Lisa Dunn and Marilyn Elder’s passion for the sport of beach handball has taken them across the world.
Recently, it took them to a coaching clinic in Oslo, Norway, to learn and share best practices with other handball coaches.The two women were the only non-Norwegian individuals participating in a two-day course that took place in the side of a mountain.
“Whoever created this ‘indoor training facility’ blew a huge hole in the side of a mountain, creating enough space for two tennis courts, a beach handball court, and three beach volleyball courts,” Elder said, who learned of the clinic through her relationships with members of the Norway Handball Federation. “Each day consisted of four hours of theory and four hours of practical application. We learned about youth and junior development, how to integrate beach handball into indoor practices and much more.”
Elder, who helped create the women’s beach program in the United States, has been working with Marte Smistad, the director of the Norwegian Beach Handball program, to build a strong relationship between the American and Norwegian teams.
“I honestly can’t say enough about how kind and welcoming everyone was. They adjusted the course for us and taught the whole curriculum in English, which I was absolutely astounded by,” Dunn said.
“It was interesting to hear the coaches describe what type of athlete they try to recruit. To me, they were describing American athletes — when they said their common problem is having to de-condition athletes from indoor handball, I thought ‘Perfect! We don’t have that problem at all here in America.’”
Dunn, who grew up in Germany, discovered beach handball when the locals would dump sand in the middle of the town square. When she moved to the United States, she was selected to the U.S. national team and later made the transition from athlete to coach in 2018 after the IHF Beach Handball World Championships, during which the women placed 10th out of 12 teams.
“We don’t have many opportunities here in the U.S. to take part in a handball-specific coaches’ course and I think it’s our responsibility as coaches to always look for personal growth opportunities and ways to expand our knowledge for our athletes,” Dunn said. “I learned so much during this course on building structure for your athletes to thrive in. My biggest take away from the course was a reassuring one: that beach handball is about creativity and that the sport will look completely different in five years.”
Elder discovered handball by seeing it on television during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and began reaching out to handball clubs in her area. She has helped bring the U.S. beach program to numerous international competitions and has organized beach-specific coaching and refereeing courses in the U.S. over the past few years. Elder also had experience coaching New Zealand’s women’s beach handball team, and helped them earn a bronze medal at the Oceania Championships in 2019.
“Beach handball isn’t anyone’s first sport in the United States, so training the brain to tell the body what to do in the sun, under intense pressure, is really our main focus,” Elder said. “There isn’t one athletic movement we can’t accomplish, so it’s just a matter of willing our brains to be ready in that moment. I think mental preparation will be key for us, in terms of knowing what do in every scenario and having confidence on offense and defense.”
With both the women and the men from the USA Beach Handball program qualifying for the 2020 IHF Beach Handball World Championships in Pescara, Italy, the timing could not be better to focus on enhancing the U.S. program and bolstering its coaching acumen.
Dunn was recently announced as the new head coach for the U.S. women’s beach handball national team and will be assisted in coaching by Michelle (Michi) Mensing. The pair was to lead the team this June in Pescara, provided that the Covid-19 outbreak does not postpone or impact the world championship event.
Nonetheless, the beach teams are still finding ways to stay active and healthy during this period of quarantining and social distancing. Dunn and Elder’s time spent learning in Norway will eventually be put to good use once normal practices and activities resume.
“There is so much room in this sport for a team and country to create their own style. I am beyond excited for our program and for our athletes to showcase our progress,” Dunn said. “My goal is to be a part of the growth of the sport and show that clubs can exist anywhere in the U.S. and not just on the coasts. With that, I want to help develop high quality athletes and teach the sport in a way that enables them to think for themselves and find their own style of play.”