Good Play or Bad Play: A Referee's Call for Consistency

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet
07/15/07

Ever get tired of watching players try to make plays that any good coach would never ask a player to try to make? Or worse, ever get tired of watching a referee call a foul in favor of such a play? I’ll bet I know the answer to both questions.

So, if the answer is yes, then WHY do these things keep happening?

I have at least one answer, and that is that we collectively have missed making the connections between what any good coach would call a good play and how such plays are or are not reinforced during a game.

As a broken down old referee, I will address this in two ways, from the perspectives of: 1) what we do wrong in connecting good vs bad play to what referees do and 2) what we do wrong in connecting what referees do (or worse, are taught) to how we define good vs bad play. What you will see is that it is a circular process that can only end if something is done to break the circle.

To Be or Not To Be - a Good Play or a Bad Play: You Decide!

Let’s start with a very simple but easy to understand example: a 1-on-goaltender counter attack. There is a steal on top, a contra foul, something that allows a lone attacker to be dribbling the ball towards the opposing goaltender, and for the sake of simplicity, let’s let this attacker take the dribble into the penalty area near center cage. Let’s also give this attacker a trailing defender. Gee, this is starting to sound like something done thousands of times as a drill during practice, doesn’t it? Yup. In the drill, what is supposed to happen?

The attacker: The coach asks the attacker, let’s assume a right-hander, to attack the goaltender’s lefthand, and at about the 4m line, to move across the goal, forcing the goaltender to move laterally as well, causing the goaltender to sink, and to shield the defender by using the right hip (as well as right knee and foot). As the goaltender begins to sink, with the defender shielded, the attacker is supposed to pick up the ball, keeping it in front and away from the defender, and shoot it hard into the back of the goal. If the goaltender can be forced to move laterally fast enough, this shot is taken weak-side, against the direction of this lateral movement by the goaltender.

The defender: The coach asks the defender to beat the attacker to the 4m line, to “take the extra stroke,” to get goal-side of the shooting arm, and to get into position to be a strong-side shot-blocker. This minimizes the goaltender’s responsibility to the weak-side half of the goal and forces the attacker to shoot across the goaltender’s body, making it easier to get to the shot. It also makes it impossible for the defender to be called for an exclusion or penalty foul because the defender will be goal side.

Coaches, this sounds about right, doesn’t it? Sounds about right to me! And if the attacker does this correctly, it is a goal. If the defender does it correctly, it is usually a blocked shot, a change of possession, and a counter to the other end.

So what is the problem here? Anyone ever seen a defender climb up the back of the attacker, whack at the shooting arm, and have the referee not blow the whistle, claiming the attacker was “holding the ball?” Or worse, the referee does call the deserved penalty foul (an exclusion foul for “striking” that becomes a penalty because it was committed in the penalty area and prevented a probable goal) and either the player objects or (even worse) both the player and coach object because the attacker was holding the ball? The problem is evident by re-reading the above paragraph descriptions of what the good coach expects from the drill… and what we have is a HUGE disconnect between the definition of good vs bad play and in what settings that definition is valid.

IF (and only if) the good coach can run this drill and ask the attacker to swim directly at the goaltender, ball on the water or worse, picking up the ball and bringing it behind the head (in either case not protecting the ball), then just before reaching the goaltender, to stop trying to score, hoping to “draw” a foul, can this be defined as a good play. But it is NOT run that way in practice, is it? Nope. So this CANNOT be defined as a good play, can it? Nope. Then how can a player or coach argue for it or, worse, how can a referee be praised for calling a foul in such a setting? Only if there is a good vs bad play disconnect.

IF (and only if) the good coach can run this drill and ask the defender to climb up the back of the attacker, delivering a well-timed strike at the shooting arm after the ball is lifted, can this be defined as a good play. But it is NOT run that way in practice, is it? Nope. So this CANNOT be defined as a good play, can it? Nope. Then how can a player or coach argue for it or, worse, how can a referee be praised for such a non-call? Only if there is a good vs bad play disconnect.

Personally, and specifically with respect to this play, I don’t care what we decide to call this, but I DO care that we all agree. OK, that’s not really true. I DO care, personally and professionally, and think we must ALL agree that the ultimate definition of “correct” is what kinds of plays are most likely to deliver a World or Olympic Championship. But beyond that, we ought to (not must, but ought to) agree that the kinds of things we in the USA do, at lower age-groups for example, are the kinds of things that reinforce these “good play” behaviors. This requires that our top coaches come together in some fashion and create a systematic definition of what we in the USA shall define as “good” water polo as we guide our athletes in their transition from entry level to upper level international players.

Make Up Your Mind or Someone Else Will Do It For You

So, given these imperatives, what takes precedence? Does holding the ball trump striking or does it not? Is, or is not, inside position a trump card? And let’s not be too hasty, lest we make whatever decision we make without considering the consequences. Consequences? Isn’t this simple? No, it is not simple.

Holding the ball trumps striking: Fine with me. But I don’t want to hear ONE PEEP when a perimeter defender strikes the head of an attacker holding the ball to make an entry pass. And expect two big changes in how teams play: 1) lots of poor entry passes as perimeter players are forced further and further from the goal line and 2) 1-on-goaltender counter attackers will roll out towards the sideline looking for a teammate to take an outside shot rather than taking the ball themselves towards the goal;

Striking trumps holding the ball: Fine with me. But I don’t want to hear ONE PEEP when an exclusion or penalty foul is called against a defender who strikes the head of an attacker holding the ball to make an entry pass or the arm of an attacker on a 1-on-goaltender. And expect three big changes in how teams play: 1) lots of good entry passes as perimeter players do not fear being struck as they move closer to the goal to make their entry passes, 2) many direct shots after these fouls, and 3) lots of 1-on-goaltender counter attackers, as well as centers, making hard moves towards the goal;

Inside position is a trump card: Fine with me. But I had better only hear coaches yelling at their players who did NOT take the extra stroke and not ONE PEEP about the referee being “picky.” And expect one big change in how teams play: lots of 1-on-goaltender counter attackers, as well as centers, making hard moves towards the goal;

Inside position is NOT a trump card: Fine with me. All you coaches change your drills. And expect only HUGE centers to ever try to make a turn move. This will make it more of a perimeter game.

Again, I don’t care what it is, but do care that we all KNOW what it is.

Ball Under Water - a Sea of Trouble

How about another example? How about one of my least favorite things in all of water polo, the dreaded “ball under.” Much more briefly, let’s take a poll and see how many coaches teach their athletes, particularly in traffic, to pick up the ball from the top. Results? No surprise here, NO good coach does that. So what happens in a real game? The attack has possession of the ball, the attacker is in a crowd, and the ball, as well as lots of hands and arms, are all underwater. How is this to be judged?

Determine WHO really took it under – decide it was the attacker: Fine with me. The attacker had the ball, could not keep it above the water, therefore the defense could not play it, so the referee calls a “ball under” foul and the possession is turned over. Seems consistent with what coaches ask for in practice drills, right?

Determine WHO really took it under – decide it was the defense: Fine with me. Makes one wonder about the drills, but that’s ok with me too. This decision also means that there had to have been a change of possession, therefore the 30s clock must be reset. What does this mean? It means that the attacker had the ball for awhile, 20s maybe, unable to get a shot off, the ball handling and control was sloppy enough for the defense to get at the ball, and in the attempt to steal it, puts it under. The reward to the sloppy attacker is a new possession clock. In effect, the attacker is rewarded with 50s of possession for having poor ball control skills. Coaches – you are ALL doing the wrong drills! All you have to do to get 50s of possession is teach the kids to handle the ball from the top in traffic! This is great!

Just call it a foul for ball under: Fine with me too. Just like in the first example, the attack had the ball, could not keep it above the water, therefore the defense could not play it, so the referee calls a “ball under” foul and the possession is turned over. Seems consistent with what coaches ask for in practice drills, right? But this is different, in a way, because we don’t even care WHO may or may not have REALLY touched it last or forced whom to push the ball under. The attack was sloppy, the ball handling worse, and the consequence is just what it is in practice: handle the ball from the top and get out and do pushups or whatever the coaches do to reinforce this.

Just like above, I don’t care what we do but let’s all do the same things for the same reasons.

OK, let’s consider another example. What shall we consider? How about a perimeter player trying to make an inside turn move. Let’s make it a right hander over at O5 (what’s a righthander doing there you ask? It happens all the time I say) trying to make a strong side (counter clockwise) turn (what’s a righthander doing turning into the goal line you ask? It happens all the time I say) because the defender is either slightly behind (too slow I’d say) or sealing off the clockwise turn back to the middle (good coaching I’d say).

So, coaches, how many of you teach your righthanders to practice this? Let me guess: none of you. So, coaches, how many of you whine at the referee for NOT calling a minor foul to let this attacker, doing everything wrong, have a free throw as a bail out? The answer is MORE than “none of you.” So, which is it, good or bad play?

And referees, not so fast, you aren’t off the hook either. How many of you have rewarded this very bad play with a minor foul, bailing out a lousy play or a lousy player with a “Christmas in July” free throw that was not earned? As above, the answer is MORE than “none of you.” So, which is it, good or bad play? If bad, why are you blowing the whistle?

This is When the Defender Contends with Out Rageous Slings and Arrows of the Center

One final example. How about a right-handed center, after an entry pass from O4, who makes a counterclockwise half-turn and puts the ball on the water. OK, now what? Now what indeed… What does the center have? The ball (meaning possession). What does the referee do? What indeed… What else is happening? Is this an immediate personal foul against the defender for being out of position? How about a no-call because the center is not doing anything. What are the options?.

So, coaches, when you send your centers out to the diving well to work on their game, how many of you teach them to put the ball on the water, make a 90 degree turn, put the ball on the water, and wait for the whistle? Let me guess: none of you. So, coaches, how many of you whine at the referee for NOT calling a foul to let this attacker “draw” a minor foul so you can run your “set up” offense? Or worse, to “draw” an exclusion foul so you can run your extra (6-on-5)? The answer is MORE than “none of you.” So, which is it, good or bad play?

And referees, not so fast, just as above, you aren’t off the hook either. How many of you have rewarded this very bad play with a minor foul, bailing out a lousy play or a lousy player with another “Christmas in July” free throw that was not earned? Or WORSE, an exclusion for the defender making contact from behind when the center is still in possession of, and in control of, the ball? As above, the answer is MORE than “none of you.” So, which is it, good or bad play? If bad, why are you blowing the whistle?

Now, where am I going with all this… and when am I going to get to the point?

NOW.

Coaches beg for bailout whistles because so many referees provide them that the coaches can legitimately expect all referees (all except broken down grumpy old referees like me that is) to do so. And they beg for them despite never coaching it in practice nor being willing to call it a good play? Why? WHY? It’s easy! Because the referee is supposed to “just call the game, just call what you see.”

BTW - it makes my teeth grind just writing that… warning to coaches, don’t yell that at me in the middle of a game… it is guaranteed to start me reaching for the cards in my pocket…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… if the defender is seen reaching across the attacker, it’s a foul, so just blow the whistle. No analysis, no consideration to what the attacker did or did not do, no brains, just a whistle, required. So more and more coaches expect these bailouts, and more and more referees call them, it becomes expected, and the circle gets stronger and stronger. And breaking that circle requires someone (like me) who no longer whistles except when there is no one else available and who doesn’t care a whit about either coach other than they remain quiet and invisible at all times. Which, in this setting, is all I care about. And on those rare weekends I do have to whistle, what I find is that it does not take very long (maybe a period, two maximum) before this non-whistle is accompanied by the coach of the attacking team yelling at the attackers to “get big on your legs,” “keep your head up,” “help him out,” “give him a release,” “stay centered and get out of the corner,” etc… gee… sounds like good water polo to me. And what happens is that the players DO what the coaches ask, the DO “get big,” they DO “give him a release,” etc… Gee… like magic, good water polo!

So who is at fault? You ALL are! The good coaches who beg for bailouts are teaching mid-level referees to be lousy. The referees who offer these bailouts are teaching good coaches to beg for their players to be rewarded for making lousy plays.

Is there NO ESCAPE from the madness?

YES there is!

Actually, there are several different answers. One of my best referee friends, someone with extensive experience as both an international player and referee, has argued that the escape from the madness is to “onion up.” What he means is that it is time for the referees to stop listening to coaches (and let's not even get into the whole coaches having a hand in assigning mess!) or for coaches to start teaching ALL the time and to seek to win ONLY by playing good water polo and not by playing the referees. Hard to believe coming from me, but I actually think he is being a bit too harsh. Correct, perhaps, but too harsh, because he presumes the referees are always correct, and they are not. Sigh… much longer story there…
 
Remember that a few months ago, I wrote about a new way to teach referees. I believe that this IS the answer. And this answer MUST include input, FROM COACHES, into what we in the USA do (and do not) define as “good” vs “bad” play, and thus when bad play is rewarded, the referee is now defined as incorrect, just as the coach who begs for those rewards. And these definitions MUST be public AND they must be the sole basis for judging both coaches as well as referees. There is no other way to break the circle.

And, you know what? We (that would not be the “royal” we, but the real “we” meaning USA Water Polo) are working on it… and we are a lot closer to being there than we were three months ago.

Wish us luck!