Danish team handball: International honor and significant dropouts of children and youth players

Denmark is currently the world’s strongest handball nation with World Championships title for men’s team in 2019 and 2021 as well as the selection of both two international top players – Sandra Toft and Niklas Landin – and two national coaches – Jesper Jensen and Nicolaj Jacobsen – as the world’s best in 2021. Despite these fantastic sporting achievements, children and not least youth increasingly drop out from the handball clubs in Denmark. So it takes a lot more than international honors and daily TV matches in handball to be attractive as a handball club for today’s children and youth.

Significant dropouts are not a new trend

It is not surprising that an indoor contact sport such as team handball has been affected by the last two years of Covid-19 restrictions. The Danish Confederation of Sports (DIF) current membership figures for 2021, which have just been published, show a decrease in members in the 746 handball clubs of over 6,000 members – from 104,422 to 98,217. Most striking is that 4,886 – or almost 4 out of 5 apostate members – are children and youth players under 18 years of age. The reduced number of players – and not least fewer volunteer coaches, managers and parents – should of course call for attentive and concrete initiatives, both in the management of the Danish Handball Association (DHF) and the clubs. The marked dropout of handball players is far from a new trend – on the contrary.

Handball is the only major team sport with significant dropouts

The number of registered handball players has fallen by no less than 27% in the last two decades – from 134,782 members in 2002 to 98,217 today, i.e. a constant dropout of 3-4% per year. The decline has been greatest among girls and women with 30%, while the decline among boys and men has been 22%. The number of handball clubs has also been steadily declining – from 1,035 in 2002 to 746 today, corresponding to 28%. There is not necessarily a linear relationship between the number of clubs and quality, but fewer clubs limit not least the physical distance of children and young people from their place of residence to the sport hall. It is also striking that the number of members in team sports such as football (from 293,749 in 2002 to 344,678 today = 15%), basketball (from 11,383 in 2022 to 17,990 today = 37%) and volleyball (from 15,385 in 2002 to 16,028 today = 4%) has been increasing. The DHF has thus been the only major team sport in Denmark that has lost a very large number of members – both in number and percentage – in the past 20 years.

Especially the teenage girls are dropouts in team handball

Team handball has been a popular team sport among girls in Denmark for decades, but that relationship is under tremendous pressure. 10 years ago, there were a total of 26,708 girls under the age of 12 and 15,216 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who were members of a handball club. Today, the corresponding figures are: 22,138 girls under the age of 12 and 12,349 girls between the ages of 13 and 18. This is a drop in 17% and 19% in just 10 years. It is especially the girls who drop out of the handball clubs. There are undoubtedly many reasons for the membership flight from team handball. Let me point out some of the explanations.

Youth have very different motives – also for playing handball

There are a number of youth players who are very focused and ambitious – also in relation to team handball. It is not unusual for the most talented youth players to have 6-8 weekly training sessions and several matches during the week. The talents, who often have great support from their resourceful parents and highly competent coaches, remain in the club and also continue as senior players in the league and the divisions. But for all other youth players – and this is the vast majority – it must also be attractive to play on the 2nd team or have handball as the 2nd, 3rd or 4th priority in youth life. For all young people, the community of social relationships with good friends is paramount. This means that the atmosphere, culture and club environment – both sportingly and socially – must be attractive to young people, who primarily have handball as a social free space. The good youth coach must want to work with young people. And then there must be agreement – between coaches, leaders, parents and not least the youth themselves – on what it’s all about. They should never be the “old people” who just decide what the youth want.

The transition from school to a youth education is a critical phase

Many young people find it very difficult to maintain their involvement in the handball club when, they start on a youth education. It is precisely at this time that especially the girls deliberately drop out of team handball in favor of homework, leisure jobs, boyfriends and fitness outside the club. They quickly experience that the requirements for youth education cannot be met with a modest work effort and a large weekly time spent on training and matches. Or they are involuntarily disqualified in the handball club due to “lack of skills” or “insufficient” training efforts.

Outdated tournament structure is a major barrier for most youth

One of the main reasons for the dropouts of the 14-18 years in handball is in my opinion an outdated tournament structure with a large time consumption for transport and matches every weekend as well as inflexible rules in relation to the players’ age categories. It is the fewest youth players who find it fun to spend “precious” time on the weekends to transport themselves to matches in the “other end of Jutland”. It is necessary for the Danish Handball Association’s regional association to develop and rethink forms of tournaments that are flexible in relation to young people’s everyday lives. And at the same time, the clubs must have the courage and ability to try out forms of training and social activities that do not commit the individual young person over an entire season. If this does not happen, in my opinion there will be great risks that handball in future will “only” become a sport for the very best… and not for the many.