Questions for the US Women's National Coach, Guy Baker

Richard Hunkler, Joan Gould, & Russ Thompson
Water Polo Planet

After interviewing the US Men's National Coach we thought it would be unfair not to ask the US Women's National Coach, Guy Baker for an interview. Thus, we asked Guy if he would give us another Water Polo Planet exclusive interview.  Similar to Billy Batson saying, "SHAZAM", Guy Baker said, "YES", and as we marveled at this turn of events, Guy turned into a Captain Marvel of interviewers by going after our questions with great honesty and zeal. These answers won't end all the trash talk of the comic book villains on our Message Board, but it should help those that are on the fence to jump down on the side of Guy Baker.

Coach Baker answered our questions without a nanosecond of hesitation and like Captain Marvel he gave some decisive and straight forward answers to some distressing concerns of the water polo community. This is two strikes on the "National Coaches Naysayers" who thought the National Coaches wouldn't even answer one question.

In one of the Captain Marvel comic books the Captain when asked why he was doing this said something similar to "Because knowledge is to be shared and treasured, and there must be awareness before there is change."  Treasure these answers and you too will be aware why some changes were necessary.  Water Polo Planet's (WPP's) questions and Guy Bakers (GB's) answers are as follows:

WPP's  Question 1: The initiatives that you took to develop Water Polo in the U.S., such as tracking of top athletes from as early as the 14U age group and the top 40 festival were important, if not revolutionary.  Are these systems working as designed?

GB's Answer: I would say the programs are working as initially designed. Our Athlete Development Pipeline (ADP) is our tracking system. The ADP pyramid has five levels: Cadet National Team (15/16 and under), Youth National Team (17/18 and under), Junior National Team (19/20 and under), Senior National Team and Olympic Team. The goal of our ADP is to have a vertical and seamless pipeline from the Cadet National Team to the Olympic Team. All our National Teams use the same terminology, numbering system, technical drills and tactical systems. 2006 is an important year for us to make our ADP even better. This is the year before we start our Olympic Games Residential Training Program in January of 2007. Once we go into residential training it is very difficult to add new programs and projects.

Currently, we are in the process of analyzing our entire women's water polo program. We start with two questions; where are we now and where do we want to be in 2006, 07, 08 ... ? So much of what we do on a daily basis revolves around the ADP. Our 2006 core projects that will improve our ADP focus on increasing the information, (technical drills, tactical systems, swim and strength training and international competition) we give to the athletes and coaches whether written, video, electronically or in person. We are in the process of establishing physical, technical and tactical standards for each level of our ADP. In addition, we want to increase the athletes and Coaches exposure to the Senior National Team and Staff at our National Team training camps and through our Programs for Athlete and Coaches Education (P.A.C.E.) programs.

I believe we have already put in place for 2006 some additions and changes to our ADP that will see immediate and long term benefits. We are starting a Senior National B Team that will comprise the 16-30 players in our depth chart. The B Team will compete in the World League prelims in Venezuela in July and the Holiday Cup in December. The B Team will allow us to continue to develop players for the upcoming Olympic Games in addition to future Olympic Games.

Starting in 2006, the Youth National Team will participate in the Junior Pan American Championships, every even year, and in 2007 the Cadet National Team, every odd year, will compete in the Youth Pan American Championships. Both these teams playing against older players will help their development and competing for a championship will bring more focus to their training. Our Junior National Team will travel to Europe for competition at a minimum during the even years. Our Junior National Team has only been to Europe once since 1999. I think the European competition will be very beneficial for their preparation for the Junior World Championships and identifying players for the Senior National Team.

The Speedo Top 40 rosters will be expanded to include more regional players and our top Junior National Team players will play together as a team in the Top 40. The Junior National Team will face stiff competition as the entire Senior National Team player pool will participate in the Top 40. We are starting an annual Alumni Game and Reunion, this year it will be July 15th at the National Training Center in Los Alamitos, CA, and while it may not seem to be part of the ADP, I believe it is because one of our goals for 2006 is to make sure our current National Teams have an understanding and appreciation for our great past and we begin to connect the past to the present which will only make our future better. After the 2005 World Championships we moved ahead of the Netherlands for most overall medals in the history of women's water polo. This only happens with a tremendous tradition of results. We want to start to better appreciate where we started and how we got to where we are today.

WPP's Question 2: Are you pleased with the results of the P.A.C.E program?

GB 's Answer : We had our first P.A.C.E. clinic at Villanova University in October of 2001, since that time we have done clinics in every USA Water Polo Zone at least three times and have had over 4,000 participants. In addition we have added Coaches Conferences, Camps and have produced two videos. This year we have added Private P.A.C.E. which I believe will be a great addition to P.A.C.E.

The goal of P.A.C.E. is to provide opportunities to be exposed to the USA system, to interact with the Senior National Team players and coaches, a chance for us to give back to the sport, and a mechanism to identify players for our ADP. One financial aspect of P.A.C.E. is the revenue we raise goes directly to funding our Cadet, Youth and Junior National Teams.

There are many positive P.A.C.E. stories. One would be the Corvallis Oregon, November 2002 clinic and identifying a player by the name of Elsie Windes. Elsie was immediately invited to our 2002 Youth National Team Thanksgiving Camp which opened the door for her making the 2003 Youth National A Team. She then made the Junior National Team and was a contributor to the 2005 Junior World Championship gold medal team and is now a member of the Senior National Team.

Another great aspect of P.A.C.E. is the connection it provides for us and the rest of the country. I was at the Princeton Invitational, February 18-19 and during the course of the tournament I was able to watch a number of players who have participated in P.A.C.E. For example, Megan Gins, and Elizabeth Davis from Albuquerque, New Mexico playing for Bucknell and Marist respectively. In 2001, I don't know if we fully understood the scope of P.A.C.E. To be at the Princeton Invitational watching players I knew from P.A.C.E. clinics in Albuquerque playing for universities from Pennsylvania and New York.

There are a number of P.A.C.E. improvements for 2006. One, is the restructuring our clinic format. We have stayed with a similar format for last two years and are now moving to more position specific training, counter attack and offense fundamentals and tactics and evaluative scrimmages. Our Women's Coaches Conferences will offer two types of programs. Our traditional one at the Women's NCAA Championships will offer a program that is focused on the profession of coaching. The second conference at the Holiday Cup will be more interactive with the Senior National Team with a multitude of technical and tactical presentations and demonstrations.

As already mentioned we are starting Private P.A.C.E. which will have the following benefits; customized instruction to fit the specific needs of your athletes and coaches, session dates are collaboratively chosen to fit your needs and our availability, an opportunity for your team to work on team skills and strategies, not just individual skill development, have everyone on your team learn the National Team system directly from the National Team staff. The club/team coaches can reinforce the clinic lessons in later training sessions with the club/team. The response to Private P.A.C.E. has been very positive.

WPP's Question 3: What are you doing for age group development now?

GB's Answer: By age group I assume you mean 14 and under. From my observations, I think we need to really look at what are the priorities for age group water polo and what are the best ways to develop skills. How can we increase and retain membership, what are the primary fundamentals for age group water polo and are they being taught and do the game's rules and regulations meet the needs of the aforementioned questions.

Regarding rules and regulations of the game I think it is important to make them more age and skill appropriate. For example, at the 2006 Junior Olympics the 12 and under girls will play the exact same regulations, with the exception of length of quarters, as the Senior National Team at the 2006 World Cup. Same course size, same ball size, same goal size, same shot clock etc. I think the best way to develop the fundamentals of age group water polo, positioning, passing, shooting etc. is too have a smaller course, smaller goal, smaller ball, longer shot clock etc. How many times during the course of a game will a goalkeeper make a save and not be able to throw the ball to open player in the first line of the counter attack. The pass is too far to attempt. With a smaller course and a smaller ball the goalkeeper may be able to make that pass. The skill of the pass will be learned in addition to the technique of quickly looking to the first line and having the ball ready to pass.

As the player gets older she will be able to make that pass in a regulation course with a regulation ball, but the technique and skill will already be taught. This would be one of many examples. Also, I am speaking only in terms of girls water polo, but I believe if we are going to truly develop water polo players at an early age this would be one step in that direction. I think for 14 and under girls we should look into modifying the rules and regulations to improve the development of the fundamentals and with these changes I believe there will be more action, the skills will be easier to learn, more players will play at higher level, thus the game will be more fun which can be a mechanism to increase and maintain membership.

WPP's Question 4: A persistent criticism of the US National Men's team is that they do not have the same ball skills, in particular, the shooting skills as the Europeans. Do you believe this is true for women water polo players, and if true, how can this criticism be addressed?

GB's Answer: For women's water polo I believe our ball skills are at least equal to the Europeans, especially shooting. The greatest improvement in the international women's game that I have witnessed is the level of offense. All the top teams have multiple good shooters and have the ability to score from any position. We have had some of the best shooters in the world with Brenda Villa, Coralie Simmons, Robin Beauregard, Ericka Lorenz, Natalie Golda and Kelly Rulon. Not to mention some of the best centers with Maureen O'Toole, Heather Moody and Ellen Estes. Three emerging international offensive players to watch are Lauren Wenger, Erika Figge and Moriah van Norman. Our 2005 World Champions Junior National Team was a very impressive offensive team and the USC versus UCLA game at the 2006 Stanford Invitational was a display of two powerful offensive teams.

WPP's Question 5: You have coached women's teams to Olympic Silver and Bronze medals.  You won Gold in the Women's 2003 World Championships.  In the 2005 Women's World Championships won Silver.  In the 2005 Junior World Championships the U.S. women dominated.  Obviously, for women, this sport is doing well.   What factors contribute to the major differences in success rates for men vs. women?

GB's Answer: Our focus is solely on how we measure up with the other top women's teams in the world. When I was hired in March of 1998, the goal was to become the best Senior National Team in the world. It took two years for the program to come together but since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the senior team has won five medals in the six FINA events, (Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cup). Our closest competitors, Canada, Hungary and Italy have won three medals during this same time period. We are the only country to win medals in both Olympic Games. After I was hired full-time, in January of 2001, the focus included our entire program. Including both the Senior and Junior National Teams we have won eight medals in the nine FINA events, (six mentioned FINA events plus three Junior World Championships). Our closest competitors, Canada and Russia have won four medals. Overall we have been in seven out of the nine finals and in all nine medal rounds. Our Junior National Team became the first country to win two Junior World Championships and has played in three consecutive finals. I don't know if that makes us the best program, we are still missing a certain color medal at the Olympic Games, but I know it gets us in the conversation.

I believe there are five main factors for our success, our ADP, the quality and experience of the staffs, our residential training program and the legacies and traditions each team leaves for the next team.

As already mentioned our ADP is a key factor for our success. We closely monitor our ADP. Any long term successful program has to have excellent players. In order to maintain a successful program a vertical and seamless ADP has to be in place. This takes a tremendous amount of time and management. In regards to this, one of the most important factors is that in January of 2001 the United States Olympic Committee, in conjunction with USA Water Polo, provided funding for full time coaches. This allowed the focus to shift from solely on the Senior National Team to the entire program. This partnership has had a tremendously positive impact on our ADP. Our 2004 Olympic Team had only seven Olympians from the 2000 Team return and we were able to medal again. Our 2005 World Championship Team had six 2004 Olympians and with seven new players has already made a statement that we will be a team to contend with during this quadrennial. Our average age at both Olympic Games was 25 years old. This will be the same at the 2008 Olympic Games. I believe this will be a pattern and that is one reason for starting the B Team. Our culture is educational and professional based. Currently, water polo is not a professional career. Most of our players decide to stop because the need to start a professional career. This would be different than the European teams, so for our continued success it will be imperative that our ADP provide players that will be younger than their competition but still be able to be successful.

Our staffs have been unbelievable. Every coach has had a tremendous influence on our program. All the coaches have had prior Olympic experience which is invaluable when preparing for the Olympic Games. This started with the 2000 staff of Ken Lindgren a two-time assistant Olympic Coach and Chris Duplanty a three-time Olympian The next staff was two-time Olympian Kyle Kopp and Rachel Scott, an alternate for the 2000 Olympic Team and the video coach for the 2000 Olympic Games and our current staff is Kyle, Heather Moody and Bernice Orwig. Heather was a two-time Olympian and captain of our 2004 Olympic Team and Bernice Orwig was a 2000 Olympian. In addition, Heather and Bernie led the USA to the silver medal at the 2005 World Championships. With the present staff if I don't bring my A game to meetings, practice and games I will hear about it. The wealth of knowledge and experience with our current staff is incredible and as a group we are constantly challenging each other to continue to look for ways to improve all aspects of our program.

We have had tremendous Performance Enhancement Teams with Michelle Pickering-Baker as Team Manager and Director of Operations, Chaunda Celentano as Strength Coach and Trainer and Doctor Larry Drum and Doctor Sandy Chrysanthis providing medical support. The so called behind the scenes people are the backbone of our program.

Our core philosophy is to place superbly conditioned athletes who are fundamentally sound and mentally tough into a system of play that will enhance their abilities. This all comes together during our Olympic Games Residential Training Program. We could not do this without the support of the United States Olympic Committee. Residential Training starts in January the year before the Olympic Games. The first residential training program started in January of 1999 as a means to catch up with the rest of the world and continues today as a means to stay as one of the top teams in the world. The quality of training during this period is second to none and while it may not be for everybody all those who have and will participate will be part of journey they will never forget.

Each of our teams leaves a legacy for the next team. What the 2000 Team was able to accomplish left a legacy that continues today. There are some very important traditions that were started in 2000 that are a foundation for our program. Most of our traditions are private and are handed down from one team to the next. In terms of results, the 2003 World Championship team raised the bar of the program. That is one of their many legacies. I believe one of the great things about our program is the level of expectations raised after the 2003 World Championships. The 2004 Team was able to overcome an up and down Olympics to still win a medal. The courage of that team was second to none that left a legacy for future teams facing substantial adversity at major event. The 2005 Team got off to a slow start at the World Championships but was able to play their best water polo at the end.

The 2005 team shows the strength of our coaches and athletes and the perseverance that will be a building block for the rest of the quadrennial. However, the most important tradition of our program is results are a by product of the quality of our training. It is all about the journey. We must prepare to our fullest each and every day before we can even think about results. When we get together and look back it is very unusual if we talk about results, it always a swim set, a practice, a trip that never ends, magical places, bad food, good food, the rare great hotel, etc.

WPP's Question 6: Some people believe that Title IX has played a major role in advancing women's water polo in the US and they believe it has helped us to be more aggressive in women's sports development than the European Club system. The gap is now beginning to close with the European women gaining some ground. What does the US need to do to stay ahead of the Europeans?

GB's Answer: Title IX has played a major role in the development of women's water polo in the USA. The increase in college programs alone would support that statement. When determining if the gap between the USA and Europe is closing it is important to analyze the women's water polo history of results. The analysis breaks the results into three categories; 1) 1978 World Championships to the 1986 World Championships; 2) 1987 World Cup to the 1998 World Championships; and 3) 1999 World Cup to the 2005 World Championships.

Category one, 1978 World Championships to the 1986 World Championships, had eight FINA events, three world championships and five World Cups. This category starts with the first unofficial World Championship and ends with the first official World Championship. The 1978 and 82 World Championships were included even though they were unofficial events for women's water polo. The 1986 World Championships were the first official World Championships recognized by FINA for women's water polo. The importance of the 1978 and 82 World Championships needs to be mentioned for their contribution to Women's Water Polo. During this time only four teams won medals, Australia and Netherlands won eight, the USA with seven and Canada had one. Australia, Netherlands and the USA won 23 out of the 24 possible medals. The 1978 and 82 women's water polo had five and four teams participate respectively, however the1986 WCH increased to nine teams with Hungary participating for the first time.

Category two, 1987 World Cup to the 1998 World Championships, had nine FINA events, three World Championships and six World Cups. Category two starts with the first FINA event after the 1986 World Championships and ends at the last World Championships before the first Olympic Games. The number of teams winning medals increased to seven teams, with Netherlands leading the way with nine, Hungary had five, Australia won four, Italy and the USA three, Canada two and Russia one. This time period had three medal newcomers all being from Europe, Hungary, Italy and Russia. European teams won 67%, of the medals, 18 out of the 27 medals. The USA won all three of their medals from 1987 to 1991. From the 1993 World Cup to the 1998 World Championships, 5 events, European teams won 12 out of the 15 medals. During this time period Europe caught us and passed us. The first Junior World Championships was played in 1995 and has continued every two years. Greece was a new country to the podium with a gold medal at the 1997 Junior World Championships. However, our Junior National Team was garnishing results with Bronze medals at the 1995 and 1997 Junior World Championships. Junior results can be an indication of future success. In October of 1997 the IOC announced that women's water polo would be an Olympic sport. Following the World Championships in January of 1998 the focus of women's shifted from the World Championships to the Olympic Games.

Category three, 1999 World Cup to the 2005 World Championships had seven FINA events, two Olympic Games, three World Championships and two World Cups. During this time period eight teams won medals. USA led the way with five medals, followed by Italy with four, Hungary and Canada with three, Australia and Russia with two and Netherlands and Greece with one. European teams won 11 out of the 21 possible medals for 52% a 15% decrease from category two. When the four Junior World Championships results are included the totals are as follows, USA leads the way with eight, followed by Australia with five, Canada, Hungary, Italy and Russia with four and Netherlands, Greece and Spain with one. Overall nine teams won medals with the addition of newcomer Spain at the 2003 Junior World Championships. During this time period we were able to catch the Europeans however, there is no doubt the competition is stronger than ever. Currently, we are competing with the top teams in the world and it will be important to always prepare for the future.

WPP’s Question 7: Some people believe the new FINA rules have reduced emphasis on physicality and have actually opened up the game for speed and agility. Do you believe this is true and why? If you believe this is true do you see the new women’s game dominated by the swimming powerhouses of Australia, South Africa and the United States as a result?

GB's Answer: I think the new rules give the possibility of creating more action based on athletic ability rather than physicality. As always the interpretations of the new rules will determine the look of the game. There is more to the game than swimming, even with the new rules, I believe the new rules will put more emphasis on athletic ability, and I believe the top teams will remain the same and it is possible there could be further separation. I believe it is a mistake to think that we are one of the few teams that can swim fast.

WPP's Question 8: Do you think the NCAA women water polo programs are sufficient to provide the US National Women’s Water Polo team with enough quality players in the future?

GB's Answer: From the international results analysis and current observations I would say right now the answer is yes and I believe we will be a top team through 2012. From what I saw at the 2005 Top 40 Tournament and the current college season I believe we will have a contending 2007 Junior World Championship Team, which with returning 2008 Olympians, B Team and 2007 JNT that should put us in good position for 2012. The current college season has fifteen out of our top 20 competing for various teams, eight of which either played in the World Championships, World League Super Final or both. All thirteen players from the 2005 gold medal Junior World Championship Team are going at it week after week during this college season. The level of play at the NCAA level is high and would compare to the top leagues in the world.

However, this will always need to be closely monitored. During the next quadrennial it will need to be determined if we are developing players to continue our success through 2016. Will our players in their mid-twenties still be able to compete at a high level with teams that are in the late twenties to mid thirties? It is imperative that we meet our short term and long term goals of improving our ADP if we are able to stay one of the best programs in the world past the 2008 Olympic Games.

WPP's Question 9: In the last two years two varsity women's water polo programs have been lost, Salem International University's last year and Slippery Rock University's this year. Do you see this as a trend and if so how can the water polo community go about halting such a trend in women's collegiate programs?

GB's Answer: I am worried if this will become a trend. The growth of women's water polo has been phenomenal. We are now an established Olympic sport, the NCAA Championships has expanded to eight teams and our membership numbers continue to grow. However, losing a program like Slippery Rock should be a wake up call for everyone. We have had substantial growth and many areas to be extremely proud of our great sport. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but there could be significant problems in our future if they are not addressed immediately. I think it should be a priority of USA Water Polo's new structure to implement a plan to focus on increasing the number of colleges that are playing water polo. One aspect of moving from a regional to a national sport is there needs to be continual growth at the collegiate level.

WPP's Question 10: The quality of officiating in the sport of water polo is a controversial topic, particularly in the women's game where exposure is a public and persistent issue. Do you feel that the women's game is best officiated by female officials or is it strictly a matter of experience?

GB's Answer: Even if a female referee is the best and the most experienced there will still be controversy. It is the nature of the sport. I would question the need to grab a suit. A fundamentally sound player has no need to grab a suit. I believe this is more of the problem than the referees. If the fundamentals of the players improve, the game will improve and the responsibilities of the referee will be easier.

WPP's Question 11: The new by laws of USA Water Polo encourage the movement toward a professional business model that combines professional business people with water polo devotees. Do you think such a model will help or hurt both the development of women's water polo in this country and the US National Women's team's chances of winning an Olympic gold medal?

GB's Answers: I strongly believe the new staff driven model has the potential to not only help the development of women's water polo and increase our chances of winning a gold medal but move our entire corporation to a new level. I have been to a number of annual conventions and this is the first one where I felt there was some real work done that can be the foundation for our future. The painful process of getting the new by-laws completed was a testament to when we work together what we can accomplish. The primary key will be the Nominating Committee selecting a qualified Board of Directors and then the Board of Directors will set the course for the future of our organization.

Because of Guy Baker's answers given here there is no doubt in our minds that he will be truthful and candid with the water polo community as he was in his answers to our questions. Asking questions anonymously on a message board, however, 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 on an anonymous message board answering a few good questions and answering as many argumentative and inconsequential questions as there are comic book villains?

 We are filled with both optimism and confidence that the US Women's National Team will continue to do well under the tutelage of Guy Baker, and if we give him enough support he will help the National Women's Team win the elusive Olympic gold medal. WPP would care to wish him the powers of Captain Marvel in his Herculean task: "The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the great courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury."

Before each US National Women's game let us shout or at least think:

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]