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

Volume 1 Number 12 July 15, 2011
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.

This is the first of two articles about the “driving” game. This is a general review of the overall concept of the driving game, while the second article will go into more detail on the fundamentals of the driving game.

Water polo has become a boring and static game of zone defenses and offenses. The game mainly involves getting the ball into 2-meters, drawing an exclusion, and trying to score with a man-advantage with the 6 on 5 offense. The extra-man has become the primary way to score a goal in water polo. Even that is not a very efficient way to score goals. Teams who score on 40-50 percent of their extra-man opportunities are very rare in the sport today. 30 percent success is common, while many teams score on only 10-20 percent of their chances. The chances of scoring a goal when teams are even-up (6 on 6) are even worse than that. 10 percent (one out of ten opportunities) scoring in the front court against a zone is common in today’s game.

When was the last time you saw a goal coming from the 2-meter position? Good defensive teams will simply not allow it to happen. They would rather get excluded while preventing the 2-meter player from shooting, and then play a 5 on 6 defense. Why not? What choice do they have? Allow the giant person stationed at 2-meters in front of the goal to score 50-75 percent of his/her shots; or play a man down and allow only 20 percent of the attempts to score. That is a “no-brainer”.

When is the last time you have seen a goal scored from a driver who is actually swimming towards the goal. Scoring with movement? This is a foreign concept in most water polo games. The only movement you see in todays game is the swimming that takes place in getting from one end of the pool to another.

Getting a man free on the counterattack? This is also a very rare occurance in today’s game. How do you get someone free on the counter when the countering player is starting in a zone defensive position, and has to take 3-4 strokes just to get even with the offensive player?

The biggest challenge for water polo coaches is to come up with new and effective ways to score goals in the front court, as well as on the counterattack. To increase the chances of getting a player free on the counterattack, the answer is simple, play a press defense. This is a subject for another article, however. The topic for this article is how to increase your scoring once your team is in the front court?

How about using movement toward the goal to create a driving game? But, you say, how can you drive against a zone defender who is playing a yard away from you; and if you do drive and get free you bump into your own center-forward and the 2-meter defender? This makes it very crowded in front of the goal and very difficult to get the ball to the driver.

Inside water? If you do get past the defender and gain front position facing the goal, how does the ball get to you in front of the goal; when the goalie is directly in front of you, the defender right behind you, and the center and center-defender are in the way of the pass?

In the “good old days” when I played and started coaching, you could drive to the goal and receive the ball from the center-forward. What’s that you say? The center forward doesn’t have a free pass, because a normal foul is never called at that position anymore. Whoops! Scratch that idea.

What about the rule that forces the defensive player at two meters to switch after he commits two fouls on the center. That is a great opportunity to drive against the person that is switching. What’s that you say? They don’t have this rule anymore. Scratch that one too!

There must be a situation where you can drive that hasn’t been taken away by rule interpretations and changes? How about if I drive when the ball is in the front court, there is a big space in front of the goal to drive into, and the defender is pressing me, making it easier to drive on him? When does that situation ever occur? Perhaps at the end of the counterattack??

OK, but what about the big center-forward who is in my way when I drive? I don’t have any room to manuever. How about if we don’t have a center-forward? What!! How can we play the game without a center? Who is going to draw the exclusion in front of the goal?

There sure seems to be a lot of obstacles to driving toward the goal. If we can get past all of these obstacles. perhaps we can come up with a way to drive on the goal. Let’s see if we can put all of this together in some kind of a “driving plan of attack”.

CAN WE STILL RUN A DRIVING OFFENSE IN TODAY’S GAME?                                       

The answer to this question is yes, we can! (Now I sound like Pres. Obama). We can still run a driving game in water polo; but, as shown above, there are several requirements (restrictions) that have to be overcome in order to make a driving game successful. First, drives have to be run against a press defense, before the defenders have time to come back into a zone. The time of the game when this most likely will occur is when most defenders are still pressing at the end of the counterattack. OK, so let’s drive at the end of our counterattack!

The second requirement for driving is that there cannot be a 2-meter player present in front of the goal. A 2-meter player and his defender in front of the goal will just be “in the way”; and make it very difficult to get the pass to the driver, especially since the pass is coming from an outside perimeter player. An open area has to be created so that the driver can manuever.

A third criteria for the driving game, is that the pass to the driver has to come from a perimeter player who has a free pass. It doesn’t do a lot of good for the driver to beat his man, if he can’t receive the ball. This kind of a pinpoint pass is very difficult to make when the passer is under pressure. It is imperative that the player with the ball draw a foul to obtain a free pass, before the player starts his drive toward the goal. At the very least, he must be able to pass the ball while he is being pressed.

The fourth and last criteria is that the player must drive ball-side to receive the pass. Driving between the defender and the ball (ball-side), means that the chances of receiving the ball have been greatly improved because of less interference from the defender.

DRIVING OFFENSE- PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER                                                            

Let’s try and put this all together while following all of the above requirements for a successful driving offense. We have already established that we are going to run a “driving” offense at the end of our counterattack, while the other team is still pressing. But first we have to get the ball quickly into the front court to make it available to the player(s) that will be driving. The first pass from the goalkeeper should be all the way to a deep wing on either side of the pool.

By that time, some, or all of the rest of the offensive players should be arriving in the front-court area. As the players arrive in the front-court, they should form a half-circle in front of the goal. This includes the center-forward, who does not yet drive into his set position at 2-meters. The player with the ball then draws a foul, or if he is not being pressed hard, turns around to prepare to pass the ball. It is at this time that a player opposite the ball can run a ball side drive toward the goal; or in case that is taken away from him by the defender, he can have a teammate run a screen to help him gain ball-side position.

This is where the coach has to make a decision on who will be driving (?) and what sequence of drives he wants to run. The ultimate objective may be to have the 2-meter player drive ball side and into the set position. A better option is to have a driver start the drive sequence first, and then have the 2-meter player drive into the set position after that. The advantage of this is that the driver will be guarded by a smaller drive-defender, instead of a larger 2-meter defender.

Once the driver gains position (posts-up) in front of the goal, the ball must immediately be passed into him, before the outside defenders can drop on him. One advantage of getting the ball down the pool quickly, and driving immediately, is that there will not be as many defenders in position to take away the drive; or drop back on the post-up player. Once he receives the ball in front of the goal, he can attempt a shot or turn his man; or he can draw a foul.

Every player on the team has to learn the skill of “posting up” in front of the goal. The defender has no choice in this situation; he must foul or let the driver shoot. Because of the post-up driver’s position directly in front of the goal, the foul in front of the goal should result in an exclusion on the defender.

If the drive fails for any reason and the ball does not get into the driver, he should move out to the opposite wing and open up the area in front of the goal for a drive into set by the 2-meter player. If the team does not have a designated 2-meter player, then a drive by another post up player can be initiated. In the best case scenario, the 2-meter player should arrive in front of the goal, in a good ball-side position to receive a pass; and in a position that allows the team to run their normal front court offense.

Once the team starts their normal offense with a 2-meter player at set, the drive game is essentially over; because the 2-meter player and defender will be in the way of any drives, and the defense will likely be in a zone. If the defense decides to stay in a press and front the 2-meter player, then he must quickly get front position, or go to a wing; and the driving game can start all over again.

TEACHING THE DRIVING GAME                                                                           

Because starting an offense without a 2-meter player is so foreign to most water polo players, they need to be taught how to to this. The best drill that I have found is to simply play 6 on 6 without a 2-meter player. This can be done at the end of a counterattack or in a half court set drill, or both. The players make a semi-circle in front of the goal and run the offense without a 2-meter player. (A 2-meter player is not allowed to set, only drive to the goal like the other drivers).

All the perimeter players are allowed to do is to drive individually toward the goal, or run screens to try and spring someone open in front of the goal. If the person who drives does not receive the ball, or fails to get a shot off, he must swim to a wing opposite the ball; and a new drive or screen is run. Emphasis should be on “ball-side” drives and screens. correct timing, and the player with the ball trying to make a good pass to the driver; either by performing a layout pass or drawing a foul to get a free pass.

This article has been a general overview of the “drive” offense. More details on the drive offense and the skills that players must learn to be effective drivers will be covered in next months article.

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]

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