This is the first article in a five-part series from writer Matthew Solan on Summer Olympic sports that fiftysomething readers may want to take up to boost their fitness. Watch for future articles on synchronized swimming, race walking, boxing and fencing.
If you grew up or live in a town that has parks or schoolyards dotted with three- or four-sided concrete courts, you're probably familiar with handball, a game that's like racquetball without the racquet, played with a small rubber ball that you slap with your hand. It's a low-cost, democratic game that kids play outside on improvised courts, and adults play inside members-only fitness clubs.
Then there is Team Handball (teams can be all men, all women, or women and men). You might not be familiar with it, but it is one of the world's most dynamic and fastest-growing sports. First contested at the Summer Olympics in 1972, it will be part of the London Games later this month, even as pastimes, like baseball and softball, have been dropped from the competition. An estimated 40 million people in 159 nations play the sport, according to USA Team Handball, the sport’s governing body here.
The Basics of Handball
A standard team handball court is 130 by 66 feet, which is about 50 percent longer, and 30 percent wider, than a basketball court. The ball is about the size of a youth soccer ball. Each team has seven players — two wings, three backs, a center, called a "pivot" player, and a goalie. Game play is fairly simple. Teams pass, dribble and fire shots at the opponent’s goal, which is a smaller version of a soccer goal. The two wings shoot from the corners. The three backs, who are usually the top scorers, shoot from the center area of the court. All shots are taken outside a semi-circle around the goal called the six-meter line that extends about 19 feet in front of the net. A typical game will have 40 to 50 total goals. Shots are often fired in a jump-and-shoot motion over and around an opponent.
Games have two fast-paced, 30-minute halves, and teams are allowed a single, one-minute timeout in each half. Other than stoppages for penalties or injuries, play is nonstop. Other key rules: You can take a maximum of three steps before you have to pass or dribble or shoot; if you hold the ball longer than three seconds, you forfeit possession; and your team has to score within 30 seconds or turn the ball over.
Watch it in action and learn more of the rules.
Source: USA Team Handball
Team handball can also get physical. "It isn't like basketball, where you can look at someone wrong and get a whistle," U.S. national team member Erich Weller says. "Fouls, or faults, are your way of knocking or slapping the ball out of someone’s hands or disrupting their rhythm." You can’t foul out — players are allowed an unlimited number of faults — but as in soccer, referees can assign yellow warning cards for illegal actions. Get two, and you'll have to sit out for two minutes. Keep it up when you come back on the court and you'll get a red card and a quick exit from the game.
Team handball is an easy game to pick up, and you can, of course, improvise game play based on your ability (and the size of your gym). "There are some basic dos and don’ts," Weller says, "but your can easily jump in and learn as you go."
The American men's and women's handball teams did not qualify for the 2012 Games. Still, general manager Dave Gascon has high hopes for the future, centered on recruiting new players from the ranks of athletes who spent their college careers pursuing other sports but were not able to turn professional. "There are thousands of blue-chip American athletes who would love to represent the United States in international competition," he recently told NBColympics.com. "We are going to systematically go after those athletes."
"We will no longer be the doormat of the Western Hemisphere," Gascon says. In the meantime, the top teams competing in London are from Europe. Defending men's champion France will be among the favorites again, along with Denmark, Spain and Iceland. Norway and Russia are expected to compete for gold on the women's side.
The Handball Workout
If you're looking for a fresh sport that blends aerobic exercise and team play in a challenging, but not overwhelming way, team handball is worth a look. "Almost every person who sees a handball game falls in love with it," Gascon has said. "It has all the elements Americans love in sports. Think about it: Speed, quickness, scoring, great defense, fast-breaking sprints, strategy and physical contact. If you like football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and lacrosse, you’ll like team handball."
It's also a great workout. A 2009 report in the European Journal of Sport Science found that during a typical amateur-level game players' heart rates hit a peak of 160 beats per minute (bpm), and amateur players typically covered anywhere from 1.2 to 3.1 miles during each contest. For optimal cardiovascular health, the target bpm for people from age 50 to 60 is between 80 to 145 bpm, according to the American Heart Association.
Handball also helps build fancy footwork. Balance and coordination are essential as you run and stop, pass, shoot and jump. These are elements of fitness that most people ignore as they focus exclusively on aerobics or weight training. They are also skills that gradually decline as you get older, making the game all the more valuable.
Team handball is growing in the United States. through city and state leagues, most of which welcome players of all ages and skill levels. To learn more, or to find local leagues in your area, visit the USA Team Handball website. If you happen to be in Southern California, visit the Los Angeles Team Handball Club site.