Dietrich Späte: “I was never expecting such a handball revolution”

13 Jul. 2021

Dietrich Späte: “I was never expecting such a handball revolution”

Finding the perfect tweaks in the rulebook of handball to improve the overall quality of the game can be challenging. Rules cannot be modified too heavily, as it would create confusion on the court. Therefore, the task at hand is difficult even for the most experienced handball minds.

One of the persons tasked with reforming handball is Dietrich Späte, the Chairman of the IHF Commission of Coaching and Methods (CCM). Späte, who has been serving at the International Handball Federation for over three decades, has been instrumental in overlooking the modification of the rules and talked about the history, present and the future of handball for this exclusive interview during the International Handball Week. How did handball become a more attractive sport and what prompted the modification of the rules in the past decades?

Dietrich Späte: In the history of the IHF, we had a very important date – that was 1997. The IHF decided to implement new rules and I was, at that time, a member of this rule-tweaking group. Our current President, Dr Hassan Moustafa, was the Chairman of the Commission of Coaching and Methods and we both started in 1992 at the IHF. The idea was to have a more attractive game and we created a lot of new ideas in 1997, which was the year that the modern high-speed game was born. One of the first modifications of the rules was to implement the quick throw-off, restarting the game in a more rapid way, after serious testing throughout several competitions. From this year on, in the next six years, after the teams grew more confident with this rule, then the game changed dramatically. From this moment on, there was more focus on athletic power, teams grew stronger and then this game developed dramatically. In the beginning of 2000, the game had a lot of attacks, thus the modern game was born at this time. How did this rule modification impact the game and what changes did it produce?

Dietrich Späte: The rule rewarded the attack, but when you create something in attack, the reaction comes in defence. Surely, after some years, the reaction came, coaches focused on the defence of fast breaks and quick throw-offs to stop this phase of attack, and the concept of active defence developed a lot. What this means is that the players would not be just standing in defence, trying to stop the attacks, rather roaming and trying to actively block the players who pass, intercept balls and force turnovers. I must underline that this is a pro-active defence, not causing fouls and destroy attacks. At this time, Spain and France were the leaders of this trend – do not forget what happened in 2013, when Valero Rivera’s Spain won the IHF Men’s World Championship they hosted. Is handball a more attractive game as a result? What is now the dominating trend?

Dietrich Späte: In the last years, another change happened, in the attacking part of the game. Today’s handball is clearly attack-orientated once again, after focusing more on defence. What happened? The game with the line player developed unbelievably. We can truly say that in these years, this part of the game is decisive, crucial for winning games and trophies in our game. This prompted another change in the rules. We want to avoid wrestling on the 6-meter line, also fouls without the ball in possession. Teams are starting to focus more on this part of the game, the feedback is very positive in accordance with the IHF position and the result is boasting a more attractive game, with a superb cooperation with the line player, bringing plenty of no-look-passes in the game. Two things are also important – in the last year, the quality improved dramatically, we have some key factors for this: a new all-time record at Egypt 2021, the efficiency of the attack rose to 58.6%, the best teams score over 60% of their chances, the world champions, Denmark, are scoring at an unassailable rate of 65%, which means two thirds of their attacks are converted into goals. The second one: the number of technical faults reduced. We had 8.8 per game at Egypt 2021, as the quality of the game improved.

“Handball is one of the fastest team sports in the world” Did teams adapt easily to the changes? What were the key performance indicators that really let you know that the IHF was on the right track?

Dietrich Späte: We are proud of another aspect of the game that improved dramatically, handball is now one of the fastest team sports in the world. When you take a glance at the number of attacks per match, you have 55 to 60 for each team, up to 120 attacks in each game. The time of each attack went down in the last years to 33.8 seconds on average. It is really quick, with plenty of changes between attack and defence. Now, we are quicker than basketball and it goes without saying that we are glad to see this – we, as the IHF, want an attractive game to be displayed. How did this impact the referees and the players? Are you in contact with them to overlook the implementation of the new rules?

Dietrich Späte: This development has something to do with our rule interpretation. In the last few years, we always had a good cooperation between the Commission of Coaching and Methods (CCM) and the Playing Rules and Referees Commission (PRC). The rules and the interpretations are always in discussion to be improved and there were lots of talks regarding the passive play in the last five to six years. We are still working on this, because the referees must understand the tactics deployed on the court. We are providing technical education for them and we are constantly working for a better interpretation of the rules. Let me give you an example: if a team start their attack from their own goal and they are slowly heading to the opponent’s goal, the referees must pay attention and focus on the body language of the players and what they are trying to do. Taking too much time to build up their attack could result in a passive play signal. We do not want moments of the game where the play is slowed, everything must be alert. We want to reduce the situations where nothing happens. When a team is shorthanded, having a player which is serving a two-minute suspension, you might see a slower tempo, but on the other hand, they try technical combinations, interchanging their players. But they do not want to score a goal, which is a problem. However, with the development made with the referees, they can understand now the tricks used by teams and can help the game become faster. One of the rules that sparked the biggest discussions in handball was the seven-versus-six attack, when teams are substituting the goalkeeper for an outfield player. How would you describe the rule and how effective is it?

Dietrich Späte: The seven-versus-six part of the game was not a rule change per se, rather a modification of the rules. It was also possible in the past, before 2016, to substitute the goalkeeper for an outfield player, but what this new rule enabled, however, was to make that substitution easier for teams. Yet, this modification has been under the microscope for different reasons. Since 2016, we have been analysing every IHF event we hosted and the conclusion – after we went through every seven-versus-six instance on the court – was that this type of attack was more efficient than a six-versus-six in parts. Yet, on the long run, the efficiency went down for the team using it. This is a bit unbelievable, the conclusion is that deploying this tactic can be useful, but carelessness in these situations can result in serious trouble, as opponents can score easily and thrive on the opportunities left by leaving the goal unprotected. This tactic is not useful when you overload the court with seven outfield players in attack – using it for more than 30 minutes, for example, is not useful. What we have seen over the past years is that defences tend to adapt to what happens to the attack, therefore becoming more active, moving more, trying to intercept the ball more often. When you play seven-versus-six, you have a player more in attack, there is more space, yet the pressure is bigger not conceding turnovers. However, the number of attacks with teams using this tactic was less than 5% at Egypt 2021, therefore it is only a weapon for some coaches. A great coach, Valero Rivera, told me once that he is happy to have more tactical cards in his back pocket. This one, the seven-versus-six, is surely one of them. But numbers do not lie and it can blow in your face if you overuse it.

Three new rulebooks: a modern app, a technical one and one for all In a world that is constantly changing and trying to become faster and better, what is handball doing to align to this trend?

Dietrich Späte: We are now in the middle of a big project, similar what we have done 25 years ago. There have been complaints that the rules are too complicated. In the past, we had some problems with interpreting different rules, with the Continental Confederations and National Federations, but now we are working on a big project on the technical side, with new rules implemented on 1 July 2022. We will present three new rulebooks: the first one will be a normal rulebook, while the third one is more technical-oriented, with the garments allowed to wear, all the equipment allowed on the court. The second rulebook will be the most important. In fact, it is an application with plenty of videos, which are attractively designed, with all the rules explained in a clear, concise way, with no room for debate. I will give you an example: when is a block correctly done? These videos will explain the correct position of the body, the angles where the block is valid and which are the rule interpretations for the referees, to see where the limits are drawn. We want to build an attractive app, not only for coaches, players or referees, but also for journalists and fans, to improve their knowledge about handball. What are you looking for most in handball in the next years?

Dietrich Späte: As I have already mentioned, the game is now more oriented to attack. I am seriously looking for what the next development in defence will be. The individual defence behaviour with a better understanding of the rules could help to be more proactive because right now, the attack is dominating clearly. I am still waiting for the defence to improve in the next years. Did you expect handball to change so quickly?

Dietrich Späte: No, I was not expecting such a revolution. It was clear there was serious room for improvement, but when we saw the first tests, in the Spanish domestic league, where those throw-off rules were implemented, we knew we had something good on our hands. A lot of people were not too happy about this, but we preached caution and some patience, because, like we talk about the seven-versus-six now, the results would be seen over a longer period of time. Patience is key. And, probably, we could not imagine handball without the fast throw-off. It is clear that new rules can change a lot, but also the training methods are changing. And this can only benefit handball as a whole.