Play Together, Stay Together, and Succeed Together

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

The water polo community is always talking about the behaviors of a good coach and/or of a bad coach. A lot of bad behavior is tolerated for a coach who is winning and a zero sum of bad behavior is allowed for the coach who is losing. I really believe I did some of my best coaching when my team placed out of the winner's circle in championships, but I never won awards or coach of the year for those seasons. I only won awards and coach of the year when I placed first or second in championships.

This, to me, equates good coaching with winning and bad coaching with losing. I hate to tell you this but good coaches don't always win and bad coaches don't always lose! One of the key factors to winning or losing is of course the behavior of the coach but another equally key factor is the behavior of the coach's players. The water polo community hardly ever talks about the good behavior of good players because they are too busy talking about the bad behavior of good players. Just forget about the good or bad behavior of average players because that is never discussed, and yet, they are the backbone and the mainstay of team play for many college and university teams.

No matter how good a coach, a person is, it is very difficult to win the big games without players with talent; however; a coach needs more than just players with talent to accomplish this goal. Mostly the coach needs players who play together and who are willing to place team goals over individual awards and honors. There is no substitute for team play and good chemistry among the players on the team except maybe overwhelming talent - that can sometimes overwhelm any set of circumstances the team finds itself facing. Consider the talent on the UCLA women's team in the 2005 NCAA Championships.

Let me give an example of what I am talking about. The USWP International and National Women's Water Polo Committee decided when the USOC let women teams in the Olympic Festival to not have tryouts but instead to have a pool of current and ex national team players - players who had to pay their own way to play in the FINA World Cup games. Since at the Olympic Festival the USOC paid for everything, this would be a minor reward for all the time, energy, and money these women had spent so the U. S. of A. would have a team in International Women's Water Polo events. These events were major stepping stones to becoming a sport in the actual Olympics.

I was made the Coach of the East Team and when we drafted players for each of the four teams I chose as many Slippery Rock-ex players that I could get, which were four or five women. There were Slippery Rock players on other teams also. The four teams, East, North, South, and West. The coach of one of the teams, I think it was the North team, drafted the best 2 meter player not just in this country but in the world and one of the best goalies in this country.

The teams were seeded, and the North team was seeded first and the East team was seeded fourth. What the other coaches didn't realize is that every team but ours was just a team of individual All Stars, and our team was a team of All Stars. Our team played so well together that we found ourselves in the gold medal game against the North. To make a long game short we lost by one goal. We were not beaten; we were just out scored.

Thus, team work can work a near miracle, and it took overwhelming talent and four games of the North playing together to stop our miracle from happening. The next year the East team I coached won the gold medal and it was a great feeling, but not as great as the second place finish that the team involving my ex-players achieved the year before. The moral of this little story is that even All Stars have to learn to play together to succeed.

Almost every year that I coached a men's or women's team at Slippery Rock I passed out a hand-out telling the players some of what I expected of them. This was the first step in a long, hard, and tedious journey in trying to have the players to play as a team and to have them subjugate their personal goals with team goals. The first ten years I coached I collected every type of water polo statistic but one - individual goals. I always tried to stress that the team scores not individuals. I am just enough of an egotist to think you would care to see one of the hand-outs I gave my players, so here is one:

Player Behavior that Coaches DO NOT want!

1. Being late or missing practice - when you are late or miss practice in an individual sport you hurt mostly yourself, but when you are late or miss practice in a team sport you hurt not only yourself but you also hurt the entire team.

2. When corrected by the coach saying, I know, I know" or "Yeah but ." - if you really knew what to do you would not have made the mistake in the first place. Don't say anything just LISTEN and LEARN.

3. Talking and not looking at the coach when the coach is talking - again when you stop listening you stop learning. When the coach is correcting a player's mistake and you are not listening then you are likely to make the same mistake. If the coach has to correct every player on the team for the same mistake then there will be less time to learn other important stuff!

4. NOT trying to do what the coach is asking you to try - the key word here is "trying to do" not "just doing". Remember if you do what the coach says to do and it fails it is usually the coaches fault not yours.

5. Making the exact same mistakes over and over again - your coach is looking for players to learn from their mistakes, so they can improve. We need to accomplish large steps forward learning new things not small steps backwards learning old things.

6. NOT hustling during practice - there are some skills that some players can't learn, but everyone can learn to hustle. Besides I truly believe you are going to play the way you practice.

7. Wasting time at any time - tempos fugit. Because time wasted can never be recovered. While you are wasting time other players are improving and I am getting much older and grumpier.

8. Starting late when defending a drive, cherry picking, not swimming hard back on defense and/or offensive, not helping-out on defense, shooting on the counter attack when there is a teammate on the weak side of the goal wide open, or any behavior that shows the coach that you are selfish and not a team player. If all you want to do is think about yourself then become a rock-and-roll star or a present day politician..

9. NOT studying, not going to classes, not completing assignments, and not handing assignments in on time. The primary reason you are at Slippery Rock is to get a university education and degree not to play water polo.

10. Misconduct, smoking, involved in under age drinking, using a banned substance of any kind, continually staying out late, and not eating properly - doing these things will not allow you or the team to do its best. If you cannot avoid these behaviors for yourself then do it for the TEAM.

Remember when you are not working hard somebody else on the team is, and the chances are that person will make the traveling team and you will not. Finally, VIOLATING THE ABOVE SUGGESTIONS CAN CAUSE YOU TO BE SUSPENDED OR DISMISSED FROM THE TEAM.

I prefer to call the above statements suggestions rather than rules or laws because "breaking rules or laws" has the connotation of immediate and severe punishment associated with them. Remember as a collegiate coach you are working with youth that are usually between the ages of 17 and 22, and "going-to-make-mistakes" are the middle names of most of these student athletes. No matter what a player has done wrong you really need to "leave an open door" for that player. Besides trial and error is a large part of their repertory of how to solve problems at this age. Remember when you lived at that age you too were going to live forever.

One of the great side effects of playing a team sport at this age is that, hopefully, they will learn self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-responsibility. These are principles that are more important to a player's success in and out of the pool than winning a slew of championships, and they are principals a coach's players are going to have to learn if they are going to play like a team and be successful. I was taught by my daddy, Herbert Hunkler, and my coach at Texas A&M, Art Adamson, that you do not create a set of team rules that will take a metropolitan police force to enforce, and that when you are on the pool deck coaching, if you forget what it felt like when you were playing water polo in the pool at that age, then you do not belong on the pool deck coaching.


(Sandy Nitta made some excellent suggestions and corrections for this article. Sandy started out in water polo as an accomplished Olympic swimmer. She did well as a player, but she excelled as a coach of water polo. She coached the male and female teams at Commerce from 1972 to 1979, and it would take several pages to list all the honors and awards she accomplished with those teams. She also did well coaching the following teams: Rio Hondo College Men's Team, Queensland, Australia State Team, and the Brazilian National Team.

From 1980 to 1994 she was the US Women's Senior National Team coach. This is a time when the players, coaches. team doctors and team managers received no money for their work or travel and very little money for equipment. (It is interesting to note that when the coach's position involved compensation six zillion coaches came running off the pool decks to apply for the job. In fact, a male who was one of the biggest abutments (pun intended) to women's water polo in the early days was made the Assistant Coach of one of these modern day US Women's Senior National Teams.) Sandy's US National Teams had to play teams from countries in which the governments subsidized the teams, and do you know what, her US National Teams won as many seconds and thirds at the FINA Cup as the current US National Teams have - remember, the current US National Teams are almost fully funded by the USOC and Sandy's US National Teams were not!)

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]