Water Polo Is the Chess of Sports

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Water Polo Planet
04/01/06

Similar to playing Chess, when playing water polo for almost every move your opponent makes there is a counter move, and for every counter move there is a counter of  the counter move ad infinitum. Actually there are not an infinite number of counter moves, but the number of counter moves is so great that to humans it might as well be infinite. Sometimes it appears that this sport was created solely for the purpose of enhancing one's gray matter or if not then its purpose is to keep those involved in the sport young. You know what they say about brain cells, "If you don't use them then you lose them!"

Anyone who has played, coached, or refereed a nanosecond of water polo knows that dummies hardly ever finish first. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but if I were a betting person I would bet on "smarts" every time. If you do that then the chances are your win column will be much larger than your loss column, but heck, winning, unlike what Coach Lombardi said, is not the only thing. It is just a side effect of the time spent in water polo on solving and proposing problems, and it turns out that many of the water polo solutions apply to life in general as well. Companies today need and seek problem solvers or should I say, hopefully, they need ethical and/or moral problem solvers, and many times they need problem solvers who can think fast on their feet or even on their eggbeating feet. 

Similar to what Will Rogers once said, "I have never met a problem I didn't want to solve."  I have met a lot of problems in water polo, and what is great about water polo is that you get more than one chance to solve many of them. In addition you get to use the gambit of problem solving techniques to try and solve them. You can use the classic techniques found in G. Polya's book, How To Solve It : 1) Understanding the problem; 2) Devising a plan; 3) Carrying out the plan; and 4) Looking back. A little more detailed explanation can be found at the Problem Solving Island web site. Also many modern-day problem solving techniques can be found at the Creativity & Innovations in Science & Technology web site.

Let us now look at some concrete examples of moves and counter moves and problem solving which is used in the game of water polo - the thinking person's choice for being semi-drowned:

Offensive move: Plays a 2-meter person who earns an ejection or a score almost every time he/she gets the ball.

Defensive move: Has 2-meter defender play in front this 2-meter player.

Offensive move: Player at 2-meters pushes the defender to the four or five meter line and the 1 or 5 offensive player throws the ball to the 2-meter player for inside water.

Defensive move: As soon as the 1 or 5 player receives a pass the 1 or 5 defender is to foul and drop.

Offensive move: Sends the secondary 2-meter player to the 2-meter position, and swims in the primary 2-meter player to the 2-meter position with a person who is usually not the best 2-meter defender.

Defensive move: Has the 2-meter defender switch on to the new 2-meter player swimming into the 2-meter position.

Offensive move: Tells the 2-meter swimming into the 2-meter position to pop for a quick shot on goal when the defenders start their switch.

Defensive move: Has Team play a 3 drop

And so on and so forth until the cows come home or until the ball changes hands, which ever comes first.

This should give you some idea of the challenges you face as a player or coach in a water polo game. Not only are there challenges to be had but also there are situations or problems to be solved and there is fun in the doing of both. Now throw into this mix the fact that you have to be in outstanding physical condition to play the game properly and you have what I call Heaven in a swimming pool. The only drawback is that there are not many angels in the pool but there are a good many stout-hearted men and women who will be your friends for life and a few for whom you would take a bullet.

The give and take found in water polo is exciting and is similar to an accelerant on a fire but instead of fanning flames it generates thoughts. One time in an Eastern Championship game we were the 7th seeded team playing the 2nd seeded team in a first round game. The team I was coaching had two excellent players and the rest of the starters were young players who were fair to mid-land in the skills department but were players who could swim like bats out of hell can fly - very fast!  

In the game I had one of the two excellent players always playing as the 2-meter defender and the other playing the 2-meter position. Since one of the players was right handed, Chris Tengwall, and the other was left handed, Frank Mulcrone, I had them alternate playing the 2-meter position after every few possessions of the ball. The excellent player was to switch anytime the opposing team attempted to swim in a new 2-meter person. The other players were told on offense to drive so fast that the water would part and they could run to the 4-meter line, and on defense they were told to jam the middle as fast as possible on the opposing teams counterattack and to crank-up their counterattacks as though their starting positions depended on it.

To make a game which was much longer in my memory than it was to actually play, much, much shorter; we won the game in the second period of sudden death overtime. Our left handed 2-meter player scored on a right handed sweep shot. We beat a team on paper that was a much better team than ours. The opposing coach who I had known and played against for many years and who had never said a kind or harsh word about my teams or me came to me after this game and said,"You had some really bad players in that game but you hid them well."  I was so astounded I said, "Thank you", but what I wanted to say was that paper even gray paper with a list of excellent players on it is not the same as what a coach does with his gray matter and what his players can do with stout and determined hearts.

Does this mean I am super smart and that I am much smarter than the coaches I oppose? The answer to that question is not just "No" but "Hell No!" What it does mean is that on many occasions a coach and a smart, spirited team can apply problem solving to a very difficult situation and come out on top. Young coaches just getting started might want to read Coaching Special Situations by Robert Guaghran and myself and/or Situation Fundamental: Part 1 and Situation Fundamental: Part 2 by Robert Gaughran. These articles may help to fill your heads with some more moves and counter moves. Didn't Barry White sing a song with the title that goes something like, "Can't Get Enough of Your Gray Matter?"

I realize this article is similar to the minister's sermon about how important it is to go to church which is given to the congregation that is already in church. However, I wanted to emphasize to the water polo community that water polo players make better grades in college not just because some people think they are a privileged few but because they are constantly having to solve problems and make moves and counter moves when they play water polo. Finally, in this article I didn't spend much time telling the reader how much fun water polo is to play and how it keeps you young, and the reason  I didn't is that you have to experience water polo not read about it to understand how true these two propositions are.

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com