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ARE WE OVERTRAINING OUR WATER POLO PLAYERS: PART 2?

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

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

This is the second 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 analyzed 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 can apply basic physiological training principles and design a training program that will meet the needs of the athlete in an actual game.

PART TWO will give examples of actual training sessions, swim sets, and training activities that will show how some coaches can go a overboard in training their athletes. Utilizing the given examples, we can apply what we learned from PART 1 game analysis studies and scientific training principals to come up with the best way to train our players.

                             PART 2- TRAINING WATER POLO PLAYERS

Following are examples of a few of the conditioning workouts or training sessions that were experienced by former water polo players and reported on the Water Polo Planet message board.  These are actual training sessions required by some of our coaches; some of them during “hell week” sessions and some during normal in season training sessions. Some of the examples of training and swimming workouts come from my observations of practice and training sessions over the years.

Example # 1- High school 2-a-day training sessions during the first week to 10 days of practice that required a 3- hour practice in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon, and consisted of 1-hour of running and two-hours of swimming in the morning, and 2 1/2 hours of swimming and 1 1/2 hours of leg work in the afternoon session. The only workout on Saturday lasted 3 hours and consisted of running and swimming at a beach. These workouts lasted for 8-10 days before the players were allowed to touch a water polo ball.

Example # 2- College training that lasted for 2-3 weeks at the beginning of the season, consisting of daily 2-a-day workouts of 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon.  The training consisted of 30 minutes of stretching and 2 1/2 hours of swimming in the morning, and 2 hours of swimming, 30 minutes of leg work and 30 minutes of ball work in the afternoon. In addition, the players performed 1-hour of weight training at the end of the day; but only on 3-days a week. On Saturday the teams went one 4-hour session that consisted of swimming, counterattack work and scrimmaging. Sunday was a day-off.

Example # 3 - A high school “hell week” session:
MWF- 6:30-9:30am – dry-land/track running 20-30 min, stretching/weights 30 min, swim set 30 min, eggbeater drills 20 mins, countering opponent w/o ball 20 mins, passing/warm up shooting 20 mins, last 30 mins counterattack drills/shooting drills
1-4pm - stretching+light dry-land 15 mins, swim set ~30 mins, counterattack drills/6-on-5 30 mins, eggbeater drill+countering opponent drill 30 mins, passing 15 mins, shooting drills 20 mins, scrimmage remainder of practice.
Tues and Thurs - replace track running (longer distance) with sprints/figure 8s on bleachers (sprints)

Example # 4 - Report from a water polo parent:
High school hell week every year right before school starts, 7 am to 5pm.
I heard that the players really HATE it. But attendance is mandatory.
One kid at the club told my son that he threw up a couple of times.

Quote from same parent on the training:

“I'm not an expert at all but I just don't see how spending two hours running, two hours weight lifting, and three hours of swimming would improve their water polo skills”.

Example # 5 - 3 workouts a day for a total of 6-7 hours per day that included playing water polo with tennis shoes.

Examples of in-season swim sets:

Example of National Junior Team tryout swim set

Examples of in-season training sessions

Granted that the above activities are not typical of every team’s water polo training. But the very fact that such training even exists and is actually performed by some teams, including some of our high school and college teams as well as our National teams, indicates to me that there is a general misunderstanding of the concepts of training for water polo by some coaches.

WHAT NOT TO DO, WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD

There is best-selling book about diet that is titled “What you shouldn’t eat! What should you eat instead”! I am following the format from that book when evaluating the kind of training that should be utilized for training water polo players correctly. I will use examples from the training described at the beginning of this article for describing what “not to do”, and then follow up each section describing what “should be done instead”.

WHAT NOT TO DO -

Hell week, or hell weeks, that require 6-7 hours of excessive training per day, under the guise of “bonding”, developing “character” and making the athletes “mentally tough” is irresponsible and could be construed as physical abuse. Not only that, but this kind of training is completely unnecessary, and quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns that results in overtraining the athletes.

Because of the depletion of needed glycogen stores with this volume of training, and the resulting fatigue associated with glycogen depletion, the athlete finds himself just “going through the paces” at a slower speed. The bottom line is that there are no positive training effects occurring at all. So, your athletes are not getting in shape, they are just getting tired and swimming slow!

Getting up at 5:30 AM every morning for weight lifting sessions is another type of “getting the players mentally tough” type of training that is completely unnecessary and probably does not result in any increase in water polo strength. Practicing 7-8 hours a day for 6 days a week (as our national team did at one time) is another example of “mentally tough” and “bonding” training that results in being counterproductive. It also is an example of throwing all kinds of stuff at the players for eight hours a day, and hoping that some part of it may be beneficial to the athlete. The result is many times complete physical and mental exhaustion by the players. Then the coach can’t understand why his/her players can’t perform in practice or in games?

I call this “lazy coaching”. A well organized coach can get just as much, if not more, benefit from 3-4 hours of training a day, as the coach who doesn’t know what to do, and just gives the players 7-8 hours of needless training. Training the players 7-8 hours a day is easy. All a coach has to do is just pile on the work for 7-8 hours without having to actually sit down and think about what he/she is doing, or why he/she is doing it. It really doesn’t require any effort or thinking on the coaches part. Anybody can coach this way.

Remember, it is the “quality of the training” that produces better performance, not the “volume of training”. At a time in the season when the team is expected to learn the basic offensive and defense systems and skills that they are going to use during the season, this kind of training is counterproductive and results in completely fatiguing the athletes to the point where learning cannot possibly take place. Not only that, but the susceptibility of the athletes to injury is increased because of the deterioration in an athlete's ability to repair minor tissue damage.

This is a quote from one of the players from a team that went through the water polo hell week in example # 1 above:  “All this did, aside from making my life hellacious, resulting in me losing 10-lbs in one week, and 15-lbs overall, despite my great conditioning, was make me tired and over-trained. My leg strength dropped dramatically, lifting was a joke because we were so tired and frequently led to injury, and I couldn't focus on ball drills because I was so pre-exhausted. Surprisingly our volume in swimming wasn't that great per session (each session was usually no more than 4,000 yds, or no more than 8,000 per day) yet the intensity and demands of the program left us over-trained and hating life”.

The loss of weight, especially that much in a short period of time, is because of the lack of necessary glycogen due to excessive training. Without carbohydrates, the body turns to fats and proteins to supply the ingredients from which it produces ATP for muscle contraction. An athlete who burns protein is essentially wasting his muscles away (muscle fibers are composed of proteins), losing the strength necessary for performing water polo skills and playing the game.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD -

Coaches have to learn to be “effective” coaches. An effective coach is an “efficient” coach that gets the most out of the little pool time the team is alloted. He/she does this by not wasting time on aspects of the game that are not important, or do not carry over to the game. An effective coach does only the amount of swim conditioning that is necessary, and learns to condition the players by combining skills with swimming, and doing a lot of water polo related counterattack and scrimmage training.
 
It is OK to practice twice a day for the first week or two of practice, or prior to the start of academic classes; as long as the coach is sensible about what he/she is doing to the athletes. Only, please don’t call it “hell week”! The name alone conjures negative images that do not belong in a team-training atmosphere that should be producing positive results. At the most, each practice session during 2-a days should not be more than 2 hours in length (4-hours total per day), with plenty of rest in-between sessions. Schedule the morning training for 9-11 AM, so that the players have enough time for needed breakfast before practice; with the afternoon session at 3-5 or 4-6 PM so that the players will have 4-5 hours of rest between practice, and time to digest their lunch or take a nap.

If a coach designs his practice for maximum efficiency, he can have the players swim a sensible amount of specific water polo sprints, learn from water polo game related drills that also require a certain amount of specific water polo swimming, and actually play the game of water polo by scrimmaging each day. This is called “functional fitness”. As the competitive season approaches, it is necessary to develop physical fitness in such a manner that the fitness is “functionally” appropriate for water polo.

The major determinants of functional training is that it be as game-like as possible, and of sufficient repetition and intensity to cause training effects to occur; training effects that most certainly will transfer to the game. At the end of that first week or ten days of practice, the players will not only be in water polo “game shape”; but they will also have learned the skills and tactics to play the game the way that you want them to play. They will be prepared both physically and mentally for the start of the competitive season.

Not including a ball in the first week of practice (as described in a hell week scenario above) is one of the most ridiculous things that a coach can do for water polo training.  How can you play water polo without a ball? Balls should be included in every practice session, starting on the first day of practice. Having “swim only” practices in the morning should include water polo related swimming, and should not last longer than 30 minutes. That can be followed by another part of the game like practicing 6 on 5 extra-man.

Swimming and practicing 6 on 5 in the morning leaves the afternoon free for working on other important aspects of the game, like front-court offense and defense, counterattack, scrimmaging, and practicing game situation tactics. If a coach decides that he/she wants to do 2-a days during the season, keep the morning session down to 1 1/2 hours and limit the afternoon session to 2 hours. If the team has a game on Saturday, they should only do one session on Friday that is short and does not require any intense swimming, except for a few sprints to start the practice.

Once school classes start, I really question the wisdom of having players get up at 5:30 in the morning to attend a 1 1/2- 2 hour swimming and weight training only practice before classes start, and then having them return in the afternoon for 2 1/2 to 3 more hours of practice. Not only will they not have enough time to study, but they will be so exhausted from training and lack of sleep, that they won’t be able to accomplish anything academically, or perfrom in the end of the week game.

WHAT NOT TO DO -

Having your athletes performing activities that are not specifically related to water polo, such as running, heavy weight lifting, ocean swimming, swim sets of greater than 100-500 meter repeat swims, stadium steps, biking, gimmick exercises like punching bag dry-land workouts, or wearing running shoes during practice in the water, etc. These activities have no carry over to water polo and are a complete waste of time. We can determine from the theory of “specificity”, numerous scientific studies, and just plain common sense, that practicing skills and activities from other sports will not benefit or improve the specific skills and activities of water polo. 

The belief that "general" and "cross-training" exercises are valuable for specific competitive performances is refuted by science. If an athlete is going to perform in a certain manner in competition, then training exercise intensity, duration, and form need to mimic the competitive demands of the game. Otherwise, fitness acquired in training will not be employed in the sport competition. Research has shown that physiological adaptations to training are not "general" neuromuscular or cardiovascular adaptations, but are dictated by the trained state of the specific muscles used in the sport activity.

Muscle adaptations are only appropriate for the exercises in which they are trained. Swimming 500-yard swim repeats or running in practice does not even come close to mimicking the 20-meter head up swims in a water polo game. Neither does wearing running shoes in the water help the eggbeater kick that is used in a water polo game. Wearing shoes in the water involves a completely different set of neuromuscular actions that are actually involved in performing the eggbeater kick.
One more time:

“IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE YOUR SKILLS IN A SPECIFIC SPORT, YOU NEED TO PRACTICE THE SKILLS REQUIRED FOR THAT SPORT, AND IN THE SAME MANNER THAT THEY ARE PERFORMED IN THAT SPORT — PERIOD!

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD -

Eliminate all of the time wasting “gimmick” training and training that has nothing to do with water polo, and instead make sure that everything that you do closely resembles the way that you do it in a game. This includes dry-land weight training. It has been clearly shown in the strength literature, that strength is specific to the strength exercise performed, and does not transfer to specific movements in a sport. Dry-land training is even more questionable, especially when applied to a sport that is performed in the water and that doesn’t provide a solid base from which to push off of.

If you are going to perform dry-land strength training, make sure that the exercises closely resemble the movement of the muscles when playing water polo or swimming. Mimicking specific water polo movements is easier if the player utilizes stretch-resistance cords instead of rigid machines and bars. Even better is to add resistance while performing the activity in the water. Use heavy balls (two hands at a time), pushing down on the shoulders while performing the eggbeater kick, or tying stretch bands (surgical tubing) anchored to the wall and around the waist, while swimming and doing the eggbeater while moving away from the wall; are a much better way to develop “specific” water polo strength.

If we are to follow the principal of “event specific quality” that says that you should train with the same movements, skills, velocity, and effort that is required during a game, then it makes sense that training distances of five to twenty-five meters at all out game speed would exactly duplicate game requirements. Training for water polo requires training for something that is called “speed endurance”, or the ability to repeat short intensity swims without fatiguing. So, have your players train by performing swim intervals that involve the same distance, intensity, rest, form (head-up) and energy systems that are required in a game. (See game analysis in Part 1).

A distance of more than 50-meters at a time is rarely covered during a game, so the need for doing practice intervals of 75-100 meters or longer is not required; except on occasions where the coach might want to do some over-distance training. Intervals that involve swimming 75-100 meters at a time should only be performed once a week at most, and there must be a long enough rest interval between swims so that the player can swim at game pace for the entire distance covered. Swimming distances of greater than 100 meters in practice is not needed or required; because the pace of the swim is much slower than game pace, and will not stimulate the training effects of the shorter distances required during a water polo game.

Swim sets that can be performed early in the training week in order to allow for full recovery for games:

In order to help recovery and dissipation of lactic acid, part of each rest period should involve some slow, easy swimming. Every swim should be timed by the coach.

Swim sets that can be performed at any time of the week without worrying about recovering from the accumulation of lactic acid:

All of the above should be head up, with 1:1 work:rest periods. The easiest way to do this is to go in 2 groups. Start the second group when the first group finishes at the other end. Then start the first group back in the other direction when the second group finishes at the same end.

In addition to straight swim sets, swim sets that incorporate water polo skills and simulate game conditions (head-up swimming, change of direction swims, stop and go swims that require acceleration, etc.) should also be performed on a regular basis.

WHAT NOT TO DO -

Training sessions that are longer than 2 1/2 hours in length or more than 4-hours total in a day; or that require tremendous volumes of swimming, usually result in repeated injuries, overtraining, fatigue and staleness. Eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns with this kind of high volume training. The principal of overload and adaptation effects experienced and highly skilled athletes in a different way than novice athletes. Very young and novice players will respond to just about any kind of physical training, because they have such a long way to go to improve.

It is more difficult to induce further positive changes in top-level athletes who are already adapted to exercise. In experienced athletes, the diminishing returns on training investment are clearly evident, as athletes will train 5-6 hours per day in order to be 1% better than if they trained 1 1/2-2 hours per day. And they gamble this 1% improvement against the greatly increased risk that they will become injured, sick or exhausted due to the extra training load. So, as coaches, we each have to decide how important that last 1% is to the players and to the team.

Fatigue occurs in the muscles, not the cardiovascular system, and the way to make the muscles more impervious to fatigue is not to slog through a lot of slow swimming. There is a maximum distance that can be covered to produce beneficial effects on performance. Further improvements can then only come from changing intensity, not adding more distance.

If you want your athletes to perform well in a game at the end of the week, then remember that multiple and high volume workouts during the week results in glycogen depletion, to the point that the athlete is too fatigued to perform well. Science has shown that it takes a minimum of several days for the body to recover and for glycogen re-synthesis to take place. This can only be accomplished with rest and a high carbohydrate diet.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD -

Training sessions should be kept to a maximum of 2 1/2 hours for one session, and not more than 3-4 hours per day total. Swim conditioning at the beginning of each training week should consist of no more than 1200-1500 meters of high intensity interval swims for teams that play in a 30 meter coarse; and no more than 800-1000 meters for teams who play in a 25 yard or 25 meter course. Age group players under 14 years of age should not have to swim more than 500 meters a day. If a team has a game at the end of the week, the yardage should be gradually reduced as the week goes on, with more emphasis put on scrimmaging

About 800 meters of the 1200 meter total should include distances of 15-20 meters should be performed at 1:1 work to rest intervals; with about 400 meters of the total distance consisting of 25-100 meter repeats performed at 1:2 or 1:3 work to rest intervals. If you want the players to learn a new concept or technique, then consider having the swimming at the end of the practice instead of the beginning, especially the high intensity swim sets covering distances of 50-100 meters. As mentioned above, high intensity sets of greater than 50 meters should be performed at the beginning of the week.

That’s it! That’s all the swimming you need to do.

Following is an example of a specific in-season training session of 2 1/2 hours, at either the high school or college levels:

10-15 minutes- warm up swimming
20 minutes - swim sets, 1200 yards

5 X 75 (1:1 work:rest interval),
10 X 50 (20-30 sec rest intervals),
20 X 25 head up, no wall (1:1 work rest interval)
15-20 minutes- warm up legs, leg conditioning and passing
15-20 minutes shooting drill
15-20 minutes 6 on 5
20-25 minutes counterattack drills
20-30 minute scrimmage

Total 2 1/2 hours

The quality and quantity of training sessions depends a lot on the competition schedule of the teams involved. In planning these sessions, I am assuming that there are games every week, and usually at the end of each week. In general, as the week progresses towards the end of the week games, less swimming, and more skills and scrimmaging should be the order of the day. The day before a game should be about 1 1/2 hours at most, and consist of warm-up, a few sprints, shooting, front court, and 6 on 5, and maybe a few one way counters.     
 
Age group practice sessions should not be any longer than 2 hours, (1 1/2 hours for very young kids), with even less swimming than at the high school level. The younger the age group, less swimming and more water polo skill training should be involved.

WHAT NOT TO DO -

Static stretching before practice to warm-up or prevent injuries doesn’t do either one of those two things. Over-whelming research evidence reveals that static stretching does not warm up the muscles; because it requires that the muscles contract in order to produce heat. Static stretching does not do this. It is like trying to heat up a piece of meat by pulling on it.

It has also been shown that static stretching at the beginning of a training session, or game, does nothing to prevent injuries. Muscles cannot physically stretch, and their range of motion is limited by the muscle mass and the bones and ligaments around the joints of the body. What you are actually doing by forced stretching is stretching the ligaments and tendons that hold the joints firmly in place. Instead of preventing injuries, stretching the tendons and ligaments can actually lead to injuries caused by loose joints and tendon/ligament tears.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO INSTEAD -

Instead of static stretching, you should warm-up by performing the movements that you are going to utilize in a game, slowly at first, and then with more intensity as you go along. For water polo, warm-up the body for swimming, eggbeater kicking, and passing and shooting the ball, by performing those particular activities. This will prepare the body for action by increasing the range of motion of the arms and legs, increasing the blood flow to the muscles, and in general make it easier to perform the activity.

It has also been shown that warming up also can reduce injuries related to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues. Gradually increasing the intensity of the warm-up will help the cardiovascular response to the sudden, strenuous activity of a practice or game. A few short sprints before a game starts will prepare a player for the intensity requirements at the start of the game. If the sprints are short enough (20 meters) and involve only the ATP/CP energy system, it will only require a player a few minutes to restore the creatine-phosphate in the muscles, and recover completely before the start of the game.
 
WHAT NOT TO DO -

Performing skill training after an exhausting swim set; or performing skill training that is not related to what actually happens in a game, results in the athlete not learning the skills necessary for playing the game. What usually happens is that the skills performed in practice are not carried over to the game. The result is a poor performance in the pool!

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO INSTEAD -

The training of skills must be specific to the way they are performed in a game. Repetition of the exact intensity required for competition performance is the only option that should be contemplated by the coach, once the quality and technical features of a skill have been maximized. A skill can initially be broken down into its parts and practiced separately; but should be integrated into a game situation as quickly as possible.

The value of integrating the skill activity into a full six on six game situation, is that it  encourages the participation of teammates in terms of communication, positional responsibilities and correct coordination of effort. If designed correctly, the execution of the skill is not automatic, or the same every time; but requires anticipation and thinking that is required as the situation in the game changes. New skills should be integrated into the beginning of practice sessions, before the players become so fatigued from high intense practice that learning is impaired.

SUMMARY

Now that you know about the theories of training, the results of scientific studies, and the requirements of performing the game of water polo, go back to the beginning of Part two and analyze some of the examples given of the kind of training that has been performed by teams in the past. Of the five “hell week(s)” examples, example # 3 seems to me to be the best option, especially if the workouts are reduced to 2 hours each, and the running and stretching are eliminated. At least there is a ball involved, as well as other water polo related activities.

I don’t know how the players survived examples # 1,#2 and #4.  One hour of running, 4 1/2 hours of swimming, and 1 1/2 hours of leg work per day? Wow! These workouts do serve a purpose, however. They show you how not to run a training session, and are a great example of overtraining your team!

[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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