Has US Men's Water Polo Dropped the Ball?

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University
12/01/04

By the title I mean has US Men's Water Polo dropped the ball on the 2-yard line to help the elite male water polo players instead of on the important center line to help all other male water polo players in this country? Imagine a water polo pool in which all the elite male players are lined up at one end and all the rest of the country's male water polo players are lined up on the other end. If every time you drop the ball on the 2-yard line that is on the side of the elite male water polo players who do you think is going to get it? It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there will come a time when the non-elite male players will just stop swimming for the ball -- a disaster worse than the NCAA dropping the men's eight team national tournament. Do you really think the Olympic Committee will then allow California to enter a men's team in the Olympics if only one or two other states have a men's water polo team?

If a sport's organization expects to continuously medal in the Olympics, it appears to me, that they have two viable organizational models from which to choose. They are the Top-down model and the Bottom-up model. The Top-down organizational model is when the sports organization spends the bulk of the money they raise on the different National Teams, and the rules and by-laws are written so that they benefit the National Team players. The Bottom-up organizational model is when the sports organization spends the bulk of the money they raise on the development of the sport, and the rules and bylaws are written so that they benefit the most number of players. In both instances I am talking about money raised by the sports organization and not Olympic funding because there are strict rules that are bundled with the money given by the US Olympic Committee.

I favor the Bottom-up model because if the money is spent properly it can create a huge pyramid of male water polo players. At the base of the pyramid are the youngest and most inexperienced male water polo players from all over the country. Note that it will involve the most number of players as well. These players are involved in the age group teams. Then there are higher levels in the pyramid for the youth teams, the high school teams, the college and university teams, the junior national teams, and finally, the senior national team. And the club teams are a part of every level of this pyramid. Such a large and diverse foundation can furnish a pool load of accomplished and skilled male players for the rest of the levels; however, without this base there will be fewer and fewer players for each level of the pyramid. Eventually without this base there will be no Olympic men's medals won because there will be fewer and fewer skilled male players and coaches from which to create a Men's Senior National Team. It is a lot easier to get money and time contributions from the parents with the Bottom-up model because they will be able to see the direct effect of their efforts which will be similar to what happens when baseball, basketball, football, and soccer age group leagues are created. Moreover, if this base is made up of male players from all over this great country of ours I think that every thing we do in water polo will become easier, especially fund raising. Who do you want to give your money to, a Regional Team, or a truly, National Team?

Our sports organization in the beginning opted out for the Top-down organizational model for the men. To me this is an inverted pyramid similar to what Social Security is turning into in this country - there is not a large enough base of young people to support the rising expenses of the elderly. I don't believe the trickle down theory works in either Economics or Water Polo. Also I think a good part of our organization has been obsessed with winning a men's gold medal in the Olympics and that is why we are still partially using the Top-down model. The early members thought that the Top-down model was the fastest way to a gold medal. It may be the fastest way to getting one gold medal in the Olympics, but I surely don't believe multiple gold medals in the Olympics can easily be won this way. I have to applaud the present organizational leadership for at least trying an eclectic approach by mixing the two listed models. But sometimes when you mix two non-similar tasks, it becomes like trying to cut bait and fish at the same time - you end up doing neither very well.

Besides I believe that a number of people in key positions in our organization still thank that the Holy Grail is the men winning a gold medal in the Olympics. They truly believe if the men win the gold medal that young males by the thousands, no, by the tens-of-thousands will start playing water polo. This sounds more like a wish than a reality, and my Daddy use to tell me to wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up the fastest! On the other hand (pun intended), I truly believe that if we were to create a base of young male water polo players and teams throughout this wonderful country of ours, then similar to the movie, "Field of Dreams", they will come, and by "they" I mean Olympic gold medals, not people. We will not need people because a nation wide base of male water polo players and teams would provide us with enough good players and coaches to accomplish this daunting task of winning a medal in every Olympics. The water polo talent in only one region of this country has actually been tapped - just think what we might find if we were to mine the water polo talent in all the regions of a water polo playing country.

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com