American handball

American handball

American (or court) handball, usually referred to simply as Handball, is a sport in which players hit a small rubber ball against one or more walls.


It is a common belief that "American handball" was brought to the United States in the 1880s by Irish immigrants. The Gaelic handball sport was played since the 15th century in Ireland and Scotland.

In the Basque Country, a very similar game is played, Basque pelota. The origins of both handball and Basque pelota -- as well as many European racket and handball sports -- can be traced to the French Jeu de paume.


American handball is played on a court convert|40|ft|m|1 long by convert|20|ft|m|1 wide with either a single (front) wall, three walls, or in a fully enclosed four-wall court (the most common). The four-wall court is a rectangular box. The front wall is convert|20|ft|m|1 square, and the side walls are convert|40|ft|m|1 long and convert|20|ft|m|1 high. In the middle of the floor of the court lies the short line, dividing the floor into two convert|20|ft|m|1 squares. Also along the floor is the service line, which is convert|5|ft|m|1 in front of the short line. The service zone is the area between these two lines. The back wall of the court is usually convert|12|ft|m|1 high, with an above gallery for the referee and scorer, and also spectators. A few courts have a glass back wall and/or glass side walls to allow for a better view of the match. (In three-wall court handball, the court often has a front wall and two full side walls, or the front wall is flanked by two triangular wings.)

Handball may be played as singles (two players against each other), doubles (two teams of two players), or "cut-throat" (three players rotating one-against-two). (In "cut-throat" handball, one server plays against two receivers, until he or she is put out. Then, the left-most receiver serves, and so serves rotate in this way until one player scores 21 points and wins.) The "cut-throat" mode of play is also known as "triangles".

The ball is "served" by one player/team standing in the service zone, by dropping the ball to the floor of the service zone and striking it on the bounce with the hand or fist so that it hits the front wall. The ball must hit the front wall first; it may then hit at most one side wall; the served ball must pass the short line before the first bounce, but must bounce before reaching the back wall. When the served ball lands in front of the short line, it is called a "short," while a serve which reaches the back wall without bouncing is called "long," and a serve which hits both side walls before bouncing is called a "3-wall". All these are service faults. If the server gets two faults in a row, he or she is out, and becomes the receiver. If a serve hits the ceiling, floor, or a side wall before hitting the front wall, the server is out (no second serve allowed). In doubles, the server's teammate has to stand in the service area with his/her back to a side wall in a service box, marked by a parallel line convert|18|in|cm from the side wall, until the ball passes the short line.

The receiver must stand at least convert|5|ft|m|1 behind the short line, indicated by dashed lines extending convert|6|in|cm from each side wall, while the server has the ball. Once the ball is served, he or she must hit the ball either directly ("on the fly") or after the first bounce so that it bounces off the front wall. However, if the receiver chooses to take the serve on the fly, he or she must first wait for the ball to cross the dashed line. The ball must not bounce off the floor twice. Nor can any player during a return hit the ball off the floor before it touches the front wall. The server then hits the ball on the rebound from the front wall, and play continues with the opponents alternatively hitting the ball until one of them fails to make a legal return. After the serve and return, the ball may be played from anywhere, and may hit any number of walls and/or the ceiling, so long as it hits the front wall before bouncing on the floor. Players cannot "hinder" (block) their opponents from hitting the ball. If the server fails to make a legal return, he or she is out, and becomes the receiver. If the receiver fails to make the return, a point goes to the server, who continues to serve until he or she is out. So, only the server/serving team can score points. The game goes to the player/team to score 21 points first, and a match goes to the player/team to win two out of three games; the third game goes to 11 points.


A three wall handball court is an outside court with a front, 2 sides, and no back wall. It is played very much like an indoor four-wall court, with the same rules, only with the challenge of returning the ball without any backwall rebound.

Toledo, Ohio is the home of the Annual U.S.H.A. National Three-Wall Championships...


A one-wall handball court has a wall convert|20|ft|m|1 wide and convert|16|ft|m|1 high. The court floor is convert|20|ft|m|1 wide and convert|34|ft|m|1 long. When not played as part of tournament or league play, the one-wall game typically uses the bigger ball called "the Big Blue" (described in the next section "Equipment"). The main difference between one-wall handball and other versions is that the ball must always be played off the front wall. One-wall handball can be watched by more people than a four-wall game. The court is also cheaper to build, making this version of handball popular at gymnasiums and playgrounds. In New York City alone, it is estimated that there are 2052 public handball courts in the five boroughs.


A typical outfit worn during the game includes protective gloves, sneakers, athletic shorts, and goggles. Eye protection is required in tournament handball, as the ball moves at high speeds and in close range. It is rarely used in "street" handball, however, where the softer "big blue" ball is usually used.

The black or blue rubber ball, convert|2.3|oz|g in mass/weight and convert|1.875|in|cm in diameter (smaller, heavier, and harder than a racquetball), is hit with the gloved palm (informal games often don't include gloves).

mall Ball vs. Big Ball

A "true" handball is referred to as a "small ball" or in earlier days, "blackball". A racquet ball used to play handball is called a "big ball" or "big blue". A small ball is hard and bounces erratically. Some types of small balls are called the Red Ace (for men) and the White Ace (for women).

A big ball bounces lower and slower than a small ball, is softer, and is more hollow. Some brands of the big ball include Sky Bounce and Penn.

Formal games, such as tournaments and school competitions, involve the use of the small ball only. Informal games, or "street handball," use the big ball most often. However, there have been tournaments that have used the big ball – NYC Big Blue, for example.

About the sport

Terms and Techniques

;Ace: A serve in which the retriever is not only unable to return the ball, but is also unable to touch the ball. Same concept as in Tennis. In some games, any return from a serve which does not make it back to the wall is called an ace.

;Backhand: A technique of hitting the ball with the palm of the strong hand so that the hand is turned inwards and across the body. The arm is swung away from the body. This technique is usually used by players who have a weak off-hand or when the ball comes towards the midline of the body and the person doesn't have time to get into position.

;Ball On/In: A term used when another ball interferes with the game. The rally is replayed after the ball is removed from the court.

;Block: A term used when the ball hit by the receiver doesn't reach the wall, but instead directly hits another player.

;Moving Block: A call from the receiver to indicate that an opposing player interfered in the receiver's ability to reach and return the ball during a rally.

;Ceiling Shot: A defensive play in a four-wall court in which a player hits the ball hard and upward, so that it first contacts the ceiling and then the front wall, usually forcing the opponent to go to the back of the court to make a return.

;Cracks: A situation in which the ball hits the physical crack of either the short or the long line on the court and bounces erratically. During a serve, if the ball hits the crack of the short line, it is considered "short". If the ball hits the crack of the long line, it is considered "good". During regular play (after the serve), all cracks are considered good. Outdoor courts that have cement floors are more likely to have these cracks built in to indicate the short and long lines. Cracks usually occur randomly. When they do occur, they can disrupt the shot of the player who has to return the shot.

;Cut: A shot in which the player puts a heavy spin on the ball, causing the ball to bounce off the wall in an erratic motion. To perform a cut, the ball must be struck by a sudden twist in the hand and/or fingers. The main purpose of these shots is to throw off the opponent's rhythm of hitting the ball.

;Double-Down: A term which means both players in a doubles game lose their serves. A street handball rule which is invoked when the wrong player on a team serves.Fact|date=May 2008

;Fist Shot: A way of hitting the ball so that the ball contacts off the knuckles. It is done by closing one's fingers to make a fist. The hard surface created by the fist gives the hitter a harder and faster hit, though sometimes less control. This is a move sometimes looked down upon.

;Flags: A block that is right after a serve. The server or teammate waves his hand through or near the ball's trajectory thus blocking and interfering with the receiver, which is deemed a down.

;Fly Shot: An advanced shot where instead of letting the ball take a bounce, the ball is stroked while it's still in the air - similar to a volley in tennis.

;Hook: A serve that is whipped so that after bouncing on the floor, it does not continue in a straight path, but veers off to one side. Hooks can be done to either the left or right no matter which hand is used to serve. Often used in small ball, as the ball can gain a greater momentum. A good hook will make the person who returns the ball have to make a quick change in their form so that he doesn't mis-hit the ball.

;Killer: A shot (usually side-arm or underhand) in which the player hits the ball so low that it just barely touches the wall first before hitting the ground. This shot can end a rally, although it is possible to pick up a kill. Although it helps the player win the rally immediately, it is a very risky shot for there is a chance of missing and hitting the floor. Thus, there is little room for error. A variation of the killer is the corner-kill. A corner-kill is a killer that is aimed at the extreme left or right of the wall. In one-wall, this shot has more risk than a normal kill because the player runs the risk of hitting the ball out. A corner-kill is often more difficult to pick up because players usually occupy the center of the court, making the shot harder to reach.

;Lob (Overhead Shot): In one-wall handball, an under-hand shot in which the player hits the ball to the wall in a high arc such that the ball is launched back high above the top of the wall through a parabolic path that results in the ball landing near the long line. This tactic is mainly used against short players or players who hover near the front of the court. An overhead shot is similar, but can be used with an over-hand shot, must be hit near the top of the wall, and does not go any higher, unlike the lob.

;"Out-on-wall": In one-wall handball, any shot that hits over the outline on the wall and lands anywhere on court. Even though it hits inside the outline on the ground, it is still considered an out.

;Pass Shot(corner shot): A shot where the ball passes an opponent fairly low and fast near one of the side walls, out of the opponent's reach, thus winning the rally.

;Pick-Up: A "pick-up" is when you hit the ball before it bounces a second time.

;Pops (Choke): A shot that touches both the floor and the wall simultaneously. The ball may either pop high up or bounce away from the wall momentarily and then come to an immediate halt. It is considered "out" and usually occurs when a player is attempting a kill. This shot is considered good in Chinese handball.

;Power Side: The side with which the player is most comfortable. This term mainly applies in "doubles," in which each player guards his or her own side. The power side for right-handed players is the left side, with respect to facing the wall. The power side for left-handed players is the right side. The reason for this is that a player who stands on his "power side" will be able to take most of the shots that occur in the center with ease.

;Roller: Similar to a killer but instead of having any bounce, the ball rolls off the floor right after touching the very base of the wall. This shot takes tremendous luck to pull off, and is impossible to pick up, since the rally is already over once the ball touches the ground.

;Spike: Similar to that in volleyball, the spike is a shot in which the player slams the ball down from a high altitude to hit the base of the wall. Doing so forces the ball to bounce up much higher than it usually would.

;Tree-top: In one-wall handball, the handball might hit the very edge of the top of the wall and pop up higher than normal. Even if the ball lands within the parameters of the court, it's still considered an "out."

;Screen Serve (Under-leg): Only on a serve, if the ball passes under the server's legs, is it regarded as bad, and the server receives an automatic screen. Two consecutive screens make one full fault. Two faults and the server is "down" and becomes the receiver.

;Whip: A way of hitting the ball so that it is not simply slapped back to the wall. Instead, the player will put his hand in a cup shape so that the ball just glides off of his hand. The whip is an integral part of the hook serve. It can also relieve some of the pain that one would feel if simply slapping the ball (often the ace ball).


* Chinese handball is a street game form of American handball played against one wall, except the ball must hit the floor before hitting the wall. It is like a mirrored version of American Handball.
* Wall ball is a generic name for a variety of similar street games played by adolescents, often with tennis balls.
* Prison Handball is a simplified version of American handball popular in North American prisons.

See also

* United States Handball Association
* Basque pelota
* Gaelic handball
* Valencian fronto


* 2 "Time" magazine, May 11, 1942.

External links

* [ US Handball]
* [ Colorado Handball Association]
* [ Southern California Handball Association]
* [ Toledo Handball Club]
* [ Promoting the Sport of Handball]
* [ Social Network for the Sport of Handball]
* [ Handball video sharing website]

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