The term “handball” refers to at least a half dozen different sports that fall into two general categories. One category involves play between two or more players in which a small rubber ball is projected against one, three, or four walls with the use of one's hands only. Depending on the specific rules governing play, this form of handball may be called American handball (the most popular form of the sport in the United States), Australian handball, Chinese handball, or Gaelic handball. A second type of handball is a team sport in which players attempt to throw a ball into an opponent's goal. Some variations of team handball include beach handball, which is team handball played on sand; Czech handball, an early form of team handball; field handball, a form of the sport first played at the 1932 Olympic games; and Frisian handball, played in the Netherlands in which each team consists of three players.


In American handball, the purpose of the game is for a player to make a legal shot that his or her opponent is not able to return legally. In team handball, the purpose of the game is to throw the ball into the opponent's net (goal).


A Romanian handball player takes a shot during a European Handball Federation EURO Cup 2018 qualifying match against Kosovo, October 2014.

A Romanian handball player takes a shot during a European Handball Federation EURO Cup 2018 qualifying match against Kosovo, October 2014. Modern team handball evolved out of three European versions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: “hazena” in the Czech Lands, “Torball” in Germany, and “handbold” in Denmark.
(©Cosmin Iftode/Dreamstime.com)

The new sport spread widely throughout Europe, and a governing body, the International Amateur Handball Federation (IAHF) was established in 1928. The sport was part of the Olympics games as a demonstration sport that year, as it was again in 1932. By 1936, the sport had gained full recognition as an Olympics sport, but it was dropped the next year, and did not reappear in the games until 1972, after which it has been a regular part of the Olympics. During the mid-1930s, a variant of the sport that could be played indoors was also developed. Indoor team handball uses a smaller playing field and fewer players per team than with the outdoor version. At the end of World War II, a new organization was created to replace the now-defunct IAHF, the International Handball Federation (IHF), which continues to be the international governing body for team handball. IHF annually sponsors championships in men's and women's, junior men's and women's, and youth men's and women's categories. The current reigning international champions (2017) are France, in the men's category, and Denmark, in the women's category.


American handball is played on a hard-surfaced court 40 ft. (12 m) by 20 ft. (6 m) with walls at one end, one end and two sides, or all four sides. The front and rear walls are 20 ft. (6 m) by 20 ft. (6 m), and the side walls, 20 ft. (6 m) by 40 ft. (12 m). The court is, in other words, a rectangular box. The game can be played as a contest between two individuals (singles); among three players (“cut throat” handball), in which one player always plays against two other players; and among four players (doubles). A game begins when one player, the server, bounces the ball on the floor within the serving area, a 5-ft. (1.5-m)-wide area at the center of the court, and hits the ball with a fist or open hand as it rebounds off the floor. The struck ball must hit the front wall before it hits the floor. It may then hit one of the two side walls, but not both, before hitting the floor again at a point beyond the serving line. A ball that does not reach the serving line is called “short,” and one that hits the back wall before it hits the floor is a “long.” The rules for various forms of American handball, such as Chinese handball, and for one- and three-wall versions vary somewhat.

A short or long constitutes a service fault. A server is allowed two service faults before having to lose his or her serving opportunity. After the server has put the ball into play, the nonserving player must return the ball to the front wall without its hitting the floor. The return can be made while the ball is still in the air from the service or after it has struck the floor once, but no more than once. Play then continues back and forth between players until one player is unable to return the ball legally. The successful player is then awarded one point. Players can determine the number of points required to win a game, but official rules typically call for an accumulation of 21 points for a win.

In team handball, two teams of seven players each face each other on a rectangular court 131 ft. (40 m) by 65.5 ft. (20 m). The seven players consist of six fielders and one goalkeeper or goalie. At each end of the court is a soccer-style net (the goal) 10 ft. (3 m) wide and 6.5 ft. (2 m) high. The object of the game is for members of a team to move the ball down the court using one's hands only, by passing, running, and dribbling the ball, with the object of passing the ball into the opponent's net. Defenders must array themselves between an attacking player with the ball and the goal but may not interfere with the attacker form the side or the back. Rules regarding ball movement are quite precise. After receiving the ball, a player may hold the ball for no more than three seconds before passing or dribbling the ball or taking a shot. A player may also take as many as three steps before dribbling or passing the ball or taking a shot. Once a player has stopped dribbling, he or she has three seconds to pass the ball or shoot. Players may move the ball with any part of their upper body above (and including) the knees. The only exception is the goalkeeper, who may touch the ball with any part of his or her body. Adults (over the age of 16) play a game that lasts one hour, divided into two 30-minute periods with a 15-minute break between periods. Junior players (ages 12 to 16) play two 25-minute periods, and youth players (ages 8 to 12) play two 20-minute periods.



Preparation for all kinds of handball involves two categories of work. One has to do with general conditioning. At one time, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports ranked American handball as the first in 14 sports and exercise programs in terms of cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength flexibility, and balance. The sport requires that one be in the best possible overall physical condition. In addition, handball athletes must be skilled in a number of very specific physical activities, such as speed, throwing ability, agility, and hand-eye coordination. A successful training program in both American and team handball requires a great deal of practice in all of these specific skill areas.


The only equipment needed to play handball is a ball. For American handball, the ball is just smaller that a racquet ball, 2.3 oz. (57 g) in weight and 1.875 in. (4.65 cm) in diameter. The ball is traditionally either blue or black in color. A team handball may be of differing sizes, depending on the age of competitors who will use the ball. A number III ball, used by men older than the age of 16, weighs 15–17 oz. (425–475 g) and has a diameter of 23–24 in. (58–60 cm). A number II ball, used by women older than 14 and males older than 12 has a weight of 11–13 oz. (325–375 g) and a diameter of 21–22 in. (54–56 cm). A number I ball, used by youngsters over the age of 8, weighs 10–11 oz. (290–330 g) and has a diameter of 19–20 in. (50–52 cm).

Other than a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and suitable shoes, the only special equipment needed for both American and team handball is gloves and eye protection.

Training and conditioning

Both American and team handball are intense sports that demand strength, agility, speed, and endurance from their performers. A number of training and conditioning programs have been developed to help competitors achieve their maximum possible physical conditions before beginning participation. As an example of the kind of regime recommended by USA Team Handball for high schoolers interested in the sport, part of the training program should consist of the following set of exercises:

A served ball that hits the back wall before it hits the floor.
A served ball that does not return as far as the serving line.

Exercises to increase one's overall strength and muscle development are also important. The kind of exercise program following by the Danish national handball team, for example, includes regular repetitions of deadlifts and leg presses, knee extensions and front squats, leg curls, heel raises, bench press, dumbbell workouts, lower back and abdominal exercises, rotator cuff exercises, biceps curls, triceps extensions, and injury prevention exercises. Team members follow this schedule of exercises both during the season (one to two repetitions per week) and during the off season (two to three repetitions per week), combined with both aerobic and anaerobic exercises and pylometrics.

A number of coaches and trainers have designed detailed training programs for skills specifically related to both American and team handball.



A more recent study of team handball injuries was reported in 2008, involving a small sample of players on the Greek national team. Researchers reported that about half of all respondents (46.8%) reported having some sort of injury that required that they discontinue training for at least a week. The majority of these injuries were classified as “serious,” requiring an absence of two weeks from the game. The most common type of injuries involved damage to a ligament (31.8% of all injuries) or fractures (18.2%), in most cases (78.3%) to the lower limbs. Interestingly, about two-thirds of the injuries occurred during practice, rather than actual competition, and occurred when a player was wearing no protective equipment of any kind.

The team doctor for the USHA national championships has observed that three factors appear to be related to most handball injuries: failure of participants to take part in the necessary (or any) pregame training and conditioning program, lack of sufficient flexibility, and failure to recognize and/or respond to an injury when it occurs.


Both American and team handball are intense sports that place severe strain on the body. However, evidence suggests that the rate and severity of accidents can be reduced by appropriate training and conditioning exercises in preparation for a competition, and proper attention to an injury once it has occurred.



Clanton, Reita E., and May Phyl Dwight. Team Handball: Steps to Success. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 1997.

Hamil, Baha M., and James D. La Point. Team Handball: Skills, Strategies and Training. Dubuque: Eddie Bowers, 1994.

MacElligott, Tom. The Story of Handball: The Game, the Players, the History. Place: Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1998.

Phillips, Bernath E. Fundamental Handball. Seattle: Create-Space, 2011.


International Handball Federation, Peter Merian-Strasse 23, PO Box 4002, Basle, Switzerland, 41 61 227 90 40, Fax: 41 61 228 90 55, ihf.office@ihf.info, http://www.ihf.info .

U.S. Handball Association, 2333 N Tucson Blvd., Tucson, AZ, 85716, (520) 795-0434, Fax: (520) 795-0465, http://www.ushandball.org .

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.