The Steely-Eyed, Shifty, 6 on 5 Defense - Part I

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University
08/01/05

All six players on the 6 on 5 defense have to have their eyes welded to the movement of the ball. Yes, six players -- you didn’t forget the goal keeper, the steel anchor of the entire 6 on 5 defense, did you? The defensive players can’t blink, flinch, or ever lose sight of the ball. They have to be steely eyed on the ball; in other words, they have to have a "hardness of the mind" about where the ball is at all times. And since each defensive player has to be responsible for two offensive players they have to be continually shifting from one offensive player to the other. Thus, each defensive player on the 6 on 5 defense has to be steely-eyed and shifty. Also when a defensive player on the 6 on 5 defense bates an offensive player and steals the incoming pass, then the unsavory definition of shifty also comes into play. You know, shifty as indicative of a tricky nature.

In Figure 1 you will see displayed the basic 6 on 5 defense for the 4-2 offense. This article will only discuss the basic 6 on 5 defense for the 4-2 defense. We leave the 6 on 5 defense for the 3-3 offense in Part II of this article. Notice in Figure 1 that the defensive player X1 has to cloak both offensive players O1 and O2; X2 has to cover players O2 and O3; X3 has to defend O3 and O6; X4 has to envelop players O2 and O4; and X5 has to guard players O3 and O5. Whether one says cloak, cover, defend, envelop, or guard each defensive player has the responsibility for two offensive players, and that’s why it is called a 6 on 5 person-up advantage. You need to thank the water polo gods that you only have to do this for 20 seconds of playing time because in hockey a team has to play a person down sometimes for several minutes.

Figure 1: Basic 4-2 Defense

Before talking about the nitty gritty details let’s discuss some general principles of the 4-2, 6 on 5 defense. First if the opposing team has no left handers then you want to try and force the shot on goal from the right hander in position 5 or the right hander in position 6 because they both have poor shooting angles. If the opposing team starts one left hander then try to force the shot from the 5 or 6 position that the right hander plays. An exception to these two principles is when the team places their best shooter at one of these two positions. Then it might be more prudent to force someone else to take the shot on goal.

If the opposing team has a weak shooter at either the 4 or 5 position, try to have that person take the shot on goal. If the opposing team has a weak shooter on the 2 position, have the defender spend more time on the offensive player in the 4 position until the 2 position scores. A mirror image of this is the opposing team having a weak shooter in position 3. The defensive player can get closer to the offensive player in position 5 than player in position 3 until shown otherwise. If the team you are playing has none of these weaknesses then bend over and kiss your scoreless game good bye.

What your team should do is to try and take away the person advantage of the offensive team. This can be accomplished by taking advantage of a weakness on the offensive team. If the team does not have a weakness on which you can capitalize then your best bet against the 6 on 5 person-up advantage is strong legs, quickness, alertness, technical smarts, and cunning. The 6 on 5 person-up advantage doesn’t appear to be the advantage it once was because many teams today can only score on thirty to forty percent of their person-up advantages - down from fifty to seventy percent of ten years ago. Next the defensive positions of each player are discussed in relation to which player has the ball. Assume each of the offensive players are facing their goal. This will allow the reader to determine the offensive players left and right sides.

Defensive Positions in Relation to O1 with the Ball

The basic positions of the defenders when O1 has the ball are pictured in Figure 2. Let’s start with the X1 defensive player. X1 cuts off the shooting lane to the goal’s left high corner by raising his or her right hand and egg beating up high in the water. If X1 is playing with his or her hips up prior to the pass to O1, and if X1’s left hand is on the shoulder of O2 then X1 can move very quickly to the left corner of the goal using a slight push off O2’s shoulder. I said slight push off because if the push off is so hard that O2 sinks then the defense is going to be playing against a two person up advantage.

Once the left corner of the goal is covered, X1 starts egg beating toward O1, so O1 has difficulty moving to the pocket and taking the shot on goal. The pocket is that part of the pool between the O1 and the O2, and is the place the O1 moves to by egg beating in a semi-circle to open up his or her angle on goal for a good percentage shot. Thus, X1 needs to egg beat out and knock down O1 before a good or high percentage shot on goal can be taken. When X1’s is moving to O1 his or her right hand is still cutting off the shooting lane to the corner of the goal and X1’s left hand is placed low into the passing lane between O1 and O2. Once O1 passes the ball X1 must move quickly back to defend O2. Finally, a missed shot from O1 should cause X1 to help initiate the counterattack.

If O2 is right handed then the X2 defensive player has his or her right hand on O2’s right shoulder with his or her hips pointed toward O3. If O2 is left handed then X2 has to play in back of O2 closer to his or her shooting arm, and X2 has to be ready to move to the O2 when the O2 pops for the close in shot on goal. In either case X2’s left hand is up in the passing lane between O1 and O3. This is very similar to what is done in basketball. A pass to O4 causes X2 to stay on O2, and a pass to O5 or O6 causes X2 to move to O3. Also a missed shot from O1 should cause X2 to block or box out O2 to keep O2 from getting the ball.

It is the X3 defensive player’s responsibility is to stop the pass to and/or the shot from O3. The X3 has his or her left hand on the shoulder or back of O3 and X3's right hand is in the passing lane betweenO1 and O3. X3 must be ready to rotate to the outside of O3’s left shoulder to knock down the pass from O1, and X3 should have his or her hips toward O6 so when the ball is passed to O6 he or she can move quickly to the shooting lane of the goal’s right handed corner with a little shove-off of O3. Moreover, a pass to O4 or O5 causes X3 to stay on O3. On O1's missed shot X3 has to block or box out O3 to keep O3 from getting the ball. Also if the offensive team rotates into a 3-3 then X3 has to communicate this to the X4 and X5 so they can adjust their positions.

Again if O2 is right handed then the X4 defensive player has his or her right hand on O2’s shoulder, and if O2 is left handed then X4 plays close enough to O2 so he or she can defend against O2’s pop out for a pass from O1. X4 has his or her left hand up in O4’s shooting lane for the left side of the goal. X4 has his or her hips up and pointed toward O4 which will allow X4 to contest the 1-5 and the 1-6 pass and it will allow X4 to push off O2 towards O4 if the pass is made to O4.If the pass is made to O5 or O6 then X4 moves to the passing lane between O1 and O5. Also a missed shot from O1 should cause X4 to imediately initiate the counterattack.

I have always said a counterattack score off an opponent’s person-up play is mentally worth two points - one mental and actual point for the counterattack score and one mental point for the defensive team not letting the person-up team score. Scoring points on a team’s person–up can cause that team to lose their confidence and to miss even more person-up goals. One time I had two very quick and really smart male players to play the X4 and X5 positions - Frank Mulcrone and Alan Huckins. How smart and how quick were they? Well, one season they scored as many goals on our person-downs as most of our opponents scored on their person-ups.

Some coaches care to play the X5 defensive player on the O3 offensive player similar to the way X4 plays on the O2 offensive player. I preferred to play the X5 in the passing lane between the O4 and the O6. This places the X5 close enough to the O3 to help with the pop out and close enough to the O5 to knock him or her down before he or she can walk in and take the shot after receiving the ball. Short triangles to the left and a quick pass from the O4 to O6 for a shot on goal can almost mean a certain score. This particular position for X5 helps to prevent this type of easy goal. A pass to O4 cause X5 to stay in the passing lane betwee O4 and O6, and a pass to either O5 or O6 causes X5 to move quickly to O3. Also a missed shot from O1 should cause X5 to imediately initiate the counterattack.

Figure 2: Ball at the 1 position

Defensive Positions in Relation to O4 with the Ball

The basic positions of the defenders when O4 has the ball are pictured in Figure 3. Again let’s begin with the X1 defensive player. X1 plays with his or her left hand on O2’s left shoulder with his or her hips pointed at O1, and his or her right hand is up in the far left side shooting lane of the goal. Usually a pass from the O4 to the O2 is a wasted pass because it doesn’t move the goalie and it is a very difficult shot for O2 to score with his or her back to the passer. X1 should be anticipating a pass to either O1 or O6. A pass to O1 causes X1 to rock up and take away the shooting lane to the goal’s left high corner. A pass to O6 causes X1 to move to the right shoulder of O2 and to place his or her right hand up high and his or her left hand in the passing lane from O6 to O2. Finally, a missed shot from O4 should cause X1 to help initiate the counterattack.

Since the best shots come off passes from O4 to O3 or O6, the X2 defensive player should be close to O3 and in the passing lane from O4 to O3. X2’s right hand should be up and his or her left hand should be in the passing lane from O4 to O6. A wasted pass to the O5 should move X2 to the O2, and a pass to the O6 would cause X2 to move closer to O3. A missed shot from O4 should cause X2 to block or box out O2 to keep O2 from getting the ball.

The X3 defensive player plays with his or her right hand on O3’s right shoulder with his or her hips pointed at O6 and his or her left hand is up in the far right side shooting lane of the goal. Usually a pass from the O4 to theO3 is an excellent pass for a shot on goal, especially if the O3 is left handed or X3 is dosing. X3 has to be very attentive to this pass and shot. A pass to O6 causes X3 to rock up and take away the shooting lane to the goal’s right high corner. A pass to O1 causes X3 to move to the left shoulder of O3 and to place his or her left hand up high and his or her right hand in the passing lane from O6 to O3. A missed shot from O4 should cause X3 to block or box out O3 to keep O3 from getting the ball.

The X4 defensive player starts in the passing lane between O1 and O5, and then moves toward O4 with his or her right hand up trying to block O4’s shooting lane on the left side of the goal. X4’s left hand is attempting to try and disrupt the passing lane from O4 to O6. Some coaches prefer X4’s raised hand to mirror the shooting arm of O4; that is, hold up the left hand for a right handed shooter or hold up the right hand for left handed shooter. I don’t. I prefer X4 to try and take away the left side of the goal forcing O4 to make the shot closer to the center of the cage - easier pickings for the goal keeper. If O4 keeps the ball long enough for X4 to be two or three feet him or her then X4 is to charge O4 to try and put him or her on hisor her back for a possible bad shot or pass. On a missed shot from O4 the counterattack is started with X4 and X5. A pass to O1 cause X4 to move quickly to O2; a wasted pass to O5 or a pass to O6 moves X4 back to the passing lane between O1 and O5.

The X5 defensive player begins in the passing lane between O4 and O6 with the left hand trying to block the shooting lane to the right side of the cage and the right hand trying to block the passing lane between O4 and O3. On a missed shot from O4 then the counterattack is started with X5 and X4. A pass to O1 causes X5 to stay in the passing lane between O4 and O6; a wasted pass to the O5 causes X5 to become the player that knocks down the possible shooter O5; and a pass to O6 causes X5 to move quickly to O3.

Also if there is a right hander at O5 with the ball then X5 tries to force the shot by moving out to O5 very slowly. This is a method that you can used to try and force any player you want to take the shot on goal. However, the goal keeper must be told in advance of the player you are going to try to make shoot the ball.

Figure 3: Ball at the 4 position

Defensive Positions in Relation to O5 with the Ball

Since the player positions for the 6 on 5, 4-2 defense with the ball at the O5 are the mirror images of the player positions for the 6 on 5, 4-2 defense with the ball at the O4 there is not a real need to discuss them in detail. See Figure 4 and read the explanation in the section, Defensive Positions in Relation to O4 with the Ball.

Figure 4: Ball at the 5 position

Defensive Positions in Relation to O6 with the Ball

Since the player positions for the 6 on 5, 4-2 defense with the ball at the O1 are the mirror images of the player positions for the 6 on 5, 4-2 defense with the ball at the O6 there is not a real need to discuss them in detail. See Figure 5 and read the explanation in the section, Defensive Positions in Relation to O1 with the Ball.

Figure 5: Ball at the 6 positon

Animated Diagrams of the Defensive Players movements

Please bare with me because this is my first article to use animated diagrams. I learned a great deal from creating these diagrams from scratch, and I assure the reader that my next animated diagrams will have more refined movements in them. Make the defensive players move by placing your mouse pointer on the diagram or diagrams in which you are interested.

Defense of the 4-2

Figure 6: Ball at 1, 4, 5, and 6

Defense of Long Triangles

Figure 7: Defending Long Triangles

Defense for a Left Short Triangle

Figure 8: Defending a Left Short Triangle

Figure 9: Defending a Right Short Triangle

( Some suggestions and ideas for this article are from the unpublished water polo manual, "Water Polo", written by Paul Barren. Paul is a retired coach and referee, and a member of both the Collegiate Water Polo Association and US Water Polo Hall of Fames. For many years Paul coached the Lower Moreland High School boys team in Lower Moreland, PA. The team won more games than I can count and they were known as the "Beast from the East". He was also the coach of Princeton University. Paul was both a National and FINA referee, and he was one of the pioneers of collegiate women's water polo because he would referee local women's collegiate games and US National Collegiate games for less than minimum wage. He did this out of the goodness of his heart and the love of water polo, so Eastern womens' teams would have the opportunity to play with good refereeing and, more importantly, to learn how to play better.)

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com