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HEREDITY HAS RAINED ON MANY OF DESIRE'S PARADES: PART 1

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

Volume 3 Number 4 December 1, 2014
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.
 

A question that we have all asked while performing or watching athletic events is “What is more important in determining the success of a particular athlete, inherited physical characteristics, or training and practice? What makes a particular athlete so successful? There are many characteristics in sports that can be developed with training and practice; but if you don’t have the essential characteristics that are absolutely necessary for success in your sport, you will not achieve the same success as the athlete who has those attributes. Having the necessary physical characteristics does not guarantee success in a sport or activity; but in most cases it is essential to start with those characteristics.

The successful athlete must then train hard, and also have the right mental attitude to add to his physical attributes. Athletes should not discount the influence of heredity on the success in all sports. Heredity probably plays more of a factor than athletes think it does; and whether they are successful in their sport or not. You have probably all heard the expression “If you want to play a particular sport, choose you parents carefully”. The fact of the matter is that successful super-stars in any sport have inherited from their parents the type of body characteristics that make them successful in their sport.

Athletes tend to gravitate to sports in which the kind of body that they have will allow them to be successful in that particular sport. Every sport has attributes that are important to be successful (size, strength, flexibility, types of muscle fibers, endurance capacity, sprint speed, mental toughness, ability to work hard, etc). This doesn’t mean that an athlete who doesn’t have required physical and mental characteristics cannot be successful in a particular sport. They do need, however, some other traits that can help them overcome the lack of a necessary requirement of success in a particular sport.

In basketball, it certainly helps to be tall. So then how did Mugsy Boggs make it in the NBA at 5’6” tall? He had other characteristics that helped him overcome his lack of height; like quickness, speed, excellent shooter, long wing span, and a great vertical jump. If you look at the overall picture in basketball, athletes like Boggs in the NBA are few and far between. There are none playing today. 6’8” guards are now very common in basketball.

The next time you watch the Olympic games on television, notice the similarities of the body types inherent in each sport. An extreme and obvious example would be to compare the body types in gymnastics and basketball. Physical characteristics in other sport activities are just as obvious (distance runners versus sprinters, linemen versus wide receivers), and some are hidden inside the body and not so obvious (joint structure, flexibility, cardiovascular system, muscle fiber types, etc).

True sprinters are born with more white (fast twitch) muscle fibers that contribute to speed; and consequently have an advantage over athletes with less white FT fibers. If two swimmers with different proportions of white and red muscle fibers perform the exact same training and use the same techniques, then the swimmer with more white fibers should be able to swim faster in a sprint race. The same is true for the endurance athlete with a perponderance of slow twitch red muscle fibers.

The good news is that the athlete with less white fibers can be trained to swim faster; although he will never achieve the speed of the athlete with more white fibers.The athlete’s potential for swimming fast depends on the amount of fast twitch muscle fibers and the type of body that the person is born with. However, an athlete can’t just jump into the water and suddenly just start swimming fast. The player still has to trained with the proper conditioning, and be coached in the proper technique in order to realize that potential.

In this next series of articles, I will look at what I feel are the most important characteristics for success in the sport of water polo; and why they are important for the athlete to have or acquire. Then I will do an analysis based on whether they are inhereted characteristics that the athlete has little control over; and whether they can be improved with training and practice. An example of this has to do with the eggbeater kick, a very important physical skill for success in water polo. What is more important, the inhereted skill and ability to perform the eggbeater; or training and conditioning the athlete correctly to perform the kick and apply it to the many water polo skills that utilize the kick?

A controversial topic on the WPP message board in the past has been the importance of height to the success of a water polo player. My feeling on this is that height has become more and more important in the sport of water polo as the game has become more and more vertical and zone oriented in nature. This is especially true at the higher levels of competition like the Olympic games, European Championships and in professional leagues around the world.

While a shorter athlete can be succesful at the lower age levels, and in high school (where kids have not yet fully matured), check out the rosters of the major college teams. You will see that for the most successful teams at the college level; most if not all of the players will be over six feet tall. Compare that to college rosters from the 70’s and 80’s, where half the players on the team where in the 5’9” to 5’11” category.

The average height of the 2012 Gold medal Croatian Olympic team was about 6’5”, with all players being well over 6’3” in height. In contrast, the USA 1984 Silver-medal Olympic team had at least four players at 5’9” to 5’10”. Spain won the gold medal in 1996 with many players under six feet tall, including the best player in the world, Manuel Estiarte, at 5’10”. These are just a few examples of many such situations that have occurred in the sport of water polo over the past 40-50 years.

The advantage in height in the sport is obvious when you look at the Balkan countries of Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia. Consider this: The former Yugoslavia, gold medal winner in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics has split up into three countries that are all ranked among the top 5 in the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Montenegro, a nation with a population of only 650,000 people. It is the most glaring example of the success in water polo in countries with tall athletes.

There are several reasons why tall athletes play water polo in these countries. One is that people from the Balkan countries are, on the average, among the tallest people in the world. Add to that the exposure to aquatics at an early age that comes from growing up near the Adriatic sea. If you look at many of the successful countries in water polo; most of them are near bodies of water. The best players and teams live near the seashore. Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Montenegro, Australia and the United States (California) come to mind. Drive along the coast line of Montenegro and Croatia and you will see floating water polo goals in many small harbors; as well as many pools that are built into the sea shore and filled with salt-water.

There are exceptions to this rule. Both Hungary and the top club teams in Belgrade, Serbia are in land-locked locations. This brings me to the other reason for the success of many of these countries in water polo. The competition for the tall athlete is less than in other countries, like the United States. The biggest draw for most athletes in these countries is soccer, a sport that does not require very tall players.

Consequently, if you are tall, and you grow up near the seashore; or you grow up in a culture of water polo that was established years ago (Hungary, Belgrade), you have a tendency to play water polo over other sports. Add that to the fact that in these countries, water polo is the only sport that you will play in your lifetime. You are also exposed to the sport at a very early age of 5-6 years old. You can see how these countries have an advantage in the sport.

Even though, Spain, Italy and Greece are not known for tall people; they can every once in a while use the experience gained by their player’s early exposure to the sport, and have some success against the Balkan countries. Most of their success, however, came during the time when teams still had great drivers like Estairte (Spain); and the vertical game was not as extensive as it is now. Only the Italians have been able to sustain this success in the present time; probably because of their pro-league, where they are exposed to many imported players from the Balkan countries.

Contrast that to the United States and the competition from sports like football and basketball. Big people are drawn to those sports in the USA. Only in California, which has a larger population to draw from, warm weather, and thousands of swimming pools, does the sport have a reasonable chance for success. If you are big and tall in Texas and Florida, you are going to play football. If you are big and tall in Indiana you are going to play basketball.

But even with California athletes, the United States is at a disadvantage when it comes to International success in water polo. Most of our best water polo athletes at the high school level in this country are in the 5’8” to 6’1” range; a range of height that is not condusive to playing football and basketball. Besides football and basketball, water polo is also competing with other land sports like baseball, soccer, lacrosse and hockey for top athletes. Competition for athletes is ferocious among many sports, even at the tender young age of 6-7 years old. Check out youth soccer sometime and see the thousands of kids who participate.

The best that we can hope for is that a top athlete grows up in an aquatic friendly area, and is exposed to sports like surfing, swimming and water polo at a young age. The need of a specialized and supervised facility for water polo ( a swimming pool) is another disadvantage when we are competing with land sports that only need a piece of grass or dirt or asphalt to practice on. The push for water polo rule changes is to hopefully make the sport more attractice to youngsters who might want to choose water polo over other land sports.

Every once in a while the USA has enough talent to do well in International competition; as evidenced by 3 silver medals and one bronze Olympic medal in the last fifty or sixty years. However, we will never have the consistancy of success internationally that other countries have that can produce a more consistant talent pool of big (tall) experienced athletes. That is unless we change the rules of water polo to favor a movement game over a stationary vertical game.

The success of the women’s game in this country is because there is no football for women, and many of the women who play basketball are from the inner city areas. Women are attracted to the sport of water polo because of their exposure to swimming at a young age and the fun of playing a team sport. Our International success is due to good athletes who play in a high school and college system that is better than the club system for women in Europe. We have better athletes and a better system that exposes those athletes to better competition.

Notice how the male players who make it at the college and international level in the USA are mostly all over 6 feet tall. As the water polo athlete moves up through the ranks, and the level of play gets more physical, the smaller quicker athlete gets weeded out of the system. This past summer, one of the top, if not the best, high school players in the United States from Southern California did not make our National Youth Team because he was considered “too small” to be successful against other youth teams in the world.

WHAT IS THE ADVANTAGE OF HEIGHT IN WATER POLO?

As mentioned above, the game has become more vertical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the perponderance of extra-man 6 on 5 situations that require shot blocking and shooting over outstretched arms. This is in addition to the normal zone defenses and zone attacks that require the same shot blocking and shooting techniques. The result is that well over 50 percent of the game is spent in a vertical position in the water. The extra-man attack has become the most important part of the game of water polo.

Perhaps we are using the wrong terminology when we talk about height in the water. What we are really talking about is length; and specifically the length of the arms and the length of the torso. These are very important characteristic that cannot be trained for. You have to aquire them from your parents. It's well established that height is a highly heritable characteristic that can’t be changed. That is unless you put an athlete in a medieval torture stretch rack.

Many University coaches in the United States are not only asking for height and weight from prospective athletes; but also the width of an athlete’s “wing span”. More and more coaches are understanding the importance of wing-span; more specifically “reach” in water polo. This probably comes from recognizing the advanatge of wing span in the sport of basketball. Every NBA player has a wing span that is larger than their height. It is almost a requirement to play in the NBA. It gives a player a tremendous advantage on defense, blocking shots, shooting, intercepting passes, and stealing the ball from an opponent.

The same is true in water polo. Besides the aforementioned shot blocking in 5 on 6 and  6 on 6 zone defenses, there is also an advantage in other areas of play. Being able to shoot over an opponent’s arm is one advantage; but the whipping motion of the longer forearm when shooting adds more speed to the shot, whether shooting overhead or the wrap-around shot to the side of the defender. Long arms are also important in stealing the ball from an opponent, whether it be from a perimeter player or from the 2-meter player.

There is also a long arm advantage in swimming due to the longer pull underwater and the streamlining and less turbulance created by the longer body. A longer upper torso in swimming (like Michael Phelps) is more important in streamlining than longer legs.

When jumping out of the water to gain height to block a shot, to shoot the ball, or to intercept a pass, the length of the torso and arm above the water is also more important than the length of the legs. If two players can get up to their waistline when they jump up, the player with the longer torso and the longer reach has the advantage over his opponent.

There are other factors that contribute to the success of a water polo athlete at any level. But if you want to be successful at the college or international level, make sure that you start with a long and tall body. This is certainly not a guarantee of success in the sport. The high school and age group athlete can be successful without being tall, if they have other skills and attributes that can overcome a lack of height. Very few make it beyond high school, however, without this particular physical attribute.

This is one example of what I mean by the title of this series of articles “Heredity has rained on many of desire’s parades”. Desire, hard work and training can overcome many obstacles to success in sport; but lack of height is one obstacle that can be difficult to overcome, especially at the higher levels of a sport. If the game remains the same, with its emphasis on the vertical game; lack of height in international water polo may be a similar obstacle as lack of height in professional basketball (NBA).

The January 1 article will focus on another important factor of success in water polo, the  eggbeater kick.

[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.]