By Dave Fink, SR Writer
Americans dominated 4-Wall handball throughout the 20th century, winning every 4-Wall men’s open national championship held since the inception of the USHA 4-Wall Nationals in 1951 and every pro stop in the 20th century. The Irish made strides in the 1970’s, with Pat Kirby establishing himself as one of the best players in the game. Ducksy Walsh continued the trend of top Irish players in the 1980’s, as the Irish proved to be worthy adversaries to the Americans but never capturing one of the game’s biggest titles on American soil. Irish born Tony Healy became the first Irishman to appear in the USHA 4-Wall Nationals Final in 2003, coming in second to John Bike, Jr. Healy’s run to the final signaled the beginning of a new era, an era that would be thoroughly dominated by the Irish.
Let’s examine the numbers, how the shift in power occurred, what the Irish doing today that enables them to thoroughly dominate their American counterparts and what the Americans can do to regain 4-Wall handball supremacy.
Examining the numbers
From 1955 to 2002, no Irish players appeared in the USHA 4-Wall men’s open final. Since 2005, 12 of the 24 USHA 4-Wall Men’s Open finalists have been Irish. The WPH Race 4 Eight has never featured more than four Irish players in the same draw in 21 events, but two of the three Player’s Champions have been Irish, with three of the six Player’s Championship finalists hailing from Ireland.
Reasons for the shift in power
The Rise of Brady and Healy
The initial shift in power occurred in 2003 when Tony Healy became the first Irish-born player to reach the finals of the USHA 4-Wall Nationals, defeating David Chapman in a thrilling 11-9 tiebreaker in the semifinals. The shift of power officially began with Paul Brady’s victory at the largest prize money event in 4-Wall handball, the 2004 Ultimate Handball Showdown, featuring $50k for first. Brady’s monumental victory over undisputed number one David Chapman would be the start of the most dominating run in the history of pro handball, with four world singles championships, nine USHA 4-Wall national singles championships in nine appearances, a Race 4 Eight Player’s Championship and just two singles losses in nine years. Paul Brady’s victory not only launched his ascent to handball super-stardom, it instilled in the belief in other Irish hopefuls that crossing the Atlantic to win championships on U.S. soil was possible.
Current U.S. Open doubles champion and Brady and Healy contemporary Dessie Keegan believes that Brady and Healy ushered Irish handball training and belief to a new level by training like pros, studying the games of the top Americans during their early years on the pro tour, and implementing a more modern and attacking style. By elevating their games, Brady and Healy elevated the games of their contemporaries, as well as the next generation of Irish handballers.
WPH #3 ranked pro and ageless wonder Naty Alvarado, Jr. also views the emergence of Brady and Healy as being a major factor in the shift. “Paul and Tony Healy set the standard very high in order to compete in Irish events being held all over Ireland in the early 2000’s. The aftermath of the Brady/Healy years is one that propelled Irish Handball to the next level and standard of play. Today’s young Irish stars are chasing down Brady/Healy like performances and successes on U.S. soil.”
Irish Junior Programs
The Irish junior system has produced a steady stream of elite men’s and women’s challengers and champions for the past decade, while nationwide American junior programs that existed 20 years ago seemed to have disappeared.
Irish juniors programs instill the fundamentals at an early age, teaching all of the necessary handball strokes required to become a great players, as well as making the junior handball experience inclusive and available to virtually all young people in Ireland. Irish juniors have the opportunity to play with and against one another as they mature, as opposed to most current American juniors who generally have the opportunity play only adults. The Irish juniors travel to the United States each year as a team, forming bonds and friendships that transcend handball. These bonds and friendships motivate the Irish to continue playing and improving, as opposed to American juniors that often gravitate towards team sports with their peers.
“There are only two or three promising juniors in the U.S. at a given time,” revealed former WPH Race 4 Eight pro and elite outdoor specialist Mike Schneider. “The Irish ranks are deep as far as junior talent and this added competition lends itself to more disciplined competitors coming out of this talent pool.”
“The support given to any junior player who chooses to play and devote their time to handball is rewarded with proper coaching, equipment, and a facility to train,” declared Alvarado, Jr. “This alone is a stimulates on and off the court handball loyalty. This also helps juniors who are not quite as successful initially to stay with the game. The effect are junior players setting a higher standard of expectations of themselves early in their careers and developing together at a rapid pace.”
Rising Irish star Stephen Cooney believes that junior handball has been better promoted in Ireland over the last few years and as a result, junior events have been flourishing in Ireland.”
Irish players travel to the United States filled with enthusiasm to succeed in the United States’ biggest events. Many of the Irish only travel to two or three major events in the U.S. per year, in comparison to the top U.S. players that are competing in 10-15 U.S. based events per year, many of them in their second or third decade on the circuit. The Irish arrive three to four days before an event to acclimate to the conditions, while Americans generally arrive the night before an event or even the day of an event. The Irish approach the tournaments as an experience and an opportunity to test themselves against the best from the west, while the Americans often approach the events as a chore.
The Irish turn handball into a team sport, always supporting one another during matches, traveling together, and spending virtually all off-court tournament hours together at events, similar to the Europeans at the Ryder Cup. The Americans are lone wolves, rarely supporting one another during matches and operating as sole practitioners on and off the court, rarely supporting one another during matches and eschewing camaraderie in favor of their pre and post-match routines.
WPH Executive Director David Vincent has observed the Irish camaraderie and recognized the discernible results. “There is a no doubt in my mind that when a competitor has a positive group willing to help and support, the effects can be highly successful. In the case of the Irish competitors that I’ve witnessed over the years, I would say that their camaraderie is outstanding and should be mirrored by those who want or need positive outcomes that resemble the team feeling. Because the Irish have traveled to the states for many years, they have created bonds and friendships with fellow countrymen and women just out of circumstance alone. A natural camaraderie has formed and I believe this has fueled the Irish to compete and play harder. The results speak for themselves.”
Strategy and Styles of Play
The Irish are taught to approach the game scientifically, always using every angle and inch of the court to gain an advantage. The Americans have developed a more one-dimensional game, relying on low serving and aiming to strike the next shot as low as possible.
Many of the American pros are reliant on just the sidearm swing, limiting their options during a rally. The Irish elite players, however, have developed a command of every stroke on the handball court, including the sidearm string, the Irish whip, the paddle stroke, and the overhand stroke. The entire repertoire of swings enables the Irish to play a variety of shots, thus making them more creative and less predictable.
Handball historian and acute handball observer Boak Ferris recognizes the dramatic strategic differences between the top Irish and American players. “The modern U.S. players have a gunner, win or die by the low hard kill or pass shot, attitude. It’s almost as if they only see in two-dimensions, and because of that, everyone American’s good at that height, so anyone can win, if the Irish aren’t involved. Once the Irish step onto the court, they use the court against the opponent, not the ball. They are more willing to adjust speeds, tempos, and heights, to get the ball to the right part of the court, than are the “addicted” U.S. players. Also, the U.S. players seem more resigned. They’re willing to risk losing, as long as they can play their speed and game. Ask them to adapt, and they just give up. Our guys see mostly “ball only.” The Irish see the court and where the opponent will arrive. The Irish whip allows for proactive handball, rather than simply reacting and chasing the ball around with no understanding of why you are doing all of the running. The Irish whip is an easy, energy-conserving motion that allows players to direct shots and predict and design shots that cannot be easily retrieved.”
WPH Race 4 Eight #2 pro Emmett Peixoto believes that the Irish style that emphasizes a commitment to error-free handball enables them to beat the Americans. “The ability of the Irish to play consistent, high percentage handball while rarely hitting the ball into the floor is the biggest reason the Irish are able to beat the Americans. Most of the top Americans take risky shots, whereas the Irish stick to the basics. The top Americans can surprise the Irish if they are playing well but they will never have consistently winning results against them.”
Mike Schneider views the American style as being a product of simply developing an aptitude for the game, with the Irish style being the result of disciplined instruction. “There are only a few distinct styles of swing and play in the Irish game and they are all very well suited to the ball and the court. There are no two American pros with a similar swing or style. As young American players come up, they either develop a useful swing and skill-set or don’t and without this you cannot compete on the top level. The top American players are mostly raw talents and can be seen coming up through the juniors very early on. Irish players have coaches from a very young age, thus developing the necessary fundamentals required without having to simply rely on raw ability.”
The Lack of a Dominant U.S. Player and the Lack of Depth on the Pro Tour
Since the inception of the USHA 4-Wall Nationals in 1955, the U.S. has always possessed a dominant player. Vic Hershkowitz, Jimmy Jacobs, Paul Haber, Fred Lewis, Naty Alvarado, Sr., John Bike, Tati Silverya, and David Chapman all dominated their respective eras, but since the end of Chapman’s prime in 2004, there has not been a U.S. player that has taken the torch, thus opening the door for Paul Brady and the rest of the top Irish to assume ownership of the elite handball mantle.
Keegan believes that it was not only the lack of one or two dominant players, but the overall decline on the U.S. pro tour that opened the door for the Irish to advance deep into draws on the pro tour. “20 years ago an Irish player would have to play four matches to qualify in the two days before the main draw started and then the next morning play one of the top four seeds. However, the standards of the Americans began to drop, especially in the pro qualifier draws, which meant it was easier for the Irish to qualify and that remains the case today, hence more and more Irish are going to travel as they are pretty much guaranteed to qualify.”
Current top 10 R48 pro Marcos Chavez, concurs with Keegan’s assessment. Having competed 20 years ago and still competing today, Chavez recognizes a huge difference in the depth of the respective eras. “Reaching the top 12 in the mid 1990’s was a huge goal and accomplishment for any up-and-coming player. The guys below the top four were nearly as good as the top four in the mid 1990’s, making every round competitive. There are just not as many really good players today, so qualifying and winning rounds in the pro stops is just not what it was 20 years ago.”
The Decline in U.S. Participation
As recently as 30 years ago, the USHA 4-Wall Nationals boasted over 900 participants in less than 10 divisions. Regional tournaments regularly featured 500 players, many of which had learned the game in college or at their YMCA. Today’s USHA 4-Wall Nationals regularly features less than 300 players in over 60 divisions, demonstrating the lack of available talent pool. The elimination of courts, an increase in non-competitive sports such as weight lifting, yoga, and Pilates, the innumerable choices for exercise afforded in today’s society, and the lack of handball programs across the country has cut U.S. participation by nearly 450%.
On the contrary, handball is one of the three national sports in Ireland. Young people are not afforded the hundreds of choices for exercise and sport in Ireland as the young people in the U.S., and as a result, Irish junior programs possess more junior players in one Irish county than play in the entire United States. Dozens of Irish programs boast over 100 young people, while Irish junior national championships regularly feature over 500 kids. In comparison, the U.S. junior nationals frequently draws less than 60 U.S. born players.
The U.S. players have been maligned for lacking mental strength and a professional approach to competition. While widely recognized as being supremely talented, the mental strength of many of the top U.S. pros has not been matched by their physical abilities. On the contrary, the elite Irish players have been lauded for maximizing their abilities and talents by combining exceptional fundamentals with extraordinary conditioning and the will to win.
“Some of the current American players are far too erratic in terms of their mental abilities and again this helps the Irish as the vast majority of the Irish are tough mentally and will never stop,” stated Keegan. “This approach works wonders against the current Americans as when things get tight they can’t cope well and hence the current Irish Dominate!”
Most of the top Irish handball players live within a one hour drive of one another, meaning that the players can easily play one another two or three times a week, simulating tournament conditions while still making it home for dinner. American pros are scattered across the country, with some being as far as 1,000 miles from a competitive game.
Current collegiate national champion and top 10 Irish Senior star Martin Mulkerrins believes that the accessibility for top-level competition greatly enhances the level of play amongst the top Irish players. “Having the ability to train against the top players on a weekly basis facilitates dramatic improvements. Many of the top 10 Senior players play one another several times a week throughout the handball season.”
“The Irish are blessed with is a small country, which allows guys to travel an hour and get a top class game against a fellow pro once a week,” explained Keegan. “In America, that isn’t always the case.”
The current generation of elite Irish players is roughly seven years younger than their American counterparts, many of which are firmly entrenched in their peak physical ages. According to AskMen and Axon Sorts, 22-29 is the age for peak athletic performance that combines the cognitive and explosive abilities of an elite athlete.
The average age of the top seven elite Irish handball players is 25, the prime of an athlete’s career. The average age of the top seven American handball players is north of 30, at 32. Several of the top American pros are on the wrong side of 35, while even those in their late 20’s and early 30’s have over a decade’s worth of pro handball wear and tear. The younger Irish players possess a decided advantage later in tournaments against their older American adversaries.
Unfortunately for American handball fans, there does not seem to be a generation of American handballers poised to replace the current generation of early and late 30’s stars.
“These figures tell me that America has lost out on a generation of pro players and therein lies the American problem,” stated Keegan.
How can the Americans shift the power back to the States?
The shift in handball power from the U.S. to Ireland took nearly a half a century and shifting the power back will not happen overnight. As illustrated, the Irish hold significant advantages over the Americans in training, coaching, strategy, enthusiasm, belief, camaraderie, and junior programs. The most glaring weakness for the U.S. is the lack of junior programs and handball mentors across the country.
Unfortunately, handball is not an attractive avenue for young people in the U.S. because very few young people are playing. Unless an American youngster’s father introduces him to the game and takes him to tournaments, the youngster will likely never play or be introduced to handball. Even with the coaching of his father, a young person is inclined to play another sport at school or with his friends to be part of a community of peers.
Handball has to become “cool” in order to appeal to young people, and the only way to bring “cool” into handball is for young people to have local programs with passionate coaches, dozens of kids their age to play alongside, and local and regional junior tournaments for the youngsters to meet and compete against their contemporaries. Unfortunately, most handball players in the United States are only concerned about their weekly games, not in teaching the game to the next generation. On the contrary, many adult Irish players feel a sense of obligation and fulfillment in teaching the next generation the sport, often sacrificing their own court time to mentor the youth.
Naty Alvarado Jr. participated in the country’s most successful junior program in Southern California in the early 1990’s and understands the structure and dedication required. “I have faith in American handball players, but we as a group have to respond to the challenge of developing junior players with hard work, dedication, preparation, and better understanding and initiative so that junior players can challenge themselves to elevate their games. For now, sadly, the juniors have to do it alone.”
Flourishing junior programs in the U.S. would yield the next handball boom in the U.S., while providing tremendous benefits to today’s youth, including camaraderie, maturity, discipline, teamwork, sportsmanship, and developing the competitive spirit that carries into adulthood. The challenge rests with every handball player to leave the game in better hands than which he found it and give back to the sport that has meant so much to him. The next Luis Moreno and thriving junior program is waiting to be discovered and it’s up to every handball player to rise to the occasion and make it happen.
Thank you to Naty Alvarado, Jr., Marcos Chavez, Stephen Cooney, Boak Ferris, Dessie Keegan, Martin Mulkerrins, Mike Schneider, and Dave Vincent for their invaluable handball expertise!
Kuper, S. The Optimal Age to be an Athlete. Retrieved on September 29, 2014, from http://www.askmen.com/sports/fanatic_300/325_the-best-age-for-athletes.html
Peterson, D. Athletes and age of peak performance. Retrieved on September 29, 2014, from http://www.axonpotential.com/athletes-and-age-of-peak-performance/