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

Volume 2 Number 6 August 1, 2014
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.


Water polo has a history of putting our biggest and strongest player on the 2-meter line directly in front of the goal, with his back to the goal, and leaving him there throughout the attacking team’s possession. This player is called the 2-meter player, center-forward, holeman, or simply center. Because we have always used a stationary 2-meter player in the sport of water polo, we still utilize one in today’s game.

During the early years of the sport, there was a reason for putting a big center directly in front of the goal. The whole offense revolved around this one player. The reasoning being that a large player in front of the goal was the biggest threat to score goals. If he couldn’t get off a good shot, he could draw a foul and then make a free pass to drivers who attacked the goal from the half circle of players that were positioned in front of him.


I seriously question if the 2-meter player has outlived his usefulness in the sport of water polo?  Is it still necessary to station a big person in front of the goal in order to play the game effectively? Three popular land sports that are most often compared to water polo are ice hockey, basketball and soccer. They do not station a player in front of the goal or basket, and keep him there indefinitely. In these sports, players are constantly moving in and out of the area directly in front of the goal. Even in basketball, a player cannot remain in the area in front of the basket, known as the “free-throw lane”, for more than three consecutive seconds before being required to move out of that area.

Perhaps it is time to re-think the use of the 2-meter player in the sport of water polo.  The water polo attack in front of the goal, the way that it is played today, is no longer a movement game; but is a static game that is rapidly losing popularity. It is my contention that the 2-meter game that involves the use of a player with his back to the goal, and stationed on the 2-meter line, is the main reason for the static style of game that is being played today; and consequently one of the reasons for the decline of the sport around the world.


Because of rule changes and defensive tactics, the 2-meter player no longer fills the role of “shooter” and “passer” as he did in the past. There are a number of tactics that have been used to take the center completely out of the game as a shooting threat. Defenses simply do not allow the 2-meter player to get a shot off. Under modern water polo rules, a defender can foul the 2-meter player to keep him from shooting the ball. The usual result is that the player who commits the foul is excluded for 20 seconds, while his team must play with one player less on defense.

Teams are willing to have a player excluded rather then allow the 2-meter player to score. This is because the center’s chance of scoring (greater than 50%) is much higher than his team’s chance of scoring with an extra man (about 30%). Consequently shots from the 2-meter position have become a rarity in the game.

The 2-meter player is also no longer involved in passing the ball to drivers who are moving in front of the goal. Because of rule changes, a normal foul that gives the center a free pass is simply not called anymore. The result is that the driving game as it was played in the past has ceased to exist.

Defenses can also prevent the 2-meter player from even receiving the ball. They do this by falling back in front of the center position in a protective zone that many times prevents the ball from landing in front of that player. If the center does receive the ball on the water in front of him, the players in the defensive zone simply collapse and steal the ball before he has a chance to pick up the ball and shoot it.

The last defensive tactic to keep the ball from 2-meters is to place a defender in front of the center, instead of behind him. This makes it very difficult for the center to receive the ball, especially with the goalkeeper playing behind and a defender playing in front. It is especially difficult to gain position to receive the ball if he is being held in that position by the defender in front of him. It then becomes a wrestling match between the center and the defender trying to gain front position.  

Because of the above tactics and rule changes, the 2-meter player’s main role is to draw exclusions. To prevent exclusions, the defense will come back into a zone defense to keep the ball from coming in to that position. This forces offenses to attack by shooting the ball from perimeter positions against the arms of the zone defenders. The primary way to score in water polo has become to draw an exclusion foul at 2-meters, and then try to score in a man-up 6 on 5 penalty situation. In many games, 75-80 percent of the total goals scored are from the extra-man penalty situation. To me, this type of zone game is not very exciting to watch. There’s a reason the NBA outlawed zones for years. It was boring to watch.


A consideration for most teams is the effectiveness of each part of their attack. As a coach, a big question in my mind is “how effective is the 2-meter attack”? Just how efficient is the 2-meter offense that everyone plays in the world. How much “bang” does each team get for their “buck”?  How many turnovers, how many goals scored, how many exclusions drawn, and how many goals from exclusions drawn?

With these questions in mind, I have observed eight games in the recent European water polo Championships involving some of the top teams in the world, including 2012 Olympic Champion Croatia and long time powers Serbia, Italy and Hungary. The tactics that these teams use to attack their opponents are closely followed by most water polo teams throughout the rest of the world. The Europeans have always set the standard that almost everyone follows.

I closely followed the 2-meter attack of each of the 16 teams, and recorded the results of each team’s possessions. The statistics that I present below are an average composite of the 2-meter attack of those 16 teams. I know that this is small sample size; but I think that it reflects how the game is being played at high levels around the world.

The main thing that I was looking for when I watched the games were the results of the ball being passed into the 2-meter position. Keep in mind that these are average figures that could be higher or lower for each team. They also vary from quarter to quarter depending on different game factors. Overall I found that these figures were very similar, on average, from game to game.

A statistic that held throughout the tournament is that in 32 quarters played in the eight games, teams were able to get their 2-meter man in position an average of 8 times per quarter; or 32 times a game. Result:

In at least half of the time when the 2-meter player established position, an outside shot was taken by the team in possession, and the ball was never passed into 2-meters. Results:

What the above figures show is that only 50 percent of the time when a 2-meter player establishes position, does he actually receive the ball at that position. That’s only 16 times a game for each team. In order to determine the effectiveness of the 2-meter player in the team’s attack, we next have to determine what happens when the 2-meter player actually receives the ball. Results:

Of those four different times per quarter that the ball is passed to the 2-meter player, the ball is turned over or stolen by the other team on two different times, and an exclusion is called on two different times. Results:

*In many games there are more than 8 exclusions called against each team. These  additional exclusions can come from 2-meters, the counterattack, driving, 2-handed or hard foul on the perimeter, interfering with 5-meter shot or free pass, etc. For the purposes of this discussion, we are only talking about the average number of exclusions called at 2-meters per game.

Also note that once or twice during a game, the 2-meter player is actually able to get a shot off (and score) from that position. This happens so infrequently, that when these shots are included in the statistics for each game, they are negligible from a statistical point of view.

Since one of the main reasons for having a 2-meter player is to draw exclusions, we next will look at how many goals are actually scored from the drawn exclusions that occur at 2-meters in a game. The average number of goals scored by most teams in a game is 3-4 goals for every 10 extra-man opportunities, approximately one third of the time. Being generous, we will round up and say that out of the 8 extra-man opportunities drawn from the 2-meter position; most of the teams will score 3 goals.


Here is a summary of the above statistics of the front court 2-meter attack for each team during a typical game. Of the 32 times the 2-meter player gains position in front of the goal, the ball is shot 16 times (50%) from the perimeter and the ball is passed in to the 2-meter player 16 times (50%). Of the 16 times the ball is passed into 2-meters, it is turned over 8 times, and an exclusion is called 8 times, for which 3 goals are scored.

Looking at the overall picture, that’s 3 goals scored in a game from the 32 times per game that the 2-meter player gains position in front of the goal. That’s about a 10 percent return on your investment. You have to ask yourself; is three goals out of 32 opportunities worth the investment in time and energy that it takes simply to get the 2-meter player into position to receive the ball?

On the negative side of the equation, of the 16 times in a game when the ball actually is passed into that position, the ball is turned over or stolen. Consequently, half of the 2-meter opportunities are lost because of turning the ball over to the other team. That certainly does not bode well for the position.


There are other aspects of the 2-meter game that we have to consider when looking at the effectiveness of the 2-meter attack. In looking at the overall picture, we must look at how much of the 30-second shot clock it takes to get the 2-meter player into position in front of the goal; and then to get the ball passed into the player in that position. How much of a return do we get for the time spent trying to create a 2-meter attack? Let’s look at what actually happens during a typical 30-second possession.

Following is a description of a typical scenario of an attacking team in today’s modern game of water polo:

When the attacking team acquires the ball, they counterattack to the offensive end of the pool. This can take anywhere from 10-14 seconds off of the shot clock in a 30 meter pool (avg. 12 sec.) Then everyone waits for the 2-meter player to swim into his position on the 2-meter line, where he is usually fronted. The rest of the team then bides their time while they wait for him to gain front position. This can take anywhere from 6-10 seconds, depending on the skills of the 2-meter player and the 2-meter defender, and how many fouls are called on the perimeter pressing defenders. Let’s choose 8 seconds as an average time for the 2-meter player to acquire front position and face the player with the ball.

By this time, at least 20 seconds have gone by on the 30-second shot clock. The defensive team immediately falls back into a zone in order to prevent the ball from going into the center; thus forcing the attacking team to pass the ball around the perimeter, looking for an opening to pass the ball into 2-meters, or an opening to take a shot. Every pass requires time as the clock continues to run. So here we are with the ball in front of the goal, and more than 20 seconds have gone by without any kind of action except passing the ball around the perimeter, and the 2-meter player jockeying (wrestling) for position.

That’s over two-thirds of the time of the shot clock that is spent just getting the 2-meter player down the pool and into position to receive the ball. Finally in the last 5-10 seconds of the shot clock; someone takes a shot, or the ball is passed into 2-meters. As summarized above, during the 16 times in the game when the ball does actually arrive at two-meters, the ball is turned over during eight of those opportunities, 50% of the time.

An exclusion occurs during the other eight times, where we are treated to another 20 seconds of exciting zone extra-man passing; the result being a total of 3 goals scored. Exciting huh? Like I asked, is it really necessary to actually use a 2-meter player in water polo? Just to draw 8 exclusions from which we can score 3 goals per game? Not very efficient, nor is it very much fun to watch unless you like sumo wrestling.


Why do we continue to utilize the 2-meter player in water polo? Because that is the way that we have always done it. Not a very good reason to continue to do something that has become an ineffective and inefficient position. There has to be a better way to play the game that would be more fun to watch and help promote the popularity of water polo around the world.

I am not saying that we should eliminate the 2-meter position entirely; but that it should not remain as the top priority in a team’s offensive system. Is there a better way that we can incorporate other more dynamic parts of the game into water polo; and still utilize the 2-meter player, but in a lesser role? In the next installment of this two part series, I will attempt to do just that; design a system that is more movement oriented, that will make the game more enjoyable to watch.   

[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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