Interview with Michelle Mensing

Under normal circumstances, this time of the year would coincide with the start of our summer activities, including our small but growing beach handball program. To celebrate those initiatives, we’ve met with one of our key contributors and member of the club, Michelle Mensing.

What’s your name, age, position, and role in the team/club?

Hi, my name’s Michelle Mensing, 27, from Germany, but most people probably know me as ‘Michi’. I love playing as a center back although you can see me play at all positions (as long as it helps the team), sometimes even in the goal! It would probably be shorter to list roles in which I haven’t represented San Francisco Calheat. Long story short, I’m currently serving on the board of directors, leading the summer activities – like beach handball and grass handball -and taking care of our website and Facebook page. Whenever there’s time left you can see me refereeing, fiddling around with the livestream and, in general, volunteering. Speaking of that, I’m actually proud so many of our club members donate their time to bring handball in the Bay Area to the next level. 

Tell us a bit about your Handball background prior to San Francisco Calheat…

I basically grew up on the handball courts in Berlin. When I was 5, my mom took me to my first practice with Fuechse Berlin: I got a ball to the face and was hooked. I never stopped playing since (aside from injury related breaks). My family is pretty handball fanatic and we can field a full coed team all by ourselves. With Fuechse Berlin I was able to play handball at the highest level accessible to youth players in Germany, participated in National Team Selection camps and was selected as one of the 30 best player in my age group back at the time. But I never wanted to commit to train 24/7 and devote so much time to handball, so I chose to balance my time between handball and studies. One thing was clear though, I couldn’t live without it, so when I got the opportunity to move to the US for an internship, I immediately searched for the closest handball club and found my new home at Calheat.

You’ve been playing at Calheat for many years now. How has the team evolved over the last few years? When can we expect to live the glory days (2003, 2006 – US National Champion) again? 

When I started at Calheat the welcoming and open community drew me in and, gladly, that hasn’t changed. But I remember our first few seasons were pretty chaotic: coaches changed almost every season, and sometimes we didn’t have a coach at all. Players from all levels came and went, practices with 5-10 girls were usual. It wasn’t easy to find a team philosophy and success was largely dependent on the individual strength of our players. That has changed now. We have a core group of 5-8 players that remained with us for more than two seasons and with Tina Alavanja we found an excellent coach who’s committed to turn us into a real team. At the beginning of the season, the gym can get very crowded and we find ourselves lucky to have enough players to field two teams at our local tournament and at the US Club Nationals. We rely and work for each other now and can compensate the bad day of a player. We also know that it is a learning process and I’m confident that, if we continue in this direction, we’ll see all the work result in a medal at US Club Nationals soon.  

You mentioned you’re also in a board member position at the club, what are some of the club’s main challenges and goals?

We’re one of the largest clubs in the US with  approx. 80 members and are at the forefront of many trends we see in the US team handball scene. On top of organizing practices and tournaments for four adult and one youth team, we’re also running the Bay Area Youth Team Handball League, providing coaching clinics for schools and sharing our knowledge and experience with the handball community. The main challenge is to find enough dedicated volunteers who are willing to help with all these activities… It’s not an easy pitch and it can slow down progress in many areas. I believe that a sport club should have a large base of volunteers, but at the same time there are some key positions that need to be backed by a salary, so that they can 100% focus on growing the sport. 

We also have to close the gap in our talent pipeline. The investments into our youth development over the past years have been a great success and it’s about time we start to grow the sport also at the college level in the Bay Area. We want our youth players to continue to play handball beyond high school. Obviously they can practice with our adult teams, but the transition is everything but easy. College teams may help us bridge the gap here and give them everyone the ability to compete with each other. With Martin Bilello serving as one of the regional ambassadors of USA Team Handball, we’re definitely on the right track to achieve this goal. 

Like all clubs in the US, our progress on a competitive level is limited by the number of games we can play during the season. There are not a lot of teams on our side of the country, so competing at a decent level requires us to fly to tournaments across the US and Canada. This is a constant strain on our players, but also club resources as we try to help players in need to compete in these tournaments. We don’t want to be a “pay to play” club and make it possible for everyone to gain experience in competition. So we need to find ways to make competing more affordable, such as developing more teams, leagues and competitions on the west coast or, ideally, in the Bay Area. 

Besides Calheat, you also hold a very important position in the coaching staff of the US Women’s Beach Handball National Team. Where does that passion for beach handball come from?

That’s a good question. Some of my earliest memories with beach handball go back to watching the German and, back then, European Club Champion “Flying Kangaroos” play in Berlin. I loved the dynamic, atmosphere and strategic nature of the game. I was never the one with the strongest or fastest shot and liked playing smart. During indoor practices and games I would often pass or throw from weird positions or movements. Those did not only surprise my opponents but also my teammates. Some of my coaches called my style of playing “Circus-handball”, but it’s that style of play that is rewarded in beach handball due to the asymmetry of the game. So you could say I found an outlet for that playful creativity in beach handball. I joined the US Women’s Beach Handball program shortly after I moved to the US and quickly found that the team could benefit from my experience and approach of the game. I also recognized the potential that the US has to be one of the greatest in this new sport. As Europe struggles with the notion of beach handball being a party sport (and has to constantly compete for high level athletes with the indoor teams), the US doesn’t share these problems. 

How do you see beach handball developing in California, and, more largely, in the US? Does San Francisco plan to develop a pool like the one in Southern California?

My dream is that we will see beach handball tournaments across the country and leagues in key geographical areas like California for multiple age groups organized in clubs/teams that compete on the national and international level. The reality is that we are far from that ideal setup right now, but we’re making progress. We see the first players organizing themselves as beach teams (i.e. RIP LA, Atlanta Beach Handball) and starting to adopt a ‘club’ mentality. We do also have clubs like Calheat, Boston and Chicago that are promoting and playing beach handball during their summer break. Most of our national team players are physically well-prepared, yet, lack actual game experience. Having them gain their first experiences in international competitions is a gamble that, in my opinion, isn’t sustainable. I want my players to experience a wide-range of playing styles and leverage the creativity that their club teams are promoting to compensate for missing skills on their team. 

The biggest pain point right now is access to knowledge and educational opportunities for beach handball players, and, more importantly, coaches. And this problem is not unique to the beach side in the US. We now see online courses and presentations gain momentum in the beach community, but most are only available in other languages or with sporadic English translation. We’ve to make it easier to start with beach handball and create content in English. 

My San Francisco player pool basically consists of Calheat players. But I would love to have a deeper player pool or a mini league in the San Francisco Bay Area. Given our connection to youth athletes and schools I could see this region thrive and develop a true beach handball culture over the next couple of years. 

Indoor, and beach handball, might possibly be at the 2028 Summer Olympics in LA. How do you see those two sports successfully coexisting together?

Many coaches, especially if they’ve a background in indoor handball, fear that the rise of beach handball will result in a significant loss of players forindoor. The other myth is that beach handball negatively impacts a players performance in indoor handball. However there are studies that show that athletes who compete in both indoor and beach, given appropriate transition periods, benefit from it especially in regards to injury prevention. I also don’t share the fear that we might lose all our indoor players to beach handball. In fact, I think it is a great recruiting tool for indoor handball clubs. At CalHeat we’ve certainly benefited from the pick-up nature of the game: the game is fun even if you don’t know how to perform a spin shot or score in flight. And there’s the reality, that not everyone likes sand. I’ve seen great indoor players be completely overwhelmed in beach handball and great beach players unable to translate their skills to the court. So I think the two sports can successfully coexist and especially in the US help each other to speed up the adoption of the game. 

Last question, any advice to someone potentially interested in trying out indoor or beach handball? 

Contact the club closest to you, USA Team Handball or other players who already play handball in the US. Many of them are happy to point you in the right direction. If there’s no one in your area, consider gathering a couple of friends or your usual pick up game team and ask them if they would try the game with you. If you like it and they like it consider doing it more often. You don’t have to start a club right away, but try to be vocal about it. Reach out to the expat or au-pair communities and see if somebody is interested to join, chances are they know the sport. 

Don’t look for the ideal court or ideal beach. A goal could just be taped on a wall or on a volleyball net. You could also take a soccer goal and with few water bottles mark the goal areas. Be scrappy and play!

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