What's Up Doc - What Changes to the Game Would You Make?

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University
09/24/04

Since I wrote an article criticizing the FINA water polo rules I get that second question in the title so often that I thought I had better put-up or shut-up, fish or cut bait, put out the fire and call in the dogs. Here goes a semi-retired coach, terrible referee, full-time water polo fan, and old poop's attempt to answer the second question in the title. Just think what a water polo committee of young, enthusiastic, concerned, experienced, individuals could do. (You may ask how one can be both young and experienced. Well, at my age, 50 years of age is young.) Now the purists are not going to like my suggestions, but then I bet the people who played "American rules" water polo were out raged when they read the rules of "Scottish rules" water polo for the first time..

The first things to do is to strictly enforce the Exclusion Rule WP 21.7 To hold, sink or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball. "Holding" is lifting, carrying or touching the ball, but does not include dribbling the ball. This will allow the two meter player the opportunity to set up immediately on the two meters, and the remainder of his or her teammates to set up their offensive perimeter. The offense is then ready almost immediately to have a shot from the two meter person, a person on the perimeter, or from a driver. Spectators and players want to see shots on goal not a game of tug a war on the two or three meter line, and they want see more natural goals from both the two meter player and the perimeter players. They also want to see more penalty shot goals rather than more 6 on 5 goals. Rules that cause high scoring games per se are not our enemy as long as they are fair and allow close scoring games.

Make all off ball violations of this type exclusions, but these would be the only exclusion fouls. All other major fouls would be awarded with penalty shots. In other words, to hold, sink, or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball when "off ball" - an exclusion is awarded, but do these things when the ball is involved or "on ball" - a penalty shot is awarded. This will hold exclusions to a minimum while at the same increasing the crowd pleasing penalty shots to a maximum. It should also help to decrease the number of off ball two meter wrestling matches. This also lets players know that they are going to pay dearly for a major infraction of the rules when fouling on ball. On exclusions most teams score less than sixty percent of the time, but on penalty shots teams score more than ninety percent of the time.

When a driver wins inside water in the strike zone and the two meter player gets the ball to the driver or a player on a counter attack has inside water with the ball in the strike zone, then the referee should hold up a clenched fist which lets the players, coaches, and spectators know that a penalty shot could be awarded. If the player shoots and makes a score the play is over; however, if the referee thinks that player could not get the shot off because of the "on ball" violation of WP 21.7 a penalty shot is awarded. If the penalty shot is not awarded, the referee would hold up an open hand, palm up to the deck signifying no penalty shot because in his judgment the player was holding the ball. (Since the referee is already holding up a fist, all the referee has to do is open his or her fist to indicate no penalty shot.) A few animated hand signals from the referees would not only liven up the game but it would also help explain the referee's calls not only to spectators but also to coaches and players.

The above rule changes would help take away some of the nano-second decisions referees have to make. Having the referee make decisions such as is there a foul or not, and if there is a foul, should he or she call an exclusion or a penalty shot in a split second, is cruel and unusual punishment. This has to make some referees feel very stressed out and others feel very, very powerful, and too much of either one of these emotions is not good for either the referee or the sport. The rules need to be changed so they allow the referees more objectivity and less subjectivity in their enforcement of the rules. Rules that allow the referee unlicensed subjectivity is the true enemy of our sport.

In the same vane, if a two meter player turns the two meter defender and has inside water with the ball the referee holds up a clinch fist denoting a possible penalty shot. Again if the player shoots and makes a score the play is over; however, if the referee thinks that player could not get the shot off because of the "on ball" violation of WP 21.7 a penalty shot is awarded. If the penalty shot is not awarded, the referee would hold up an open hand, palm up, ninety degrees to the deck signifying no penalty shot because in his judgment the player was holding the ball. (Again, since the referee is already holding up a fist, all the referee has to do is open his or her fist to indicate no penalty shot.)Thus, the referee is given more time to make the correct decision. I am very tired of some referees hiding their every close call behind the advantage rule.

Not rewarding the skill of being able to turn a player because the referee thinks the player couldn't score even if the referee's five year old son or daughter was on him or her would be a coach's nightmare of the past. Many times a player is turned because he or she is playing bad defense. In other words reward good skills and punish bad skills. There are very few good skills to reward when King Kong is wrestling Godzilla "off ball" at or around the two meters.

Also the player who wins the penalty shot has to take it. You make it; you take it philosophy. Watch out because this is liable to help level the playing field for goalies. Maybe then a penalty shot would be scored only eighty percent of the time. I don't care for the designated hitter in baseball Major League play either

In the NBA teams are not allowed to use a zone defense to make the game more lively and exciting (if not the game, then the offense for certain), and to make the water polo offensive game more lively and exciting I think we should do one of two things. First, we should either not allow dropping on the two meter player or second, we should change the value of a goal scored inside of 7 meters to 2 points and the goal scored outside of 7 meters to 3 points similar to the way basketball is scored. Reward good shooting skills not just brute strength.

Another suggestion made by Jim Yeamans is that we might want to consider allowing a player to shoot the ball after every foul not just after fouling at the 7 meters or further. Jim is an excellent former player of mine, the present men and women's water polo coach at Slippery Rock University, and a member of the Men's NCAA Rules Committee. He explains that this will mean that as a player fouls closer to his or her goal the more costly every foul will become, and it will help to stop the defender from fouling the number 1 or 5 player so the defender can drop back on the two meter player.

I don't even know if any or all of these changes would actually make the game more exciting or more fun to play. No one would know unless the rule changes were tried in a game. I'll tell you what I do know and that is many of the suggestions would reduce the number of split second judgments a referee would have to make. Anything that helps the referees in their decision making process is worth a try in my book, and trying different rule changes that are suggested from many different sources is the way to go about making our sport better.

Any possible rule changes should not be evaluated just by the TWPC and the Olympic coaches but rather by the NCAA and the NHSACA and other world, water polo, youth organizations. Coaches, players, referees, and yes, spectators who are the real gatekeepers of all sports, should be involved in the rule evaluation process. May people have stop submitting suggested rule changes because they know that not only is the TWPC not going to try them in a game situation but they are going to dismiss them out of hand without even presenting them to world water polo community as well.

What other sports receives such comments as "I just don't get it!"; "Look at that - isn't that against the rules?"; "Why are our players kicked out and the other team's players are not?"; "Why did that person get a penalty shot and the other player only got an ejection?"; "Why is that referee so biased against our team?"; ad infinitum.

Why do you think soccer and basketball are two of the most successful sports in the world? It is because of their fans not because of their coaches, referees, and rule committees. If you do not believe this then all you have to do is come to the U.S. in the fall to see, hear, and feel what fans have done for Professional, University, College, High School, Junior High School, and Youth football teams. If the TWPC still does not get it then they are not just leaking hot air but they are leaking the sport's life blood as well.

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com