On Monday, USA Team Handball posted a job announcement for a Women’s National Team Head Coach. While the job of a national team coach might be a be a relatively straight forward position in most countries with the U.S., the title of head coach has often come with extra responsibilities.
The main job responsibilities of a coach are pretty well known: They are responsible for selecting the best handball athletes available, preparing them during training windows and then coaching the team in international competition.
And, while U.S. National Team coaches have had those responsibilities, historically, this model was insufficient due to the reality that very few people in the U.S. know what handball is, let alone play the game. In other words, there have been few athletes, if any, to select. And, historically, that has meant the added responsibility of creating a team from scratch.
A Nice Addition to the Coaching Search: An Actual Job Description
I’m not exactly sure how the U.S. hired its coaches in the past. I suspect it was mostly done behind the scenes with word of mouth recommendations, followed by lengthy discussions about how the U.S. job would be “different” and how the coach would be responsible for teaching gifted athletes from other sports how to play handball. A not to unreasonable approach given the circumstances and the course of action that had been chosen.
But times change. Circumstances change. And, I think it’s great that USA Team Handball is having an open search and has more clearly defined the job with an actual job description that lays out these extra roles.
First there is a Scope section that summarizes how the job is different:
“Under the general supervision and with the support of Chief Executive Officer of USA Team Handball
(“USATH”), the Head Coach of the Women’s National Team will lead the planning and implementation of the Women’s National Team Program, including, but not limited to, design and implementation of an athlete identification and transition pipeline.
In contrast with athletes that participate in many U.S. sports and the handballers that grow up in Europe, most U.S. athletes will join handball later in life (between 16 and 22 years old). Athletes will oftentimes have elite sport experience in other disciplines (such as basketball, baseball/softball, volleyball, or water polo), prior to starting a career in handball. It is, therefore, the chief responsibility of the Head Coach to facilitate the recruitment of athletes into the USA Team Handball pipeline and to provide the path for their transition into an elite handballer.”
And, then some of these extra responsibilities are further defined:
- Work in collaboration with USATH CEO and the designated High Performance staff of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) on the development of annual and quadrennial high performance plans.
- Recruit and retain elite athletes for the Women’s National Team pool, both domestically and internationally.
- Leverage existing global handball infrastructure for placing athletes with professional clubs, handball academies, or other similar situations to enhance athlete development opportunities outside of Team USA training camps and competitions, and to establish team opportunities for tournaments and training camps.
- Evaluate the athlete talent pool and continuously upgrade the pool to improve the national team’s competitiveness in international competitions.
The State of U.S. Women’s Handball
Laying out the added responsibilities is all well in good, but probably what’s missing is some context as to just how hard it will be design and implement an athlete identification and transition pipeline.
A while back I started a series of commentaries to address some much needed planning that USA Team Handball needed to undertake. This series, Charting a Way Forwards for USA Team Handball (Reboot), first identifies “What we have”, then takes a look at “What we want” and then tries to figure out “How we get there”. I’ve got the first two steps covered, but had paused on the very difficult and challenging 3rd step. I paused for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was the enormous chasm between “What we have” and “What we want.”
The series covers everything from National Teams to finances to marketing to grass roots development, but here are the commentaries that specifically address Women’s Handball:
- Demographics: American Citizen Female Athletes (Overview): Link
- Demographics: USA Women’s Elite Player Pool (Overview): Link
- USA Women At-Large and Collegiate Clubs: Link
There are a number of factoids in these articles regarding the current state of the U.S. Women’s program, but underlying everything is the reality that world-wide, there are maybe around 100 American Women that play handball on a regular to semi-regular basis. And, that number will go up or down depending on how loose or strict you want to define “play handball”.
So, if you’re an outside observer, not familiar with handball in the U.S., you’re reaction might well be, “What the hell? I knew handball wasn’t very popular in the U.S., but that’s ridiculous.”
I could go into a long diatribe on why the U.S. is in this position, but that’s not the point here. (If you are interested, there’s plenty to read up on: Link) No, the point here is simply to understand that it is, indeed, reality. And, it’s why the USA Team Handball since it’s inception has almost entirely relied on “transfer talent” from other sports to field it’s national teams. Because…it’s the only way we could even field a team. Further, I should point out that the ages of talent transfer (ages 16-22) listed in the job description are more “aspirational” than a reflection of current reality. Historically, there have been only a handful of stateside national team athletes that first started playing handball prior to graduating from college. And, for the past 20 years or so the average age has been creeping up to somewhere in the mid 20s.
The U.S. Men as a Reference Point: A Focus on Dual Citizens as an Option?
This stateside challenge, as described, is not just a problem for the U.S. Women, it’s also a problem for the U.S. Men. This is perhaps mostly clearly demonstrated by the rapid transformation of the U.S. Men’s National Team from a mix of stateside/dual citizens to almost exclusively a dual citizen squad. Notably, the final 20 man roster for the 2021 Men’s World Championships was comprised of 17 dual citizens and just 3 athletes that had first learned to play the game stateside.
There’s been talk about conducting tryouts and expanding opportunities for stateside athletes, but the reality is that such athletes either entirely new to handball or training at levels significantly below European standards will struggle to make a U.S. roster for years to become. Not because our state side athletes aren’t dedicated or lacking in terms of raw talent, but because the U.S. has been gifted with a pretty good, if not golden, generation of dual citizen athletes. This generational good fortune has meant that very quickly U.S. Men’s Coach Robert Hedin has been able to put together a respectable side that I think would have surprised some folks at the World Championships. Further, the bulk of this roster is actually pretty young and will be around for years to come. That’s not to say I don’t see stateside efforts being built up and eventually more stateside athletes making U.S. rosters. It’s just that it’s going to take several years.
Could the new U.S. Women’s Coach follow the same blueprint as Coach Hedin? Well, undoubtedly whoever’s hired is going to take a look at his current talent pool and try to duplicate it. Unfortunately, while, the U.S. Women have some solid dual citizens they can rely on they have nowhere near the quantity or quality that U.S. Men’s coach, Robert Hedin can rely on. At least, I don’t think there are any hidden Hueter sisters that will magically appear out of nowhere, but I’m open to being pleasantly surprised.
Lacking this dual citizen option and a very thin talent pool means the very difficult task of creating a team from scratch has to be more aggressively pursued. Because if it’s not pursued the U.S. Women will struggle to field a competitive side.
Maybe Coaches Should be Hired to… Coach?
Having been around awhile and having observed and experienced first hand U.S. efforts to create national teams mostly from scratch I’ve come to a conclusion. You can call me old fashioned if you like, but personally I think coaches shouldn’t be hired to design and implement an athlete identification and transition pipeline. I think coaches should be hired to… well, coach.
There’s a couple of reason for this. First, the skill set inherent in planning, designing and implementing a National Team Program doesn’t match the skill set of most coaches. Coaches conduct practices, prepare their teams and lead them in competition. They really know the game and they know how to make their players better handball players. Some of those raw skills could be applied to the very complicated task of planning and designing a National Team Program, but I would argue that it’s a different job requiring greater planning and organizational skills.
The second reason is directly related to the “different mind set” most coaches have. Coaches, at least any coach worth his salt, are hard wired to focus on winning matches. Maybe in the back of their minds they are taking long term goals into consideration, but the focus is primarily figuring out how to win their next match. It’s what they do. It’s what’s expected of them. At the end of the day it’s how their performance as a coach will ultimately be judged. This reality is in direct conflict with the long term goal of building a National Team Program. And, in the unique case of the U.S. with a 2028, seven year timeframe to consider the required mindsets couldn’t be more different. Yes, smart long term program building decisions could in some instances be extremely detrimental to the prospects of near term results.
The analogy (while imperfect) that applies here is the General Manager (GM) / Coach roles and responsibilities split typically used in professional sports organizations. The GM makes the decisions that affect the long term direction of the organization. He ultimately decides what players are acquired and at what cost while the coach is responsible for taking the players he’s been given and… coaching the team. This doesn’t mean that the GM and coach don’t work closely together, just that there is a lead/follower relationship in terms of long term/near term responsibilities.
A Bill Belichick for USA Team Handball?
But, maybe there’s somebody out there in the Handball world who can actually do both the way that Bill Belichick is both the GM and Coach of of the New England Patriots? I guess he’s been relatively successful. That remains to be seen, but I’m guessing he might have higher salary requirements than the $4,800/year currently being offered.