Handball is a strenuous intermittent team sport with specific requirements for anthropometric characteristics, technical skills, tactical understanding, and physical performance. Recent rule changes and the implementation of the “fast center” have placed greater physical demands on handball players (11). This development has put pressure on coaches and other responsible persons to consider athletic and performance parameters in more detail as important factors for team success (19).
Regarding the importance of specific conditional factors in professional handball, several qualitative and quantitative studies have been published. Some of these studies demonstrated that key characteristics in elite handball are endurance capacity, sprint performance, jumping ability, and throwing velocity (Tv) (3,19). Handball involves a large number of cyclic movements and acyclic activities with only short breaks. Consequently, a highly developed anaerobic endurance capacity seems to be necessary for players (5). Regarding aerobic endurance, previous studies demonstrated that elite handball players do not present high aerobic capacities because player changes are particularly frequent in handball. However, it can be hypothesized that a well-developed endurance capacity might be helpful for recovering between increasing frequencies of games during the entire season (11). Sprints and jumps are reported to be further important conditional factors in handball. Fast changes between offense and defense activities require a well-developed acceleration and sprint performance (19). Another important aspect is vertical jumping ability because it enables the player to throw above the defense wall or defend throws of the opposing team effectively (18). Finally, Tv has been demonstrated to be a further important skill because a high Tv requires a shorter reaction time of defenders or goalkeepers (24).
Time motion studies during handball games have demonstrated that the number and quality of movements differ greatly between the playing positions (4,18,22). Four different positions are usually distinguished in handball: goalkeepers, pivots, backs, and wings. Although the differences in physical performance between these positions seem to be quite obvious, most researcher investigations of physical performance characteristics ignored the factor playing position (6,8). Thereby, a differentiated assessment of physical performance characteristics would be helpful for both professional players and trainers. Detailed knowledge about position-specific characteristics would enable coaches to address training regimes more specifically. In this framework, the question remains if coaches should arrange training of physical performance in training groups according to playing position. Furthermore, knowing physical performance characteristics might help coaches to consider strength and weaknesses of each player during training sessions. Moreover, position profiles would both provide data for talent diagnostics and the development of position specific skills in young handball players (20,21).
The aims of the current study were to determine differences in anthropometric data, game activities, and physical performance characteristics between the different playing positions in professional handball players. In this framework, we determined anthropometric characteristics, acceleration and sprint ability, jumping performance, Tv, and endurance performance of backs, wings, pivots, and goalkeepers from players of the German first division. In a further step, we determined the same parameters in players from second German division to compare the differences between the playing classes on each position. Therefore, independent variables are playing position on the one hand and playing class on the other hand. We hypothesized that anthropometric data and physical performance characteristics are different between the playing positions. Furthermore, we assumed that there are also specific differences in anthropometry and physical performance between playing classes on each position.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
To investigate the position-specific differences in performance characteristics between the playing positions, players from first German division positions completed a standardized testing schedule for determination of sprinting and jumping performance, Tv, and endurance capacity. In a further approach, additional semiprofessional players from second German division were recruited and performed the same testing schedule. Statistical analysis was used to compare at first performance results between the playing positions. In a second statistical approach, a comparison was made between professional and semiprofessional players on each position.
Sixty-five male handball professional and semiprofessional handball players were recruited. Thirty-four players were from the first German division and 31 from the second German division (goalkeepers n = 12, pivots n = 13, backs n = 24, wings n = 16). Their age and anthropometric data are listed in Table 1. All subjects were engaged in competitive handball for at least 5 years and took part in more than 3 training sessions per week. All players were free of injuries, infections, and cardiopulmonary risk factors. The subjects and coach were informed in detail about the experimental procedures and possible risks and benefits of the project. An appropriate informed consent was obtained from all the subjects. Data acquisition was performed from end of June to August, that is, between the middle and end stages of their preparation period. The Local Ethical Committee of the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen (Germany) approved the study according to the Declaration of Helsinki.
Heart rate (HR) monitoring was performed during preparation and the end of the preparation period in the year 2010 during 2 official games of German first division handball games. All other tests were performed in 4 separate sessions during the course of 1 day starting at 10 AM Trainers and subjects were first familiarized carefully with the testing protocols. During the first session, each player performed a sprint test, followed by a jumping test and a throwing test. The endurance test was performed after a break of at least 3 hours. Between the sessions, the subjects were provided with snacks and water ad libitum. The test-retest intraclass correlation coefficient for all tests (sprint test, jumping test, throwing test, and endurance test) was higher than 0.92 and the coefficient of variation (CV) ranged from 1.2 to 5.5%.
Heart Rate Monitoring
Monitoring of HRs was performed. Heart rate was measured using a real-time HR monitoring system (Acentas, Hörgertshausen, Germany). Average HRs during the entire game were calculated. A ratio between average HRs and maximum HRs, which were measured during endurance testing, was calculated as an indicator of relative workload during the game.
Maximal Sprint Test
A nonstandardized 15-minute warm-up was used as preparation for testing. Subjects performed two 30-m sprint test starting from a standing position. A 2-minute interval separated each trial. Time was recorded using laser light barriers (Haynl-Elektronik, Schöneback, Germany) placed at the start (0m) and at 5, 10, and 30 m from the start. Time recording started automatically when the subjects passed the starting line. This arrangement allowed the calculation of times needed for different distances. The short distances up to 10 m are supposed to indicate acceleration speed, whereas the long distances (10–30 m) most likely represent sprint speed. The result of the fastest trial was selected for analysis. Results were analyzed automatically by Haynl-Software (Haynl-Elektronik).
First, 2 maximal counter movement vertical jumps (CMJ) were performed followed by 2 drop jumps (DJ). Both tests were preceded by a preparatory jump. Jumps were performed slightly modified as previously reported (10). Briefly, during CMJ, subjects were allowed to use their arms freely. Drop jump was performed by jumping from a 40-cm-high box (“bouncing drop jump”). Subjects were instructed to rebound as explosive as possible to minimize ground contact time. After all jumps, subjects were instructed to land with craned legs on the platform. Jump heights were measured using a contact platform (Haynl-Elektronik). The highest jump was used for statistical analysis. Jumping height was automatically calculated by the contact platform from the flight time. Drop jump efficiency was according to Bosco et al. (2). Briefly, efficiency was calculated as a quotient from the square of flight time and ground contact time (efficiency = flight time2/ground contact time). A high efficiency is reached in players with minimal ground contact combined with a high jumping height.
Throwing velocity was measured on a handball court in 3 situations: a standing throw, a 3-step running throw, and a jumping throw after a 3-step run. All players were instructed to throw a standard handball (480 g, circumference 58 cm) as fast as possible in a standard handball goal. After a preparatory throw, subjects performed 2 throws with a 1-minute break between each trial. The maximal Tv was determined by a Speed Check Radar (Stalker Sport 1-888; Stalker Radar, Plano, TX, USA). The fastest reading was used for analysis. The reliability of the radar system was checked by measuring rolling balls by the radar and checking them over a given distance using photoelectric cells. Intraclass correlation coefficient and CV for the test were 0.92 and 3%, respectively.
Endurance capacity was determined by a progressive exercise test performed on a 400-m running track as previously described (9). Briefly, subjects started at 8 km·h−1 and running speed was increased every 3 minutes by 2 km·h−1 until exhaustion. To assure the constant running speed, subjects were instructed to adjust their pace using an audio signal. Endurance test was terminated when subjects did not reach a defined mark at a given pacing signal and was evaluated by determination of lactate level. After each speed level, subject stopped running for 30 seconds, and 20 µl of capillary blood was taken from the earlobe. At the same time, heart frequencies were measured by HR monitors (Polar, Büttelborn, Germany). Lactate measurements were performed using a lactate analyzer (EKF Diagnostic Sales GmbH, Magdeburg, Germany). Calculation of the individual anaerobic threshold (IAS) was performed by using Ergonizer software for medical application (Ergonizer, Freiburg, Germany). Ergonizer software calculates the IAS by adding the constant value of 1.5 mmol·L−1 to lactate concentration at the individuals lactate threshold (16). Several parameters were measured or calculated, including maximum running speed, running speed at the IAS, running speed or HR at lactate level 2 and 4 mmol·L−1, maximum lactate values, and maximum heart frequency. Two and 4 mmol·L−1 lactate threshold were used to get data from exercise intensities at fixed lower threshold and compared with a fixed higher lactate threshold.
All data are reported as mean ± SD. Differences in anthropometric and physical performance of the different playing positions were compared using 1-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) in data from subjects from first division. In a further step, data from second division players were used to compare with data from first division players on the same position using 1-way ANOVA. Comparisons of the different groups were performed using Bonferroni's Multiple Comparison Test. For statistical analysis, SPSS 16 was used. Statistical significance was set at p < 0.05 in all cases.
There were no differences in the average age of players between different positions in first division players. However, players from the first division were on all positions on average older than players from the second division. With respect to anthropometric data, wings showed a significant lower height and weight compared with players of other positions (p < 0.05). Moreover, the body mass index (BMI) of pivots was significantly higher in comparison with wings and backs (p < 0.05). Regarding differences between the playing classes, we found that pivots from first division had a significant higher body weight and BMI than pivots from second division (p < 0.05, Table 1).
Heart Rate Monitoring
During an official handball cup game, the mean HR was found to be lowest in the group of goalkeepers followed by pivots, backs, and wings (p < 0.05, Table 2). A similar sequence was found when the relative HRs were calculated.
We observed no position-specific differences in sprint performance between 0 and 5 m, indicating a similar acceleration performance for the different positions and the playing classes, respectively (first division: goalkeepers = 1.02 ± 0.02 seconds, wings = 1.03 ± 0.03 seconds, backs = 1.01 ± 0.01 seconds, pivots = 1.05 ± 0.17 seconds) (Figure 2A). However, for the longer sprint distances, which are suitable indicators for sprint speed, backs and wings demonstrated the shortest running times. In more detail, backs were significantly faster than pivots (10–30 m: backs = 2.46 ± 0.14 seconds, pivots = 2.57 ± 0.05 seconds; 0–30 m: backs = 4.11 ± 0.04 seconds, pivots 4.38 ± 0.03 seconds) and goalkeepers (0–30 m: 4.28 ± 0.29 seconds). Furthermore, we observed differences between players from the first and second division. Wing players from first division were faster between 10–30 m and 0–30 m (10–30 m: wings first 2.39 ± 0.06 seconds, wings second 2.51 ± 0.07 seconds, 0–30 m wings first 4.11 ± 0.11 seconds, wings second 4.29 ± 0.16 seconds [in all cases p < 0.05, Figures 1A–D]).
Best jumping skills in CMJ and DJ were demonstrated by wings (first division wings: CMJ = 50.5 ± 3.7 cm, DJ = 40.4 ± 4.3 cm; backs: CMJ = 47.2 ± 5.3 cm, DJ = 36.9 ± 5.4 cm; pivots: CMJ = 43.3 ± 4.8 cm, DJ = 34.3 ± 2.5 cm; and goalkeepers: CMJ = 47.3 ± 6.6 cm, DJ = 37.0 ± 5.5 cm). In contrast, pivots showed the worst jumping performances. Regarding differences between playing classes, we found significant differences in DJ height and efficiency between pivots from first division compared with pivots from second divison (p < 0.05, Figures 2A–C).
In general, Tv in first division players was found to be highest for both wings (Tv standing throw = 21.9 ± 0.8 m·s−1, Tv 3-step running throw = 24.7 ± 1.4 m·s−1, and Tv jumping throw = 22.4 ± 0.7 m·s−1) and backs (Tv standing throw = 23.7 ± 1.3 m·s−1, Tv 3-step running throw = 25.2 ± 1.6 m·s−1, and Tv jumping throw = 23.8 ± 1.3 m·s−1) throughout all throwing positions. Differences against pivots and goalkeepers became even more pronounced if throwing was combined with additional movements. In more detail, Tv from the 3-step running throw was significantly higher in backs compared with pivots (20.2 ± 1.6 m·s−1) and goalkeepers (20.2 ± 1.3 m·s−1) (Figure 3C, p < 0.05). No differences were observed between the playing classes on any position.
Several parameters of endurance performance were measured and calculated. Interestingly, no significant differences of maximum lactate values, lactate values, and running speed at the individual's anaerobic thresholds, running speed at lactate 2 or 4 mmol·L−1, and maximum HRs were observed for the different playing positions or between the playing classes (data not shown). Only the maximum running speed levels reached during the field test showed significant differences between first division goalkeepers (4.46 ± 0.24 m·s−1) on the one hand and wings (4.91 ± 0.20 m·s−1) and backs (4.81 ± 0.31 m·s−1) on the other hand (p < 0.05). Furthermore, we found significant differences between first and second division goalkeepers and backs in maximum running speed levels (p < 0.05, Figure 4A).
The current study revealed significant differences in anthropometric data, game activities, and some physical performance parameters between the different positions of handball players, which allow the characterization of position-specific performance profiles. These characteristics seem to support the functional requirements of the specific positions, which can be summarized in a simplified way: wings—quick horizontal movements; backs—high vertical movements; pivots—power capability of resistance; goalkeepers—large physique for best coverage of the goal.
Although certain characteristic, such as body mass, may be advantageous on some positions, it may turn into a disadvantage at another position. It can be assumed that pivots need a robust body composition because it offers more stability and the ability to play against the defense pressure through contacts, pushes, and collisions. These demands can be fulfilled best by a high body mass as indicated by the BMI, which was found to be highest in the group of pivots. It was also found that pivots from first division had a higher body weight and BMI compared with pivots from second division, indicating that a higher mass might be an advantage in handball on this position. A higher body mass in elite handball players is supported by previous data (6). However, a limitation in the current study was that body fat and free fatty mass were not determined. Lowest BMI values were measured for wings and backs. Important skills of these positions encompass acceleration speed and jumping ability, which might be counteracted by a high body mass. Interestingly, body height was found to be different between both playing positions. It can be speculated that lower body height, as observed for wings, is advantageous for short horizontal accelerations and fast shifts of directions on the handball court. In contrast, the taller body height of backs supports their vertical jumping height to throw over the defense wall (12). A recent study by Aouadi et al. (1) supported that players with longer lower limbs have the better vertical jump performances. Height seems to be also an important asset also for goalkeepers because tall players are able to blockade a greater goal area (26). Although relative differences between the positions are in line with previous studies, absolute values of anthropometric data differ from some other studies. We assume that these differences were a result of the subjects included. For example, Chaouachi et al. (5) used players from the Tunisian national team, who were in average smaller and have lower body weight compared with German players.
Heart frequency analysis supports the functional requirements described above. Highest average HRs were measured in wings and backs, indicating a high intensity of field activities. Not surprisingly, goalkeepers exhibited lowest HRs. These results correspond with previously published data from male handball players (11,22). Consequently, specifically developed conditional factors can be assumed to be important prerequisites for performing these intensive game activities. Considering running speed at IAS, it can be suggested that players on all position had similar requirements on aerobic performance (7). In addition, previous studies reported that male handball players do not present high aerobic capacities (6). In this framework, it can be argued that players change particularly frequent in handball games, resulting in average playing times of 25–30 minutes. Recent time motion analysis demonstrated a high number of high-intensity sprint activities on wing and back positions throughout a game, which require a high anaerobic performance and an increased resistance against fatigue (25). Indeed, we found that the highest maximum running speed during the endurance test was achieved by backs and wings. Because there were no position-specific differences in running speed at the IAS, it can be assumed that wings and backs have a higher anaerobic capacity. However, some scientists argued that players cover 4–6.5 km per game, which makes advantageous to have a well-developed aerobic and anaerobic endurance capacity (16). Accordingly, both athletes and coaches seem to ignore that aerobic capacity may help not only to keep endurance capacity and to avoid fatigue, but also help to maintain concentration, technical skills, and coordination until the end of the game (11,23,25). In line with previous studies, we found that endurance capacity seems to be more crucial for wings and backs than for pivots and goalkeepers (11,25) because they have to perform most repeated sprint activities during the course of the game (13).
With regard to sprint abilities, various distances up to 30 m were determined. Analyzing these sprint distances seems to be adequate with respect to the dimensions of the playing field. Consequently, longest sprint distances are about 30 m (15). Absolute sprint times for 5, 10, and 30 m were similar to results from other studies (6,25). Moreover, no differences were found for the short-term acceleration speed (0–5 m) neither between playing positions nor between the playing classes. It is suggested that this ability has an equal important impact for all positions including pivots and goalkeepers. These results are in line with previous data, which demonstrated no differences between elite players and amateur players in sprint distances of 5 and 15 m (6). With increasing sprint distances (up to 30 m), backs and wings showed significant better results than pivots and goalkeepers, confirming their essential ability to perform a fast transition from offense to defense and for fast breaks (22). These results correspond with previous studies, which demonstrated only marginal differences of sprint ability between these positions (5).
Similar to the sprint time, wings and backs showed the best results for jumping ability. These results are in line with previous observations that players in these positions have to perform more jumps compared with pivots and goalkeepers (4,14,22). Jumps aim either to overcome the blockade of the defense wall or to reduce the distance between throwing position and goalkeeper per goal. Especially, wings seem to compensate their lower body height with well-developed vertical jump ability. In contrast, pivots had the poorest jumping performance, which coincides with their functional role. Usually, pivots break throw the defense wall without vertical movements by using their body mass for direct tackling with their opponents (26). In addition, their jumping performance will be negatively affected by their large body mass. For most positions, no differences in jumping performance were observed between the playing classes. However, these results were confirmed by Gorostiaga et al. (6), who found no differences in vertical jump performance between amateur and elite players. The authors suggest that the mechanical power expressed relative to kilogram of body is similar between higher and lower level players. Same they pointed out for half squat actions.
Concerning Tv, backs and wings performed best. Especially in the 3-step running throw and jumping throw, velocity was significantly higher compared with pivots. Backs are specialized in longer distance shots and they have to be able to effectively shoot at the goal over the defensive players. Furthermore, backs throw the ball more than players in other positions during the course of a game (21). Pivots are throwing in most cases from positions near the 6-m goal area and are executing either dive, falling, or curved jump throws (21,23). Therefore, they need challenging technical skills and not a high Tv. However, velocity is not the only important factor that impacts throwing and goal success. Instead, a combination of velocity and accuracy are of importance.
Taken together, current data allow creating a profile of specific playing positions. A wing player needs a well-developed endurance capacity, jumping performance, a fast acceleration and sprint ability, and a high Tv. The profile of a back shows some similarities to wings with regard to the conditional factors. Differences between these positions were found in their anthropometric characteristics: backs are generally taller and heavier subjects. For pivots, endurance capacity, jumping, and sprinting ability do not seem to be as important as for wings and backs. Goalkeepers are usually the tallest players within the handball team, and, comparable to pivots, jumping and sprinting ability seem to be of minor value.
The present study confirmed a strong relation between playing position, anthropometric data, activity during games, and conditional factors. However, these findings might be very helpful for the assessment and evaluation of talents and can help to develop and optimize position trainings regimes. Therefore, a practical recommendation for coaches might be to organize training contents of physical performance more specific for each position. In this framework, wings and back players should emphasize training of endurance capacity, jumping performance, acceleration/sprint ability, and Tv. In contrast, pivots should spend more time in development of muscle mass and improvement of DJ performance. However, for pivots and goalkeepers, it might be advantageous to spend more time for improvement of technical and tactical performance (19). However, in future studies, it seems to be worth to include further performance tests with a focus on muscle strength or reaction times to improve the position-specific profiling, especially for pivots or goalkeepers.
The authors would like to thank the participants who took part in the study and the reviewers and journal editor for meticulously critiquing this article. The authors disclose no conflicts of interest. Furthermore, results of the present study do not constitute endorsement of any product by the authors or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
The authors disclose the funding received for this work from any of the following organizations: National Institutes of Health (NIH); Welcome Trust; Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI); and other(s).
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