Science behind handball: how a performance analyst makes a team better

FEATURE: Three top performance analysts share their thoughts about the past, present and future of handball, seen through the filter of data and numbers

Photo credit: Anže Malovrh / Kolektiff Images

Long gone are the old days when handball meant only 14 players that took the court and engaged in hard-fought games, when the total of goals rarely hit 40.

The technological breakthroughs in the past 20 years have shaped the world as we know it and everything around it changed. It also happened to handball, as the sport continues to develop, attract bigger crowds and new sets of fans.

Handball got faster, stronger and more physical. Therefore, teams felt the urge to adapt and started to try and find marginal gains in order to find that extra one percent that could be the difference.

Thus, the creation of a new position in the team’s staff. The performance analyst oversees a plethora of parameters and data from the players, ranging from a tactical standpoint to the physical workload in training and during matches.

The purpose is to collect, analyse and use data – both training parameters and video recordings of the games – to improve the team and prevent devastating injuries for players.

There is still a lot that can be done to improve the current level, but big steps have been taken in the past years, with rumours about the implementation of AI (artificial intelligence) and computer algorithms that will help teams get better in the near future.

The past: a change was needed

“20 years ago, the computers were huge and we needed tables on wheels to cart them into a meeting room,” remembers Christophe Cauiabet, the French team’s performance analyst.

“Now, everything can be done on a laptop with a few clicks,” smiles Ioan-Radu Cheregi, Romania’s performance analyst.

Handball has changed drastically over the past decades and the change has also been driven by data. While it may be easier to find games featuring your opponents or learn more about your team’s effort threshold, data has been at the center of the evolution of handball.

“We had a former player in the Norwegian team, Linn Kristin Riegelhuth, and we always asked her what she thought when we put short clips with her misses. She identified correctly the mistake and always tried to correct it. There are players who know very well how this analysis helps you,” says Norway’s performance analyst, Henning Krøger.

This was the era of videotapes, hours lost to try and isolate the plays they needed and convincing the players that knowing your opponent better than you know yourself is the key to success.

The present: everything is now in the cloud

Now, every contender has at least one performance analyst, if not a team of analysts, that always try and find that elusive one percent that can make the difference between the gold and the silver medal.

The developments over the internet speed and the connection quality meant that meetings between the staff and the player can now be even more unconventional.

“Players are now more responsive to our requests and are paying more attention to video analysis. Everything, every play, can be stored now in a cloud or over the internet and players can watch footage on their phone in their rooms at any given time. That is a huge improvement for us and for them,” says Cheregi.

“This is a tool for them, they can be better if they do this. Of course, the inherited qualities are very important, the most important, but this can make all the difference in the world,” is Krøger’s point of view.

The next step is imminent and would help handball develop into an even more entertaining sport.

“Real-time communication between the performance analyst and the coach. We do not still have enough data, but this could be the next big thing,” says Cheregi.

“If you have access to enough data, you can see what is wrong and what goes well into your team and you can pass it to the coach so he can make adjustments,” adds the Romanian performance analyst.

But does this help the teams to be better?

“If I would not think our role is important and teams are getting worse with our input, then I would give up. I think our role is truly useful and improves handball,” says Cheregi.

“I feel a bit guilty about Neagu’s injury”

The role of a performance analyst is not just to pay attention to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and provide a SWOT analysis for the coach.

It gets bigger than that. The purpose is to collect data, from own technologies and from outsources.

There are video recordings of training and matches and individual and team stats. But it also gets deeper than that. A good performance analyst is also required to store health data like pulse, oxygen saturation, lactic acid or the maximal aerobic capacity of the players.

“We saw what happened with Cristina Neagu. It would have been important for her, in the first place, for our team and for the fans that she played in the final weekend in Paris. But she got injured. And I feel a little bit guilty for what happened, not helping her enough to understand how she could improve the chances to not being injured,” says Cheregi.

In Cheregi’s vision, the staff of a team must act like a team in the team. Basically, cooperation between the performance analysts, coaches and physiotherapist is quintessential, because this could improve the players.

The future: artificial intelligence will be crucial

If the past 20 years served us as an example, therefore the future must surely be data-driven and could change handball forever.

EHF EURO 2018’s final weekend in Paris will see the iBall introduced for the first time during a national team tournament, as the SELECT ball has a tracking chip inside, which enables the distribution of real-time data, such as the speed of the ball, distance to the goal and shooting positions.

While they represent different countries, Cheregi, Caiuabet and Krøger agree on one thing: the future will see artificial intelligence even more present in handball.

There have been some AI developments in the past few years in sports, but the three performance analysts still wait for their implementation in handball.

However, the three agree that staffs need to be beefed up in the next years, as there could be an avalanche of data in the next years.

“There is surely room for improvement and we will probably see many new things come up in the near future,” says Krøger.

“In the last 15 years, handball has been played faster and faster. The trend will probably continue and we will have to take this into account,” adds Cheregi.

Yet players will still be at the centre of handball.

“They still have to create, because handball is played with heart. Players are not robots and will never be robots, no matter the year and how future will look” concludes Caiuabet.

written by Adrian Costeiu / br