Questions for the New US Men's National Coach, Ricardo Azevedo

Richard Hunkler
Slippery Rock University
Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

Shortly after Ricardo Azevedo was selected as the new US Men's National Coach, we asked him if he would answer a set of written questions we could post on our web site, and he not only said "Yes" but he also said "I would be happy to do that."  You could have knocked us over with a short tweet from a referee's whistle when we heard that, and we both thought, "Wow, finally we have a recent US Men's National Coach who is willing to answer open questions and who is willing to have them published on a public forum."  This is the kind of National Team Coach we would have wished for in our Santa Claus stocking, but knew we wouldn't get. It is similar to asking Santa Claus for a new Schwinn Cruiser bicycle when your Daddy has been out work the entire year.

We told Ricardo we would send him twelve questions and that he could answer any ten of them. To our welcomed surprise he sent us the answers to all twelve of the questions. What immediately came to mind was a water polo version of William Shatner's or Captain Kirk's opening monologue on Star Trek:

Water polo, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the USWP and the water polo community. Its four-year mission: to explore how to beat all the teams in the world; to seek out new players and new funding; to hire a new men's coach to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Water Polo Planet's (WPP's) questions and Ricardo Azevedo's (RA's) answers are as follows:

WPP's Question 1: The new FINA rules were put into place in large part to reduce physicality and reward motion. Traditionally, American players have been considered to be smaller but faster than most other players in the world. How do you propose to capitalize on the rules that emphasize these factors?

RA's Answer:  Usually when radical rules are put in place, there is a sense of "WHY". In this case it is clear because FINA felt that the game was becoming stale and more scoring and movement was needed. These rules could help countries like USA, Italy, Croatia and Spain, and could help close the gap between these countries and the smaller teams from Asia and South America. FINA is concerned with the label "European Game". TV and corporate sponsors do not want to be limited to a game that only excels in Europe because it limits their return on their investment.

With that in mind a stronger defensive press will be used to run the clock, and as teams approach the scoring area a gapping defense will be utilized to eliminate the 5 meter shot. This will force the center to be more mobile and allow the use of multiple positions. Also more post ups and set plays will be used to minimize the other teams counter opportunities.

WPP's Question 2: How do you think the new rules will affect the powerhouse teams of Serbia and Hungary? What can the US do to capitalize on their weaknesses?

RA's Answer: These teams will adjust, but it will give them less time to exploit their large players who play the center position. The introduction of "No Two Hand Blocking" will hurt them defensively because their tall players can cover a lot of space on defense when both their hands are up.

We need to use our speed and develop better perimeter shooters. These two skills will be the key to playing these two countries. Traditionally our guards front very well and are quick, which will give us an advantage with the shot clock.

WPP's Question 3: A persistent criticism of the US National team is that they do not have the same ball skills, in particular, the shooting skills as the Europeans. How do you propose to address this criticism?

RA's Answer: We spent too much time doing tactics with our younger players. I went to see a 10 and under game and the kids were running multiple defenses and fancy offenses. But when it became time for them to shoot the ball they struggled. We need to teach more fundamentals, drills for their legs, body positioning, a strong perimeter posture, and the art and science of shooting.

Our system places our coaches in a bind because the players they coach change teams almost every year due to graduation, coach dissatisfaction, and the recruiting by other coaches. Traditionally European teams have clubs with an established coach that can work the kids for many years in preparation for the senior teams, and in the US many of our coaches have 2 to 3 months to try to teach a life time of skills.

WPP's Question 4: Another persistent criticism of the US is that they are in large part, amateurs playing against professionals. Do you have the kinds of contacts needed to give the better US players the opportunity to play in these professional leagues? If so, how would you go about making this happen?

RA's Answer: The answer is yes, without a strong club system our players after a certain age have to rely on foreign competition. The NCAA and the Scholastic rules are designed to even the playing field and not to allow anyone an unfair edge. In this country great players with large ambitions have to endure apathy as part of their progress.

We must work to change some of these rules and we must think outside the box. It will take some creative ways to create stronger competition for these players. The Premier League is a start but not the whole answer. We will try to create in the next 3 years a semi-pro league and some invitational events to help showcase our strong teams and to provide the players on these teams strong competition.

WPP's Question 5: If the US team, under your leadership, was populated by an equal mix of current college players, semi pro US players, and US players playing professionally in Europe, do you believe you could crack the top 6 in the world?

RA's Answer:  I believe that we have more players than anyone else in the World, but we don't have the seamless club programs to advance them. With strong funding and positive support from the water polo community we can place in the top four.

WPP's Question 6: What could you do to help the creation of a US based Semi Professional League, a league that would help players gain vital experience similar to the experiences that players in Europe are given?

RA's Answer: Most of our sponsorships in this country are college and high school driven and it is not uncommon to see booster programs raise hundreds and thousands of dollars in a year's time. National teams and clubs must fend for themselves, so maybe with some philanthropic donations we will be able to start a Semi Professional League.  Also, I hope to help educate the public on the need for strong competition which will help start people thinking about the need for this league. Marketing our players and events better will help to make the public aware of our sport and will help to increase its development.

WPP's Question 7: Professional sports in this country use a coaching model that involves a head coach who acts as both the leader and executor of the team, and several assistant coaches who work under the direction of the head coach and who coach specific positions. Is this consistent with your view of how to construct a National Team coaching staff?

RA's Answer: Coaching Models are pretty basic, and have not changed much over the years. When creating a staff, a Head Coach needs to fill these positions with personnel that complement the whole program. Having staff members with diverse backgrounds is important. For example having assistant coaches for specific tasks such as coaching goalies or running the strength and conditioning program or what ever it may be is important, but it is important that assistant coaches are knowledgable and skillful in other areas as well. The head coach has the final word, but he or she should listen to diverse input before making important decisions.

WPP Response: Recado got off to a great start by appointing Hall of Famer Dr. Terry Schroeder as an assitant coach.

WPP's Question 8: You have always had the reputation of working closely and collegially with East Coast teams, referees and coaches. Will you be able to continue this trend as the National Team Coach?

RA's Answer: Yes, I believe in full integration of the national programs to all areas of the country. Denis Fosdick did more to nationalize our sport with the USWP coach and player clinics in the 80's than any other individual in our organization. I believe that athletes, coaches and referees are taught these skills and not born knowing them. If the opportunity is given to people they will learn and produce.

WPP's Question 9: If the FINA rules are adopted by the NCAA for 2006 do you think these changes will make a NCAA collegiate coaches job easier or more difficult and how necessary do you think it is to have all teams in the US playing under the same rules?

RA's Answer: That question goes back to the 60's and 70's  when the US was using the 5 foul rules like basketball, timeouts, and ear guards, and the rest of the world was not .We had a different system than the rest of the World and to some extent still do. Everywhere else in the world a player, a coach, or a referee is taught by one set of rules created by their NGB and they have one mission statement. This works well for them.

Here we are governed by different organizations like the USWP, the NISCA, the NCAA, and the NJCAA and each of them have similar but different mission statements and rules. This difference makes us have to adjust often and it places a burden on the participants in this system. Over the last few years, however, there seems to be a move towards bringing the rules closer together and as long as our mission statements are not abandoned this should work fine.

WPP's Question 10: Currently USA Water Polo and the NCAA have a different set of referee evaluators who guide the way the game is officiated and played. Do you believe this to be a problem? If not, Why not? If so, what can you do to resolve it?

RA's Answer: As I stated above we are different, and my job as a National Team Coach and Director is to prepare and train a team of athletes to do their best in International Competitions. It is also a part of my job to develop a strong national base of coaches and players to make our sport World Class as it should be.

There are many aspects of water polo that we need to embrace and work with to make the sport better over this quadrennial, and refereeing is sometimes a tough nut to crack. Referees must wear many different hats and as I mentioned earlier in one of my answers, it is sometimes difficult to do. My statement about resolving this issue is "We play in America, so let's do what is best for America".

WPP's Question 11: If you could change one thing about how players 16 years and under in this country are trained, what would it be and how can you make it happen?

RA's Answer: Teach more FUNDAMENTALS! We can help do this by making more educational materials available for coaches and players. We can also help by increasing the number of Zone teams and national competitions.

WPP's Question 12: What do you think is the most important thing the US can do to encourage growth of the sport at the age group level?

RA's Answer: Spain has less than 1000 players and they have won a gold medal. We have a large number of players (30.000+), so the question we need to address is, "Why are our players not achieving that elusive gold medal?" And the answer may be found in a series of questions we have to ask ourselves: 1) Why do many of our players stop playing after college? 2) Why do so many players attend the same school?  3) Why can we have 4000+ fans at a High School championship game and have only 800 at a Collegiate Championships game?

To answer these questions, we must go back to our local Zone and regional programs. It is there we must educate and market our events better. It is there we must show and convince the communities what a wonderful and fantastic game we have. It is there where we must give young players athletes to look up to - role models. It is there we need to tell them how well our players perform academically in college - one of the highest graduation rates of all sports. It is there that we have to show them as many positive things about our sport as we can. If we sell the youth of our country on the sport of water polo then we are going to win that elusive Olympic gold medal.

Lately, I have attended two Championship Banquets and many wonderful things were mentioned in each banquet, but the old cliché of "Violence as a badge of honor"was also still present. Parents have a choice on what sport they want their children to participate? We must try to influence their choices by being ambassadors of our sport and by being positive about our sport.

This is an excellent beginning for Ricardo Azevedo, the new US Men's National Coach, and it is a beginning that not many other US National Team coaches have embraced. Based on Ricardo's past behavior and the answers given here there is no doubt in our minds that he will be as honest and candid in his talks with the water polo community as he was in his answers to our questions.

Asking questions anonymously on a message board is not the way to ask our National Team coaches questions. Do you want our national coaches to spend their time trying to win Olympic and World Game medals or do you want them to spend their time answering a few good questions and a truck load of argumentative and inconsequential questions presented on an anonymous message board?

We are filled with both optimism and hope for the US Men's National Team and its new coach, Ricardo Azevedo, and we dearly hope that this final quote by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy or Mr. Spock does not come true. "You may find after a time that having is not nearly as fine a thing as wanting."

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]