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Physical Characteristics and Abilities of Junior Elite Male and Female Handball Players

Ingebrigtsen, Jørgen1; Jeffreys, Ian2; Rodahl, Stein3

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 2 - p 302–309
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318254899f
Original Research

Ingebrigtsen, J, Jeffreys, I, and Rodahl, S. Physical characteristics and abilities of junior elite male and female handball players. J Strength Cond Res 27(2): 302–309, 2013—This study first aimed to examine strength, speed, and jumping abilities in 29 male and 29 female junior elite handball players and second to compare Under-18 and Under-16 players in the selected parameters. The players were chosen by the Norwegian Handball Federation, and all were tested in strength (squat and bench press), speed (10-, 30-, and 6 × 30-m repeated sprint ability), and jumping abilities (countermovement jump and squat jump [SJ]). Anthropometric qualities were also measured. Independent t-tests were applied to reveal possible mean differences between the U-18 and U-16 players within each sex. No significant differences in anthropometry were observed between the U18 and U16 players within either sex. Furthermore, we did not observe any significant between group differences among the male players in any of the tested performance parameters. On average, however, the U16 male (n = 14) players performed better in all the tests compared with in the U18 (n = 15) male players. Similarly, we did not find any significant differences in test performances between U18 female players and U16 female players. Still, a few trends (p ≤ 0.1) were observed because female U18 (n = 14) players were found to sprint faster on both 10 and 30 m and to jump higher in SJ vs. female U16 (n = 15) players. The empirical findings do not confirm the hypothesis of pubertal development and muscle growth leading to taller and heavier U18 players. Furthermore, we expected U18 players to perform better in all the tests when compared with U16 players. Again, the data did not substantiate this, although female U18 players tended to perform better in sprint and SJ compared with the U16 players.

1Department of Sports, Center for Practical Knowledge, University of Nordland, Bodø, Norway

2Department of Science and Sport, University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, Wales, United Kingdom

3Department of Sports, The School of Professional Studies, University of Nordland, Bodø, Norway

Address correspondence to Jørgen Ingebrigtsen,

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Handball is an international team sport, played at club, regional, and international levels. The International Handball Federation (IHF) has listed 167 member federations, with approximately 19 million players distributed between nearly 800,000 teams (IHF web page). With the range of playing levels available, appropriate selection criteria need to be developed and applied to enable the identification of players with the capacities to perform at higher levels of competition. Appropriate testing to enable the selection of talented individuals is a key fundamental in the development of an appropriate performance development pathway (14). Scientists and practitioners are therefore continually looking for characteristics and key factors that will facilitate a more precise distinction between low- and high-class players (2,10).

Team handball is a team sport in which 2 teams of 7 players each (goalkeeper and 6 outfield players) try to throw a ball into the goal of the other team. The sport is played on a field of 20 m × 40 m, and the team with the most goals after 2 periods of 30-minute wins. A variety of skills and fitness components (throwing accuracy, running speed, jumping ability, etc.) are required to perform at a top level (4,13,16,23), and the sport is hallmarked by intermittent periods of high-speed and explosive activities, interspersed by less intensive activities (2,7). Consequently, physical fitness components are widely seen as some of the most important factors behind team handball performance (10,13).

Current research on senior player performance shows that the physical abilities of the participants are dependent upon the level of competition (7,33). Hence, some of these physical variables have been considered as suitable criteria when identifying a successful handball player or team (14,25). Unfortunately, only limited amounts of the previously presented fitness data pertain to national-level junior elite handball players. The development of these data would allow effective comparison of performance capacities between players and lead to the development of normative data with which to enhance selection procedures. Additionally, the data will provide an appropriate comparator with which to assess the physical performance capacities of potential players. This will enable the identification of weaknesses in physical performance that can then be addresses through appropriate training interventions.

Current data on male and female elite and subelite players indicate that, speed, strength, and jumping abilities have an impact on performance (13,14,16,33). Similarly, the ability to perform anaerobic activities such as repeated high-intensity running and sprints discriminates between levels of performance (4,17,21,25). Moreover, the importance of these abilities among young handball players is, to some extent, highlighted in the literature (14,17,25). This indicates the capacity of physical performance characteristics to discriminate between levels of performance.

In terms of the importance of certain anthropometrical characteristics for handball players, existing research connects anthropometry (e.g., stature and body mass) to performance (8,14,33). When studying the previously published anthropometric characteristics of elite handball players, it seems that a relatively high stature and body mass is common among players (33), with a tendency toward taller and heavier players observed in both international senior and junior tournaments in latter years (31). However, despite the fact that some anthropometric features could be advantageous for some specific playing positions within a handball team (32), previous findings indicate that the anthropometric features of handball players are relatively heterogeneous (14,33), although wing players have, in some instances, been shown to have lower body mass and height (e.g., [29]).

An important factor to note when evaluating junior performances is the effect of maturation. The development of height and body mass in both male and female junior handball players is expected to follow the normal sigmoid pattern, with a slight time delay in increases in body mass compared with body height (11). For the male players, however, a larger increase in body mass during and after adolescence is expected compared with the female players because of an enhanced capacity for muscle growth (6). Also, in addition to regular growth and development during adolescence, athletes commonly increase their training intensity and often start using strength training as a part of their training routine. Hence, systematic strength training regimes within elite junior handball teams could lead to substantially increased muscle mass for elite junior players (especially male players) from year to year (6).

Conducting larger investigations into the variables that affect performance among junior elite handball players is necessitated by the fact that there are very few studies on the anthropometry, speed, strength, and jumping abilities of these players (17). Such studies enhance our understanding of junior elite handball players and enable us to gather up-to-date information on the junior elite handball game (17,33). This information is of great importance for coaches when scouting for talented handball players (17) and increases the ability of researchers and coaches to construct and deliver tailormade training programs that match the specific demands of the game. Therefore, the primary purpose of this study is to identify and establish physiological abilities and anthropometric characteristics of junior elite male and female handball players that were selected directly by the Norwegian Handball Federation (NHF). Second, to monitor the possible developmental characteristics of junior elite handball players, we investigated potential differences between U18 and U16 players within both sexes.

From this comparison, because of the physiological and training factors highlighted earlier, we expected to find the U18 group as having higher body mass and stature rates, and performing better in the current physical tests because of both pubertal growth (11) and the assumption that U18 players in general have more experience and train more hours and harder compared with their U16 counterparts.

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Experimental Approach to the Problem

This study investigated the physical characteristics and abilities of junior elite male and female handball players selected from the northern region of Norway. A descriptive research design was applied to identify and establish characteristics within the current group of players, as per the primary purpose of the study. In line with the secondary purpose (detection of possible developmental characteristics), a cross-sectional design was used for the comparison of the systematic differences in these capacities and characteristics between players within each age group and within both sexes. Sprints, repeated sprints (RSA), countermovement jump (CMJ), and squat jump (SJ) were measured for all the players who took part in this study. Male participants also performed squats and bench press.

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Talented male (n = 29) and female (n = 29) youth handball players were selected for this study. At the time of the testing, all of them were already selected by the NHF as the best players within their age group (U18—born in 1992, and U16—born in 1994) in the northern region of Norway. All the participants were highly committed to team handball, training 8.6 ± 1.8 h·wk−1, in addition to regular match play in the regional junior handball series. Also, 2 male players and 1 female player had already represented the Norwegian national youth teams (U18/U16). Additional subject characteristics are found in Table 1. This study was approved by our University Committee, and testing was carried out according to the Declaration of Helsinki. Prior to testing, written informed consent was received from all participants, or their guardians in the case of underage players (i.e. age< 18 yr).

Table 1

Table 1

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Testing occurred in season, in week 20 of a 30-week competitive schedule. All the players (male and female) were tested in the afternoon on the same day. Before coming to the laboratory, they were instructed to refrain from any kind of exercise for 24 hours and were given nutritional directions for the test day, with emphasis on the importance of upholding a normal diet and fluid intake in the lead up to testing. They were also instructed to refrain from participating in intense exercise for the last 2 days before testing. When arriving at the laboratory, the participants were first informed of the test order and criteria for accepting the results. Stature was then measured, using a wall-mounted stadiometer (KaWe Medizintecknik, Asperg, Germany). Body mass (kilograms) was attained using an electronic scale (A&D Company Limited, Tokyo, Japan). The results of these measurements were later rounded to the nearest 0.1 kg and 0.05 cm for weight and stature, respectively. Body mass index (BMI, kilograms per meter squared) and reciprocal ponderal index (RPI, cm·kg−0.33) were then calculated according to the methods described by Nevill et al. (19).

The physical testing session then started with a 15-minute general warm-up, consisting of running at 70–80% of the self-perceived maximal heart rate. Thereafter, the participants did 4–6 accelerations, with increasing effort, over 20–40 m. A short break was then given for personal preparation before the commencement of the tests. Testing began with a test of maximal running speed over 30 m, followed by the CMJ test, the SJ test, the bench press test, the squat test, and ultimately the RSA test. Within the sprint test, the jumping-ability test, and the strength test, the participants were given 3 trials, each separated by at least 3 minutes of recovery time. The best performances on each test were chosen for further analysis. Ten minutes of recovery time was provided between the tests.

The 30-m sprint and 7 × 30-m repeated sprint test (RSA) were measured on an indoor court using a Brower Speed Trap II timing system (Brower Timing Systems, UT, USA) with 3 sets of infrared beams and transmitters, each consisting of an infrared sender (IRD-T175) and an Infrared Emitter with antennas. Each unit was mounted on a tripod. Data were sent from the beam sets directly to the handheld coach monitor. Furthermore, data were manually plotted in Microsoft Excel (Microsoft Corp., USA) and saved on a PC (Pentium 4 with Microsoft Windows XP). During the 30-m sprint test, time was measured for the 0- to 10-m sprint and the 10- 30-m sprint. The participants started from a standing position with their front foot on a line 30 cm behind the starting line. Timing was self-starting, and the athletes were instructed to attain the shortest time possible to the photocell at the finishing line. Timing started automatically when the participants broke the beam of the photocell placed at the starting line. The interval time was marked when the participants passed the photocells at 10 m for the 0- to 10-m sprint and at 30 m for 0- to 30-m and 10- to 30-m sprints. The repeated sprint test consisted of seven 30-m sprints, with 30-second intervals between each start. This break was controlled and timed by a test leader. The mean times for all 7 sprints and the total sprint times were used for the analysis of repeated sprint ability (RSA).

Jump height was calculated on a force platform—based on a determination of impulse, thus velocity, at take-off. The force platform was an AMTI model OR6-5-1, and data were amplified (AMTI Model SGA6-3), digitized (DT 2801), and also saved to a PC (Pentium 4 with Windows XP) using the appurtenant software Biopack MP 100. The CMJ tests were performed by the participants first standing on the force plate with hands on the hip. From this erect position, where the knee angle was 180°, a downward countermovement was made until knee-angle reached approximately 90°, and was then immediately followed by the jump. The SJ tests were similar to the CMJ tests but without the downward countermovement. The tests began with the participants in a squat position, with hands on the hip and an approximate knee angle of 90°, followed by the jump.

Strength was tested using a 20-kg Olympic Bar (Eleiko, Sweden) and Eleiko Olympic WL training discs (Eleiko). The 1 repetition maximum (1RM) for the bench press and squat was used as a measure of dynamic strength, and the participants progressively increased their resistance across each attempt until 1RM was reached. The bench presses were performed with the participants lying horizontally on the bench with their feet planted on the floor and elbows fully extended to reach the bar, with a grip width that approximated their individual shoulder breadth. Thereafter, the bar was lifted off the rack, and the participants lowered the bar in a controlled manner until it touched the chest. Without bouncing the bar from the chest, the participants lifted the bar in a self-determined tempo. Squats were performed to a depth that corresponded to a knee angle of about 90°. To ensure consistency, knee angles for all subjects were monitored by the same test leader. Tests in which the participants failed to reach the appropriate depth were considered unsuccessful. Strength tests were not conducted among the female youth cohorts as only 6 players from the U18 group and 4 players from the U16 group were familiar with these exercises.

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Statistical Analyses

Raw data were transferred to Microsoft Excel and SPSS 16.0 for Windows. All measured variables, assessed by a Shapiro-Wilk's test, were found to be normally distributed. Additionally, the Levenes test for equality of means did not show any significant differences in the group variances. The Independent samples t-tests were applied to reveal possible differences in mean scores between the U-18 and U-16 groups, within both the male and female handball groups. Differences were considered significant at p ≤ 0.05, and results were expressed as means ± SD. The 95% confidence interval (95% CI) was also calculated for all measures.

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Anthropometric Characteristics

Anthropometric characteristics are seen in Table 1. The data show a trend (p ≤ 0.1) where U18 female players have a higher BMI vs. the U16 female players, although this trend is not statistically significant.

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Test Performances

As Table 2 illustrates, we did not observe any group differences in any of the tested performance parameters when comparing male youth handball players. On average, however, the U16 male players seem to perform slightly better in all tests when compared with the performance data for the U18 male players.

Table 2

Table 2

Although we did not find any significant differences in test performances between U18 female players and U16 female players, a few notable trends (p ≤ 0.1) were observed. First, in both 10- and 30-m sprint times, female U18 players ran faster than female U16 players did. Second, the findings also indicate that female U18 players tend to jump higher in SJ vs. female U16 players.

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This study first sought to identify and establish anthropometric characteristics and physiological capacities of Norwegian junior elite male and female handball players who were handpicked by the NHF. Second, this study sought to investigate the possible differences between U18 and U16 players within both sexes. The findings indicated no significant anthropometrical differences across groups within each sex, although the female U18 players tended to have higher BMI scores vs. those scores for the female U16 cohorts. When considering physical capacities, we found no significant differences in any of the tested parameters. However, the data did indicate that female U18 players tend to sprint faster across 10- and 30-m distances and jump higher in SJ when compared with the female U16 players.

The analysis indicated that the Norwegian junior elite male players have, on average, higher statures than those found in earlier studies of Estonian, French, and Belgian male handball players of comparable age groups (2,18,31). However, statures for the Norwegian male players—both U16 and U18 players—are, on average, lower than the reported average for players attending the U18 (∼190 cm) and U20 (∼190 cm) European Championship in 2008 (15,27). Also, the measurements show that the junior elite male players that participated in this study are slightly shorter than male elite players (∼190 cm) from the same region of Norway (22).

In terms of the junior elite female players who participated in this study, the data show that the statures of the U18 and U16 players are very similar to those of female players from France (∼169 cm) (3) and U14 players from Greece (∼163 cm) (32), whereas slightly lower than those of Brazilian U18 players (∼170 cm) (28) and considerably lower than Spanish elite female players (∼175 cm) (10). Also, the Norwegian female players have statures that are lower than the players (∼174 cm) that featured in the 2007 female U17 European Championships (12).

Interestingly, however, within both male and female junior elite groups, we find stature measurements to be higher than within the general Norwegian population, which in 2008 was reported to be approximately 180 cm for the male population and 167 cm for the female population, suggesting that height may be an important variable in the selection of talented players (26). However, this result is not surprising because we would have expected the stature for handball players to be somewhat higher than the general population, given the advantages of height in the sport

In terms of body mass scores, the participating players have considerably lower body mass measurements than those found among the general population (men 84 kg; women 68 kg). Additionally, the participating male U18 and U16 body mass measurements were also lower than measurements taken from the players in the 2008 European Championships, who weighed on average 84 kg (27). Further, the body mass measurements for the participating female U18 and U16 players were comparable with those found among young French players (2) but substantially lower when compared with the Brazilian senior players (28) and senior female players in the 2007 World Championships (1). These results suggest that the current groups had a lower body mass than did senior elite players and that this is an area for potential development. An important confounding issue here is that the measures here are overall body mass and not fat-free body mass. Furthermore, because BMI and RPI have been scarcely reported in other earlier studies, it was difficult to compare the Norwegian players with other groups of young handball players. In fact, to our knowledge, this is the first study to report RPI data found among male and female junior elite handball players (Table 3). We did, however, find that the Norwegian male U18 and U16 players tend to have slightly higher BMI measurements than did Estonian U17 boys (29). Participating female U18 and U16 players have BMI scores similar to those of Greek U14 players (32).

Table 3

Table 3

The above scores present an interesting pattern in that the expected increases in height and body mass between the U16 groups and U18 groups, both within male and female players, did not occur. This may indicate that the U16 group selected were early maturers and that the subsequent years from U16 to U18 see a relatively small subsequent increase in stature and body mass. The selection of early maturers to high-level junior squads is a well-observed phenomenon (18) and needs to be taken into account when instigating appropriate talent development programs. Additionally, the lower body mass of the current groups when compared with senior groups indicates the need for a physical development program to address this need, because it may not develop through maturation alone.

Research indicates that abilities in speed, strength, and jumping can play important roles in handball (e.g., [2,32,33]). Yet, to the best of our knowledge, there are very few studies on speed, strength, and jumping abilities of junior elite handball players. Within the current group of male and female junior elite players, we found no significant differences between the U16 and U18 cohorts in any of the tested parameters. This is despite the fact that one could expect that the U18 players train more intensely and for more hours than the U16 players. Also, U18 players could be expected to have reached a later stage of pubertal growth, thus reaching higher levels of muscular strength (20), yet this expectation was not borne out in this study. Therefore, this lack of physical development could be indicative of the players having reached their optimal physical development by the age of 16 years, or alternatively, could be indicative if training being undertaken that did not address the further development of key physical parameters. Moreover, when comparing the scores obtained by the players involved in this study with those of previously investigated junior handball players, we found comparable results within all parameters.

Scores from the 10-, 30- and 7 × 30-m sprints did not significantly differ between U18 and U16 male or female elite players. This was not in line with our expectations, as we hypothesized that U18 players would perform better than U16 players in all performance tests. However, female U18 players did perform slightly better than their U16 counterparts (although this difference was not significant). Concerning 10-m sprinting speeds, the Norwegian U18 and U16 male players performed very similarly to senior elite male players from Tunisia (1.93 seconds) (5), although substantially poorer when compared with Norway's senior elite male players (1.76 seconds) (23). Also, in terms of the 30-m sprint speeds, the senior elite players ran faster than those participating in this study (5,16). Compared with Estonian junior elite players, the Norwegian junior elites sprinted the 30-m distance within similar times (30). Moreover, both groups of participating female junior elite players performed better than reported in previous studies of other slightly younger, female junior players (32). The fact that no difference was found between the U16 and U18 groups for both sexes suggests that continued speed development will not come about with maturation alone. Similarly simply focusing on playing the game is also unlikely to result in an increase in speed parameters. Instead, all groups would need to undertake a specific physical development program to ensure they progress to the standards displayed at elite senior level. However, it should be noted that comparing the speed results from this study with results found in other studies is complicated by the fact that different starting routines may have been used in each study, which could affect both acceleration and maximal speed (e.g., [4,8,32]).

To the best of our knowledge, no other study has reported data from 7 × 30-m straight forward repeated sprints among either male or female junior elite handball players, although this exercise is widely used in other sports of intermittent character. Therefore, the current data cannot be compared with other groups. However, again the lack of a statistical difference between the different age groups would again suggest that improvements in this parameter will not come about as a result of maturation or increased playing time, and again a targeted physical development program needs to be set up to ensure the continued development of this parameter.

Results from the tested strength parameters did not differ between male U18 and U16 players. This is despite that fact that these years are typically associated with an enhanced capacity for gains in muscular strength and muscle mass. This again suggests that current training programs were less than optimal in developing these key parameters This is supported by the fact that the strength performance of the participating male junior elite players was considerably less in both the bench press and squat when compared to that previously reported among Tunisians (5), although interestingly, it was higher than the performances found among other senior elite players (16). To the best of our knowledge, no other study has reported these strength parameters among male or female junior handball players. As highlighted previously, female players in this study were not tested within these strength parameters, because too few of the participants had prior experience with these exercises—a surprising finding when considering the demonstrated link between strength and injury prevention (e.g., [6]). This could also be the reason why other studies did not report results from female performance tests.

Within each sex, the jumping abilities did not differ between the U18 and U16 groups, although female U18 players performed somewhat better in SJ when compared with the female U16 players, although this difference was not significant. A few previous studies have reported CMJ and SJ performances among male senior elites (3,16,23), junior elites (30) and junior regional handball players (9). The male junior elite players in this study jumped slightly lower than their Estonian counterparts (30) and some senior elite players (3,16). The players' jumping scores were comparable with those found among other regional junior players (9) and higher than previously reported among Norwegian male senior elite players (23). Although we were unable to identify other studies reporting CMJ or SJ scores among female junior elite handball players, a study of Norwegian international female elite players reported a CMJ height of 30.5 cm (23), which indicates that these elite players have superior jumping abilities when compared with the female junior elite players in this study (26.8 and 24.6 cm in U18 and U16, respectively). This difference in performance could indicate lower dynamic strength (31), which is consistent with the fact that the female players tested here had minimal experience with strength training. Again all of these scores indicate that maturation and increased playing time will not produce an increase in physical performance and indicates the need and opportunity for a structured physical development program for this cohort of players.

Existing research links a player's physical performance characteristics to variations in performance levels (17,24,28), and previous findings indicate that statures among elite male and female players, and among those handball players selected on the basis of their exceptional talents, tend to be higher vs. amateur and nonselected players and the population in general (14,17). These findings have led to the assumption that one can use player characteristics to reveal possible handball talents (14,17), and hence, it has been observed that early maturers are preferred to late ones because of the advantages bestowed by certain physical characteristics (14). Furthermore, because studies claim that abilities in speed, repeated sprinting, strength, and jumping are substantial for handball performance (7,23,30,32), one might expect to see improved abilities among older age groups when compared with the younger age groups.

Because this study found no anthropometric differences between age classes within either sex, we conclude that the hypothesis which suggests that pubertal development and muscle growth leads to taller and heavier U18 players was not verified by the data. Likewise, because of the assumption that U18 players tend to be more experienced and train more intensely for longer periods of time, we expected U18 players to perform better in all tests when compared with the U16 players. Test performances did not, however, confirm this assumption. Only among the female cohorts did we see a trend where U18 players perform better than U16 players, as demonstrated in the 0- to 10-m sprint, the 0- to 30-m sprint and the SJ; however, this was not significant. Also, it seems that the selected Norwegian male and female junior elite handball players that participated in the study performed on levels comparable with other tested handball players, as demonstrated in the speed, strength, and jumping-ability tests. However, more profiling studies of junior elite handball players are required to establish normative data.

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Practical Applications

Based on previous studies, it seems clear that abilities as speed, repeated sprinting, strength, and jumping abilities are prerequisites for senior elite handball (7,23,30,32). However, the present results indicate few changes in physical abilities between the age of 16 and 18 years. Therefore, it cannot be presumed that maturation alone will result in improvements in these key physical capacities. Similarly, despite the typical increase in handball training time between these levels, the lack of physical differences between the age groups would indicate that this training alone is insufficient to develop the key physical performance variables required for elite senior performance. The study indicates the clear need for a targeted and sequenced physical development program to ensure the appropriate development of key physical performance parameters. This clearly needs to be an integral part of the overall performance development pathway for elite handball players.

This is supported by the fact that few of the male, and very few female, players within the present cohort were fully accustomed to strength training. The current data clearly highlight weaknesses in the current physical development programs being undertaken by Norwegian elite junior handball players. From the results, it seems essential that elite junior players should be given the necessary instructions to enable them to undertake appropriate physical development, at an early age. This would improve the players' abilities to fully undergo the necessary strength and speed training programs for meeting the elite senior demands of handball. Also, this would add to the total numbers of training hours, hence enhancing the possibilities of developing sufficient physical capacities for reaching the elite senior handball game. Also, regular testing programs to monitor junior elite players' development should be implemented within junior elite teams, because this could increase the coach understanding of the athletes' current abilities and highlight weaknesses and potential areas of improvement. This will, in turn, enhance the coaching staff's ability to construct and deliver the tailormade programs needed to meet the specific senior game demands of their sport in general, and playing position specifically. The latter may also become more and more important as the specific playing positions within the senior elite handball team come with specific physical demands (32,33). Furthermore, as previous research has underlined the need for anthropometric and physical capabilities as a prerequisite for the elite handball player, this should be taken into account when scouting for future elite players.

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speed; endurance; strength; jumping; performance; anthropometry

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