USA Team Handball Makes a Coaching Change for its Women’s Beach Handball Program (Some Questions Regarding Need, Timing and Process)

Former USA Beach Handball Women’s Coach, Juliano De Oliveira.

Earlier this week USA Team Handball announced the appointment of Lisa Dunn to be the new Women’s Beach Handball Head Coach and Michi Mensing to the Asst Coach position.  Left unsaid, however, was that Juliano De Oliveira, the Head Coach since 2016 had been “let go”, fired, or not renewed (pick your description). 

De Oliveira did get a mention though for having “laid the foundation for the program” and indeed that’s the case as he took the helm of a pretty much non-existent, dormant program in 2016 and under his helm it has been established as North America’s best Women’s Beach Handball side and one that is now respected on the world stage.

Here’s a review of what the U.S. Women’s team has accomplished in the four major tournaments they have participated in under his watch.

Juliano De Oliveira Coaching Record

2018 Pan American Championships
– Match Record: 2-4
– Games Record: Not Available
– Final Ranking: 6th out of 8 Teams

2018 World Championships
– Match Record: 1-8
– Games Record (Non Shoot Out Matches): 2-16
– Games Record (Shoot Out Matches): 0-0
– Points Differential (Non Shoot Out Matches): 213-338 (-125)
– Final Ranking: 14th out of 16 Teams

2019 North American and Caribbean Championships
– Match Record: 6-0
– Games Record (Non Shoot Out Matches): 12-0
– Games Record (Shoot Out Matches): 0-0
– Final Ranking: 1st out of 8 Teams

2019 World Beach Games
– Match Record:  2-5
– Games Record (Non Shoot Out Matches): 6-8
– Games Record (Shoot Out Matches): 0-2
– Points Differential (Non Shoot Out Matches): 224-240 (-16)
– Final Ranking: 10th out of 12 Teams

A review of these results makes it pretty clear there’s been some solid progress.   A team that wasn’t very competitive in 2018 turned it around in 2019.  A clear sign of progress was their dominating performance at the 2019 North American Championships.  A weaker field than the Pan American Championships the year before, but they left no doubt that they were the best team in the new Confederation. 

Arguably, more telling was the better performance on the world stage.  In two similar events (2018 World Championships and 2019 World Beach Games) the Final Ranking wasn’t much different (10th out of 12 vs 14th out of 16), but a closer look at the results reveals significant improvement.

In 2018, the women were 2-16 (Win Percentage of .111) in non-shootout games with an average point differential of -7/game.  Translation: most of the games were noncompetitive and essentially over in the first few minutes.  In 2019, they were 6-8 (.429) and the average point differential was 1/game.  Games were typically much closer and the U.S. had a shoot out loss to 6th place Argentina and they battled 3rd place and perennial power Brazil to a golden goal in one match. In consolation play they actually blew out some teams. 

To be clear, playing teams closer is still not winning, but make no mistake, it’s progress.

A Question of Need (Management Expectations)

Perhaps, however, management expectations were higher for U.S. performance.  For sure, it would have been nice to get out the consolation bracket and place higher, but it’s debatable as to whether that was a reasonable expectation for such a new program with some key players getting their first experience at a high level tournament. 

Additionally, while results in competition are important, there surely were other goals and objectives for the program.  I don’t know what was expected, but one can only assume those expectations weren’t being met.  Otherwise, if the team is making progress why make a change?

A Question of Timing (Why Now?)

The timing of the move also suggests that more was at play than just team results.  Otherwise such a change would logically have occurred right after the tournament in October rather than 5 months later.  Coaches everywhere know the drill.   If your team performs poorly and the season/tournament has ended they know that the “phone call” could well be coming.  The Monday after week 17 in the NFL is known as Black Monday for a reason.  Ask French Men’s Coach, Didier Dinart, what happens when you have one bad game (vs Portugal) at the European Championships.  You’re often shown the door.  That’s just how it works.  Results matter, but, Coach De Oliveira was not shown the door until several months later suggesting that the move was not directly related to competition performance.

A Question of Process

Personnel changes can be accomplished in a number of different ways, but a more open and transparent process might have been warranted.  In 2018, the U.S, advertised for the “court” Men’s Head Coach position and received dozens of applications and this process resulted in the eventual hiring of Robert Hedin.  A beach head coaching job is certainly less sought after, but a more open process would probably stifle any concerns that personnel changes were being quietly orchestrated behind the scenes.

Practicality for Practice

A majority of the athletes likely to make the U.S. roster currently live in Southern California. Having a coach co-located with those athletes facilitates instruction during practice. There, of course, can be training camps in other parts of the country, but such traveling can be expensive.

A Tough Coaching Change

Making a coaching change is rarely easy and with the U.S. beach handball community being so small it’s even tougher.  Everybody knows everybody really well and everyone knows that Coach De Oliveira has been there from the start, first as Assistant Coach for the Men’s Program and then as the first coach of the Women’s Program.  This past summer I saw firsthand the effort involved in setting up the Southern California Beach Handball Tournament.  It takes a village to stage such an event, but De Oliveira is a really big part of that village.  I can only assume that he’s also been a big part of everything else that’s taken place the last several years.  With all of that work done as an unpaid volunteer coach/organizer.

To make the determination that all that work plus steady progress in International competition just wasn’t good enough couldn’t have been easy.  To say thanks, but sorry your assistant coaches are better equipped to take the team to the next level, that’s got to be a very tough call.

The Road Ahead (Near and Far Term)

In the near term it’s all about the Beach World Championships, currently scheduled for 30 June – July 5 in Pescara, Italy.  (One can at least hope that the Coronavirus Pandemic will have subsided by then).  With likely a very similar, but now more experienced roster, I would have expected a better performance regardless as to who was coach.  In my opinion a great result would be top 8, 9th-12th would be OK, while 13th-16th would be a disappointment.  From a few social media postings it appears the athletes are motivated and they have recently met in Atlanta and San Antonio for training.  Even were planning to train in Southern California this weekend, but it has since been cancelled due to Coronavirus concerns.  I wouldn’t bet against dedication like that.  This side will rally around who’s ever coaching and come together for the best performance possible.

Beyond the World Championships this summer, however, some serious thought is needed as to what the long term strategy should be for Beach Handball.  The big inflection point will be the IOC’s decision on whether to include Beach Handball at the 2024 Olympics.  I think the odds are against it due to athlete quotas, but if does happen, we could have a seismic change in terms of the resources and focus that will be placed on Beach Handball.  One can even envision a residency program (perhaps at Chula Vista, CA) and an influx of talent that would make the U.S. a strong medal contender.

But, even if that doesn’t happen a strategy’s still needed.  In particular, there will be a need to consider steps to develop beach clubs, grow the elite talent pool and whether one geographic area should be selected for focused development.

(Note: I reached out to USA Team Handball CEO, Barry Siff, for more information regarding the coaching change, but he declined to comment.)