Lifting Handball to New Heights

Michelle doing a trick throw.

Michelle Mensing first joined SAP in 2015 as an intern, securing a permanent position as a software developer a year later. Though much has changed for the Berlin native over time, one thing has remained constant: relaxing with her favorite sport, handball.

Michelle was just four years old the first time she stood on a handball court. Her parents and grandparents were also players, and she has always been fascinated by this fast, powerful team sport. She “more or less grew up in the arena,” Michelle says laughing. So, what makes the sport so attractive? For Michelle, the answer is easy: “The strategy, tactics, and team spirit.”

What is Beach Handball?
The discipline is similar to traditional handball but played on sand. The soft ground makes dribbling difficult, so the game relies on passing and spectacular trick throws, which count double. Play is extremely fluid, with players entering and exiting the field rapidly. Each team can have only four persons in play, drawing on a maximum six field players and two goalkeepers.

Moving Factor

Her SAP internship ultimately brought Michelle to the Silicon Valley. Handball was of course a key consideration when she moved abroad. “I knew when I accepted the offer that I wanted to continue playing handball,” she explains. And so she did.

Michelle practices two to three times a week with her team. It’s a 40-minute drive after a long day of work, but she makes the trip happily. Playing handball in the U.S. is very different from back home. Almost everyone in Germany has heard of handball, but in the U.S., it’s still very much a niche sport.

There is no league, teams have to organize tournaments themselves, and the infrastructure is still in its infancy. On top of that, at least one new novice joins Michelle’s team each year, so the players’ skills and experience vary greatly across the team. “That isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Michelle. “But it did take some time getting used to at first, of course. The overall atmosphere here is a lot of fun. We’re all diehards who just really love to play handball. No one drags themselves to practice.”

The sport also played a major role in Michelle’s integration into her new adopted country. “A lot of my teammates aren’t Americans either,” she explains. “As foreigners, you have a lot in common. You’re new to the country, maybe don’t speak English all that well, and don’t have a lot of contacts yet. The club is a great way to network and build a circle of friends outside of work.”

Out of the Arena, Onto the Sand

At her new club, San Francisco CalHeat, Michelle discovered an outdoor variation of her sport: beach handball. She now actively pursues this discipline as well, practicing and playing regularly with teammates from around the world as part of the USA Beach Handball Elite Team, an extension of the U.S. national team. Which discipline does she like better? “There’s something uniquely appealing to each,” she replies.

What is the USA Beach Handball Elite Team?
The US Beach Handball Elite Team enables beach handball players without American citizenship to train at the highest possible level. It also promotes the exchange of the US national team with experienced handball or beach handball players from other countries.

USA Beach Handball Team at the World Championship 2018.

Scoring Big in the U.S.

Michelle’s passion for the game doesn’t stop at being a player. She also volunteers her time as a referee and coach at her club. Her newest challenge is serving as assistant coach of the U.S. national beach handball team, where she’s responsible for the team’s defense.

Michelle’s passion for the game doesn’t stop at being a player, she also volunteers as a referee.

That means analyzing matches and optimizing the team’s tactical lineup. But Michelle is also committed to ensuring good team dynamics: “I’m in the perfect position to shape that dynamic, of course, because as I know where the strengths and weaknesses of the players lie. I practice with them and I coach them. You can’t really get any closer to the action than that.” Once a month, Michelle makes the 400-mile journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles to practice with the national team.

No one can make a living playing handball in the United States yet, says Michelle. But the sport is making headway — interest is growing and there is more and more funding and support for youth handball and handball at the university level now. Not surprisingly, Michelle is doing her bit to promote youth development at her club as well.

“If it weren’t for SAP, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Michelle is a team player through and through, relying on tact and interpersonal skills both at work and at play.

Being a player, coach, and referee, however, takes time. So you have to set priorities, she says. You certainly can’t do it all at once. Most of her friends don’t have time for such a commitment on top of their day-to-day work, Michelle explains. “My manager and colleagues are very supportive in that respect. Thanks to SAP, I have the time and flexibility I need to pursue my hobby.”

Her next goal? To get beach handball added as an Olympic sport.

Five Facts About Michelle

  • Favorite travel destination: Japan
  • Can’t live without: Handball and puzzles
  • Favorite saying: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. -Laotse
  • Inspiration: My mother
  • Favorite meal: Kebab or Königsberg meatballs