Jim SocumShot DoctorBandage Ball

Volume 3 Number 5 December 1, 2010
The road to success is not doing one thing 100 percent better, but doing 100 things 0ne percent better.


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Photograph from 2010 Women’s European Championships by Blue Deep Media.eu and Inside Foto.it

Coaches and players have long heard the admonishment to have “strong legs” when throwing the ball.  What is “strong legs” is never defined.  The use of the word strong legs actually covers a vast area that consists of leg strength, flexibility and leg positioning and repositioning.  Most people assume that the word strong legs, means muscular legs.  Strong legs have great strength that can sustain the shooter in the air for 3-seconds.  Strong legs are also explosive and recruit fast twitch muscles to instantly react and elevate the shooter.  Smart legs are part of “strong legs.”  Smart legs are able to aim the ball and act as a pivot point to rotate the shooter’s body.  Smart legs are able move into various leg positions to catch and throw the ball; they balance out the body and create a stable base for the shooter.  The smart right and left legs of the shooter are able to move in four directions: forward, backward, right and left to catch the ball and shoot the ball. 

The player must have both strong legs and “smart legs” to have a stable base to be able to catch and shoot the ball.  The legs are the catch.  The legs are the shot.  Without legs, the player is finished in water polo.  The coach should forget about teaching counterattacks, 6-on-5’s and dropback defenses if the team cannot catch, pass, or shoot the ball.  If the fundamentals are not there, then advanced tactics will do no good.  The team that cannot pass the ball to a teammate has no offense; if the team cannot shoot, it cannot score. No legs = no water polo team.  It is as simple as that.  And yet, few coaches understand this basic fact.



Figure 1

Photograph by Deep Blue Media.eu and Inside Foto.it by Martina Scala, Guido Barbagelata, Guido Perrotino

Smart legs are educated legs that are trained to move to meet the ball.  The player’s legs adjust to the ball so the player remains vertical and stable in the water.  The player’s legs are a combination of being mobile, explosive, strong and sustaining (the acronym is MESS). If the player only has strong legs he or she is unable to reposition the legs to catch or throw the ball.  Think of a weightlifter awkwardly throwing a baseball. When the water polo player has strong sustaining legs that are mobile and explosive, the catch and shot become effortless (see Fig. 1). 

03 04

Figure 2 and Figure 3

Photographs by Deepblue media and Inside Foto.it


Figure 4

Photographs by Deepblue media and Inside Foto.it

The “smart” mobile legs concept has the player using multiple leg positions to move to the vertical, forward, backward, and to the right and left.  Explosive legs mean that the shooter is able to instantly explode up out of the water into the shot.  The shot is completed in one second.  Shooting is not a slow motion action.  Shooting is not swimming 1,000 meters.  Strong legs means the legs have great strength.  Sustaining legs means the shooter is able to remain elevated and stable for at least 3-seconds.  There is no advantage for the shooter to elevate high out of the water and immediately sink.  The shooter needs to sustain his or her height out of the water to fake the goalie down.  So often we see age group and high school shooters sinking as they fake the ball (see Figs. 2, 3, 4).


Figure 5

Photograph by Deep Blue Media.eu and Inside Foto.it

The untrained player is only able to eggbeater the legs and scissor kick the legs to shoot the ball.  These are only two leg motions out of a dozen leg positions and leg kicks.  This type of player has what is called “dumb legs.”  That is, the player’s legs are incapable of more than two leg positions and two kicks which results in a very unstable base.  The player with dumb legs can only catch and shoot the ball from the point (center cage position) because he or she does not have mobile legs that can adjust to catching and shooting the ball from various angles and body positions in the water.  When the guard attacks, the player cannot adjust his or her legs to regain a stable base and is knocked over.  When the guard sticks his/her arm up in the air, the player with dumb legs is unable to use the legs to move the arm and ball around the defender’s outstretched arm.  In fact, she may end up like the center guard in the picture above (see Fig. 5).

The player’s legs are the catching and the throwing motion.  The legs catch the ball; the legs throw the ball.    All mistakes are leg mistakes. Leg positioning and repositioning allows the player to adjust the right hand for every pass thrown.  The right arm has a very limited ability to adjust to a poorly thrown pass.  The legs position the right arm to catch the ball.  The right arm does not control the legs. The player’s leg positioning controls the body position and right arm position to catch the awkward pass.  The player’s legs must be able to step-forward, step-out to the left, step-out to the right and step-back (see Fig. 6). 


Figure 6

The Serbians believe that the use of the Basic Four Drill teaches the player to use the legs in four directions: forward, backward, right and left.  The Basic Four Drill has the player practice moving in each one of the four directions to educate the legs. These four leg positions are the core of the throwing motion. These four leg positions create the stable base for the catch and shot.  The player with mobile legs is centered and balanced in the water and able to move in any direction to catch an awkward pass or shoot around the guard.  The player is able to move his or her legs in the water to keep the player stable in the water. The legs throw the ball.  The legs are the shot.  A player with dumb legs (immobile legs) is a poor shooter.  The player must be able to move the legs in the four directions so he or she is able to adjust to the ball and the angle immediately as the game progresses.  Water polo is a dynamic and ever-changing game that forces the player to adjust and readjust the legs to numerous situations in the water (see Fig. 6).


Left Leg Right Leg Leg Movements Left Hand
Fixed Mobile  Forward/ Backward Balances out
Points Balances out Step-out right/left Elevates
Pivots Shoots Up/Down  Rotates



Figure 7

Each of the player’s legs has specific duties to perform.  Strong legs and smart legs divide these leg duties between the left leg and the right leg.  The left leg is fixed, points to aim the ball and acts as a pivot point to rotate the body.  The right leg is mobile, balances out and stabilizes the player’s body and begins the shot by snapping in the right foot.  The shooter’s left hand, the third leg of the shooter, assists in balancing, elevating and rotating the body.  The shooter’s legs also must be able to move in four directions to adjust to the ball and the guard.  The shooter moves forward, backward, steps-out to the right and steps-out to the left.  The shooter with great leg movement can go north, south, east and west in the water to counter any movement by the guard or goalie (see Fig. 7).

Left Leg Education

The player is taught to point the left foot at the corner of the goal where he or she wants to shoot the ball.  The rule is: The ball goes wherever the left foot points.  The right hand is ruled by the left foot.  The left leg and foot are a fixed point (pivot point) in the water that allows the player to rotate backward to cock the ball and rotate forward to throw the ball.  Since the left leg is fixed, the player needs to have an intellectual understanding that the left leg is forward and needs to point at a spot in the goal to aim the ball.  Getting the player to realize that the left leg is forward to angle the body and create a pivot point for body rotation is difficult.  Many players, particularly girl water polo players, like to have both legs together and have the feet and shoulders square to the goal.  This creates a body position in the water that eliminates the left foot point which makes the player unable to aim the ball or rotate the body.  The concept of pointing the left foot at the target, though constantly used in ground sports to aim and throw a baseball or softball is unknown to the water polo player.  The left foot point is the throwing motion in water polo (see Fig. 7).

Right Leg Education

The main balancing leg of the shooter is the right leg.  If the player drops the ball, falls over or throws the ball over the top of the goal it is a failure in the right leg positioning.  As coaches we have completely overlooked right leg training.  The correct positioning of the player’s right leg creates balance. The player’s right leg must be educated and trained so he or she can create a stable base in the water.  Every time the ball is caught the right leg abducts, flexes, straightens and moves up and down in the water to balance out the player’s body.  As a demonstration have the player keep the right leg under the hips and try to catch a variety of difficult passes from various angles.  The result for the “stiff legged” ball-catching player is he or she drops the ball.  Right leg positioning and repositioning is the secret to catching the ball (see Fig. 7).

When the player is doing the Basic 4 drills he or she is repositioning the right leg (the mobile leg) to balance the body in the water to make it stable.  The left leg is relatively motionless (fixed) and is used as a pivot point for the player’s body.  Therefore, most throwing and catching mistakes are right leg positioning errors.  When the player masters right leg positioning he or she is able to adjust to meet the ball on every pass and throw the ball from a stable base.

Left Hand: The Third Leg

The left hand acts as the third leg for the player. The player’s left hand plays an important part in elevation, balancing out and rotating the body to the right and to the left.  Because water is 784 times denser than air, it is not possible to swing the right leg back from a square-to-the-goal leg position to a right leg straight back position without using the left hand.  The resistance of the water stops the right leg swing.  In ground sports, the baseball and softball pitcher’s right leg swings back with ease through the air.  In the water, the left hand must pull against the water to move the right leg backward. For a demonstration of this fact, the player places the left hand on top of head and tries to rotate the body and throw the ball.  The body barely moves. The player’s left hand motion is an invaluable part of leg positioning.  Without the player’s left hand there are no “legs” (see Fig. 7).


Figure 8

Find the guard’s two hands.

Photographs: Deepblue media.eu & Inside Foto.it by M. Scale, G. Barbagelata, G. Perottino

Stone Legs

The shooter is unable to move the legs to reposition them so he or she can catch the ball or to shoot the ball around the defender.  The shooter cannot move as his or her legs are “heavy” in the water.  To the coach it looks like the player is cemented to the bottom of the pool.  The water polo player’s legs look like they are made out of stone.  The legs are so inflexible they cannot move.  The player with stone legs needs to be able to be at the point position (3-spot) in the frontcourt to catch the ball or to shoot the ball.  In addition, the 3-spot only shooter must receive the perfect pass to catch the ball and not be threatened by the guard.  Since the point, the 3-spot, is one of five spots or angles in the pool the chances of this player getting to his/her chosen spot in the pool is about 20-percent.  This unidirectional type of player may never get to the point during the game and therefore is unable to shoot. Unfortunately, there are too many of these one dimensional players on every team.  The above picture shows two players with dumb legs (see Fig. 8).

Tight Legs and Hips

Groin: Adduction  Adduction: Scissors kick leg moves towards mid-line
Hips: Rotation, Abduction Abduction: Step-out leg moves away from mid-line 
Hams: Flexion Flexion: Bending the knee
Quads: Extension Extension: Straightening the knee

The player’s ability to move in four directions, forward, back, right and left requires the hips and legs to have flexible muscles in the groin, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps. A player with stone legs has inflexible legs and uneducated legs. It makes no sense to instruct a player in the four basic movements if he or she is inflexible and is unable to move in these directions.  Stretching the hips and the legs is an important part of leg training.  When the hips and legs are tight the ball is dropped and the shot is off.  Great shooters have flexible hips and legs.

The rotational kick of the eggbeater kick is dependent on the hips rotating the leg and foot.  It is impossible to rotate the foot around the ankle as there are zero degrees of rotation.  There are only 10-degrees of rotation to the right or left at the knee.  However, there are 90-degrees of total hip rotation.  The hips are the rotational part of the eggbeater kick.  No hip rotation = no eggbeater kick.

The scissor kick is a combination of an abduction motion and adduction motion and uses the hips and groin muscles to move the legs apart and then together.  Abduction is the motion of moving the leg away from the mid-line by using the gluteal muscles.  Adduction is bringing the leg back toward the mid-line using the groin muscles  The stepping-out leg motion is an abduction movement as the right leg moves away from the mid-line.  Hamstring flexion at the pelvis lifts up the thigh; at the knee joint it bends the leg.  Quadriceps extension lowers the thigh at the pelvis and straightens out the leg at the knee joint.  The combination of all of these flexible muscle groups working together creates the shooter’s leg range of motion in the water.  The greater the player’s leg range of motion, the greater is the catching and shooting ability of the player.  Leg range of motion in the water is stability.  With a wide range of motion, the strength in the legs can be fully utilized.

Range of motion of the legs is based on flexibility. When there is no flexibility; there can be no leg positioning. Tight hips and tight legs destroy the catch and the shot.


The stretches above are called dynamic stretches which are active movement stretching.  The goal of active stretching is to stretch the muscle while it is moving.  In static stretching the player does not move when stretching the muscle.  The latest research indicates that active stretching is the best type of stretching exercise.  Some studies indicate that static stretching may injury the muscles and may actually slow down the muscle reaction time to contract.  However, this is a controversial subject among strength trainers.  In the meanwhile, many coaches have switched to active stretches for their teams.  Stretch to shoot is the rule.  YouTube.com has a number of stretching videos that the reader can view.

In concluding, the player has mobile, explosive, strong and sustaining legs.  The strong legs of the shooter respond instantly for high elevation out of the water.  Once airborne, the player can sustain his or her height out of the water for at least 3-seconds.  The player’s legs are educated to become smart legs that can move in various positions in the water to catch and throw the ball and to maintain a stable base.  The strong legs must kick high and hard if the mobile shooter is going to score.  The catch is the legs. The shot is the legs.  Legs move to adjust to the ball or to shoot around the guard. 

The modern player understands the duties of the left leg (fixed, points, pivots) and the right leg (mobile, balances out, shoots) in catching and throwing the ball.  The player learns how to move the right leg to balance out the body so the ball can be caught and thrown from a stable base.  The player has flexible hips and legs so he or she has a large range of motion to move the leg or legs in various positions to maintain stability in the water.  When the player has smart legs he or she can move in any of the four directions and adjust to the ball for the catch and shot.  The modern player is multi-directional with strong and mobile legs that create a stable base that allows the player to reach his or her full potential as a shooter.

© Copyright 2010 Jim Solum
Next month: Smart Legs: Part 2

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