Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

In the coming weeks I will be posting some commentaries that will assess our current athlete talent pools and what steps should be taken to broaden and improve those talent pools. While it’s been a few years since my playing days those experiences are still fresh in my mind and very much shape my perspective. As such, here’s a look at my unremarkable handball career on the fringes of the U.S. National Team and how it’s relevant to our current national team talent pools.

Olympic Festivals: The Old Stepping Stone between Clubs and the National Team

There hasn’t been an Olympic Festival since 1995 so that means a lot of people either have no idea what they were or just an inkling that it was some sort of event where handball was played back in the day. While the latter is true it doesn’t quite do justice to how important Olympic Festivals were for both USA Team Handball and the athletes that played in them.

Basically, Olympic Festivals were like a mini Olympics for the U.S. with athletes representing teams from the North, South, East and West regions of the U.S. Pretty much every Olympic sport was played and then some. There was even a pretty decent opening ceremony with entertainment and an athlete march in to the stadium.

Aside from the pageantry they were 2 weeks long with a lot of training and matches. Rosters were 16 athletes and with 4 teams and 2 genders that was 128 athletes. And, it was entirely paid for by the U.S. Olympic Committee. That’s travel, room, board and attire for athletes, coaches and referees. That was quite a deal for NGBs like USA Team Handball.

And, Olympic Festivals were a really good deal for the participating athletes as they were a great opportunity to demonstrate your potential for national team consideration. Depending on the national team training/travel schedule the national team would participate so teams were typically a mixture of national team veterans, newcomers to the national team (often crossovers from other sports) and club athletes. So, if you thought you were national team material… you had 2 quality weeks of training and competition to demonstrate that.

Cut from an Olympic Festival Team and then Starting at the World Championships 20 Months Later… Never Let anyone Tell you that you’re not Good Enough

I’ve told this story more than a few times and it can be spun multiple ways. Here’s the persistence pays off, coaches don’t know jack, serendipity version.

After I graduated from the AF Academy in 1987 I was assigned to Edwards AFB in California and I played with the Condors club team that was then based in Ventura County. I used to make 4 hour round trips there for practices which seems crazy, but if you live in the middle of nowhere you get used to driving long distances. I was a solid club player and was selected for the 1989 and 1990 West Festival Teams. I did alright during the 89 festival and with the national team largely absent in 1990 I had my chance to really shine. I played pretty well in group play, but in the gold medal match I played a stinker of a game, missing several shots in a close match.

A year later when it came time for the 1991 tryouts I had premonition that maybe my handball career had played itself out. I was 26 years old and I had never been invited for a national team tryout. While I though I had potential and would do well given the opportunity, the powers that be clearly didn’t think so. And, my premonition was confirmed as I didn’t make the cut. I still remember driving home bitterly complaining of my non selection and at the same time contemplating what to do now that my Olympic dreams were over.

And, then a few months later I called up the Air Force Personnel Office to ask when, if ever, they were going to reassign me. At the time all personnel moves were on hold and I was expecting the same old, same old, “Sorry, maybe next year” response. Except this time, the response was, “Wait a second, what did you say your name was again?” followed by a shuffling of papers, and “Hey, you got orders to report to Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs in 45 days. You don’t know about this?”

Without knowing or requesting it the Air Force had decided to send me to where the national team residency program was. Not that I thought I would just show up and train with the national team, but it was nice to already know a few people where I was headed. Except that’s kind of what happened. The guys on the team said I should come to a practice and talk to the coach. Which I did. He was more than happy to have a decent, but not great athlete to round out the team. And, then I just kept coming to practice and getting a little bit better every day. And, over the course of 15 months I went from a warm body to practice against to starting on defense at the 1993 Handball World Championships.

A heartwarming story of perservance, serendipty and the reality that coaches that tell you that you’re not good enough don’t know what they are talking about. Just keep working hard and you’ll get there!

Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

(John Cusack on the 7th and a half floor in “Being John Malkovich.” In retrospect, I also had a low ceiling to work with.)

Well, that’s one way to spin it. Certainly, it’s the way I’ll tell it after I’ve had a couple of beers. While persistence is usually an admirable trait and it’s funny how important a role luck sometimes plays in the twists and turns of life… the reality is that the coach who cut me made the right decision. Far removed from that day and having watched and evaluated dozens of national team athletes over the years it’s pretty obvious to me.

I was a hard working, determined athlete with decent skills, but with limited future potential. Don’t get me wrong… I was pretty good at some things. Defending on the 6 meter line in a 6-0 defense, directing traffic and blocking long range jump shots… I think I did that as good or better as anyone I ever played with. But, playing the middle in a 3-2-1 with more ground to cover side to side? Not so good; adequate at times, but brutally exposed against quicker, world class athletes. (Read how HBL MVP, Michael Kallman exposed me) And, that’s just on defense. On offense, I was a good circle runner for a U.S. club, but on a national team level I never really got there for a number of reasons.

Don’t get me wrong… I had gotten better practicing regularly for 1.5 years in a structured environment. Good enough to start on defense at a World Championship, but I had now come really, really close to my ceiling as a handball athlete. I just wasn’t going to get much better. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I eventually came to that conclusion with a little help. While, I could have gotten out of the Air Force and stretched my career a little longer in all likelihood it was just a matter of time before more gifted athletes would have beaten me out.

Small Talent Pools and How they Warp Athlete Ceilings

So what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Well, it’s to illustrate how the size of a talent pool can really warp athlete ceilings. This is because your ceiling as an athlete isn’t just dependent on improving your abilities as an athlete. No… you can greatly improve your chances of success simply by choosing to compete against a smaller talent pool.

This is something that EVERY stateside handball athlete knows. And, this is because as far as I know EVERY stateside handball athlete has crossovered to handball only after they’ve reached their ceiling in a previously chosen sport. Not most athletes… EVERY SINGLE ATHLETE. This ceiling comes at different times for different athletes. Sometimes during high school, sometimes post high school and sometimes post college. But, make no mistake that ceiling comes for every athlete. Some folks play handball just for fun, but many athletes also see the smaller talent pool and they also see opportunity. Opportunity to play at a national team level and maybe even go to an Olympics.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually a great carrot to bring more people into the game. Because while some folks start out looking for Olympic glory and vanish as soon as they figure out they can’t get there, others fall in love with the sport, stick around and help grow the game.

Where it starts to become a concern, however, is when the overall quality of the athlete talent pool is simply too low to field a “competitive” team in international competition. A national team can still be “competitive” with a few athletes (like me on defense in 1993) with low ceilings playing complimentary roles. But, when the bulk of the roster is populated with athletes with limited potential and the team is not competitive it’s really problematic.

In the coming weeks I will take a closer look at that problem and what should be done to address it. I suspect in doing so I may upset a few people. So be it. Hopefully, at least a few may now understand that I also know firsthand what it’s like to be told that you’re not good enough…