I was fortunate enough to watch some Olympic men’s handball at London 2012, and it was enthralling – fast-paced, tactical, aggressive, and goals galore. Coincidentally, 2012 was when I started my teaching career, and I took my experience of handball into my first school and introduced it into the KS4 curriculum for both boys and girls.

3 years passed with year 10 and 11 students participating in handball. As a department, we thought it gave students a fresh outlook on team ball games, and relied on very basic skills that made it accessible and enjoying for less able students. A great success, right?

Wrong. Not a single group for 3 years chose to do the sport for a second block in year 11. How could this be? Other alternative sports that were offered were chosen for a repeat block, including tchoukball, dodgeball and capture the flag. Why was handball not proving attractive enough for our students?

Fast forward to 2016. With the introduction of the new GCSE specification, we look at the team sports list students can be assessed in. We panic. Where is the second team sport going to come from for many of our students? Those that have dedicated their life to playing football. We turn to handball. Not basketball. Our experience of basketball was always that students struggled to access the higher bands because of a reluctance to dribble with their non-dominant hand. Handball it is then. Myself and a colleague then decide we need to get more knowledge of the game if we are going to teach it to a higher level. We go along to our local handball in Cambridge and attend some training sessions.

It is at this point that my viewpoint of handball changed forever.

The training sessions have around 15-20 adults attending, ranging from complete beginners to first team players (it is worth adding, the men’s first team finished 3rd in the national league last year, and represent England in the 3rd tier of European competition). It is clear from the very first drill that we have been approaching handball completely wrong for the last 4 years. We saw it as a basic game. One that had a few core skills that could be picked up relatively quickly in comparison to other sports. It is just throwing and catching and passing and moving, isn’t it? No.

At this point, I would like to highlight one very important thing. Attending training sessions at a club for 8 weeks has single handedly been the best practical CPD I have ever had.

I attended a handball level 1 course many years ago. It gave me the basic knowledge to teach the sport, but it did not get close to the learning that took place whilst training with the club. There is no substitute for being coached by high quality coaches (the Cambridge head coach won coach of the year last year for taking the men’s team to third place) and modelling your play on high quality players (2 of the first team players have won player of the year awards in the national league).

This has led to my GCSE handball students receiving a quality of delivery far higher than they would have had 12 months previously. It has meant that, despite initial reservations, we have managed to get them respectable grades that surpass what they would achieve in many other team games with the same level of practice. However, it has led me to realise that the skill level required to be an effective handball player is incredibly high, and not accessible following a half-term block of lessons.

Backtrack to our KS4 core PE handball lessons. I am now in a better position to understand why it didn’t hold traction with our students:

  • We teach it outside – This is purely for practical reasons. Indoor spaces hold a premium and are required by other sports (basketball, badminton, dodgeball etc). Handball can be delivered outside, and it was the only way we could add it to our curriculum. Being outside takes away one of the fundamental skills in handball – gripping the ball with one hand. If the ground is even remotely damp, the ball gets wet, it is impossible to grip. Students adapt by playing chest passes, shooting with a slinging action, and much of the quality disappears. Having now taught it indoors, the difference is incredible.
  • Staff were not knowledgeable enough – we taught the rules, we transferred drills from other team games like netball and basketball, we played games. That was the extent of our teaching in core PE. It led to teachers saying “handball has only got 4-5 weeks worth of lessons”. Without the knowledge of the game, the students were not getting the best deal for this new and exciting sport.
  • We were scared of the contact rule – I used to introduce the contact element of the game after 5-6 lessons. I thought it detracted from the core skills of passing and moving and led to students being silly. I could not have been more wrong. contact in defensive positions is a fundamental skill to stop attackers getting into scoring positions. Having now been taught it properly by high-quality coaches, I understand the game cannot be played properly without it. As for being scared of introducing it (I thought it would lead to over-aggressive play and injuries), I now have the knowledge to deliver it in a way that avoids this. Players can hold, never push, and all contact must come from “goal-side” – dead simple.

Back to the present day, we are embarking on a landmark occasion for our PE department this week – our first ever handball fixture against a local school. The main purpose of the fixture is to moderate grades across our two cohorts and has been put on for GCSE students, but I am excited to be introducing 16 boys to a competitive fixture in this new sport.

So, is handball on the rise? The data would suggest so. 25 school teams were registered through the England Handball Association in 2010. Now, there are over 1000. Cambridge handball club are literally bursting at the seams with students interested in getting involved in this new sport for the first time after seeing it on TV in London or Rio. Sport England injected over £1.2 million in grassroots development over the last five years. The next step is to give it a foothold for students to access in schools.

This means a few things need to happen.

  1. PE teachers need to get their knowledge to a level where they can deliver the game in a way that does it justice. I cannot recommend any more the value in going along to a local club if you have one.
  2. Indoor spaces are required to teach the game properly. I expect for many schools this will be one of the biggest challenges (a handball court is much wider than a netball court, and most sports halls in England are not designed to house it. Big problem)
  3. Departments need to invest in proper equipment that allows students to grip the ball in one hand
  4. Students need opportunities to play fixtures, and need links to get involved with clubs.

Finally, we need to stop treating it like it is an “alternative activity”. It may be niche in this country, but when a sport is in the top 3 for participation of boys and girls in the whole of Europe, we need to stand up and take notice of it.