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

Volume 3 Number 1 October 1, 2014
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.

A necessary skill in the driving offense is the use of PICKS and SCREENS. These occur between two offensive players who screen-off a defensive player in order to free-up one offensive player for a drive toward the goal. Picks and screens, exclusively used in basketball, were first introduced to the water polo world in the 70’s by the innovative “father” of  modern USA water polo, the legendary Olympic coach, Monte Nitzkowski. Picks and screens (hereafter referred to simply as screens) were used extensively during the 70’s and early 80’s as part of a team’s front court attack. However, as the driving game started going out of favor in the late 80’s, so did the use of picks and screens in the half court offense.

If performed correctly, picks and screens can become an effective weapon in the drive-first offense, as well as in the standard 2-meter offense. Not only can screens be used to allow drivers to gain ball-side drives or inside water positions; but they can also be used to draw exclusions, to post up players in front of the goal, and to help the center gain a good position at 2-meters. Coaches only have to use their imagination to come up with different ways to utilize picks and screens. The possibilities are endless.


A successful screen requires coordination between two players, with one player (the screener) designated as “setting” the screen for the other player. In the Nitzkowski system, the screen is designated as a combination of the two numbered positions of the two players involved in the screen. For instance, if the player at position 3 sets the screen for the player at position 2, the screen is designated as a 32 screen (the first number is always the player who sets the screen).

For a team that has a preponderance of right-handers, a screen is usually performed on the left side of the pool (facing the goal), and the person setting the screen is usually positioned to the right of person that the screen is being set for. In the example above of a 32 screen, the player at position 3 is to the right of the player at position 2. A player setting a screen for a left-handed player will start on the left side of the left-handed player. For instance, a screen from a player at the 3 position who sets a screen for a left-hander at the 4 position will be designated a 34 screen.


An offensive player can screen out (block) a defensive player who is guarding his offensive teammate, as long as does this legally. This means that he cannot use his hands to hold the defensive player. He simply has to position his body in a blocking position, so that the defensive player has to swim around him in order to chase his teammate.

Referees will call an offensive foul against the player setting the screen if he is facing the defender, even if he is not holding. To avoid the offensive foul, the screening player must position his shoulder and side of his body next to the defender, and at the same time face away from the defensive player. Diagram 1(a) below shows the incorrect way of setting a screen with the player’s hands and head facing the defender. Diagram 1(b) below shows the correct way of screening with the side of the body.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1. Using the correct positioning of the body is critical when setting the screen. Notice in diagram (b) above, that the player setting the screen is using his back (the lat muscle of the back) and hips in a high position in order to block the defender, and keep him from going to the right side of the screener.


In order for a screen to be successful, there must be physical contact between the screener’s back and the defenders shoulder; and the screener must keep his hips on the surface of the water. Without actual contact, the defender can easily fight through the block and follow the offensive player who is looping around the pick.


Diagram 2 below shows 03 setting a screen for 02, who then loops around 03 for the completion of the ball side drive against defender X3, who has switched to guard 02.

Diagram 2

Diagram 2: 03 setting the screen for a ball-side drive by 02. Ball is on the right at 05.


The objective of a successful screen for a ball-side drive is to block the X2 defender; so that the defenders have to switch who they are guarding. The result is that the switching defender X3 is not in good position to defend the ball-side drive by 02.


A screen can also be used to help the center gain set position at 2-meters in front of the goal. If the center is not in position to drive ball-side on his own, he should call for a teammate that is next to him, and on the same side of the ball, to set a screen for him. He can then swim around the screen and into a good ballside position. (See diagram 3 below). The 2-meter player can be in any perimeter position in the pool, as long as the screener is between the 2-meter player and the ball. This allows the ball to be passed into the center immediately and before the defense can come back into a zone.

Diagram 3

Diagram 3: Ball-side screen for 2-meter player. (a) Teammate S (screener) sets a screen for the center (C) playing on the perimeter. (b)(c) Center swims ball side around the screen into 2-meter position, then turns around to receive the ball (d).


An advantage gained by setting a good screen for the 2-meter player is that the two defenders will have to switch; with the 2-meter defender switching to the screener and a drive defender switching on to the center. The result could be a size mismatch that can be exploited by the center.


The 01 wing is an excellent position where a team can set a screen to either bring in the 2-meter player to the set position; or to bring in a post-up player to the 02 post. This can be a pre-arranged play, with the team starting with their 2-meter player on the wing and an open space in front of the goal; or in the case of a post-up player, starting with the 2-meter player on the 3-post and the post-up player on the wing. The screener in this situation will come from 02, who sets a screen for whoever is at 01. The 01 player again loops around and into the post or 2-meter position. Diagram 4 below shows a screen being set for the 2-meter player; while diagram 5 shows the 2-meter player at the 3-post and the post-up player on the wing.

Diagram 4

Diagram 4: 02 screening to bring the 2-meter player from the wing into the set position.

Diagram 5

Diagram 5: 02 screening for post-up player (P); with 2-meter player moving to the 3-post.

The same screen described above can be run between a screener at 04 and a left-handed 2-meter player; or left-handed post-up player starting at the 05 wing position. Bringing in a left-hander to post-up at the 3-post requires a right-handed 2-meter player to move to the opposite 2-post.


Timing is important when executing a screen. The person who is having a screen set for him by a teammate must wait until the screener makes contact with the defender before executing his “loop-around” move around the screener.


Keeping the head up when executing a screen is necessary in order to read the position of the defensive players, knowing when to move around the screen, as well as recognizing if the screen has succeeded or not.


The correct technique of “setting” a screen is executed by swimming up next to the defender and taking a stroke with the arm nearest the defender; so that arm pit and lat muscle is touching the defenders shoulder, and the head and shoulder of the screener are just past the defenders shoulder.


In Diagram 6 below, notice that the head and shoulder of the screener (03) is slightly past the head and shoulder of the defender (X2) and facing the goal. This position of the head and shoulders, and the head out of the water, not only puts the screener in position for a drive to the goal; but also allows him to see how the defenders react to the screen.

If the screen is successful and the defender X3 is late picking up the driver 02, then the screener stops and holds position, while the driver 02 continues to the goal on a ball-side drive. However (as shown in 6(a) and 6(b) below, if the X3 defender reacts and switches quickly, preventing 02 from gaining ball-side, the driver (02) stops and does not continue towards the goal.

At this time, the screener (03) recognizes that the screen was not successful; and simply drives to the goal for an inside water drive. Both of the offensive players have to recognize what the defenders are doing and act accordingly. They cannot do this if their heads are underwater.

Diagram 6a

Diagram 6: Screen for inside water. (a) 03 sets screen on X2 with the side of his body and head past the X2 shoulder (b) 02 swims around screen and drives toward the goal.

Diagram 6b

Diagram 7: (c) Screen not successful as X3 switches and blocks 02 from driving to goal. (d) 02 stops and allows 03 to drive for inside water on defender X2.

Another reason for the attackers to keep their heads up is to see when the defenders back up towards the goal to avoid the screen. By backing up, the defenders are essentially giving up the outside shot. The simple solution is to read the position of the defenders, have the screener temporarily occupy both defenders, and then have the player looping around the screen stop before he completes his loop and go into a vertical position to receive the ball for a 4-5 meter outside shot. See Diagram 8 below.

Diagram 7

Diagram 8: (a) 03 attempts to set a screen; but the defenders back up towards the goal.

(b) 03 then occupies the defenders, while 02 stops looping around and receives the x-pass for a shot.


Most screens are set while the defense is pressing; but screens can also be run against a zone defense. The drive can come from anywhere in the perimeter; but it usually involves the 2-meter player as the screener (blocker). The driver must swim directly at the 2-meter player, taking his defender with him. The 2-meter player simply moves in front of the drive defender with his body; preventing him from following the driver, who then swims past the 2-meter player and towards open water. If the 2-meter player does a good job in blocking the drive-defender, the driver should be free in front of the goal to receive a dry pass for a shot.

Diagram 9 below shows a 2-meter block utilized against a common 4-5 zone defense. 04 passes the ball to 05 and then drives directly at the 2-meter player. The 2-meter player then turns his back and faces the goal, blocking X4 from continuing. 04 swims past the 2-meter player to the 2-post and receives the ball from 05 for the shot.

If the 2-meter defender switches and takes 04, then the 2-meter player has inside water facing the goal. 05 then passes the ball inside for a shot, or possible 5-meter penalty. Once again, the possibilities for this kind of play against a zone are endless, and only subject to the creative abilities of the coach and the players in the water.

Diagram 8

Diagram 9: a) 04 drives directly at the center. b) The center turns his back and blocks the defender.

c) Pass is made to 04 for the shot. d) 2-meter defender switches and pass is made inside to the center.

Drives alone can add to a team’s front court offense; but if you want to run a multi-faceted attack that can create more goals for your team, and create confusion on the defense, then picks and screens can become a great offensive weapon. Shown above are examples of just some of the screens that can used in a front court movement offense. It is up to the coach to decide what kind of offense he/she wants to run; and then design screens that can be utilized to facilitate the execution of that offense. As mentioned above, screens can be utilized in both a driving movement oriented attack, or in a more static 2-meter zone attack as well.

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