Published: 06:00, 15 January 2021
Handball is a sport largely played in schools in the county but why hasn’t it taken off? Kent Handball development officer Tom Middleton discusses why it’s a great alternative to mainstream football, the problems handball faces and his own personal story of getting involved in a fast-moving sport.
A friend of mine, Paul Goodwin, was chief executive of GB Handball and he was heavily involved in the creation of teams for the 2012 Olympics in London. It was a unique opportunity for sports like handball where normally we wouldn’t qualify but as hosts, we were able to enter.
Paul ran a team in Kent for a while, the Ashford Tanners that were based at the Stour Centre, and when I was involved with volleyball at the time, he wanted me to put a word in for handball when I was speaking to people. I started looking it up on YouTube, saw a few games at Crystal Palace and thought why hadn’t it taken off here?
2012 was a seminal moment for handball in this country. It was probably the first time people watched the game, either in person or on television. Tickets for the high-profile sports were all snapped up and it meant people who wanted to attend the Olympics came to events like handball, basketball, canoeing or judo. A lot of people were converted, they got an education and it was something that they introduced to their kids.
Kent Sport and England handball appointed me as a development officer, and part of the legacy programme from the Olympics was to go to schools, both secondary and primary, and get more people involved by playing the sport. I did a level one coaching course and I’m now also a tutor in the basics and fundamentals so I can teach others who can then hold sessions and introduce children to the sport.
I’m due to give a couple of courses at the University of Greenwich in March to students on teacher training courses. I’m trying to get more teachers trained up in handball so they can deliver lessons when they get a job in schools. England handball are putting a virtual course together again for February, they last 90 minutes and they’ve been over-subscribed previously so it can be popular.
HANDBALL IN SCHOOLS
It’s a good tool for physical activity as it ticks all the boxes. Interestingly I found that in primary schools, lots of children’s catching, throwing or just general ball skills were not there so my emphasis was quickly put on that. Even if the kids don’t want to play a complete game of handball, we can adapt the sport, so we can focus on a small-sided game or adapt it to improve those basic motor skills.
Kent Sport have been great in terms of funding for equipment in schools. It’s meant I can go to schools and where it’s a pretty fledgling sport, teachers may know how to deliver football or netball, so I can introduce them to handball.
There are so many benefits to playing the sport. Football can be quite passive at times, it can be possession-based, but in handball, at the discretion of the referee, you have to be on the attack all the time – the aim is to keep scoring goals. It’s a game of constant movement.
I’d watched my sons play rugby before and been horrified at some of the contact. The concussion argument we’ve seen with football and rugby means handball is an opportunity for PE teachers to look at a fast-moving sport which includes catching, throwing and physical movement. It can include physical contact but you can also adapt that and I think it’s a good alternative to sports that have got a question mark over them.
HOW BIG IN KENT?
We haven’t got that many clubs in Kent, only four or five. It’s popular in Medway – they’ve got a great coach there in Iwona Mashanda at Medway Falcons who play at The Victory Academy. She balances three kids, being a paramedic and being a real driving force for the sport in Medway.
Medway Park have been great supporters. We’ve had several high-level games there and in fact it’s the only facility in the county that has a full-size handball court. One of the problems with handball is that we don’t have enough facilities to play, you need a 40mx20m court with a 3-5m run-off. But most sports centre are built to Sport England specifications which is four badminton courts so even the newest facilities that are being built are not big enough for handball.
Over the last few years, we’ve brought top-level handball to Medway. We’ve had clubs from London play their games there, hosted the junior men world qualifying tournament, had GB under-21s play matches, as well as hosting Kent School Games matches.
KENT’S SUCCESS STORIES
We’ve got people like Jack Field from Margate who is on the GB programme, and Naomi Bell, from Medway Falcons, played for GB at U18 level last year.
If you look at the Kent School Games, the winners go through to the South East finals and we’ve had teams progress for the last four or five years which is encouraging. The Canterbury U13 boys won the national final a couple of years ago.
The Kent School Games in itself is a great success – seeing children taking part in the sport. With the school games, we had more entries to handball than any other areas of the country in their equivalent – in some, it’s non-existent. It’s a shame that we’ve lost that momentum this year with Covid-19.
What is good about primary school handball is that we’ve taken out two of the key elements of the game – dribbling and physical contact. The expectation becomes to get the child to throw and catch, judge ball flight and focus on the basics. If you add in things like dribbling too early, it ends up like basketball for them.
There’s no passive play in handball. We can adapt it to smaller areas, like netball courts, and it moves from defence to attack very quickly – everyone is involved.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
The World Championships gets under way in Egypt this week – but we suffer from a lack of coverage, especially terrestrial TV. It will probably be streamed online but unless you are aware of it then it’s just going to pass people by and that’s a problem for the sport.
Handball is really popular in Europe, in places like Denmark, Iceland and Norway, and then also Spain and Germany plus middle to eastern Europe.
Even across Europe, you can look at clubs like Paris St Germain, Barcelona and Real Madrid – all big names in football but they are also big names in handball. Those clubs are willing to include other sports within their set-up.
But we’re behind other sports in history as well. Basketball and volleyball were established in the late 1800s, handball was the 1950s. I’ve got to be patient – I’m in my mid-70s so it’s not going to happen in my lifetime and probably not in yours. But I want to see a gradual increase in participation and to keep getting the message across.