Jim Socum Shot Doctor Bandage Ball
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Volume 7 Number 2 December1, 2014
The road to success is not doing one thing 100 percent better, but doing 100 things 0ne percent better.



3-Finger Release
2-Finger Release
Index Finger Release
Side Arm Release
Topspin Release

The concept of a smart right hand is unknown to most water polo coaches.  A smart hand is a hand that has “touch,” is accurate, and can skip the ball.  The common perception of the release of the ball is the right hand just snaps the wrist down to throw the ball.  Sometimes the ball goes into the goal and other times the ball mysteriously goes somewhere else?  This is a perfect example of the shooter’s unaware hand or “dumb hand” throwing the ball.  The best coaching advice is for the shooter to educate the right hand so the ball goes where the shooter wants to throw it.  The “smart hand” is developed by teaching the water polo player the proper hand mechanics and five different ball releases.  The player learns the standard 3-finger release, the 2-finger release, the index-finger release, the side arm release, and the topspin release.  The shooter develops “smart hands,” and is able to place the ball anywhere in the goal or around the guard’s raised arm. 

To accomplish this task of teaching the player how to release the ball properly, the 4S system is used to guide the coach in teaching the throwing motion.  The 4S system is composed of four parts: Strong Legs, Sustaining Legs, Smart Legs, and Smart Hands.  The player must have strong legs to take the shot; sustaining legs to stay up 3-seconds to be stable and have time to fake; smart legs that are positioned correctly and split so the body can rotate; and smart hands to release the ball correctly from the hand.  The shooter can have strong, sustaining, and smart legs and fail in the last technical part, smart hands (the release), and the ball misses the goal.  The legs throw the ball but the right hand guides the ball.  Together they create the throwing motion. 

We will now concentrate on the fourth part of the 4S system: Smart Hands.  The player’s smart right hand knows the correct hand mechanics and releases the ball with the correct grip, the correct releasing fingers, the correct fingertip pressure, and the correct ball spin.  All four parts of the release are necessary for the successful release of the ball from the shooter’s hand.  Failure in any one of these four parts damages the shot.  In baseball and softball pitching, there is a tremendous amount of time spent in practice on developing different releases and spins to put on the ball.  In American water polo, there is none.  In European water polo, like American baseball and softball, the coaches concentrate heavily on how the release is performed.

The ball spin is the shot.  The release is the ball spin.  They are interconnected and inseparable.  When a home run is hit in American baseball, it is because the fastball pitcher lost control of the baseball by having a poor release with bad ball spin.  The baseball rises up in air so the batter can easily hit the ball.  Or the pitcher’s curve ball does not curve enough due to insufficient spin on the baseball and the ball goes straight ahead to the batter for an easy hit.

The fingers and the nails of the baseball pitcher are of critical importance to the pitcher.  In US water polo, the condition of the fingers is not even considered unless a finger is jammed.  The Europeans will do piano finger exercises to strengthen and increase the flexibility in the hand.  In the USA, no one has ever heard of such exercises.  The end-result of the American men being unable to release the ball with intelligence and with control, has resulted in our men’s water polo teams not winning any Olympic gold medals in over hundred years.  The teams that have focused on teaching the proper hand mechanics and the five hand releases: the Serbs, Hungarians, Croatians, Italians, and Spanish, have been extremely successful in water polo.


In this article, we will discuss the four parts of the and the four most common releases used in water polo.  The four release techniques are the 3-finger release, the 2-finger release, the index-finger release, side arm release and.  The standard 3-finger release is used on most shots.  It is called a 3-finger release because the last three fingers to make contact with the ball are the index, middle, and ring fingers.  The thumb and the little finger are shorter fingers and are not in contact with the ball as the ball rolls off the hand.  It is called a 3-finger release in the beginning all five fingers are on the ball.

The 2-finger release has the index finger and middle finger together making final contact with the ball.  The index finger and middle finger snap down on the ball to release it.  The 1-finger index-finger release has the shooter’s index finger making the final contact with the ball.  The side arm release has all five fingers gripping the ball, fingers vertical and twisting inward to release the ball. The use of each of five releases has very specific use in the game.  Failure by the player to not know or learn how to use the five releases during a game results in the player not scoring nor rising to his or her potential.  In Europe, a player with such a limited range of hand motion and with such poor control of his or her hand mechanics is called a shooter with “dumb hands.


The release has four parts: the grip, releasing fingers, fingertip pressure, and ball spin.  All of these elements of the hand together release the ball.  Failure in any part of the release mechanics destroys the shot.  The most common problems are with the releasing fingers and with ball spin.  These are all solvable problems with the proper drills.


  • Cradle
  • Pinch


The shooter grips the ball by using a non-pressing grip called the cradle grip or by firmly pressing the fingertips against the ball in a pinch grip.  The cradle grip has a hand flat with the fingers curled up behind the ball and gently holding the ball.  The standard pump fake is used with the cradle grip because the cradle grip cannot hold the ball when doing hesie fakes as the ball will fall out of the shooter’s hand (see Fig. 1).

The pinch grip has a vertical hand and firmly but delicately holds the ball in the hand.  When using a 2-finger or index finger release the cradle grip with its horizontal hand cannot get the fingers vertical quick enough to snap the fingers forward.  The cradle grip 2-finger release shoots the ball straight up in the air instead of forward due to the horizontal position of the fingers.  The cradle grip is obsolete for most high school and college players.

The pinch grip securely holds the ball in the hand. The preferred grip is the pinch grip because the fingers are vertical instead of horizontal.  Because the hand is vertical, the fingers do not have to slide up the ball to complete the release of the ball.  The pinch grip has vertical fingers that instantly release the ball.  The problem with high school players is their hand must be firm in holding the ball but not crush the ball.  An extra firm pinch gripped ball will cause the ball to rise and hit the crossbar.  The shooter has to learn to adjust his or her touch on the ball.  A smart hand is a sensitive hand; a dumb hand is an insensitive hand.

Releasing Fingers and Fingertip Pressure

  • 3-Finger: Index, middle, ring
  • 2-Finger: Index, middle finger
  • 1-Finger: Index finger
  • 5-Finger: Side arm uses all fingers
  • 5-finger: Topspin uses all fingers



The modern shooter is able to change his or her release by using the four different releases from a pinch grip and by using the same release but changing the fingertip pressure on the ball.  The 3-finger, 2-finger, index finger, side arm, and topspin releases are used in different situations.  Fingertip pressure on the ball can change the release and trajectory of the ball.  The standard 3-finger release evenly applies pressure on the ball at the release.  However, the 3-finger release can be modified to make a micro curve by increasing fingertip pressure on the index finger for one shot from the right wing or the ring finger for another shot from the left wing.  In addition, fingertip pressure is going to be greater on the index finger when an index finger release is used with no fingertip pressure on the ball from the middle and ring finger at the release.  The fingertip pressure is greater on the 2-finger release using the index and middle fingers when the ball is released.  There is no ring fingertip pressure from the 2-finger release (see Figs. 2, 3).

On a 3-finger release when the shooter takes a bar-in shot from the right to the left corner (bar-in has the ball hit the edge of the goal post), the index fingertip pressure on a 3-finger release is slightly greater to pull the ball into the left corner of the goal.  A left side to right corner bar-in shot has the ring finger exerting slightly more fingertip pressure to pull the ball into the right corner of the goal. If the ball hits the edge of the goal post and bounces straight back to the shooter, it indicates the hand was “flat” and no micro spin was placed on the ball by either finger to turn the ball inward.

To demonstrate this difficult to understand point, have the player’s right hand  on the right- to-left corner bar-in deflection (ball thrown from the right side) face to the left and snap the index finger and rotate the wrist inward to the right to deflect the ball into the left corner of the goal. For a right corner bar-in deflection (ball thrown from the left side), have the player’s hand face to the right, snap the ring finger and rotate the wrist inward to the  left.  When in shooting practice, remind the shooters that a deflection is an index finger or ring finger mistake.  In the side arm release, all fingers apply equal fingertip pressure on the ball as the hand twists inward with the fingers vertical.  However, the actual curved trajectory of the side arm shot is created by the amount of force used by the shooter’s right foot snap-in and not by fingertip pressure (see Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Reading the Goalie Part 4).

Ball Spin

  • Backspin
  • Sidespin
  • Topspin



All of the hand mechanics are used to create the proper spin on the ball.  The shooter wants the ball to go straight at the corner he or she must be able to throw a “straight” throw where the ball goes straight ahead.  Many younger players throw the ball with a slight diagonal spin or sidespin on the ball with the result the ball curves.  When the coach has the team throw long passes, he sees balls curving all over the pool.  The longer the player’s pass, the greater the chance of the ball curving (see Figs. 4, 5).

The first order of business for teaching players proper spin is to have an end-over-end backspin on the ball so it goes straight towards the goal.  Though this seems like a simple task, the ball spin is the end-result of proper body and hand mechanics by the shooter.  Many age group and high school players have never thrown a correct pass in their career!  A drill to correct weird ball spins is to use a normal  ball with black stripes on it and have the two passers evaluate each pass to see if the stripes on the ball were going end-over-end or are slanted.  About 90-percent of the players have never looked at their ball spin.  Such non-seeing of the ball spin in baseball or softball would never occur.  The spin is the pitch; in water polo, the spin should be the shot.


  • Index, Middle, and Ring fingers


The 3-finger release is the standard release used in water polo around the world.  It is a simple release and it works well.  The middle three fingers make final contact with the ball and place a backward rotating spin on the ball called a backspin. When passing a medium-speed ball, the passer can see the stripes on the ball are straight up or slanted to the side (using a stripped ball).  It is an optical illusion that the horizontal ball stripes have disappeared and only the vertical stripes remain.  As the speed of the pass increases, only a black line down the center remains.  Again, this is an optical illusion but it helps the passer to see if his or her backspin is correct (see Fig. 6).

When the 3-finger release shot is used for a skip shot, the ball lifts out of the water at 30-degrees and travels 3-meters to reach the goal.  The 3-finger release requires a 3-meter skip point so the ball has time to rise up and reach the high corner of the goal.  When a closer skip point is used, like a 2-meter skip point, the slow rising 3-finger skipped ball only reaches the middle of the cage where the goalkeeper’s arm is located.

The 3-finger skip shot release has more ball rotation and greater displacement of water and “digs” deeper into the water.  The 3-finger release, unlike the 2-finger release, requires more power and ball velocity to bounce out of the “hole” it created in the water.  Many age group and women cannot skip the ball using a 3-finger release.

When the 3-finger release is used on a lob shot, there is a tremendous amount of ball spin creating a 45-degre to 55-degree ball arc.  A 24-inch (61-cm) lob aiming >point above the crossbar is used to aim the ball and take into consideration the ball arc.  Players at the lower levels have a difficult time controlling the ball arc and many times throw the ball over the top of the goal.  Control on a 3-finger lob is done by controlling the amount of ball rotation.  The more ball rotation, the greater the ball arc trajectory and the more difficult the aim.  The 3-finger release is used with a cradle or pinch grip and on all shots.  It is the universal release.


  • Index and Middle Fingers


The 2-finger release positions the index finger and the middle finger so they are touching each other.  At the release, these two fingers make final contact with the ball.  A 2-finger release is a quicker release than the 3-finger release because one less finger is used.   This release allows the shooter to throw a 2-finger fastball, a 2-finger skip shot, and a 2-finger lob.  Most college men and national team players use a 2-finger release though not all of the players in the United States do.  A common mistake is to spread the index and middle fingers apart.  This reduces the strength and quickness of the release.  For women a 2-finger release allows women to be able to skip the ball.  When the 2-finger release is used to lob the ball, the ball rotation is reduced creating greater control of the ball arc.  The 2-finger lob is a much more accurate shot due to the reduced ball rotation.  Throwing a right side to left corner lob is more accurate than a 3-finger lob.  The 2-finger lob aiming point is lowered to 12-inches (30-cm) above the crossbar due to a 30-degree ball arc (see Fig. 7).

The 2-finger release skip shot, with less ball spin and a smaller hole in the water, leaps out of the water easily at a 45-degre angle.  A 2-meter skip point is used for the men and one a little longer than 2-meters for the women.  It is a better skip shot for most players.

One of the gender differences is that women do not place enough spin on the ball when using a 2-finger skip shot due to their reduced arm strength.  With one less finger applied to the ball there is 33-percent less ball spin.  The woman shooter has to use more power to spin the ball off the index/middle finger fingertips.  A slow rotation 2-finger skip shot hits the water and stops.  A high rotating ball spin reduces friction and allows the ball to skip off the water.  For men, who have an excess of power, ball spin is not a problem.  Too much spin is the problem for men.


  • Index finger


The index-finger release has the ball pinched by all five fingers and then at the release the index finger snaps down on the ball.  The ball hits the water with less spin, a smaller hole and the ball lifts off the water very quickly with at a 60-degree angle with the goal line as the skip point.  However, with only one finger snapping down on the ball to place spin on the ball, the shooter must really concentrate on applying more power on the index finger fingertip to spin the ball.  Again, with the men this is not a problem with their greater arm strength.  Lack of ball spin, however, is especially a problem with women.  The index- finger and the 2-finger release are the only releases that allow women to skip the ball.  Therefore, the female shooter must apply more fingertip spin on the ball.  This is not a major problem and only requires more concentration from the shooter on her fingertip(s).  Though there is not an index finger lob shot or an index-finger power shot, there is an index finger entry pass into the 2-meter player from the 2-spot/EU-4 (see Fig 8).


  • 5-Fingers Twist Snap




The side-spinning ball is created from the side arm position.  There are two types of releases: a horizontal hand release and a vertical hand twist release.  The standard horizontal release that everyone tries to use to learn the side arm shot does not work.  It creates a shot that is uncontrollable and usually misses the goal completely.  The correct side arm release is a vertical release called the “twist snap.”  Instead of the ball sliding sideways off the hand in the horizontal release, the twist snap release has firm control of the ball and is very accurate.  The shooter of a side arm shot (Angled Boyer shot) starts with the ball in a three-quarter arm position, drops the elbow and the arm, steps-out at 30-degrees with the right leg and twists snaps the ball as the arm reaches the horizontal.  The twist snap places a sidespin on the ball due to the circular release.  The curve can be mild with a mild right foot snap-in.  With a hard right foot snap-in, the ball can be pulled strongly to the left.  The ideal position in the pool is to shoot from is above the left post (the US 2-spot/EU 4-spot).  The shooter can curve the ball to either corner (see Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Women Shooting Part 5, Reading the Goalie Part 4) and (See Figs. 9, 10, 11).

Topspin Release

  • Forward ball spin
  • Football release
  • Skip shot



The topspin skip shot is the hardest of all of the skip shot releases to master, but it is very effective. The shooter’s hand is on top of the ball facing inward using an extra-long arm cock.  At the release, the shooter’s hand slides 1-inch (2.54-cm) forward to place a topspin or forward spin on the ball.  The skip point is the goal line.  The hand, instead of snapping down hard, lightly places a forward spin on the ball.  Do not try to use a hard snap or the ball will spin straight down into the and stop.   The topspin skip shot is thrown with a LIGHT wrist snap.  There is no power gained from the wrist snap, only spin is placed on the ball.  The hand DOES NOT SLIDE 6-inches (15-cm) forward across the top of the ball. The topspin skipped ball jumps right into the goal with its forward spin (see Figs. 12, 13).


The coach teaches the 3-finger, 2-finger, index finger, side arm, and topspin releases to the players to develop smart hands.  The coach goes over the power shot, skip shot, and the lob so the fingers learn how to control the ball with different shots.  The players are learning how to develop a smart hand that can adapt to any shooting situation.  It will take time to train the players’ hands in the correct hand mechanics necessary to master the five releases.  Some players with insensitive hands may not be able to tell the difference between an index finger skip release and a 2-finger skip release at first.  In time, the players learn how to “feel” the fingertip difference and develop “touch” on the ball.  The multi-purpose educated hand allows the shooter to develop to their full potential as a shooter.

© Copyright 2014 Jim Solum
Next Month: Smart Hands II

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