An Interview with Guy Baker, Director of Olympic Development for USA Water Polo

Richard Hunkler and Joan Gould.
Water Polo Planet

Guy Baker

We at WPP believe that Guy Baker is the right person at the right time to be Director of Olympic Development for USA Water Polo. Over the past 20 years his coaching legacy has been second to none and he has garnered more International water polo experience than any active coach in the USA. A combination that is difficult for anyone to come close to much less beat.

While coaching collegiate water polo he became a “Man for All Seasons”. He has won National Water Polo Championships with both his men’s and women’s teams. In point of fact Guy was the first coach to win a men’s and women’s National Collegiate Water Polo Championship in the same year. You can use both your hands and feet and that will not be enough to count the number of men and women who have made an All American Team while playing for him.

As coach of the US National Women’s Team he is the only coach to ever win a medal in all the Olympic Games in which women’s water polo has been played.  Under his guidance and tutelage the US National Women’s Team has won 14 medals in the last 18 FINA events. We could spend several pages writing about Guy Baker’s accomplishments but we know you are more interested in reading about how he is going to direct Olympic development for USA Water Polo.

Before asking Guy questions about his new position we are going to ask him a few questions about this year’s Olympic Games.

Was this Olympic Games any different from the past two Olympics in which you coached?

Each Olympic Games has their own unique qualities and identity.  China did an excellent job in all aspects.  The Olympic Village, Opening Ceremonies, transportation, food and the venues were all outstanding.  The Chinese people were very friendly and engaged in the process of running a great Olympic Games.

What was coaching the Gold Medal game like this time around?

It was great.  We have always emphasized the pure enjoyment of being in that arena, the last two teams playing; where winning and losing is magnified.  We like to be the last team in the water, but unfortunately that didn’t happen this time.

This Olympic silver medal appeared to be much harder to win than the first silver medal because of the parity among the women’s teams. Why do you think the women’s teams were so much stronger this time around?

In my experience I have never found winning any medal easy.  Some have said that the 2008 Olympic Games were the most competitive of all three Olympic Games.  The emergence of China, Netherlands winning the gold medal, Russia being knocked out of medal contention on the second day and the narrow margin of victory in most games could lead some to that conclusion.  Being integrally involved in all three I find it hard to separate on the competitive level each of the Olympic Games. Each Olympic Games has been very competitive; each one has offered surprises and at the same time each has followed form.  One consistent pattern for winning a medal at the Olympic Games is to win medals in two of the three major tournaments preceding the Olympic Games.  These teams are considered the favorites for Olympic medals.  Australia, Russia and USA fit into this category leading into the 2008 Olympic Games with Australia and USA winning medals. In 2004, Hungary, Italy and USA were the medal favorites based on the preceding results and Italy and USA won medals.  In 2000, we were the surprise team, in 2004 it was Greece and in 2008 Netherlands and China exceeded expectations.

The one goal victories and defeats have been consistent in all three Olympic Games.  I believe all but one of the twelve women’s water polo medal round games, semifinals and finals, have been decided by one goal, overtime or penalty shoot out. For example; the 2000 gold medal game was decided in the final seconds of the game, the 2004 gold medal game went to overtime and the 2008 bronze medal game finished with a penalty shootout. The level of play was very consistent and high at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Teams, especially offensively, rose to the occasion.  The improvement of all the teams offensively is a good sign for the future of women’s water polo.  The sport is now ready to take off to a new level of playing consistently entertaining games.  Comparatively the play in the 2004 Olympic Games was inconsistent and uneven.  The one trend that has continued is the difficulty in women’s water polo to win back to back major tournaments.  The last country to win consecutive major titles was the Netherlands. They won the 1991 World Championships and then won the 1993 World Cup.  (No major event in 1992)  Since the 1994 World Championship and now through the 2008 Olympic Games no women’s water polo country has repeated as world title holder.

Guy Baker

The remaining questions will be about the Olympic Development Program.

Give a brief description of the Olympic Development Department

USA Water Polo created a new department called the Olympic Development Department.  The purpose of the Olympic Development Department is to 1) create, implement and manage a seamless and vertically integrated water polo system from the entry level to the elite level;  2) be the best water polo country in the world;  3)create a Club System of water polo that will foster participation and competition; and 4) build an infrastructure that will ensure the long-term success of USA Water Polo.  There are five major programs in the Olympic Development Department:

All five programs are inter-connected.  It is imperative to have an educational program for coaches and referees in order to build an infrastructure that will be the foundation of our sport.  By enhancing pre-existing championships and increasing other championship opportunities there will be an environment of participation and competition that will magnify the Olympic Development Program’s athletes, coaches and referees identification process.  Through a network of USAWP Olympic Development Training Centers, the Olympic Development Program will be able to significantly mobilize the nationalizing of our sport and offer incentive and motivation for our club system athletes, coaches and referees to compete for inclusion and recognition. Once in the Olympic Development Program, athletes, coaches and referees will be taught the National Team system and are directly connected to the National Teams Pipeline and the Senior National Team.  As athlete, coaches and referees enter the National Team Pipeline, they will compete to represent our country in international competition and ultimately compete to be selected to represent our country at the Olympic Games.

With the Men’s NCAA season underway, one of the unanswered questions is the future of the Premier League. The NCAA Premier League 2 year approval ends this year and the public expectation is that the NCAA will not certify it again. Do you and Terry Schroeder plan to keep the Premier League concept alive or implement a new competition program for the top 100 players?

Yes, we are planning on keeping the concept alive.  We have begun the process, with assistance from the USOC , of working with the NCAA’s to ensure we can continue a program that will be NCAA compliant and at the same time it must be the best method for USA Water Polo to select and develop players for the National Team.

Guy BakerYou say you want to change our national sport dynamics from a regional sport to a true national sport.  There are plenty of regions of the US that are lacking water polo participation.  Is buried in this objective the goal of growing the sport in areas where water polo is non existent, or is your position strictly to look to develop the resources at established programs, regardless of location?

I do believe we can nationalize our sport.  One definition of nationalizing a sport is to have seamless and vertically integrated system that begins at the entry level and ends at the elite level.  Connecting Club Development and Coaches and Referees Education to our Senior National Teams, National Teams Pipeline and the Olympic Development Program will be the start of nationalizing our sport.  The challenge will be to create, implement and manage a system that will drive membership, increase competition and expand the development of athletes, coaches and referees.    

What is going to be your effort to the coaches of the nation?  What assistance or direction would you offer the coach in Mississippi or Tennessee, for example?

We are undertaking the massive project of creating and implementing a Coaches Education Program.  This is one of the most important 2009 projects that will ensure the long-term educational system for coaches.  We are a coach-driven sport.  The Water Polo Academy is an excellent program.  The Referees Education Program is a model that we can follow for Coaches Education.

How are you going to influence the "teaching resources of our clubs"?  Will Guy Baker and staff be hitting the road to do coaching seminars; or will there be national conferences at one location for the exchange of these principles; or will you utilize a system like Water Polo Academy for an instructional tool?

The answer to your question would be all of the above.  Our 2009 plan includes:

    1. One visit per year to each Olympic Development Team by the Senior National Team Staff. 
    1. One visit per year to each Olympic Development Team by the Director of Olympic Development

    2. Continue the annual ODP Coaches Conference held the 4th weekend of January. 

    3. ODP Coaches Interaction Program where the ODP Coaches will visit 3-5 days and observe and interact Senior National Team training and/or competition

    4. Assign Senior National Team Staff to designated ODP Teams. A mentoring program which includes conference calls; dissemination of teaching and coaching materials besides visiting each ODP Team

    5. Each ODP Coach will run a P.A.C.E. Clinic in their Zone.  The clinics will be for coaches also.      

How are you going to build a stronger program of development for athletes, coaches, and referees to serve both the men’s and women’s national team program?

One way will be to have in place a Coaches and Referees Education Program.  Another way will be to work closely with our Sport Development Department in collaboration with the Clubs and enhance our Club System to be the best it can be.  For long-term success, the Club System has to the feeder to the Olympic Development Program.   I believe the expansion of our Olympic Development Program for 2009 and another expansion in 2010 will dramatically increase the development of athletes, coaches and referees to serve the National Teams.

Are you going to be just the designer of the new program for Olympic development or are you going to design and implement the new program (be a hands-on Director)?

I am working in conjunction with a lot of people on the creation and implementation of the Olympic Development Department; once completed I will manage the department in conjunction with a number of colleagues.  I still have a number of people to discuss what would be the best model for us to be successful.  I look at the Olympic Development Department as a collaborative project that has many layers and all aspects of our sport must be considered in order to ensure we are building the best department possible.

Will you involve both the men and women players in the development program as you did the women in the P.A.C.E. clinics and the Top Forty?

One of the biggest thrills a young athlete can receive is to be able to get into the water with an Olympian.  Our players are our stars and the role models for our sport.  I still remember as a young player coming to Belmont Plaza in Long Beach for clinics run by Monte Nitzkowski and Ken Lindgren and the Nation Team players being in the water teaching us their techniques.   I have seen first hand the direct impact a National Team athlete and staff can have on the pipeline and other programs.  We are currently working on the best system for our new model.

Give us some ideas or hints on how you are going to plan and administer the USA Water Polo’s system of elite athlete development?

The most important area is to have a system that is seamless and vertically integrated.  A System includes all aspects of training and competition. 

Are players, coaches, and referees going to have any input into the design and implementation of the Olympic developmental program?

Yes as previous mentioned.  The Olympic Development Department will be a collaborative effort of athletes, coaches, referees, administrators, volunteers and people from other sports and organizations.

Guy Baker

If Guy’s answers to our questions have not made you a believer then you may have hardening of the brain arteries. Just because he sees things a little differently than you, doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t deserve a vote of confidence and a grace period to allow his plan to succeed. We at WPP don’t need to wish him luck because Guy makes his own luck by doing his homework.

There is a play about Thomas More called, “A Man for All Seasons” that received this title from a quote by Robert Whittington. We are going to change this quotation so it is about Guy Baker and USA Water Polo:

Baker is a man of a player's wit and singular goal. I know not his fellow in organizing. For he is a man of dedication, determination and knowledge. And, as time requireth, a man to develop Olympic athletes and Olympic medals for the USAWP, and sometimes in spite of sad gravity still gets things done. A man for all seasons.

Don't forget to read the Q & A Interview with Guy Baker on the USAWP website.