With the sports world temporarily on hold, USA Team Handball caught up with coach Robert Hedin to hear his thoughts after leading the men’s program for the past two years. Hedin was appointed head coach of the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team in 2018. As an athlete, Hedin played in 196 matches for Sweden’s national team and won silver medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. As a coach, Hedin led the Norwegian Men’s National Team for six years and two world championship appearances. He is currently quarantined in his home in Norway, just outside Oslo, with his family.
How has this pandemic affected the U.S. Men’s National Team and its athletes?
RH: For us, the main problem is that the world championship qualifiers for the North American and Caribbean region were scheduled to be in October. I’m not sure if those will still be happening. Whenever it does happen, I hope our team will have enough time to get together and practice. But at this point, none of the plans are concrete yet.
How has the experience of coaching the U.S. men’s program over the past two years been for you?
RH: For me, these past two years have been a really good experience. It’s different than my other coaching experiences, but I’ve really liked it. In Norway, we know every handball player with a Norwegian passport. They play in leagues and on good teams, so you can select them knowing that they have extensive experience.
In the States, it's quite different. You have to actively seek players out and educate them. But it's really interesting. If we could someday start a league in America, we could really start building that pipeline. Right now, it's seeking out players, finding good ones, putting them in European clubs, waiting a couple years for them to develop, and so on.
We’ve been able to place American players in good clubs. Like Drew Donlin, playing for Ademar León in Spain. That's what we need in order to get players to get to a higher level as quickly as possible. We had a recent tournament and there was one player from the Ohio State University, Luke Bolte, who had only played handball for three months. He has a lot of potential and can be really good. But he needs to practice and play against the best players in the world.
What are the key areas in which we need to work on in order to build a strong national team program?
RH: We have two different areas to work on: the short-term and the long-term growth. For the short term, we have to find good players that are already playing handball. Most of those players in Europe, and they're going to be competing now to get the quick results and help the American team come up.
The long-term growth is the work we have to do in the States to develop American players. That's the most important thing for me, to find more and more American players to integrate them into the program. There's a huge amount of talent in the U.S. that can be really, really good. But they need to play handball and there's not enough opportunities for them in this moment. We have to arrange that for them.
In the meantime, we have to take them to places where they can play handball every day, like in Europe. They have to compete against players that are making a living and a career out of handball. If we manage to successfully develop players from the States, I think we can have a really, really good team for the Olympics in 2028. Maybe for 2024 as well.
But we have to work in both the short-term and the long-term. That's the only way to do it. If we manage to qualify for the 2021 IHF Men's World Championship in Egypt, I think that will be a huge step for American handball.
Looking at the North American and Caribbean region, what’s the toughest competition facing the American team in order to compete in the 2021 IHF Men's World Championship?
RH: Cuba is probably the best team in our region. They have a lot of players in the best clubs in Europe, so if they can put all their players together, they are definitely a tough team. But we beat them in the 2019 Pan American Games. We beat them in one game and lost in the second one. You also never know about Greenland, they have a lot of skilled Danish players.
I think it's possible for us to take one of the spots to go to the 2021 IHF Men's World Championship in Egypt. But that has to really be our goal and we have to work really hard.
How did you feel the team played at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru?
RH: We played quite well at the Pan American Games, especially at the beginning. We're not very used to playing under pressure and against good teams for the whole time. But the experience was very good for us.
When we have our best players together, we have a really good team. I think we could do well, even in good tournaments. But we need more tournaments like the Pan American Games and competitions against good teams in order to improve.
Can you tell us a bit about Nøtterøy Handball, the club team in Norway that you coach for, and the Norwegian handball league?
RH: With Nøtterøy Handball, our club team in Norway, we play every weekend and practice two times a day, so it's like a basketball team in the States. I have been coaching with them for three years. I'm working with a lot of younger players here in Norway. The whole league in Norway is generally made up of younger players between the ages of 18 and 25.
It's also possible for me to someday bring over some American players. We're trying to bring over a young American kid to practice and see how well he does. So it will be quite interesting to combine those two worlds. I think that's the quickest way to improve the whole team, is to be able to bring a lot of American players here and have them practice with the Norwegian players on our schedule and pace. That would be perfect. But we'll see.
Talk a bit about the athletes that you have on the national team and their potential for the future:
RH: The American team has a lot of young talent that will really contribute to our program in the future. We found a few players that are only 13 or 14, and they are already playing for good European club teams. We also have current players like Ian Hueter and Abou Fofana who are at a good age as well.
Every time we've had the possibility to do a camp, we've done one. The last time the men's team got together was in Ystad, Sweden in January of 2020. I've been here for 2 years now and we've managed to do a camp in every international break, plus some extra camps in the States.
So we have held a lot of different camps and tournaments, in places like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, etc. Those have been a huge experience for all of us.
What do you think the United States' chances are at competing in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games?
RH: Paris is possible. It will be really tough, but it’s definitely possible.The way to the Olympics is by playing in good tournaments like we've done these last two years, like a European Trophy tournament, a world championship event or Pan American Games. That's the only way to grow.
And it's important that we get the program in the States to run. With so many athletes in America, we have to take care of them and send over coaches to start training them, or they could come to us in Europe, it doesn't matter. But the sooner we get it, the sooner we can perform well and the better our chance is of reaching the Olympics in Paris.
What advice would you have for handball players who are currently unable to practice and compete during the Covid-19 pandemic?
RH: I would say that staying fit and focusing on fitness - that's the most important thing during this time. I think every handball player has a ball that they can at least throw at the wall, so that they can keep their technique and not lose that feeling.
Fitness is definitely number one. And it's still possible to train or practice alone so that you're ready to go when handball starts back up again. And I definitely hope it will start soon.