there are very few newcomers around that are benefiting from playing those teams.

Clearly an Issue, but is Fixing this Problem a Priority?

I’m fairly certain that virtually everyone who cares about the sport in this country would assess that our lack of up and coming, homegrown talent is an issue of concern.  More teams with younger players enthusiastically playing and improving their handball skills is something in principle everybody can get behind.  Even if you are wholeheartedly convinced that National Teams should always get the lion’s share of the budget, you still need players for that roster and it sure would be nice to get even a few trained up internally via a vibrant club system.

When push comes to shove, however, and decisions have to be made on where to spend limited funds and where to direct staff man hours something’s gotta give.  And, you don’t have to do much forensic analysis to quickly come to the conclusion that the U.S. Federation has decided over the past couple of years to mostly direct funds and man hours towards near term performance of our National Teams.  Hiring full time coaches, setting up the residency program at Auburn, and trips to Puerto Rico and Brazil are obvious indications of this.  Lacking recent budget information or recent documentation of Board of Director decisions it’s not possible to know exactly how much is being spent, but I would guess that around 80% of the current Federation budget is being directed towards our National Teams.  And, at the same time I would estimate that the Federation staff is probably spending around 80% of their time addressing issues related to the National Teams.  Residency programs don’t run on autopilot and trips abroad undoubtedly require a lot of coordination and legwork.

A Quiet Cancellation

This is not to say that nothing is being considered or done in terms of development, but it clearly is getting the short end of the straw.  Probably nothing demonstrates this more than the very quiet cancellation of the Summer Handball Festival that was originally planned to take place early in July at Auburn.  Announced in January this event was to be focused on identifying athletes aged 17-22 and appeared to be similar in concept to the Olympic Sports Festivals that were staged by the USOC from 1978 to 1995.  At those 2 week long events four regional men’s and women’s team usually composed of current National Team and up and coming players practiced and played several matches.  Having participated in 3 festivals I can tell you first hand what a great event they were and how important they were to USA Team Handball in terms of recruitment and player development.

I was pleasantly surprised by the January announcement, but immediately noticed the glaring omission as to costs for prospective participants.  In correspondence with the Federation I found out that prospective athletes were going to be expected to pay around $400 plus their travel costs to Auburn.  Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to immediately assess that finding new blue chip recruits willing to pay those costs was going to be challenging.  (In contrast, everything (room, board, travel)  was paid for at Olympic Festivals.)  In order for this good idea to be feasibly implemented it surely was going to need either an influx of cash or some motivated prospective athletes to come out of the woodwork.  I’m guessing that neither materialized, necessitating it’s cancellation, but perhaps it’s still on the drawing board for future implementation since it’s still being advertised on the Federation webpage.

How is USA Team Handball Prioritizing?

When an organization like USA Team Handball has constrained resources it’s impossible to do all the things that need to be done.  Heck, it’s tough to do even a few of the things that need to be done.  Faced with this reality USA Team Handball needs to carefully think through what it wants to do and what it hopes to accomplish.  What will get the best bang for the buck?  What are the critical needs?  Are funds being directed towards efforts that stand a good chance of succeeding? I’ve got real doubts as to whether these questions are being fully considered and whether enough alternative options are being weighed on their merits.

Case in point are the USA Women’s trips to Puerto Rico and Brazil.  I don’t know how much those trips cost, but for sure those funds and resources could have been spent elsewhere.  And, if a summer handball festival was already being planned, funds could have gone towards making the Summer Festival less austere.  If viable recruits were in short supply than manpower could have been redirected towards aggressive recruiting of younger athletes as opposed to training athletes that are nearing the end of their national team careers.  And, this is but one possibility as there are many more possibilities worthy of consideration.

Alternatives for National Team Success

What are some of these alternatives?  Well two years ago in Salt Lake City, USA Team Handball hosted a Strategic Planning Conference where a whole host of possibilities were discussed.  In a commentary I wrote last year I highlighted some of those initiatives and added a few of my own.  Here’s the list:

– Establish regional Centers of Excellence
– Establish a European based training center in collaboration with the IHF and other developing nations
– Provide stipends for overseas training with clubs to the nation’s top 30 players
– Provide funding to 10 U.S. based clubs to support player identification and training
– Designate one metropolitan area in the U.S. for Elite competition and apply funding to make it happen
– Identify national team coaches for an extended period of time, but pay them only part time wages
– Hire a full time recruiting coordinator and have them focus on expanding the player pool at ages 18-22
– Hire a full time youth development coordinator and have them focus on developing a model program in one U.S. metropolitan area
– Work with a designated school district to implement a sanctioned High School Team Handball League to serve as a model for other school districts.
– Work with the NCAA to identify one Division 1 conference to support a Team Handball League
– Conduct a 10 day U.S. Olympic Festival style training camp for 120 elite NCAA athletes.
– Sharply curtail current expenditure on U.S. Senior teams and focus entirely on Under 21 development in hopes of improving odds for 2020 qualification
– Sharply curtail Men’s National Team funding and focus on the brighter prospects (weaker competition/Title IX) for Women’s team development .
– Sharply curtail funding and resources related to adult club teams and focus efforts on college and youth teams. (i.e., Don’t waste time organizing competition and national championships for predominantly Expat players or athletes over the ages of 25)

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I think it’s only a matter of time before the Federation takes a critical look at its current programs and reassesses its options going forward.  Not that I would envision a dramatic shift away from the current National Team focus, but surely there’s some potential for tweaking and modification of the Residency Program to more closely align with long term development.  Even better, maybe some additional funding through new sponsors will come available meaning that instead of choosing between competing alternatives the Federation will have the means to implement multiple initiatives.

In the hopes of influencing those upcoming decisions I plan to assess these alternatives in terms of their pros/cons, feasibility, risks and costs involved with implementation.  And, I’ll also be adding a few new possibilities that come to mind:  Like figuring out what the heck is going on in Alberta in terms of development and whether that success can be duplicated in the U.S.

But, before I start delving into the alternatives I’ll take a closer look at the rationale behind the Auburn Residency Program.  The one alternative that was summarily chosen.  It’s not the “no brainer” way ahead for USA Team Handball that some people think it it, but there’s actually some decent rationale that even a die hard grass roots proponent can get behind.