Grass Roots vs National Team Focus: Part 3: What’s the Right Level of National Team Support?


In part 1 I addressed the recent Women’s National Team results and in Part 2 I highlighted the weak club system in the U.S.  In this part I take a step back and philosophize a bit about how to go about determining the appropriate level of support for U.S. National Teams.

Both the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Team recently traveled to South America for competition.  The Women played several friendly matches in Brazil while the Men played a couple of preparatory matches in Brazil prior to traveling on to Uruguay for the Men’s Pan American Championships where they placed 6th out of 8 teams.  Both trips weren’t free and as a proponent of more spending on developmental efforts you might think that I would argue against them being made; but, you would only be half right.  For reasons, I’ll elaborate on I think the Men’s trip was warranted while the Women’s trip was not.

History Lesson: A Swinging Pendulum of Support

First off, a brief history lesson in regards to the level of support that has been provided to U.S. National Teams in the past is warranted if you want to better understand contextually what could or should be done.  The graphical picture at the top of the page is a simple depiction of the level of support that has been provided in the past.  It’s simplistic in that the actual level of support varied from year to year.  At some points the residency programs were more austere than full fledged.  The competition trips overseas varied and at times funding and resources were shifted towards different development programs.   In general, however, overall I think the years depicted on the pendulum accurately reflect an overall philosophy in regards to funding and support towards National Teams.

And, if you look at the depiction, you’ll note that the philosophy and focus most of the time has been towards National Team support.  In fact, you could argue that except for the Dieter Esch era (2007-2011) it’s always been National Teams first.  It’s just that since the USOC dramatically reduced funding support after the 1996 Olympics there hasn’t been sufficient funding to support them properly.

For the purposes of discussion I’ll first highlight the arguments for the 2 viewpoints on the opposite end of the spectrum:

Philosophy 1: National Teams First 

Here’s 3 arguments as to why USA Team Handball should have a “National Teams First” philosophy:

1) It’s the raison d’etre.  Fundamentally it can be argued that this is primary reason for sports federations to exist at all.  National Teams simply have to have a Federation providing the logistical and administrative structure backing their existence.  The USA has the best basketball players in the world, but somebody has to hire the coaches, organize the training camps and logistically set up the trips for competition.  What’s true for USA Basketball is true for USA Team Handball.

2) It’s the best platform for recruitment and development.  The performance of our National Teams has been downright dismal of late and in reality never very good, but undeniably a legitimate National Team program is a beacon for recruitment and development.  I speak of this first hand from my own experience as an athlete.  The possibility of training and playing for the U.S. National Team was a tremendous motivator for me.  Absent this carrot I doubt that I would have invested the time and energy to become a decent player.  What was true for me 25 years ago is still true today.  Also, a National Team regularly training and competing (even a weak team) will help promote the sport and spur development.

3) The USOC forces this upon the Federation.  The primary source of USA Team Handball’s funding historically has been the USOC and the USOC has been fairly clear that the bulk of it’s funding support needs to be spent on High Performance Programs (HPP).  The Federation might prefer to direct funds towards development efforts, but the USOC won’t allow it.

Philosophy 2: Development First 

Here’s 3 arguments as to why USA Team Handball should have a “Development First” philosophy:

1) It’s also the raison d’etre.  While it is undeniably true that only a Federation can provide the structure for National Teams it’s also undeniably true that development is part and parcel to the purpose of a sports federation.  One just has to read the Federation mission statement:

The mission of USA Team Handball shall be to develop, promote, educate and grow the sport of Team Handball at all levels in the United States and to enable United States athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence to win medals in international and Olympic competition.

Why, one could even read this mission statement and it’s initial emphasis on development and conclude that it has primacy over the afterthought, second part of the sentence.

2) Grass roots programs are in a deplorable state.  Many other sports federations in the U.S. put very little emphasis on development.  Thing is, however, to varying degrees those sports already have robust grass roots development in this country.  For instance, USA Basketball doesn’t even have to lift a finger in regards to development as nationwide programs already exist.  For USA Basketball, all they have to do is pick which athletes they want from a pool of thousands.  By contrast, USA Team Handball has only a few legitimate prospects from a handful of programs.   Focusing on National Teams without establishing a credible foundation is foolhardy and a recipe for continued failure.

3) USA National Teams aren’t currently competitive and won’t be anytime soon.  Both the Women’s and Men’s National Teams haven’t been competitive for several years.  I’ve highlighted this lack of competitiveness several times and depressingly we are not only regressing we’re getting older.  There’s a handful of new prospects with long term potential, but far too few to justify the resources currently being dedicated to our National Teams.  Anyone who things either the U.S. Men or Women have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the 2016 Olympics is in a state of denial.  Why, even with dramatically improved recruiting 2020 is a huge long shot.

Is There a Middle Ground?

In many cases the proponents on the opposite ends of the spectrum will state that they they value both grass roots and national teams, but with limited resources money talks and philosophies become entrenched.  At times it seems as if many in the National Teams First crowd take comfort in the clarity of purpose a National Teams focus provides.  It might be a difficult objective to field a competitive National Team, but the basic tasks are straightforward and concrete.  Hire some coaches, find a place for teams to train and send them to competition. Ignore the low prospects for success and adopt a Don Rumsfeld like philosophy that can be characterized by his infamous response to a soldier that complained about inadequately armored vehicles: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Rumsfeld was critiqued pretty strongly for this cavalier response, but in some respects there was some legitimacy to his point.  After all in WW2, the U.S. didn’t wait around to build up its forces after Pearl Harbor.  But, as critics pointed out that legitimacy gets pretty weak when the war you’re talking about is not a necessity, but a war of choice.  Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum, the grass roots crowd often gets caught in a perpetual building for the future mindset.  They dramatically don’t realize the extent of the problem they want to fix and the fact that it might never be fully solvable in a country as vast is the U.S.

A Middle Ground, but Where to Draw the Line?

Obviously, there’s a middle ground between the two extremes and even if your feet are squarely in one camp or the other, I’d like to think that most folks at least recognize the legitimacy of the basic arguments presented.  And, everyone with an opinion should also be able to take a step back and acknowledge any biases that might be unduly weighing where they stand.  For instance, I’ll draw upon my own experiences and unequivocally state that I was squarely in the National Teams First camp from ages 20-30.  (Not, coincidentally, I was also of National Team athlete age.)  Ever since then, however, I’ve steadily moved more to the other camp.  Lots of things have undoubtedly influenced this besides getting older such as struggling to start new clubs and seeing first hand what the U.S. is up against in terms of European structure.  I suppose if either of my daughters get the handball bug, maybe I’ll non-coincidentally switch camps as they enter their 20’s.

But, despite being for more development, I still see the need for a National Team program.  Back in 2011 I was outraged by the Federation’s decision to essentially abandon the National Teams and not even attempt to qualify for the Olympics.  Not that I thought the U.S. had a snowball’s chance in hell.  It’s just that I felt a line should be drawn somewhere and that a Federation should as a minimum roll out a team every two years for Pan American Championship or PANAM Games qualification.  In my mind’s eye those events were the equivalent of “going to war” and regardless of how weak our teams were we needed to show the flag and benchmark where our nation stood in comparison to other teams.  Of course, that’s just my opinion.  It wasn’t the Federation’s opinion at the time and now I see myself on the other side of the argument.  Sending an aging Women’s team with little chance at 2016 Olympic qualification on overseas trips for friendly competition while our development cupboard is bare is pretty hard to justify in my opinion.  And, I’ll state the same thing if I see the Men’s team being sent abroad for friendlies now too.  Of even more importance is taking a very critical look at the Residency Program at Auburn and assessing how it matches the long term goals and objectives of USA Team Handball.

Finally, to beat the dead horse into even more senseless submission I’ll reiterate that this will require some strategic planning and actually stating what USA Team Handball’s long term goals and objectives are.  And then, doing the same thing for the near term and mapping programs and initiatives to those goals and objectives along with benchmarks to assess whether those programs are being successful.  Such a process was started two years ago and abruptly stopped.  It’s time to quit pretending that this never happened and USA Team Handball has a well thought out plan in place.

Yikes.  Easier said than done. This is complicated.  Where should USA Team Handball start?  If only there was a way to get our arms around all that’s needed to be done with some resources and within a reasonable time frame.   But, maybe there is a once in a generation event on the horizon that just might make it feasible.  In the next part I’ll discuss that event and the 10 year plan that should be developed.