Taking Stock and Shaking My Head in Frustration: Can Someone Please Educate Me?

Auburn formally designated as an Olympic Training Center:  Can someone out there explain to me why this is such a good deal for USA Team Handball?

Auburn formally designated as an Olympic Training Center: Can someone out there explain to me why this is such a good deal for USA Team Handball?

This past weekend was a big one for USA Team Handball as Auburn University was formally designated as an U.S. Olympic Training Center. On the face of it there is seemingly nothing to complain about putting some Olympic rings flags up and marking the entrance of a few buildings. There’s real cachet with the Olympic rings. Things are finally looking up for USA Team Handball…

Well, seemingly nothing to complain about. Problem is, however, that our current residency program is pretty much a façade. Best that I can tell neither the Men’s or Women’s team currently have enough athletes to scrimmage. And, even if they do neither team is populated with the types of athletes needed to credibly make a run at Olympic Qualification. The program is simply too austere for effective recruiting. How austere? As I highlighted in this previous series (Link 1, 2 and 3) athletes are being provided essentially nothing. They are even being asked to fork over cash to travel to competition.

Right now, it’s not even clear whether the U.S. Women have a coach. The website still lists Coach Latulippe in multiple places, but in July he signed a contract to coach, Valvert, a lower level Men’s regional team in France. Maybe, he’s going to coach both Valvert and the U.S.? Who knows? One might assess this is news item worthy of a short mention on the USA Team Handball website, but to date nothing has been posted.

I’m not sure how much more funding it would take to improve recruiting, support multiple overseas trips for competition, room and board, stipends, etc, but I’m guessing $1-2 Million dollars would be needed to do the job right. But, honestly even if the money somehow starts rolling in I don’t think that a training center modeled after our “success” in the 80’s and 90’s will get us over the hump today. Our Pan American competition is far tougher, the sport is more professionalized in Europe and top athletes graduating from college have many more options today.

Bottom Line: Taking cross over athletes in their 20s, giving them a crash course in Team Handball and qualifying for an Olympics was a reasonable, (but shortsighted) strategy 20-30 years ago. With superior American athletes we could even scare the top European sides once in awhile. But, even under the far better circumstances that existed back then, we still couldn’t beat those sides in Olympic competition.

To think that we can dust off the old strategy and somehow do it better now? With European handball so much more professionalized? With the Argentines and Brazilians grass roots youth programs now producing athletes signing contracts in European leagues at ages younger than we introduce athletes to the game? Seriously, what are we smoking? And, more seriously, might there be better ways to expend scarce funds and staff man-hours?

Logical Predictions Going Forward

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the first two years of the Residency Program and project the trajectory going forward.

Now to August 2016: The rest of 2015 and first half of 2016 will continue to be extremely lean for the Residency Program at Auburn. With no major competitions and no coach, the women’s program will be a shell of what it was last year. But, as that side was way too old to begin with, hopefully it will be an opportunity to essentially start over with new talent.

On the Men’s side there’s still a coach and some key World Championship qualification competitions coming up. The North American & Caribbean Championship will take place sometime in early 2016 and, assuming a good result, the Pan American Championships in June. However, with the Residency Program lacking quality experienced athletes any remote chance at qualification will actually hinge on major contributions from Americans playing in Europe, either veterans who couldn’t get the job done last time or a crop of expat newcomers who’ve shown promise in Jr. competitions. Or, to put it another way, success will in many respects just invalidate the program at Auburn. My crystal ball assesses that the Men will qualify for the final tournament, but finish no better than 6th.

August 2016 (Rio Olympics) to September 2017: The Rio Olympics will surely increase interest in the sport and recruiting should pick up significantly. But, with an austere Residency Program too many of the recruits will be older, hard workers instead of the younger “5 Star” recruits needed for long term success. During this time frame it will be the Women’s turn to make a run at qualifying for the 2017 WC. Assuming a youth movement with some decent recruits the women should qualify for the Women’s Pan American Championship, but it’s hard to project an inexperienced team finishing higher than 6th or so. And, if there isn’t money for travel to preparatory competition, the results could be much worse.

September 2017 (2024 Olympic Host City Decision) to August 2019 (2019 PANAM Games in Peru): The next two years will likely provide more of the same in terms of results. I would like to think that full time residency programs with three to four more years under their belts will be able to qualify for the 2019 World Championships.  Certainly, that should be the expectation if the U.S. is going to continue to spend the bulk of its limited funds on the Residency Program. If the program becomes less austere I think the women will succeed in qualifying. With the men it will be a tougher road due to stronger competition. I’d like to think we will have a side that can reach the Pan American semifinals though.

But, let’s have no allusions about achieving an unreasonable metric. There is virtually no chance that the U.S. Men or Women will go from not even qualifying for the PANAM Games in 2015 to capturing the Gold Medal Olympic ticket in 2019.

Does this mean the U.S. shouldn’t even try? Of course not. But, it should mean that trying should be done with a very close eye on 2024. This will be even more true should Los Angeles gets the nod for the 2024 Olympics. With guaranteed Olympic qualification the selling of an Olympic dream to prospective recruits will immediately become more realistic. The recruiting needle won’t move instantaneously, but come 2018, 2019 more athletes will see a run at 2020 coupled with guaranteed qualification in 2024 as enough enticement to stick with the program.

August 2019 – August 2024 (An LA Olympics?): My crystal ball goes pretty cloudy at this point. Too many unknowns. It could be that the prospect of substantial funding in the LA area inevitably moves a residency program there. It could be that a limping along program in Auburn is finally built up. Regardless, I do know this: Once it becomes clear that an Olympics is coming to U.S. soil the need to put together respectable teams that won’t embarrass will become paramount. And, if you haven’t spent the last 6 years or so developing grass roots you’ll need a residency program as a quick band-aid fix. Yes, even I will be on board with a residency program at that point.

Why It Matters

I guess one could look at these predictions with a grain of salt: “No kidding, Sherlock, we all know that the odds are long, but we gotta try. We gotta go down fighting.” My response, however, is pointed and loud: “Uh… No, we don’t. OMG WE DON’T.

The retrospective question that I’m afraid we will be asking come 2024 will be, “What bang for our buck did we get for our austere Residency Program established in 2013? How many athletes did we produce that are now on an Olympic team roster? I’ll project right now that the answer for 2013, 2014 and 2015 might very well be zero. Certainly, no more than 1 or 2. And, I suspect that if I do the same calculus for 2016 and 2017 it will continue to be a low, low number. Maybe by 2018, 2019 the number could reach 5 or so players making a 2024 Olympic roster, but only if we automatically qualify for an LA Olympics.

So why on Earth should we in 2015 direct the lion’s share of resources towards a pyramid tip that cannot and will not get us there? Why not instead come up with a plan which will methodically work right now on building a pyramid base so that 9 years from now we can have a pyramid tip with a decent chance? A grass roots plan to produce enough quality athletes so that a residency program for high school graduates might actually start to make sense.

Why do we continue to focus on short terms solutions that are all but hopeless in the face of long odds? We’ve all seen this movie before. Why do we think it’s going to have a different ending this time? What are we doing? Somebody please explain to me how it can possibly all make sense? Seriously, I’m tired of having a bewildering one-sided argument with myself.

Put your thoughts down on paper and I’ll give you the floor on this website to make the case.

It shouldn’t take you long if the Auburn Residency program is truly a “no-brainer.” Be sure to include expected benchmarks for National Team performance and numbers of world class athletes to be developed on an annual basis. Also, a quick overview as to why options like the Aarhus Academy and grass roots development are not better options for the spending of scarce resources.

A Personal Note

On a personal level, what may be the most frustrating aspect of all this is that somehow despite being pretty down right diplomatic and a growing pile of evidence supporting my views I’ve been written off by some as just another malcontent “hater”. Well, I guess I can see to this some extent. You don’t have to have been following handball in this country very long to know that there are quite a few malcontent haters out there. Individuals that simply point out problems with no context to the fiscal challenges the sport faces or any realistic solutions or alternatives. Just some Donald Trump like confidence that they are smart and those that in charge are stupid.

Lumping me into that group might be convenient, but it’s a ridiculous notion. The reality is that few people have thought as long and hard about the challenges this sport faces in this country. And, only a handful of folks have the international experience coupled with grass roots credibility to fully understand the real challenge. (Or, to put it another way, there are a lot of residency program supporters out there that either 1) don’t comprehend the strength of our competition or 2) have never lifted a finger to support grass roots development.) And, finally no one else has taken all their experience and ideas, critically analyzed them and put them down on paper like I have. No one even comes close.

So write me off as a malcontent hater if you like. Or weigh the logically constructed arguments that I have put forward vs. the total lack of strategic documentation backing the current direction of USA Team Handball. Then couple that with the evidence to date and the mounting evidence surely to follow. Finally, take into account my repeated offerings to roll up the sleeves and finish the strategic planning that was started and abruptly stopped with no justification. Then ask yourself who’s the team player and who isn’t. And, if you’re confident the sport in this country is headed in the right direction take a big step back and ask yourself just what exactly you are basing that belief on.