Take Your Pick

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

When I first started coaching at Slippery Rock I didn't know diddly squat about picks, so I went to Hank Baierl, the Men's Basketball coach at Slippery Rock University during that time, and I asked him to give me a crash course in picks. He did just that, and I learned a great amount about basketball picks from Hank. However, in basketball you can not do a moving pick, and in water polo you can. I pleaded with as many water polo coaches as I could to teach me about moving picks in water polo. One of the best lessons involving moving picks I received was from Miguel Rivera, a former National Team player for Puerto Rico and the water polo coach at the University of Pittsburgh. I am going to share with you what all those dedicated and selfless coaches taught me.

But first I have to get some nomenclature out of the way, so we are on the same page when I discuss picks. The offensive person setting the pick will be called the "picker", and the offensive player for whom the pick is being set is called the "pickie". Usually the picks are named with numbers, and the numbers come from the initial position of the picker and pickie before the pick is started. See Figure 1 for the numbering of the players' positions.

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O1                                        O5

O2                                        O4


  Figure 1

Thus, if the picker is in the 2 position and the pickie is in 1 position then the pick is called the 2-1 pick; however, when I first started coaching this was called a down-pick. The down-pick on the other side is called the 4-5 pick. There are also cross-picks called the 3-2 and the 3-4. Then there were the up-picks called the 1-2 and the 5-4. The names of the up and down picks are determined by the direction the picker has to swim to set the pick in relation to the position of the goal. Consequently, on the 2-1 pick or down-pick the picker at the 2 spot has to swim down toward the goal to get to the pickie at the 1 spot, and on the 1-2 pick or the up-pick the picker at the 1 spot has to swim up and away from the goal to get to the pickie at the 2 spot, and so on and so forth. Finally, there are also the 3-2 and 3-4 cross-picks.

Now we are ready to start talking about how to do the pick and when to do the pick. Remember, in an earlier article I said knowing how to do a skill is not enough. You also have to know when to use the skill. The first maxim I am going to discuss is many times very hard for a novice to relate to and, moreover, very hard for the novice to do. The maxim is Every time you set a pick you must be facing the goal! If you are not facing the goal then you will be as useless as a near sighted referee without prescription correcting glasses or a water polo player who is a fast swimmer without any real water polo skills.

A good pick creates a win-win situation for your team, and a good pick is one in which the picker is facing the goal among other things. Once the picker has set the pick then his or her defender has two choices 1) stay with the picker or 2) switch to the pickee. If the defender stays with the picker then the pickie can wrap around the picker and be momentarily free to receive a quick pass and to make a quick shot on goal. If, however, the defender switches to the pickie and the picker is facing the goal, then the picker will have inside water on the pickie's defender. Consequently, to be redundant, a good pick creates a win-win situation. Again, if the picker is facing the pickie's defender and not the goal, then after the switch the picker has nowhere to go; however, if the picker is facing the goal the picker has inside water and can go for a shot on goal, an ejection or a penalty shot.

First, let us discuss when to set the pick, and then I will discuss how to set the pick. On offense if the driver is from the 2, 3, or 4 positions, then he or she should be thinking about three possible options. The first option is trying to win inside water; the second option is doing a rear-back for a quick shot on goal, and the third option is setting a down-pick. If the player is driving from the 2 position, set the down-pick on the player in the 1 position or if the player is driving from the 4 position, set the down-pick on the player in the 5 position. Now, if you are driving from the 3 position, set the down -pick on the player that is on the side in which you are driving. The player driving from the 3 position can also set a cross-pick on the person in either the 2 or 4 positions. Note that when the player is setting the cross pick from the 3 position, the only options this player has is which player is to be the pickie for the cross-pick - the player in position 2 or the player in position 4.

A good time to set the 1-2 or1-3 up-pick is when the defender is playing off the offender in the 2 or 3 position and the player in the 1 position can start the pick before the player in the 2 or 3 position can start his or her drive. This is why communication among the players is so crucial - the only things more crucial to the game are water in the pool, a ball, goals, a set of caps, and experience. Also the team can be told by the coach to do a certain number of down-picks and then do an up-pick. For example, "Every third pick will be an up-pick and all the others are to be down-picks." The "when" for the 5-3 or 5-4 up-pick is the same as the "when" for the 1-3 or 1-2 up-pick, only the players in positions 5 and 3 or 5 and 4 are involved in the pick.


The 2-1 down-pick and the 3-1 down-pick are essentially identical and the 4-5 down-pick is the mirror image of the 2-1 down-pick while the 3-5 down-pick is the mirror image of the 3-1 down-pick. Consequently, in this paragraph I will concentrate on how to do the 3-1 down-pick which the reader can easily translate in to how to do the remaining down- picks. In the 3-1 down-pick it is imperative that the pickie, the player in position 1, does not move prematurely, which can very easily tip off his or her defender that a pick is coming. The pickie must hold his or her 1 position until the picker from the 2 position sets the pick.

How does the picker set a solid pick on the defender and at the same time be facing the goal? This assumes that the driver's only option left is to set the pick. In other words, the driver did not win inside water on the drive or popped but did not receive the ball. Thus, the driver is now the picker, so 1) he or she swims to the left shoulder of the pickie's defender, 2) drops his or her hips about 45 degrees, and 3) moves to his or her right to face the goal and to place his or her slanted body against the defender. Some players bend the right knee to a 90 degree angle, which makes it more difficult for the defender to swim through the pick.

If the picker's defender switches to the pickie, then the pickie swims to the 2 position in order to take the switching defender out of the play. If this defender attempts to drop back toward the picker, the pickie should pop for a pass and a quick shot on goal. Also the switch causes the picker to have inside water on the pickie's defender. The picker can hold water to try and draw the ejection or the picker can take one or two quick strokes for a timing shot (I always called it an inside-water dry-shot). The picker will have inside water only if he or she has set a solid pick and is facing the goal.

If the picker's defender does NOT switch to the pickie, then the pickie is to pop to the side of the defender on which the pick is set and look for a quick pass and quick shot on goal. By popping to the side on which the pick is set it will force the defender to swim around the pick to get to the pickie. Also the pickie has to have good legs to hold him or her high enough and long enough for the pass and shot. Some times when the defense is playing the pick, the pickie instead of poping for the shot can swim toward his or goal to try to force the switch


The 1-2 up-pick and the 5-4 up-pick are essentially the same pick, only one is the mirror image of the other, and the 1-3 up-pick is identical to the 1-2 up-pick. Consequently, only the 1-2 pick is to be explained. The picker is at the 1 position and the pickie is at the 2 position; this is the reverse of the 2-1 pick. The picker in the 1 position swims to the back of the defender of the pickie in the 2 position. Just before reaching the back of the defender the picker does an actual U-turn in the water, so that the picker's buttocks are jammed against the buttocks of the defender. More importantly this U-turn causes the picker to be facing the goal. While this is happening the pickie in position 2 swims to his or her left toward position 1.

If the defender guarding the picker switches to the pickie then the picker will have inside water; and if the picker's defender does not switch and the pickie squeezes off his or her defender on the back of the picker then the pickie will have inside water. If the defender guarding the pickie swims through the pick; however, then the pick has failed, so regroup and run another pick or play.


Again the 3-2 cross-pick and the 3-4 cross-pick are essentially the same pick, only one is the mirror image of the other. Thus only the 3-2 cross pick is discussed. When the player in the 3 position starts his or her drive, instead of driving for the center of the cage, he or she drives toward the left goal post to be closer to the player in position 2. This allows the player in position 2 to swim over the legs of his or her driver to try and squeeze off his or her defender. (The Rule book says nothing about impeding your own player, so swim over the driver's legs)

If the driver's defender switches players the right handed driver will have either inside water or will have, at least, his or her right hand free for a timing shot. If there is no switch then the player swimming over the driver's legs may have a right hand free for a quick pop and shot. If the defender follows the offensive player over the driver's legs then the defender could be called for impeding.

I know what you are thinking, who is the picker and who is the pickie. Don't be so picky, picky, picky. Some coaches call this a squeeze pick, and if it is done correctly then the defender of the player in position 2 will have been squeezed off using the driver in position 3. Thus, we will call the driver in position 3 the picker and the player in position 2 the pickie or the 3-2 pick.


There are also some similar moves to a pick which are called screens. The major difference between a screen and a pick is that the person setting a screen doesn't necessarily have to be facing the goal when setting the screen. The screen is often used to get off a quick shot on goal from the player in position 1 or the player in position 5. There are two primary screens named, the 2-1 screen and the 4-5 screen, and of course one is the mirror image of the other. In the 2-1 screen the player in the 2 position tries to swim in between the defender and the offensive player in position 1. The player in position 1 quickly rocks back and up for pass from either the 2 meter player or a player on the perimeter and for a quick shot on goal.

The more you practice a play in water polo the easier it becomes, and that is certainly true about picks. Since they involve precision, discipline, and communication they need to be practiced not only in drills but also in scrimmages. The precision means knowing exactly how to set the pick, discipline means waiting for the pick to be set and not holding with the hands when setting the pick, and communication means knowing when your teammate is getting ready to set the pick. With any new skill you pay your dues in practice so you can spend the benefits of the skills in games. Remember the correct pick you make in a game may be one that wins it for you, so when you have won nothing on your drive, then "Think pick!"

(Some corrections and suggestions for this article were made by Alan Huckins a former All American who played for me. He was on the 1991 team that placed seventh in the NCAA Championships, and he was one the best and smartest players ever to play for me. I always told him he would be a much better coach than me because I taught him all that I know and he was smart enough to learn just as much on his own. Thus, he would have twice the water polo knowledge I had. Currently he is the women's water polo coach at Hartwick where in his first season the team won the CWPA Easterns, the NCAA qualifier.)

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]