We all can learn from Carl Obert

Carl Obert watches the action with intensity at the 2012 one-wall
nationals at Coney Island.

First featured in HANDBALL MAGAZINE, February 2019 (Part 1) and May 2019 (Part 2)

The intro picture is of the three Obert brothers (Carl, Oscar, and Ruby).  All three are in the USHA Handball Hall of Fame. 

By Chris Hlavatovic

The following interview was compiled over several recent conversations with Hall of Famer Carl Obert, as documented by his longtime student.
Q: How would you characterize your way of thinking about handball?
A: I call it the brick-wall theory. Each piece of your game is a brick in the wall — physical, mental, emotional. A student of the game works on them all. You have to be purposeful. Natural talent does not win championships.
 Q: Can we unpack that? Can we start with the physical?
A: Well, there’s a lot of good cross-training now, so I won’t say a lot about that. I always liked what they now call interval training. Sprints mixed with running like a boxer, with some shifting and skating as you run. Light weights. I also have some specific exercises for increasing your peripheral vision.

Let me say this about conditioning: Many times we are tired during a match and think we are out of shape or that our opponent is causing the problem. In reality, we do things that speed up the process of losing energy. So here are some things to do when you’re tired:

  • Arc the ball. Think of a plane taking off. Lifting the ball is power without energy.
  • Maintain front-court position. It saves extra steps during a game.
  • Take the full 10 seconds before serving or returning serve.
  • Shoot and end rallies sooner when you are tired.
  • Use all your timeouts and the full timeout between games.
  • Change gloves and shirts as needed.
  • Use your body weight and “pendulum swing,” swinging with two arms like an ape.
  • Don’t get angry or do too much talking.  That wastes energy.
  • Look for fly-kill or fly-pass cutoffs.
  • Hit passing/angle shots at half-speed. The less speed you use, the more hook the ball will take.  

Q: A lot of that sounds like more mental than physical.
A: You can’t separate them. A good game plan takes them all into account. You train, you think about your opponent’s tendencies and patterns, you come to work and stay in emotional control. 

Obert playing three-wall at Detroit’s famous
Palmer Park in the late 1960s.

Q: OK, what about the mental game?
A: Top players agree that the game is 70 percent mental, 20 percent physical, and 10 percent luck. Average players evaluate the game after it’s over. Good players do it every few points. Pros work moment to moment. It’s called situational awareness, and it can be trained.

Calculations by a pro are made second by second, and they make adjustments as necessary as the game is played. Pros take advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses. Their main purpose is to neutralize an opponent’s game.
A pro will evaluate the psychological, mental, and physical makeup of an opponent moment by moment. Pros try to control the mind and will of opponents. Play like a pro!

Another thing: Missing and losing are good for you. It is a wakeup call for more practice in specific areas. Examine your game plan and make the necessary changes. Missing is inevitable. Ask yourself why and learn from it. 
Q: And the emotional game?

A: Bad calls and lucky shots are all part of any sport. They average out. Losing one’s temper gives your opponent an advantage. Control your temper. 

Also, nervousness and tension are assets. They are your body’s way of keeping you from being complacent. No matter what you do, you have to play one point at a time.

Finally, some guys like to show off …exhibitionists. I don’t want to show off; I want to win. If the same serve is going to get me points, I don’t care if the whole house boos me for doing it 21 times in a row. Don’t fall for an opponent’s antics. Concentrate and stay focused. Excuses and negative thoughts score no points.
Q: So what about a game plan? What are the elements of a game plan?
A: I have a chart of 46 types of players. Seriously. Some of the key categories have to do with tempo — slow starter or fast starter. Some have to do with tactics — runner, shooter, serve-and-kill, streaky, go-for-broke, hook artist.

Just like with boxers, there is an answer for every style. The key is to know what to look for. Don’t ceiling with a tall player, hit it at a runner, shoot first against a shooter. Does your opponent force the action, or is he or she a counterpuncher? All important …

Q: What’s the most important thing to work on if you’re trying to improve your game?
A: The mental game. When players are in comparable shape, it becomes a mental game. A chess match. Become a student of the game because it applies to other parts of life. 
Q: What are some of your best tournament tips?
A: Arrive early. Check the courts. How is the floor, the lighting, the ceilings? Are the walls concrete or laminated sheetrock? Those kinds of courts suck up all the power from pass shots and make it more of a shooting game. Hydrate. Don’t watch too many matches or socialize too much. It can wear you down.
Q: How much do you try to tell a player during a match?
A: Depends on the player. It’s hard to remember a lot during a game. Often it is just a couple things. Shoot. Don’t overhit. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t lift your head on kills. Stay in center court. Change speeds. Don’t turn your front shoulder. Turn and look.

On the serve, remember to Z-serve. Think about serving to your opponent’s strong hand. Most players have a good offensive dominant hand but not so much defensive. Works well at match point too. Move the spot where you serve. Stay in motion during the return of serve. 

Also, because I tend to think about the court as divided into 16 zones, where did I score from, where did I miss? How did I score? How did my opponent score?

Sometimes I force a timeout and ask the player, “What happened to the game plan?” Sometimes it’s more about emotions: Don’t get angry. Breathe. He’s good, but so are you. She scored, but now it’s your time to score. Pretend you’re a righty!

Sometimes you want to get your student to change gears. Maybe smile. My favorite line, when a student’s tongue is hanging out during a tough match, is, “I’m not even breathing heavy.”

Q: Any advice about doubles play?

A: The best two singles players don’t necessarily make the best doubles team. In doubles, it is not whose side it’s on but who has the better shot.

Positioning is even more critical in doubles than singles. Get to the hitting spot early; it gives you more options. Play without the ball. Anticipation, pattern recognition, situational awareness ... all are huge in doubles.

In singles, I recommend 70 percent of shots with the dominant hand. In doubles, it’s more like 90 percent.

Finally — communication. Communication in doubles is essential. Make sure you and your partner have the same game plan. And make sure you communicate before and during the match or of a private school.

Carl talks about 10 Handball Topics (Part 2)

The mental game

Concentrate on the game plan and not the score. It is easier for the mind and nervous system to concentrate on one thought. Play one point at a time. I always say missing is good for you. Missing is inevitable. Learn why. It is a wakeup call for more practice in specific areas. Examine your game plan and make the necessary changes. Start now and use mental reflexes to your advantage. Talent is located between your ears. Talent is proper shot selection. Success is the other side of hard work and thinking. A great shot will get you a point, but a great game plan will bring a championship.


The purpose of a serve is to get a weak return and maintain front-court position. Four-wall and converted racquetball players prefer shots hit into the wall. A serve just over the short line becomes a point-getter. Offset power hitters with the Z-serve. There are 100 areas to serve to — use them! Many players serve to their opponent’s weak hand. I have found that they are more erratic with their strong hand. Most players are not consistent playing defense with their dominant hand.

Situational awareness

They taught us about this in the service — what’s the terrain, the weather, the local people. In handball, you have to be aware of your courts, lighting, ceiling, floors, back wall, balcony. Look for cracks or marks on the walls. We are trying to get the mind comfortable. Study the short line area. Here is where most of the game will be played. Throw the ball and see which way the wall slants. Are the walls wet? Is there poor lighting? Is the temperature an issue? What about drafts? Speak with other players; they sometimes give you sound advice on court conditions and how they play opponents. 


I always tell my students that you should picture an egg superimposed on the handball court. Most of the games should be played within the egg. If you are stuck in one of the four corners, away from the egg, you’re in trouble. Being in the egg is a start but not the whole story. Get in motion as your opponent is about to hit the ball. This puts you a half-step ahead. If you are in front of your opponent, turn and look as they are about to hit. This puts the pressure on them and, again, puts you a half-step ahead.


Pendulum swing. The single most important thing in hitting a handball is to use a pendulum swing. We say hit with both arms, turning off the hips and not the shoulders. The kill is supposed to be a soft shot. If you have to hit a kill as hard as you can, it’s the wrong shot. If you go for a kill and miss it, the ball should still be in play. You should be shooting off your ankle, parallel to the ground. On overhead shots, it is more about control than power, especially hitting the ball on the rise. When you hit the ball on the rise, it’s all about the follow-through. 


You need to have a target. Beginners just go out and start hitting. Eventually, you learn you have to have a thought behind every shot. As you start to think about your shots, you should practice targeting and body mechanics. By the way, if you are tired, you must arc the ball higher. If you are full of pep, you probably will have to adjust as well. On pass shots, you should consider the height — 2-, 3- and 4-foot pass shots do different things. And there is an inverse relationship between speed and hook. A half-speed volley shot will take twice the hook of a hard volley shot. On kill shots, step out with the front foot at a 45-degree angle. Keep your head down and hit a level shot at ankle level.

Elements of a game plan

    You should know your strengths as well as your opponents’. If you know nothing, observe them in practice. Many players will show you their best and worst shots in practice. Start at 75 percent speed. You may not need more than this. Feel out your opponent. Find out what makes them happy and deny it to them. My strategy was to neutralize an opponent. Play the long game. Come to work. Stay calm and carry on. If one idea does not work, then rework the volley.

Tournaments vs. Games

Control, patience, and concentration win tournaments. Power shooters tire in tournament play. Tournaments teach you that you can lose with your off hand, but you can’t win with it. Tournaments teach you a game plan must be flexible, that learning is fun and that the fascination of the game is the constant search for improvement.

Tips on specific shots

Punching is great, but you have to control punches. Hitting around the walls is not a good idea; it gives your opponent time. I like to think about pacing within a point and between points. Also, I like front-side kills. Everyone uses side-front, but the front-side is safer. It dies more quickly. On volley shots, the worst thing you can do is let a slow ball hit an extra wall deep in the court. You are way out of position at that point. And if you try to hit it back hard, you’re in more trouble. Better to cut off slower volleys.


    I am very proud to see how handball has been growing and how younger people are taking to the game. I hope they will remember there is always a way to win. Just because you are not scoring at some point does not mean you are not winning. Like I always say, come to work! The fun of the game is not to win but the struggle to win!

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