U.S. Women’s National Team: What’s Next? (Part 2): The Looming Decision Can’t Wait any Longer

My final walk off slide in a presentation I gave to the USA Team Handball Board of Directors in October of 2022. This difficult and challenging decision shouldn’t be delayed any longer.

Decision Making Processes

Making decisions can be pretty hard especially when they impact a lot of people and have far reaching consequences. Inevitably, there are winners and losers and some unhappy people Sometimes making the decision can be so hard that people avoid making the decision altogether. Occasionally, delaying the decision is the smart move. This happens when the problem goes away or gets solved in some unexpected way.

But, more often than not, delaying the decision… ends up becoming a decision in and of itself. This is because inaction and the passage of time starts to eliminate posssible courses of action. Anyone who has ever been assigned a school project knows this. Start working on it early and you can consider the pros and cons of multiple courses of action. Why, you can even start over if something goes wrong. But, if you procastinate you end up with fewer choices and might even have to take a risky shortcut to get the project done on time.

The Big Decision: What Resources should be Applied to Support our 2028 Olympic Teams?

This is a broad and a pretty open ended way to identify a complex problem that needs to be decided. As I highlighted in the introduction (Part 1) to this series there are a lot of sub questions that have to be asked and answered before you can begin to decide the answer to the top level question. Partner related questions in terms of what is expected for U.S. performance. Philosophical questions regarding whether a special program should be started. Questions regarding the feasibility of “out of the box” solutions. And, on and on…

Inaction, the De Facto Course of Action?

Best that I can tell, no one is really tackling these questions. Not the board. Not the administrative staff. Not the coaches. Instead everything seems to be proceeding with a business as usual approach. I say “seems to be” because maybe there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes. But, if that is true it’s being done very quietly with little transparency. Here are some outward signs that point to to not much being done:

  • Lack of Board Meeting discussion: I listen in on board meetings and there’s no discussion of these topics or hints that it’s being discussed in Executive Session. Maybe there is in depth discussion and debate in the executive session. That new plans and initiatives are being reviewed, hotly debated and will be announced soon, but there’s little to suggest that is the case.
  • No website or social media posts discussing new initiatives. Website and social media posts regarding our national teams have been pretty much standard stuff highlighting training camps and competition. Newcomers to the sport are invited and encouraged to attend camps, but there doesn’t seem to be any organized and structured effort to effectively target and recruit new talents. Just an invitation (plea) to please show up if you’re so inclined. And, for sure there’s no talk of a realistic follow on training path for new athletes.
  • No discussion of National Team planning in the community talks forums. USA Team Handball conducted a series of “community talks” on a number of different topics, but the national team topic was simply a forum for current national team athletes to discuss how things could be done better. I’m not saying that such a discussion isn’t a good idea, but the lack of a broader topic to address national team planning implies that topic was either not worthy or something where community input wasn’t desired.

The U.S. Men’s National Team: Good Fortune Means a Relatively Easy Decision

Remember when I highligted that sometimes delaying the decision is the smart move? That sometimes the problem just goes away or is solved in some unexpected way? As I’ve highlighted on numerous occasions our men’s program has been gifted with a golden generation of dual citizens that has resulted in a competitive national team winning already capable of winning matches at a World Championships. They are also for the most part pretty young and this means we’ve already identified 95% of our Olympic team. This required no resources whatsoever being spent to identify and recruit new athletes. None! We essentially did no studying, no preparation and got a B+ for filling in our name on the test score sheet. This is crazy, good fortune for the U.S.

That said, all is not perfect. We may already have a competitive team that will not embarrass, but taking the next step and winning matches against top teams will be a huge challenge. While I think our current team can close the gap and pull off the occasional upset, I don’t think we can improve to the point where such wins are commonplace. And, I don’t think we’ll be able to add very many (if any) new athletes to the pool that will take us there in 4.5 years time.

In my opinion, to actually add some new athletes that could contribute to our current men’s national team in a relatively short period would require a very well resourced program with good training and competition opportunities. It would not be cheap and I would assess that even it were to be spectacularly succesful it might not change how well the U.S. Men ultimately perform in terms of wins and losses. In short, it would not be very cost effective and there are better ways USA Team Handball could spend resources.

So if a special program is not likely to have significant impacts, deciding the proper course of action for the U.S. Men is a pretty straightforward decision. Just keep on doing what we’ve been doing. Maybe there are a few tweaks here and there that could be implemented, but for the most part we should just count our lucky stars and focus on other challenges. Of course, that’s just my opinion. The USA Team Handball Board of Directors, the administrative and coaching staff should still review the pros and cons of alternative approaches and come to a conscious decision. They really should… But, if they don’t do that for some reason, the good news is that just “keeping on, keeping on” is probably (almost certainly) the right decision anyway.

The U.S. Women’s National Team: A Very Thin Talent Pool Means that it’s High Time to Start Making Decisions

Alas, the U.S. Women’s National Team is not the U.S. Men’s National Team. This was true when I wrote these assessments (Overall demographics, Women’s National Team player pool) in 2019 and it’s even more bleak as I write this in 2023. We have maybe 150 U.S. American citizen women world-wide that play handball. And, we have a dual citizen contingent on the women’s side, but it’s a smaller group and, as luck would have it, it’s not a golden generation.

As I wrote in part 1 the results the past 4 years have been dismal. For new context, this past summer Greenland beat the U.S. 27-12 at the NORCA Championships and Greenland just finished 32nd out of 32 teams at the 2023 World Championships losing all 7 of their matches by an average of 14 goals. On the positive side of things are U20 Women’s team just missed out on winning the NACHC IHF Trophy event and qualified for the Jr World Championships. Winning sure beats losing and I think there are a few athletes with potential, but this was also a pretty low level competition. Two years ago the U.S. and Mexico met for 31st place at the Jr World Championships. With 32 team fields now there are quite a few weaker teams in these competitions, but NORCA is probably still the weakest continent so this rematch could well happen again next summer.

I’ll just restate the really big disclaimers here. I’ve got no qualms with the efforts of our athletes. They are making big sacrifices and doing the best they can. The same goes for the coaches and the coaching they are doing. Again, they are putting a lot of effort into gettting the best performances they can from the athletes they have available.

The desire and effort are there, but there simply are too few athletes with the potential to compete at a much higher level. With the current athletes available this team can get better, but not a whole lot better. If nothing is done to fully address our very small talent pool, come LA 2028 we will field a very uncompetitive team. How uncompetitive? I won’t speculate fully, but we would be talking some really bad scorelines.

I’ve been around long enough to know that predicting the future is a somewhat perilous business. But, I don’t think this a very tough call. And, wow, I would be super happy to be totally wrong. If so, I will take full credit for the bulletin board material I’ve provided,

Intervention is Coming… Sooner or Later

It’s very unlikely, though, that we would ever get to the opening match in 2028 without some sort of intervention. This is because there will be steps along the way where progress or a lack of progress will be measured. In just two years time the USA Women, thanks to a promised wild card entry, are slated to compete at the 2025 World Championships. This will be a coming out party on the world stage that will hopefully show signs of progress and signs of promise. If, however, it doesn’t one could well see pressure being applied for USA Team Handball to… do something.

And, at the same time as we move closer to the Olympics interest from athletes looking for the chance to be an Olympian will more and more see handball as their opportunity. It’s always a hotly debated topic as to just how quickly a great athlete can be turned into a credible handball player. Inevitably, the discussion boils down to many variables such as the quality of the incoming athlete, the commitment of that athlete, and how that athlete would be trained. And, of course, the quality of the existing athletes that the would be new athlete would theoretically replace.

But, for context, as we discussed on a recent podcast, Katie Timmerman, a recent college graduate who played basketball for D-II, Concordia University, Irvine managed to play significant minutes for the U.S. national team after only a couple of training camps. A quick look at her career stats suggests a respectable career at the D-II level, but nothing to suggest an all star with overwhelming raw talent. And, nothing against D-II athletes, but on the whole, D-II competitions are a significant step down from D-I. In short, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to speculate what might happen if we got 20 D-1 athletes to attend a training camp with the LA Olympics approaching.

I Vote Sooner

So, if intervention is coming sooner or later… I vote sooner. And, accordingly, spending the bulk of time and energy towards creating the structures to identify, recruit and train new athletes. Four and a half years is not a lot of time, but it is enough time to put together a decent competitive team. And, avoiding or delaying such a move might result in trying a quick fix in too little time.

It’s also feasible to a certain extent to take a multi-prong approach whereby the current athletes are trained up at the same time the search for more athletes takes place. But, only to a certain extent. For starters, resources aren’t unlimited and a concentrated effort focused on new athletes will take time and money. And, as I’ve alluded to if you’re focused on finding new athletes… what are you really doing with the athletes that you’re essentially trying hard to replace? It’s a mixed message at best and a conflict of interest at its worst.

Time for USA Team Handball Leadership to Step it Up: Make a Decision and Own that Decision

Of course, I don’t have a vote… just a voice. Over a year ago, I briefed the USA Team Handball Board of Directors on the need to update the organization’s outdated strategic plan. My final walk off slide highlighted a looming decision that the board would sooner or later need to take.

I don’t remember every word from my presentation, but I implored the board that this was a major decision that they had to weigh in on because the path chosen had such far reaching consequences for the organization. That it was an order pizza, tell the family you would be home late kind of discussion. And, that the right decision might not necessarily be the most financially prudent or least risky path.

Maybe the right decision is to say: “No, we are not going with an artificial solution that requires a lot of resources to convince people to play handball. We don’t have the resources and in the end it won’t change the outcome significantly enough to merit the costs involved. We’re going to go with what we’ve got.” To which I say: “That’s fine with me. Just make it clear that is what the board has decided and own that decision.”

If the decision is to take a half and half approach: Then explain why that has been decided and how limited resources can be effectively applied to each half. Again, own that decision.

And, if the decision is for an approach that focuses on new athletes: Articulate that decision and develop a plan to make it happen… And, own that decision.

I think everyone can see where I’m going here. Sometimes all a board of directors has to do is put their stamp on a fairly stable situation. Where the course of action is fairly obvious. (Like lowering membership dues to match a competing organization) And, sometimes a board needs to step in a make a major strategic decision: To choose which fork in the road to take.

The looming decision is no longer looming. It’s staring us right in the face: It’s time to make a decision.

What might efforts to broaden the talent pool look like? In future installments I’ll take a look at some possible options and the challenges associated with implementing them.