Grass Roots vs National Team Focus: Part 4: Both Can be Done, but there are no Shortcuts

14 years ago Germany implemented a long range plan to fix its soccer development programs. It appears to have worked well.  Should USA Team Handball do the same?

14 years ago Germany implemented a long range plan to fix its soccer development programs. It appears to have worked well. Should USA Team Handball do the same?

In part 3 I addressed the competing “National Team First” and “Development First” philosophies USA Team Handball has had over the years.  In this latest installment I highlight how both can be done with a long range plan built around a once in a generation opportunity.  Part 1 Part 2

Lessons from German Soccer:  Focus on Development and be Patient

In handball circles the news lately has been about how the Men’s German Handball side has been gifted a qualification slot for the upcoming World Championship.  The German National Team has fallen on hard times lately and what couldn’t be accomplished on the court through qualification matches to the detriment of Australia has been accomplished with the stroke of a pen. What a strange contrast that presents with the recent German soccer World Cup triumph.  14 years ago German soccer was humbled by a very poor performance at the European Championships and came up with a plan to address systematic problems with youth development.  A World Cup title and a very deep talent pool of up and coming players strongly suggests the plan was a good one and this short article in Business Week and this longer article in the Guardian highlight what the German Federation has done.    In a nutshell, Germany revamped its youth programs to find and train talent as early as possible.  One would think the German Handball Federation would be taking a close look at the German Soccer model to see if it could be applied to German Handball.   And, come to think of it, maybe USA Team Handball should take a look as well.

Unfortunately, though, what the Germans implemented didn’t come cheap and I don’t think USA Team Handball is going to find 85 Million Euros (on a yearly basis) lying around to duplicate the German Soccer development program.  Heck, $850,000 would be awesome.  That being said there are a number of initiatives that could be enacted at lower funding levels.  And, each of those initiatives or programs should ask and answer a basic question:

How does this initiative or program help USA Team Handball find and develop more quality athletes with great potential (e.g. younger ages) for our National Teams?  

If we start to implement initiatives that successfully answer this question the U.S. will gradually grow a talent pool from which a competitive National Team can be fielded.  The key word is gradually.   This won’t happen overnight and we could debate how long it will actually take.  For German soccer it took 14 years and it wasn’t like they were starting from scratch.  But, then again I don’t think we’re talking about world domination here.  We’re talking fielding competitive U.S. National Teams.  Teams that can win a Pan American title and can compete with the Europeans.  Heck, even start to beat them.  Rosters with plenty of talent and several players playing in Europe on some of the world’s best club teams.  It’s going to take awhile, though and it’s going to take more resources then what USA Team Handball has right now.   Still if you’re planning for the future it’s best to not have an open ended time frame on a difficult challenge, but a target to shoot for.   USA Team Handball has often planned in 4 year blocks focused on the upcoming Olympics.

The U.S. Olympic Goal

For the world handball community the handball tournament at the Olympic Games is a big deal.  For countries where handball is a significant sport it’s an opportunity to compete for a medal.  For the top players in the game it’s a capstone career opportunity to showcase their skills on a big stage.  For countries like the United States where the sport is less popular or virtually unknown, though it’s even a bigger deal.  Having a men’s or women’s (or ideally both) participating in the Olympic Games provides exposure and access to funding opportunities that is hard to match.  It can truly be a game changer and could ultimately be the vehicle to propel the sport from virtually unknown to a significant niche sport with a significant fan and player base.  This is why the U.S. Federation has almost always made qualifying for the Olympic Games the top priority and accordingly directed the bulk of its resources to making it happen.

Olympic Prospects

Unfortunately, though, there’s very little to suggest that the U.S. can make it happen anytime soon.  I’ve highlighted U.S. prospects for 2016 previously and there’s been little progress in the past year.  Honestly, it’s probably about a 50-50 chance as to either the U.S. Men or Women can beat Uruguay and will even qualify for the PANAM Games.  (If the 2nd chance tourneys are hosted by the U.S. those odds improve; if either the men or women have to travel to Uruguay they drop.) And then placing either 1st or 2nd (if Olympic hosts Brazil wins either the men’s or women’s title) at the PANAM Games is even a longer shot.  Probably, around 40-1 for the men and 20-1 for the women.  Some might think based on recent results that I’m being overly generous, but with the resources being invested there’s actually a chance the U.S. could become competitive enough for a long shot bid in a year’s time.  So, despite a long trail of dismal results there’s still a chance, albeit slim, of Olympic qualification.  Also, the women’s pool (minus Brazil) is somewhat weak and injuries to say Argentina could make the tourney wide open.

I haven’t addressed 2020 prospects specifically before, but the prospects are also pretty bleak, particularly for the women.  Brazil’s hosting of the Olympics in 2016 presented a one time opportunity for the other PATHF nations to avoid the likely necessity of defeating that world class side.  Heck, strike “world class”, they’re the World Champions!  Come the 2019 PANAM Games in Peru I doubt that the Brazilian Women will be as strong as they are now, but it’s foolhardy to expect that they will have an epic drop in quality.  Undoubtedly, there will be several player retirements, but there will still be some holdovers.  Additionally, they must have some upcoming talent based on their Junior Team’s 29-19 defeat of Team USA recently.  This Junior Team (athletes no more than 20 years of age) actually blitzed the USA to a 19-4 half time lead, suggesting the outcome could have been worse.  For the USA Men, Brazil will also again factor into the qualification mix, but the real class side is Argentina with its standout centerback Diego Simonet.  Arguably, at age 24 now he is already the best male player to ever come from a PATHF nation and he will likely be in peak form four years from now.  Injuries can always play a role, though, and Argentina, Brazil and Chile do not have overwhelming pools of talent.  The USA Men are significantly below those 3 sides now, but it’s feasible that a full fledged residency program could field a team within shouting distance in 4 years time.   With some of the USA Men’s top players pushing 30 or greater, however, several new players would have to come on strong.  Even with this happening, though, 2020 is still a long shot.

Which leads us to 2024 and a sudden huge increase in USA qualification prospects.  Of course, this qualification prospect has nothing to do with the quality of Team USA 10 years from now and everything to do with USA prospects for hosting the 2024 Olympics.  We won’t actually know whether the USA will host the 2024 Olympics until 2017, but the stars appear to be aligning for this to happen.  The USOC decided to forego a 202o bid and has been strategically positioning for 2024 now for several years. Stung by defeats to win several Olympic bids they’ve mended fences and built repoire with IOC members.  I wouldn’t bet the farm on Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston or Washington,D.C. hosting in 2024, but I would feel far more comfortable on that bet then a USA Olympic slot in 2016 or 2020.  Overall, reading the tea leaves, there’s maybe an 80% chance that USA Team Handball will be taking the floor at the 2024 Olympics in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston or Washington D.C.

A Logical Long Range Goal

So, if you couple the long odds for Olympic qualification with the time requirements related to player development there’s a logical long range goal staring USA Team Handball in the face.  And that goal is to field competitive USA National Teams at the 2024 Olympics.  More broadly, it’s how best to maximize the opportunity the 2024 Olympics will present in terms of exposure and continued sustained growth for the sport.  Anyone who was around for the 1984 or 1996 Olympics saw the bump the sport got when the U.S. hosted those Olympics.  Recruiting was easier, sponsorship was easier and interest in the sport increased.  Actually, this happens with every Olympics, but when that Olympics is also in the U.S. the effect is tremendously magnified.

As sure as the sun comes up in the east a big bump is coming.  The thinking now should be what can be done to turn this big bump into a massive bump?  A bump that starts a couple of years earlier than it did in either Los Angeles or Atlanta, a bump that rises higher and is sustained long after the Olympics.  A bump that results in a “tipping point” that makes team handball a nationally recognizable sport with a real following and opportunities for continued growth.  It should not be lost on anyone that the Los Angeles and Atlanta bumps were not as big as they could have been as interest was not sustained and growth did not materialize.

Some might argue that this is all well and good, but this opportunity is 10 years away.  USA Team Handball has got lot to be done in the mean time.  True as well, but I would argue that current efforts can and should be accomplished with both eyes squarely focused on the future.  Programs to support National Teams today can be structured to smartly build for the future.  And grassroots programs can be developed so that they maximize opportunities to identify and train future National Team prospects.

In short, USA Team Handball should look at everything it spends time and money on and ask a simple question:

How does this initiative or program help USA Team Handball field competitive teams at the 2024 Olympic Games?

And, if the answer is that the initiative or program doesn’t do much, if anything.  Well, then the next questions should be why are we doing it and can we modify it so it does support this long term goal.

This concludes my series tackling the grass roots vs national team debate.  Next, I’ll start addressing initiatives and programs that USA Team Handball should consider implementing.  First up, I’ll address the Residency Program at Auburn and how they could be modified to better focus on the future.