Get in Shape
6 Strange Sports to Boost Your Fitness
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A little more than a year ago, Lewis Howes had never played team handball. This spring, he represented the United States in the Pan-American Games, where the national team was unable to qualify for the London Games.
"It's one of the most fun sports I've ever played--I played football, basketball, baseball, and track in high school," says Howes, also a former professional football player in the Arena league. "If you like a high-pace sport, and you like to run and jump and throw a ball, and you like to be physical and rough, this is a sport for you."
Olympic handball (known in the United States as team handball) isn't the wall-based racquetball cousin you've seen seniors playing in the park. It's more like rugby crossed with basketball, Howes says, a court-based running and throwing shovefest that culminates in 40 or 50 total goals per game.
And because there are so few handball players in the States, it's welcoming to beginners, says fellow national team member Erich Weller. At the Los Angeles Team Handball Club, where Weller plays, "we have guys that play professionally, and we have weekend warriors. You can get a brand-new guy to come out, and there are people at his level. And then he can also learn from the pros while he's there."
One way to overcome a skill deficiency your first time out--have the fitness to run and run and run, says Weller. Before coming to handball, he was a Marine, and his fitness helped him keep up where his skills were lacking. For Howes, CrossFit helps him stay conditioned for the game.
A background in basketball can help new players understand spacing and passing, says Michael Tilton, coach of the West Point handball team, where he must turn athletes who have never played into competitive players quickly. But the style of dribbling we grew up with--rolling our hands over the ball to control it--is illegal in handball.
"It's more of a 1950s-style basketball dribble. You have to have a flat palm," says Tilton, who is also an assistant coach for the national team. It's a tough habit to break, and crossing people over can be tough, so he discourages dribbling in favor of lots of swinging passes. "The offensive idea is to work the ball in a semicircular motion. At the end of the ball movement, you want to create a two-on-one."
Another skill that's a little different is throwing, Tilton says. Unlike in baseball or football, a big windup's a hindrance.
"If you wind it up, everyone in the gym knows where you're shooting it," he says. He encourages new players to keep the ball high and near their ear, where they're always in a position to shoot quickly. "If you see a good college quarterback who is turned sideways, he takes the snap and puts the ball immediately by his ear. [In handball,] you want to catch the ball up high, and keep your eyes towards the goal. That way, you're always a threat to score."
Where to try it: If you're in Southern California, you can drop in on Weller and company at the Los Angeles club. For those elsewhere, Tilton suggests contacting Mariusz Wartalowicz, the technical director for USA Team Handball. While many websites for the sport are out of date, Wartalowicz tracks the active American clubs, and can point potential players to a new spot to play. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.