Individual Defense

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84

In my opinion, from both individual and tactical standpoints, defense is the single most important area of the game. Defensive techniques must be emphasized and taught from the opening day of the practice season. A team's success is more influenced by its ability to play defense than by any other aspect of the game. The psychology of playing good defense provides the mental toughness to prevail in most close games. Championships are seldom won by teams not well schooled in defensive techniques and tactics.
All field players must be thoroughly trained in individual and team defensive skills. No matter what their ability, young players tend to want to spend all their time working on offense. In turn, coaches tend to spend countless hours on individual and team offense. Defense gets some attention, but never the amount of time allotted to the training of the offensive skills. This is a big mistake. Great defense is the key to success in water polo. Not only does great defense help keep the ball out of your goal, but "tempo" for both the counterattack and frontcourt offense is created when the defense is playing well. It is my opinion that most games are won because of great individual and team defensive skills. Even if the offense is having an "off day," the defense can carry a team to vic­tory. Players must be taught to love to play defense.

Defense has always been my favorite area of the game. Defense is easier to teach; therefore, players will learn these skills far quicker than the offensive skills. Your team's defense can be ready to play much earlier than the offense; this can be a definite boost for inexperienced teams playing early season games. I personally spend most of the first two weeks of the practice season developing defensive skills. I won't move into the offensive phases of the game until I have taught both individual and team defensive skills. Never let a practice week go by without returning to some defensive training and always return heavily to defensive training the week before a championship event. Coaching defensive skills exclusively at the start of your practice season (when players are mentally and physically fresh) assures you of having the maximum attention of your athletes. Attention levels should remain high as you phase into offense.

Defending Drivers

Most effective drives start from five-to-seven meters out from the goal. Drivers attack from the 11-o'clock, 12-o'clock, 1-o'clock and wing positions. Defenders must play drive defense in relation­ship to the Driver's distance out and away from the face of the goal. Defenders must take an inside position against the Driver. See Figure 1. The defender should give the Driver a place to go, but not a place he/she would want to go. As much as possible, Drivers must be prevented from getting into the strike zone.


Figure 1

Drivers want inside water against the defender. Once on the inside of the defender, the advantages (shot, kickout, four-meter award) are all with the Driver. As such, when the drive starts from outside six meters, the defender should initially fall-off  the Driver. The reason for this is simple: If the defender presses out (face to face), the good Driver has a great opportunity of getting around and out maneuvering the defender. If the defensive player initially falls-off at six-to-seven meters, The defensive player can cut off the angle of the drive. As a defender, the player must position his/her legs behind and in the semi-vertical position. The legs should trail out toward the center of the goal being defended. From this position, once the drive starts, the defender can step back over his or her legs and start swimming to out-position the Driver. This defensive move forces the Driver to take the first three-or-four strokes and helps to indicate the direction the Driver intends to go. While the Driver is taking these initial strokes, the defender can simply step into the chosen defensive position. Remember, keep­ing inside positioning on the Driver is critical. When I say inside, I mean inside as it relates to the ends and sides of the pool.

While protecting inside water, the defender is most vulnera­ble from the six-to-four-meter zone. All DRIVE DEFENDERSneed outside, stairstep help while they are swimming and defend­ing from six-to-four meters. The reason is simple: if you are taking away inside water, the six-to-four-meter zone is the most likely area for the Driver to rearback. Rearbacks must be defended with help from defensive teammates playing to the outside. These out­side defenders must be prepared to stairstep back and to the inside to help cut down the rearback. Once the DRIVE DEFENDER has been successful in protecting inside water from seven-to-four meters, his/her tactics begin to change. As the Driver is now run­ning out of room, the defender can, for the first time, consider coming from the horizontal swimming position to the vertical and defending with his/her hands.

Mistakes the DRIVE DEFENDER can make include:

Pressing out too tight against the offensive player starting a drive at seven-to-eight meters. This exposes the defender to the grab and go.In a grab and go, the offensive player grabs an arm or shoulder and pulls past the defender. Pressing out too tight also gives the Driver the chance to beat the defender with pure quick­ness and alertness.

Pressing out on the seven-to-eight meter Driver and lifting an arm out of the water to help fend off the Driver. As soon as a defender lifts an arm out of the water the defender decreases his or her ability to move quickly to desired defensive positions. Positioning is everything in defense. Positioning is achieved through swimming. Keep the body in the correct position as it relates to the Driver. The Driver comes at the defender with both arms and legs. Defenders must do likewise. Keep the arms in the water and defend by maintaining inside position on the Driver. DRIVE DEFENDER must swim, using their arms and legs for positioning, lifting an arm to defend only when the Driver rears up for a shot, or runs out of room to get to the inside.

Trying to hand and arm defend the Driver when the Driver is at full speed and between seven-and-four meters out from the goal. When defenders start arm defending on a Driver in full motion, two things can happen and both are bad for the defender. First, the defender gives the Driver the opportunity to beat the defender to the inside. Second, the defender may get an arm entan­gled with the Driver's arms. This almost certainly gets the defend­er ejected.

Continuing to swim to maintain an inside defensive position against the Driver who is moving through the six-to-four-meter zone is particularly important when the Driver decides to use the stop-and-go maneuver. Most effective stop-and-go moves take place within this zone. If the defender stops when the Driver stops, the defender will almost certainly be beaten to the inside. The way to cut-off the stop and go move is, simply, to do what the defender was already doing-keep swimming to protect the inside. If the defender does this when the Driver comes from the stop to the go position, the defender still has the Driver cut off to the inside.

The positioning for defenders guarding the 11-o'clock and 1­-o'clock positions is the same. Stay to the inside (as it relates to both ends and sides of the pool) whether guarding positions at 11­o'clock or 1-o'clock. Things change a bit when guarding the 12­o'clock (point) position. Scouting comes into play here. The 12­o'clock position gives the Driver a better opportunity to drive equally to the right or left. Also, the point Driver is playing farther out from the goal than the other drive positions, thereby allowing more latitude in making decisions as to which side to drive. The defender should force the 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER to drive to the side of least opportunity. Through scouting of individual player's talents, the determination can be made as to which side the Driver should be allowed to go from the 12-o'clock position. Most cer­tainly, it should be to the side of least opportunity, generally away from the shooting arm. In other words, the lefthanded Driver is forced to drive to his/her left and the righthanded Driver is forced to his/her right.

For drives which start from the wing position, the rules change again. The defender must originally cut off the inside. Once this is accomplished, the defender can come to the vertical and use his/her hands much earlier than against the Driver coming from the three outside, perimeter positions. As the wing drive starts at three-to-four meters out from the goal and at a poor angle, once the Driver has failed to initially achieve inside water, he/she has run out of room to effectively maneuver. At this point, the Driver's next move is to execute some type of rearback and, when not successful, the final move is to clear the area. The WING DEFENDER, once the Driver's initial attempt to get inside water has been denied, needs to get to the vertical and protect against any shot attempt, then continue to monitor the Driver as the Driver clears the area.

All DRIVE DEFENDERS should know the ability of their opponents. This is done through scouting. Defenders should know whether the Drivers are lefthanded or righthanded, to which side they want to drive, and their favorite shots. Always force the Driver to go away from what he/she wants.

Good drive defense starts with scouting and continues in the water with good body positioning and tenacity. Great focus, inten­sity, and positioning can totally frustrate even the best Driver. Great offensive players can be taken out of the game when defend­ers totally concentrate on the task at hand.

Defending the 2-M PLAYER

This is a job best left to the defensive specialist, the 2-M DEFENDER. Defensive specialists must be selected, then trained. The coach is looking for tall, long-armed, strong, tough individuals who have great leg support. They also should have good swimming ability. As defensive specialists must be able to counterattack hard and effectively, swimming speed is a great asset for the athlete playing this position. Teams want to force the oppo­sition's 2-M PLAYER to chase with every turnover.

Selecting the defensive specialist for size, leg support, and physical attributes may be as important as any instruction you can give to the athlete playing this position. What I'm saying here is, how to foul and play both the person and the ball gets into a lot of "gray areas." No matter what the rule book says about fouling at two meters, different referees have different interpretations as to what constitutes an ejection foul. Although the rule book is clear, no two referees call exactly the same, and the coach cannot always tell the defenders what to expect. To add to the confusion, referees have been known to make calls differently at varying stages of the game. Other than the completely gross foul, it is difficult to accu­rately tell the 2-M DEFENDER what he/she can or can't do while defending at this position. Players all want clear and concise answers to question of what can and can't be done. Unfortunately, it's impossible in this case. What I tell my players is, "Ejections are when you get kicked out." In other words, play the game and try to modify your game to what the referee is calling. The referee is the boss. Scout and read the referee just the same as scouting and reading the opposing team's players. The referee-not the player and not the coach-makes the decision as to what consti­tutes an ejection.

With this in mind, there are certain general rules for the 2-M DEFENDER to follow.

First, no matter what your team's defensive game plan may be (press, dropback, etc.), the 2-M DEFENDER should pick up the other team's 2-M PLAYER at the end of the counter and tran­sition period. The 2-M DEFENDER should slide in front of the offensive 2-M PLAYER as that player moves to the set position. I want my 2-M DEFENDER to stay in front as long as possible and until fronted by the 2-M PLAYER. At this point, the defensive game plan comes into play.

.If we are playing a dropback, the 2-M DEFENDER remains behind the 2-M PLAYER. If we are pressing and fronting, we ask our 2-M DEFENDER to try to regain front water on the 2-M PLAYER. If the plan is to press and front, it's imperative that the team press out hard on the perimeter players on the side away from the "front." Otherwise, allowing a free pass in from one of these perimeter players will allow the offense to out-position the fronting 2-M DEFENDER

Second, once defending from behind, the 2-M DEFENDER must execute fouls which prevent shots, yet not cause ejection. This is where size and proper matchups are critical. If the defender cannot match strength and size with the 2-M PLAYER,the defender is in severe trouble. Either a shot or ejection is forthcom­ing. So, original matchups or quick switch matchups are critical.

Coaches will always have "macho" players who want to take the 2-M PLAYER no matter what the case. This cannot be allowed. Players must be disciplined to know their strengths and weaknesses. To have a 130-pound Driver against a 200-pound 2-M PLAYER is inviting disaster. Also, a 200-pound, long-armed 2-M DEFENDER playing perimeter defense against a quick Driver is not a desirable matchup. One, strong-willed, "macho" player can quickly destroy defensive balance. Athletes must learn to play the defensive system.

Once positioned behind the 2-M PLAYER, the manner in which the 2-M DEFENDER should foul is key to playing the posi­tion. Certainly, going over the top, playing the person instead of the ball, grabbing an arm above water and fouling while trying to gain advantage position during dead time all gets the defender ejected. None of the above are acceptable.

Remembering what has been said concerning referee's inter­pretations of calls at two meters, certain "broad rules" of defense can be applied. As a general rule, each successive foul committed against the  2-M PLAYER is carefully monitored by the referee. he 2-M DEFENDER must be "sly like a fox." Although, techni­cally, the second or third "normal" foul may be committed with the same intensity as the first, in reality this is not always the case. Each successive foul places the defender in greater jeopardy of ,being ejected. Defensive specialists must consider this. According i the rule book, switching with another defensive player after one ; two fouls changes nothing, but in reality, it might. The percent­ages prove that a different player may have a greater chance of getting an additional normal foul called than the defensive special­ist taking his/her third or fourth consecutive foul. Although there ,e no guarantees, a switch here may save an ejection.

On the first foul against the 2-M PLAYER, the 2-M DEFENDER should always look to the "drive side" follow­ing the foul. The reasoning here is simple: Most drives come in association with the first foul at two meters. By looking to the drive side, if the perimeter defender is beaten, the 2-M DEFENDER on the 2-M PLAYER is in better position to make a switch if required.

The 2-M DEFENDER - with long arms-should always be laying the pass coming into the set position/hole position. The defender should try to "get a piece of the ball," carefully "nudg­ing" the ball away from the 2-M PLAYER. This takes the shot away from the 2-M PLAYER and forces the 2-M PLAYER to realign his/her body before the next move. Always play the ball hen defending at two meters. To prevent an ejection, defensive layers must be very subtle when nudging or pushing the ball way from the set, 2-M PLAYER.

Scouting is critical to the success of the 2-M DEFENDER. Knowing the offensive strengths and weaknesses of the 2-M PLAYER is a must. Also, understanding the opponent's offensive structure allows the 2-M DEFENDER to take the most advantageous defensive position. By doing so, the defender can take away favorite shots from the 2-M PLAYER and be in posi­tion to help fellow teammates with the defensive game plan.

This three photo series displayed in Figures 2, 3, and 4 shows types of fouls whivh usually get the 2-M DEFENDER ejected.

Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4

The first photo in Figure 2 shows the (dark hat) going over the top and playing the person, not the ball. The second photo in Figure 3 shows the ejection-type foul when the defender (dark  hat) pulls back the opponent. The third photo in Figure 4  the defender (dark hat) is sinking the opponent (white hat).

When playing two-meter defense, understand that the 2-M DEFENDER is as good as the fellow perimeter defensive players make him/her. In other words, no matter how good the 2-M PLAYER, if the outside defense is poor, the 2-M DEFENDER will be hurt. He/she will be constantly out-positioned by the offense, not because of inability to play the 2-M PLAYER but because of the play of fellow defenders. If the ball is allowed to be passed freely into two meters and the passes are well placed, there is no way the defensive spe­cialist can "stay in the game." Playing defensively well at two meters can be achieved only when every defender is doing his/her job.

After scouting, coaches must decide the team's defensive game plan. Will playing a press best help stop the opponent's offense, or should a dropback be employed? These are important decisions. The correct game plan goes a long way toward neutral­izing the play of the opponent's 2-M PLAYER. Then, and only then, can the 2-M DEFENDER.effectively play that position.

Figure 5

The 2-M DEFENDER (dark hat) in the photo in Figure 5 gets a piece of the ball on the second foul. An effort is made to keep the 2-M PLAYER.from immediately getting to the ball and making a pass.

(Monte began coaching water polo internationally with the Pan American Games in 1967 and retired following the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles . He served as Assistant Pan American Coach in 1967 (Gold Medal) and 1975 (Silver Medal), and as Head Pan American Coach in 1979 (Gold Medal) and 1983 (Gold Medal). Monte was the Assistant United States Olympic Water Polo coach in Mexico City (5th place) and Head Olympic Coach for the 1972 Munich Olympics (Bronze Medal), the 1980 Moscow Olympics (boycott) and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Silver Medal). The 1980 Olympic Water Polo Team was one of the finest teams ever to represent the United States and was con­sidered a strong contender for the Gold Medal. During his career, exclusive of the boycott, every Olympic Team which Monte head ­coached won an Olympic Medal. Monte was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale , Florida in 1991.

Monte has written two excellent water polo books, United States Tactical Water Polo and Water Polo, Learning and Teaching the Basics. Starting March 15 , Water Polo Planet will feature a monthly water polo article by Monte Nitzkowski. His books can be found at his Water Polo Consulting Service web site. - Doc)