Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Why aren't US National Teams More Competitive?

As with almost any sport there are only a few key variables that predict success. With Team Handball, as well as most sports, those variables are
1) Raw Athletic Talent,
2) Training
3) Experience

Let's assess those variables with the current Men's National Team.

1) Raw Athletic Talent

A good handball athlete typically has the following traits: good quickness, good hand-eye cooperation, jumping ability, and a strong throwing arm. Additionally, since Team Handball is a rough sport, athletes must not be immune to contact. While height is not as critical in Team Handball, as it is in a sport like basketball, it still can be a significant factor, particularly for Backcourt players at the International Level. As described, it's safe to say there are no shortage of athletes with these characteristics in the US. Unfortunately, too few of them are playing Team Handball. And those that are currently playing for the US National Team are simply not as talented as most other National teams are. Now, this is not to say that these athletes aren't trying or working hard, they just simply don't have the raw talent to compete.

(Side note here: This is not to say that I ever had the raw athletic talent either when I played on the National Team 11 years ago. Quite frankly, I had decent size, a little jumping ability and the willingness to mix it up inside, but I never had the coordination to play backcourt or the quickness on Defense to consistently stop top players in 1 on 1 situations.)

But, bact to my point on raw athletic talent, its safe to say that when the US team steps on the court right now, most teams are better talent wise. I don't think that this was always the case. From my own National Team experience, I can safely say that while most of the athletes on the other teams I played against were better athletes than me, they were not better athletes than several other players on the US team. Where the Euros beat us, and beat us handidly, was with experience.

2) Training

Handball in Europe is a well known sport and players start playing organised Handball at a very early age. The typical US player doesn't start playing Handball until his late teens. In the US there are few organized leagues and the level of play is very rudimentary. In Europe there are Professional and amateur leagues at many different skill levels. Quite simply the opportunities to play are greater and the quality of competition is much higher. Case in point is the recreational league that I played in, in France. This amateur league in the greater Paris Metropolitan level fielded better teams than one would typically see at the US National Championship tournament. In fact I would wager that if all 10 teams in the 2nd tier Paris Rec league had participated at the US Championships in 2004 that they would have have taken 10 of the top 12 spots. The team I played on also practice 2 times a week. The US National Team has been getting together a couple of weeks before major tournaments and as far as I know only a very few teams in the US have regular structured practice.

3) Experience
Unfortunately even if you practice regularly your level of improvement will at some point be limited by the people you are training with and the competition you face in matches. Having quality athletes who train hard still won't work if you lack experience. When a US National Team plays against other national teams US players are often seeing techniques and strategies for the very first time. Sometimes, there is simply no substitute for the experience of getting your assed kicked a few times to understand what you need to learn in order to become a better team.

Summary: In the history of US Team Handball there have been a few instances where we've had the athletes and we've had the organised training, and the level of experience was increasing. Invariably, however, players would retire and move on with their lives and the program would have to start over from scratch. With the current US National Team, we are lacking in all 3 categories. This is not to blame the players: they are trying their best. This is not to blame USATH: they are trying to do what they can with limited resources. This is simply reality.