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Elevating Handball Performance: A Dialogue with Physical Performance Coach Pontus Axell (Sweden)

Today, we're privileged to sit down with Pontus Axell, a seasoned handball enthusiast and Physical Performance Coach, to delve into his rich experience and unique insights. Pontus has been deeply involved in handball since childhood. Transitioning from elite player to coach over the past 12 years, Pontus brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, offering a glimpse into the intricacies of Swedish handball and his innovative approach to improving performance in handball.


Pontus, can you introduce yourself ?



I'm Pontus Axell, a 33-year-old husband and father of two living in Gothenburg, Sweden. Since I was a kid, I've been deeply involved in handball, always curious about what makes athletes perform at their best.

I used to play at an elite level myself until an ACL injury forced me to step back. Since then, I've spent nearly 12 years coaching at various levels, including education and sports science lectures.




How would you describe Swedish handball ?

The game of handball is a well known sport in Sweden and the interest in our national teams is quite high, which we could notice during our recent championship at home. Our main goal is to always be high performance and compete for medals, but at the same time we also have the responsibility to keep children and adolescents engaged in sport activities related to handball. Since most of our system of financial contribution comes from the government and commercial partners, this requires us to have a wider perspective than just high performance and only focus on the elite. This sets us apart as a federation compared to many other handball countries.


Can you describe your work and your view on improving handball performance ?


What is handball ?

As a start, we need to zoom out and consider the physical aspects of the sport. We are all aware that the game of handball consists of high intensity, anaerobic actions like acceleration, decelerations, jumping, change of direction and high intensity running (> 19-24 km/h). This is the key performance indicator and something that we daily need to improve throughout our handball sessions.


Our view of physical training in handball 


Firstly, all coaches (handball, physical and medical staff) need to have a deep knowledge of what handball session gives us in case of physical stimuli and avoid too much guessing. This can be done by incorporating the match activity data (Kinexion or Catapult, WIMU) and/or inclusion of readiness and rate of perceived exertion form. In the future I think that the physical performance coach needs to have a better understanding of the game, and work closer to the performance staff, rather than just someone who was recruited “only to make the players tired”. In that case, a more solid understanding of statistics is needed. That is why my intention, as a physical performance coach, is to bridge that gap between handball, analysis and physical training and be really skilled in every domain. 


Secondly, we need to shift our focus towards what underpins our performance on the pitch, and what do the handball sessions NOT give us in case of physical load? So, instead of copy cat some famous social media drills who “looks pretty good” because it is similar to handball movements, we need to stick to the basics and what is actually underpinning a specific handball movement (e.g. maximal strength through a traditional squat will probably improve jumping performance and give us more bang for our buck). Another highlight in physical preparation is the inclusion of more anaerobic isolated drills (for example repeated sprints) because it is what handball performance generally consists of. I like to bring another point of view and instead propose a reverse approach, since aerobic capacity is crucial to improve the rate of recovery and sustain workload (e.g. the repeated high intensity actions during a handball game). To that purpose, I like to quote Gareth Sandford's excellent analogy about a bank account related to how we can improve conditioning for team sports. The aerobic training (isolated low or medium intensity training) is your deposit, while the anaerobic, handball training takes money out. It is important to have a steady flow of income and expenses to maintain quality over time (keeping players injury-free and fast recovery process until the next session or game).



Handball comes first – What do we miss?

To summarize, my point here is not to avoid anaerobic high intensity training, but our intention, and what we are trying to teach through our coaching education, is that this should happen during handball sessions. Given that the development of aerobic capacity relies on both training intensity and volume, it's crucial that handball sessions provide an appropriate balance of these variables to achieve optimal results. Therefore, we need to be very skilled in analysing, be creative in different forms of training and know what kind of stimulation every handball session provides. Because it has been shown that the training environment and its appropriate intensity is not always in line with the game demands (Font et al 2022). Thats why we top up the training content with aerobic medium or low-intensity training that lifts the fitness for handball, as the development is also dependent on training volume. Individualization and programming can be made possible by taking into account the anaerobic speed reserve through an Excel file where you type in both the maximal aerobic speed (velocity at Vo2max) and maximal sprinting speed (Sandford et al. 2021).




What about the future of handball?


The availability of statistics has increased in recent years, and you can now access almost everything, which can create problems with the selection of key performance indicators specific to each team. Everything in the future will be about how the staff manages the statistics and effectively utilizes them in daily training and match play. This is why I believe that the physical performance coach needs to work closer to the handball coaches and be skilled enough to participate in the analysis process of statistics and match activity data.


I would say that there is reason to believe that the game is faster, but it is more likely that the teams are more adept at changing the tempo from slow to very fast (data from Kinexion, Catapult, WIMU). I personally think that this is a consequence of the fact that the teams use specific tactics (e.g. 7 vs 6) which tends to decrease the speed and number of collisions. This is a conscious act since the goal is to decrease the overall demand on players during a sometimes insane schedule (9 games on European Championships or World Championships) and adjust the tempo to the appropriate level of the team's ability to make right decisions and general skills of handball. This trend is something we can notice after an excellent compilation of recent European championships where the number of goals is increasing while the time of possession in attack is decreasing (@handballytics, X/Twitter by Julian Rux). 




In addition, here is the Standard deviation of possession length since the European Championships in 2016.(@handballytics) 

  • 2016: 4.0067

  • 2018: 5.2920

  • 2020: 4.1103

  • 2022: 4.4352

  • 2024: 5.0839

So, my idea with the faster being faster and the slower being slower seems true, even though the European Championships in 2018 can’t be explained. 

Similar trends can be noticed during recent years in the men's premier division “handbollsligan” (HBL) where also the efficacy of shots on goal is increasing from season to season. 



Average number of attacks per team and match (HBL). (Adapted from Jilsén systems)




Average efficiency of game shots in HBL. (Adapted from Jilsén systems)




Playing goals per team on average per game and on average per attack in HBL. (Adapted from Jilsén systems)

To summarize the future of handball: 

  1. Efficiency increases 

  2. Possession decreases 

  3. Goals increase 


At the same time, we can notice through match analysis that the game has greater fluctuations with stronger switches in tempo. Or, more clearly, the slow ones go really slow, and the fast ones go really fast. 


Maybe because teams realize that they can't play at full speed for entire games, European tournaments or championships to save certain players or the team. Here, you must also consider that during championships, we can play more than 9 games in 18–20 days. This can also be an effect of specific tactical dispositions (e.g. 7 vs 6).  It should also be added that more teams nowadays are of higher quality and better skilled (at least during the European Championships). This means that there are more matches that force the teams to find tactical strategies to get the players to endure entire tournaments. 


Ultimately, this means that physical demands are likely to continue to increase and the need for a physical performance coach with an eye of the big picture will be even more important. This is because at younger ages the right basic training will be required, and at the elite level the need for individualization will be vital.


What is next for you ?

If you want to get in touch, want to discuss handball in general, or have any further questions, I'm more than happy to chat. Currently, I'm actively seeking my next professional opportunity for the 2024/2025 season, eager to bring my skills and experience to a new team. Let's connect and explore potential collaborations. Below you will find my contact details, and you can also find me on LinkedIn, Instagram, or X.


Pontus Axell

Physical Performance Coach

Swedish handball federation 

+46735729372


In closing, Pontus Axell's expertise and passion for handball shine through, offering valuable insights into the sport's dynamics and future trajectory. His journey from player to coach exemplifies a dedication to excellence and innovation in performance enhancement. We thank Pontus for sharing his invaluable perspectives and look forward to witnessing the continued impact of his work in the world of handball.


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