Singapore is making presence felt in international handball.
In 2012, Singapore participated for the first time in the International Handball Federation (IHF) Trophy for Asia (East and South East Zone).
An Under-19 event where the winners qualify for the tournament’s Continental Phase, the men’s team lost all three matches against hosts Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Earlier this December, Singapore sent another team to the same competition, which had expanded to include newcomers Brunei and Philippines. The improvement was astonishing.
While Singapore went down to eventual winners Thailand in their opening game, they won all four remaining matches to finish as runners-up. A women’s team, formed only in July, finished third out of four countries.
The leap from last to second surprised many of their opponents, Handball Federation Singapore (HFS) president Adele Lim told Yahoo Singapore.
“The other countries gave comments like ‘we were shocked with your team’,” she recalled.
“Our girls’ team came in third, which I thought was a very good achievement [too]. We are really happy with the results.”
The 27-22 loss to the Thais was also shrouded in some controversy, as the game was cut short with seven to eight minutes left.
“The referees were new and didn't referee well and the official IHF delegate at the scene stopped the game; if not, injuries might occur [if it went on],” Lim explained. “It was very upsetting for us because… we were down by seven [points] and there was a chance of us getting a draw.”
While handball appears to have been around locally since the 1980s, the HFS was only established as a National Sports Association (NSA) in 2008. The main aim then was to form a team to represent Singapore at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) two years later.
But the development of the sport “died down” after the YOG, until the growth started again in the past two years. Lim, who took over as president in January 2013, decided to disband the U19 team due to a combination of poor results and inconsistent coaching.
A National Development Team (NDT) was formed instead in October that year, where the best players in the country, regardless of age, were handpicked to join.
“Before my presidency, we only had an U19 team,” she said. “My direction was that I wanted a NDT consisting of all ages… to develop together.”
The age of the NDT players range from 15 to 37 and they have trained consistently for three times a week since its inception. The U19 team for this year’s IHF competition was picked from this pool in September and trained together once weekly, on top of their three NDT sessions.
The current pool has 37 players and trials are held from time to time to bring in fresh faces. Tommy Toh, who has been the NDT’s coach since its start, believes that the rewards of the new structure were reaped in the IHF Trophy.
“Within one year, we can have [such] a jump; that is very promising,” he said. “The team is doing well and the progress is clear.”
The biggest constraint to handball development here is possibly the lack of playing venues. While all IHF tournaments are held indoors, the sports halls at Hougang and Jurong West are the only two indoor facilities in Singapore. Lim revealed that only the HFS can book those for handball use; the public cannot do so online. Tertiary education institutes have their own courts only for student use.
“If we have more time with the court [to practice], it will help us improve [more],” Toh said matter-of-factly.
When teams register to be affiliated with the HFS, they receive five new balls each from Molten to start off with. But they often ask, “Yes I have five balls, but where do I play?”
Lim has tried to tackle the issue by introducing “Tweenie Handball” to suit smaller indoor netball courts, which most schools do have. It is a five-versus-five game as opposed to the usual seven, with less physical contact and more scoring.
“I want them to love the sport with the scoring first, then be ready for contact when they go to polytechnic or junior college [where] age group-wise, they will be more ready for physical contact,” she explained.
While handball thrives at university, polytechnic and ITE-level, the physical aspect discourages many primary and secondary schools from playing competitively, even if most offer it as a sport.
“Some schools participate for one year and then stop,” Lim said. “The problem is that I don’t have active coaches and confident PE teachers to bring them to play competitively [at the moment].
“In order to prepare the teachers, I have been doing workshops personally for them, as well as sharing sessions.
“My target is for all the schools to start playing handball, which is not difficult because they are starting to have the equipment, but [for them to be ready] competitively, it will take another four more years.”
More coaches and volunteers will also be needed to grow the sport since the entire HFS set-up – with the exception of one member – is entirely voluntary.“We would like to have more age group teams but sadly we don’t have enough coaches,” Toh pointed out.
Nonetheless, both Lim and Toh are optimistic about handball’s future. As former university and club players, they have seen how the sport has grown in recent years.
B and C division competitions are now held at a fixed time of the month so that schools can prepare better, while the number of teams participating in the annual Singapore Handball League and its youth counterpart have increased every year.
The establishment of a female side is big step for the women’s game here, while there are plans to increase international exposure for the men given the lack of regional tournaments, with training tours to Japan and Taiwan scheduled for next year.
Local sides also have opportunities to play against international opponents at invitational events such as the Singapore Handball Open Tournament, that features teams from Japan, Uzbekistan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Lim added that it also serves as a “reward” for the NDT members, who devote much of their free time all-year round to voluntarily help with the running of the HFS.
Toh is confident that with the current leadership structure in the NSA, the future of handball “looks good”, although the sport needs to increase awareness and more volunteers to keep going.
“Regardless, we are all training hard… so that we can bring some glory to Singapore.”