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Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 1 Number 5June 1, 2010
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.

This is the first part of a two-part series that questions how we train our water polo athletes. Are we getting the best results from our training sessions, or are we perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns and doing much more than is required for optimal performance? Are we “overtraining” our water polo players?

PART ONE will analyze the physical requirements of playing a water polo game, based on the results of film analysis studies of actual games. Once we know what a player actually does during a game, we will also need to know how to correctly train a water polo athlete to meet those requirements. To do this we also need to look at the basic physiological training principals and how they apply to the game of water polo.

PART TWO will give examples of actual training sessions, swim sets, and training activities that will show how some coaches go a little overboard in training their athletes. Utilizing the given examples, we can apply what we learned from game analysis studies and scientific training principals to come up with the best way to train our players.

                                                               PART ONE

We spend countless hours training our athletes to play the game of water polo. Over the many years that I have been involved in our sport, I have come to question whether we are training our athletes correctly. The purpose of this article is to investigate whether we as coaches are spending our time wisely when we train our players; or are we needlessly wasting our time, and our athlete’s time, that might be put to better use learning how to play the game.

If we analyze the energy requirements of a typical water polo game, and apply basic principals of exercise physiology, we can determine if the training activities that coaches use are detrimental or beneficial to training for water polo. We can also determine why or why not these activities are effective, and at the same time we can also develop a training program that will give maximum benefit to water polo players.


In order to determine the requirements for training a water polo player, the movements of a player during a game have to be analyzed to see what a player actually does in a game. Only by determining what the player’s actual movements are during a game, and the intensity and duration of those movements, will we be able to know what energy systems and skills need to be trained. The multiple individual skills and movements required for playing water polo place considerable demands on the metabolic energy systems and the neuromuscular systems of the athletes body. Sports scientists have analyzed the demands of a water polo by performing video analysis of the movements of players during a game. The results may surprise you!


A water polo game lasts on average somewhere between one hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes in length (perhaps the shortest game time of any team-sport) depending on the number of stoppages during the game, level of play by different ages and sexes, the number of time-outs called by coaches, length of each game, and whether the game goes into overtime or not. For purposes of this discussion and for ease in calculating times of certain activities, we will choose an average number of 60 minutes per game, which is a number that covers all levels of water polo.

Film analysis of a complete game show that the total linear distance traveled by an active player who plays most of the game, in a 30-meter course and 8-minute quarters, ranges from a distance of 1500 meters (about a mile) and up to a maximum of 1800 meters. Distances swum in a smaller pool (25 meters) and with shorter quarters are probably somewhere around 1200 meters average distance. For our purposes we will choose 1600 meters as the distance that a top player would swim during a game.

Calculations from time and motion analyses indicate that field players spend only 45% to 55% of actual game time in a horizontal body position. The remainder of the time is spent performing activities in predominantly vertical body positions, with and without contact with an opponent, and at low to moderate intensity. We will choose 55% as the amount of time spent swimming in a horizontal position, and 45% spent in a vertical position. Assuming four time-outs (2-minutes each), and 3-2 minute quarter breaks during the 60 minute game, a total of 25-26 minutes of actual playing time is spent moving in a horizontal position, and about 20-21 minutes in a vertical position.


When a coach is trying to decide how to train a player who swims about a mile during a game, the total distance swum is not as important as how that distance is broken down. A player does not swim 1600 meters without stopping; but swims a variety of shorter distances of 2-25 meters in length. The number, intensity and duration of each swim is also important when determining the energy demands of playing the game.

Most of the high intensity swimming in a game occurs during the counterattack and defending the counterattack. Assuming about 8 possessions for each team during each quarter played, a player who plays the whole game must swim up and down the pool a total of 16 times per quarter (offense and defense), or about 64 times per game. Assuming that the players swims from the 4-6 meter line at one end to the 4-6-meter line at the other end, that is approximately 18-22 meters per swim maximum (about 20 meters per swim on average), for a total of 1280 meters of high intensity counterattack swimming.

The rest of the distance swum (approximately 400-500 meters) is to gain advantage over an opponent or defend an attacking maneuver. These kinds of swims are lower in intensity and of shorter distance (2-5 meters); and are not considered intense enough that they have to be trained for. Most of the training for these types of movements can be performed with short, start and stop and change of direction drills.

In summarizing the requirements of a water polo game, the coach must train his players to be able to perform about 60 intense head-up sprints per game that average about 20 meters in length and require about 12-15 seconds to complete each swim. (The distance and time is less in a smaller 25 yard pool). A majority of these fast swims are of a single nature and are usually followed by periods of 10-20 seconds of lower intensity swims. They consist of holding a position, maneuvering for position, or playing in vertical offensive or defensive position. Since the intervals between high-intensity counterattack swims are usually of lower intensity, they will be considered as rest periods that allow the athlete to recover partially, or completely, from the preceding high intensity swim.


Most of the energy to contract the muscles in order to perform each of the 20-meter swims (10-14 seconds duration) can be derived from the breakdown of the ATP molecule in the muscle cells that is produced by the breakdown of creatine-phosphate (CP) stored or produced in the muscles. This process (ATP-CP system) occurs at the beginning of any kind of intense exercise. However, the activity can go only go on for about 12-15 seconds because the creatine-phosphate in the muscles will be depleted. A short rest period of about the same time interval, will quickly restore CP levels; allowing the athlete to repeat these short and intense activities over an over again. If enough rest is allowed (usually one to one work to rest periods), the water polo athlete can rely almost entirely on the ATP-CP energy system to complete a water polo game. This ultimately is the predominate energy system utilized during a water polo game.

However, when rest periods are very short, or if a player has to put together two or three swims without any rest at all (as in back to back counterattacks), another energy system must take over the chore of producing ATP for muscle contraction. These kinds of swims that require sprinting for distances of 25-50 meters, and take more than 15 seconds to complete, will use the glycolytic energy system that utilizes stored carbohydrates (glycogen) and blood sugar to produce ATP. While this system produces more than ample ATP for muscle contraction, it also produces lactic acid that can cause fatigue to occur in the muscles.

Players who accumulate high levels of lactic acid early in a game from several consecutive sprints without sufficient rest, may have insufficient opportunity to fully recover; and this may impede their performance during subsequent play. These occasions of insufficient recovery time do occur during the course of a game; so the cumulative effects of the lactic acid have to be trained for. In planning for training the two systems, both of which are classified as anaerobic (without oxygen) in nature, a coach can figure that about 80% of the intense swimming (about 800-900 yards) will require use of the ATP-CP system and 20% (about 300-400 yards) will require the glycolytic-lactic acid system.


In reality, the swimming as described above is only a small portion of the time of the entire game; at most about 30% of the total time (about 20 minutes of a one hour game). In analyzing what a water polo player actually does during a game, we can dispel the notion that while water polo is a high intensity game, only about a third of the time, or less, of the 60 minute game is actually spent in high intensity swimming activities. The rest of the time is spent performing short distance maneuvering swims, or in a vertical offensive and defensive position; or doing nothing at all during periods of inactivity.

Since most players do not play the whole game without being substituted for, we can say that the above estimates of high intensity swims is about the maximum that could occur at the collegiate and international levels of men’s water polo played in a 30 meter course. The above estimates should be down-graded by about 20% for women and boy’s and girls who play in 25 meter (yard) courses.

So what we are talking about here is training the water polo athlete to perform about 40 short intense swims of 15-20 meters in length and about 10-15 intense swims of 20-40 meters in length. The question that begs to be answered here is, since a distance of more than 50 meters at a time is rarely covered during a game (if at all), and the total distance of intense swimming covers only about 1200 meters, why are water polo coaches training their players by swimming total distances of 4000-8000 meters per day, and requiring them to perform repeat practice swims of 100-500 meters at a time?



After analyzing the specific physical requirements of playing a water polo game, we have to learn how to correctly train our athletes to meet these requirements. There are several ways that a coach can go about training his athletes. One way is to just load hours and hours of all kinds of physical training on the athlete, and hope that something works. This method is a wasteful use of the precious pool time that we have to train our athletes, and is by far the least efficient method of training a team. Another is to try and follow your instincts, and apply training methods from other coaches or other sports to water polo; with no knowledge as to whether these methods are correct or not.

The best way is for a coach to educate himself with scientific knowledge based on research and principals of exercise physiology; and then make an accurate training decision based on that knowledge, in combination with the coach’s actual experience in the sport. Or coaches can simply follow a checklist of drills and techniques that other coaches have performed in the past, ignore the science, and just keep guessing and following their instincts. The key is to apply your instincts based on scientific knowledge, rather than just “flying by the seat of your pants”. You are doing your athletes a disservice, not to mention overtraining them, if you do the latter, instead of the former.

Some of the biggest abusers of overtraining athletes are swimming coaches, who pile on thousands and thousands of unnecessary swimming yards on swimmers that have nothing to do with the event that the swimmer is actually going to perform. Why is it necessary for a swimmer who is going to swim a race that is 50 meters long and takes about 21-25 seconds to perform, to train by swimming 10,000 meters a day? Many of the training swims are of greater length than 50 meters (100, 200, 400, 1000 meters) and swum at a slower speed than is required in a short race. That is because some swim coaches don’t have a clue about what they are doing; and they just keep utilizing the same methods used by other swim coaches in the past.

Eventually, some of the training is effective and the swimmer does get faster. But at what cost to the swimmer in terms of unnecessary time and energy.  Unfortunately, many water polo coaches have a swimming background, and keep following the same methods used by swimming coaches to train swimmers. The bottom line here, coaches, is that water polo is a specific sport that requires that the athletes be trained to perform the specific activities of the sport, exactly as they are performed in competition. Train your athletes to play water polo, not to be competitive swimmers!

Now that we have analyzed the requirements of playing a water polo game, we need to look at several of the most important training principals that we can apply to the actual training and practice sessions. The two most important principals of training for any kind of physical activity are “Specificity of Exercise” and the “Overload Principal and Adaptation”.


The Principal of “Specificity of Exercise” is the cornerstone of all of the principals of training the body for physical exercise; and is the most widely accepted by sports scientists, coaches and trainers throughout the world. The Principal of Specificity states that “the maximum benefits of a training stimulus can only be obtained when it replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the activities of a sport”. The principal of specificity applies to all areas of sports training to include (1) the specific energy systems utilized in a sport, (2) the groups of muscles used in a sport, and 3) the skills associated with performing a sport. All have to be trained exactly as they are used during competition, in order for the athlete to perform his sport with the maximum effectiveness.

Both the physical parts of a sports activity, and the skills associated with participating in the activity, require some kind of muscle action that involves motor-units that are controlled by the central nervous system. The basic premise of the “specificity principal” is that all of these muscle actions occur in a way that is specific to the action. In order for the muscular action to be performed correctly, and in an efficient way, the neuromuscular action has to be repeated again and again in the same “specific” way.
Since all activities in a sport require neuromuscular action, in order to improve the physical conditioning of a body in a particular sport, the workload imposed must exactly duplicate the muscular movement patterns of the sport, and the exact energy systems utilized in the sport. For training to be effective, you must make the same demands on your body, and in the same way that they are made in the game. The closer the training routine is to the requirements of competition, the better the outcome.
In water polo, just as in many other sports, athletes train with the idea of improving their physical performance. In order for players to improve their ability to jump high in the water, swim faster, throw a ball harder, etc, the muscles and energy systems that apply to these movements have to be trained in a specific way for the training to be effective (to show improvement).


Every cell of the human body, including muscle cells, are in some form or another sensitive to certain forms of stress, and capable of initiating a specific adaptive response. Training is a cyclical process of tearing down and building up muscles (cells). The muscles and the systems that provide energy for contraction have to be stressed and torn down before they can be built up. If the stress is not high enough, the muscles and energy systems will not be stimulated to adapt and improve.

An example of this is training a player or swimmer to swim at a fast speed for a short distance. The stress (speed) of training has to be high enough that that the body will respond and improve the muscles and energy systems utilized in swimming at a fast speed. This cannot be accomplished by having the swimmer slogging through long distances at a slow speed. Not only is the stress not high enough; but the stroke and technique used in slow swimming is different than that used in sprinting. Another basic difference in the water polo stroke is that the arm stroke is shorter, quicker and wider; and the head is out of the water while swimming.

Following the principal of specificity, not only must the speed be high enough to initiate an adaptive stress response, but the technique of swimming must exactly duplicate the technique of the water polo stroke. There is a certain minimum “threshold” in terms of overload that must be applied in order to initiate the “stress response”. One way of improving water polo speed is to repeat short high intensity swims over and over again. Where some swimming and water polo coaches make a mistake is thinking that they can overload the muscles by increasing the volume of swimming (adding more miles); when in fact is it the quality of the swims in terms of intensity and speed that has to be increased, and not how far a swimmer travels. 

There is a limit, however, to the amount of stress that the body can endure before it starts breaking down. If the stress is too severe, adaptation is delayed or even prevented, and the athlete can end up completely fatigued and unable to perform. The doubled edged sword nature of the body's response to training suggests that we should try to organize training, based on frequency, intensity and duration, in such a way that we minimize the negative stress effects, while still achieving the physiological adaptations desired.


The adaptive process does not include any capacity that extends beyond the specific training stress. Thus, there is no basis to expect training effects from one form of exercise to transfer to any other form of exercise. Training by running will not transfer to swimming and visa versa, and training by slow swimming with the head down will not transfer to swimming fast with the head up. Numerous studies have discovered the specific nature of every sport activity, including strength training.

While athletes who perform strength-training exercise get stronger in performing those particular strength exercises, the strength effects have not been found to transfer to increased performance in a sport activity. For instance, many studies have found that performing squat training in the weight room does not result in an increase in jumping ability of volleyball players. Why? Because the movements involved in squat training are not specific enough, and do not duplicate the exact movement of jumping. In order to increase jumping ability, the athlete must practice jumping. The best way to improve the strength required in performing a sport activity is to actually perform the sport activity itself.


Everything that an athletes trains for in his/her sport is specific to that sport. In water polo this includes strength training, training for speed and endurance, training the legs to perform the eggbeater kick, training the athlete to shoot a ball, and all of the other skills involved in playing the game. All movements are controlled by the nervous system and involve some sort of muscular action. Technically, all sports activities can be classified as neuromuscular skills.

“If you want to improve the neuromuscular skills in water polo, you need to practice the skills required for water polo and in the same manner that they are performed in a water polo game. This includes swimming, eggbeater kick, throwing a ball, etc”.   

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences and
Click one of the water polo balls to learn where to buy Dante's books.]

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