From nothing to the top: the Dutch handball academy in Pependal

It was 16 August 2006. More than 20 female Dutch handball players got the key to their new rooms. in the newly built Handball Academy in Papendal, close to the Dutch National Olympic Committee’s high performance centre.

One year after a historic fifth place at the IHF Women’s World Championship in Russia, it was the clear aim of the Dutch Handball Federation not to be a one-hit-wonder, but to become a constantly leading handball nation in Europe. For the talents, a dream came true; for the Dutch women’s and younger age category female national teams it was the start of a series of successes.

“Today more than 90 percent of our women’s national team have been trained in the academy, this is the source of our success,” says Ricardo Clarijs, head of the Papendal academy and part of the Dutch coaching staff.

The handball academy was inspired by the Dutch volleyball federation, which reached the top of the world with a similar concept. It was the handball dream to qualify for the Olympic Games by bringing all talents together under one roof. The players are coached from Monday to Friday afternoon in Papendal, then they return to their clubs for the final training session and matches.

“We believe that it is the best to leave the players with their clubs to be part of league competitions on the weekends,” says Clarijs.

The players, aged between 16 and 21, are selected from the youth and junior national teams to be part of the academy.

“But it is no obligation to be part of the academy to later on become a women’s national team player,” says Clarijs, mentioning current national players Yara ten Holte and Larissa Nüsser, who have both forged successful professional careers outside the Netherlands and played for their home country without being part of the academy concept. But the aim is to raise the performing level of those talents in the academy to help them find a club abroad, at a perfect age and after their development in the academy. The goal is to shift two or three players to the senior national team each year.

All of the players are at schools or universities in the Arnhem region. Approximately 20 hours of handball training are scheduled per week. Five handball coaches, including two goalkeeper coaches, and seven more staff members including mental or athletic coaches take care of the 37 talents currently in the academy. Since 2018, the academy is also open for boys, and some of them have already made it to the men’s national team. But the majority are still female: 21 girls and 16 boys.

The ”father” of the academy was former women’s national team coach Bert Bouwer. The first head coach who could profit from the talent pool was Henk Groener, who was appointed in 2009.

Thanks to the academy’s achievements, the Dutch women qualified for the 2011 World Championship and narrowly missed a spot at the London 2012 Olympic Games by only one goal at the Olympic Qualification Tournament. But the trajectory was consistently upwards, despite the Netherlands having to give up hosting rights for the Women’s EHF EURO 2012.

With more than 70 per cent of the squad coming from the academy, the Netherlands made it to their first semi-final and final at a major tournament at the World Championship in 2015. Although they were beaten by Norway silver shone like gold, it was the best success ever for a senior Dutch national team.

Eight months later, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Netherlands made it to the semi-finals again, finishing fourth. More silverware followed in the upcoming years: silver at the EHF EURO 2016 and bronze at the World Championships 2017 and the EHF EURO 2018. Some 13 years after the opening of the academy in Papendal, the Dutch team won their first trophy, becoming world champions in Kumamoto, Japan.

“Every medal is very closely connected to the academy, now we hope for a similar breakthrough in men’s handball. I am sure we are on the right track too,” says Clarijs.

In the meantime, many other national federations have visited Papendal to experience the Dutch way of growing talents. For example, the Swiss academy, highlighted in a previous Inside EHF newsletter, is based on the Netherlands’ concept.