Team Defensive Tactics

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

Within the field of play, walls, the lane lines, and fellow teammates all play a significant role in defense. Proper positioning should allow the individual defensive player to guard his/her oppo­ nent and still help with the defense of other opponents within the area. When players help each other, along with using the natural boundaries of the playing course, the field of play becomes much smaller and easier to defend. Helping each other must be in all the players minds. Defense must be played well both individually and as a team. No defense is successful if played only on a one-on-one basis. Players must help each other-it's a team game!

The Foul And Drop

All players need to be trained in the Foul and Drop principle. The purpose of the Foul and Drop is to take away the return pass to the 2-M PLAYER. The key to making a Foul and Drop move successful is the distance to be covered by the dropping defensive player. When the perimeter defender can foul and drop in front of the 2-M PLAYER in a timely fashion to prevent a pass, yet still get hack outside in time to defend his/her outside offensive player, the Foul and D rop maneuver should be employed.

W hen the perimeter foul takes place at a distance too g reat for the fouling defender to get back in front of the 2-M PLAYER before a pass can be made, don't use the foul and drop - the Time Switch tactic should be used. Use the tactic which prevents the immediate pass back to the hole position. Defenders should never Time Switch when a foul and drop can be successfully employed. Conversely, players should always run the Time Switch when dis­tances to be covered are too great.

Coaches should practice the Foul and Drop by moving the offense up and having the 2-M PLAYER pass the ball to each perimeter player and have the defense foul and drop. By gradually moving the perimeter offense out, defenders are better able to judge their range of distance to successfully execute the Foul and Drop maneuver.

The Time Switch

The Time Switch is another important area of team defensive tactics, particularly when playing in a pressing style of defense. The Time Switch is employed when the offensive 2-M PLAYER makes an overpass to his/her offensive teammate playing the 11 O’CLOCK DRIVER , 12-O’CLOCK DRIVER , or 1-O’CLOCK DRIVER and the perimeter defender chases out and fouls. The two-meter overpass to a releasing perimeter players happens more often than might be thought.

When there is an overpass to an offensive perimeter player, that player must retreat for the ball. When the pressing defender chases out and a foul occurs, the Time Switch should be employed. The Time Switch shuts down the incoming pass to the 2-M PLAY­ER and take :05-to-:07 seconds off the shot clock before the offense can effectively attack the defense. See Figure 1 and Figure2.

Figure 1 Figure 2

In Figure 1 it shows the two-­meter overpass to the offensive 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER with the pressing defender chas­ing out.

In Figure 2 it shows the defender at the 1­-O' CLOCK position "storming back" to cover the point player (the offensive 12-O’CLOCK DRIVER) while the POINT DEFEDER drops to front the hole. This prevents the offensive player with the free pass from making the pass to the 2-M PLAYER. He/she must now get the ball "live" by getting another offensive player to release out­side, take the pass, and get the ball back to the 1-O’CLOCK DRIVER who is still free. This maneuver generally will take :04-to-:06 seconds. When the 1-O’CLOCK DRIVER gets the ball "live" (meaning he/she is now a potential shooter), the POINT DEFENDER (who is still fronting the hole) should remain there until the Goalie yells "now”, meaning , to "crash" outside to defend the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER . With the Goalie telling the defender when to crash out the 2-M PLAYER is denied the ball longer, more seconds are taken off the shot clock and the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER is defended as soon as he/she moves into a shooting position.

The previous diagrams show how the Time Switch works on 1-o'clock side. The same principles apply when the ball is on 11-o'clock side. See Figure 3.

Figure 3 Figure 4

The POINT DEFENDER must be trained always to think about the Time Switch and anticipate the possibility of an outside foul at 11-o'clock or 1-o'clock He/she should be dropping in toward the 2-M PLAYER when the outside foul is whistled.

When the overpass is to the point rather than 11-o'clock position or 1-o'clock position. the players should always execute the "Time Switch from the 11-o'clock side. Sec Figure 4 .

In Figure 4 the maneuver involves playing the percentages. When the switch conies off the 11 - o'clock side, any outside shot is forced to the "off side;" generally a righthanded player will be in this spot and he/she may be less like­ly to take the shot. Again, it's a small consideration but it does help to put the percentages on your side.

T'he Time Switch is an intelligent team defensive tactic and when properly executed, can not only shut down the pass to two meters, but can effectively take :04-to-:07 seconds off the clock before your opponents are able to get back in position to press their offense.

After describing the Time Switch and feeling there are many opportunities for its use. I need to make one important point. Perimeter fouls generally are more devastating than helpful to the defensive team. My personal philosophy is that the pressing defender should try not to foul the perimeter at any time and certainly never in the final :05-seconds of the shot clock.

How many times have you seen the pressing defender foul during the last five seconds when the offensive player is pressed out toward half court and in an impossible position to score a goal?

The foul stops the shot clock and allows the ball to be passed back into the 2-M PLAYER who either scores or gets a two-meter ejection. What was a complete defensive advantage is turned into an offensive scoring opportunity because of the ill advised --stupid-- perimeter foul. This happens regularly and is a very poor fouling philosophy. Only on occasion, when defensive players need to be switched around, should a perimeter foul take place. I personally recommend a tight pressing, total pressure no foul philosophy for the perimeter defenders. On occasion when the unnecessary perimeter foul does take place, the Foul and Drop or the Time Switch are generally good tactics to "bail out" the defense.


This concept is of critical importance when playing in a pressing defense. Teams must practice and master the stairstep if they are to play successful team defense. Teams can not allow Drivers to work one-on-one against defenders. DRIVE DEFENDERS need help from their team. Playing one-on-one defense against a driving player is an invitation to disaster!

I believe in the team defense concept. All field-perimeter defenders have responsibilities. First, they must be in the proper position to defend their opponent. Second, when necessary they must he ready to drop off and give assistance to another defender.This concept is known as stairstepping. In turn, when stairstepping, the defender is attempt to accomplish two things. First, the stairstepping defender is taking away the passing lane - not allowing the 2-M PLAYER to pass safely to the Driver. Second, the defender is in a position to "cut down" a rearback shot attempt, or, for that matter, any type of shot. Stairstepping is a critical maneuver for defenders in the 11­o'clock , 12-o'clock , 1-o'clock and wing positions to master. See Figure 5.

Figure 5

Figure 5 shows the point ( 12-o'clock ) Driver moving toward the three post. As the Driver moves behind the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER, he/she should drop off his/her opponent in an effort to take away the 2-M PLAYER's passing lane and to defend against a possible rearback shot. As the Driver passes through, the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER returns to guarding his/her opponent and the left WING DEFENDER picks up the drive by dropping off the wing offensive player. All dropping defenders are important in a stairstep, but no stairstepping defender is more important than the WING DEFENDER. Most often, the WING DEFENDERS are the players to shut down any final shoot­ing opportunities for the Driver. Once the shot is taken away, the WING DEFENDER must return immediately to defend his/her opponent. I can't over emphasize how important the WING DEFENDER is to the stairstep. Nothing is worse than watching an offensive-perimeter Driver move freely through to an inside shot and score while the (WING DEFENDER) stays "locked on" his/her opponent, giving no help in this critical area of defense. The "I've got mine, how are the rest of you doing" attitude does not work for team defensive water polo. See Figure 6 and Figure 7.

Figure 6 Figure 7

In Figure 6 the defenders show stairstepping as the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER crosses behind their backs.

Figure 7 shows the WING DEFENDER helping protect against the 1-o'clock strong-side drive.

Extra-Stroke-Defensive Principle

All players need to understand and practice the extra-stroke-defensive maneuver. Although an individual-player fundamental, it has grea t application to team tactics, as the Goalie must read his/her DRIVE DEFENDER in order to gain maximum defensive positioning , against the shot. The extra-stroke maneuver should be employed by a DRIVE DEFENDER when the DRIVE DEFENDER has been slightly beaten by a Driver in shooting position. Use the extra-stroke defensive principle only when the DRIVE DEFENDER has been beaten, but not beaten enough to require a two-meter switch. The DRIVE DEFENDER employs the extra-stroke Principle by continuing to swim and defend by body positioning. Every effort is made by the defender to stay to the Driver's side not to the Driver's back which likely results in an ejection or four-meter call. The DRIVE DEFENDER must continue to swim, taking the extra stroke (or strokes) necessary to pull even (shoulder to shoulder) with the Driver. At this point, and not before, the defender reaches across in front of the Driver, using his/her inside arm (the arm toward the 2-M PLAYER), to pressure the shot. This movie while putting maximum pressure on the shooter, most often prevents an ejection or four-meter call. It also makes accurate shooting difficult, particularly for righthand shooers on the 11-o'clock drive side.

The Goalie also has a role in the extra-stroke-defensive principle. The Goalie reads the extra-stroke maneuver and positions in the goal to totally shut down the drive side. The Goalie's position should be such as to force all shots to go cross-cage. By the Goalie coordinating his/her position with that of the extra stroking DRIVE DEFENDER, the percentages of stopping the shot are immensely improved. Remember, the Goalie must completely shut down the strong side of the cage, allowing nothing to go in from that side. The shot must be forced cross-cage.

The Two-Meter Switch

The two-meter switch is generally used as the last line of defense and after the DRIVE DEFENDER has been badly beaten. Teams playing good defense should seldom have to use this maneuver. Even so, it needs to be practiced and perfected for the few times the situation does occur. If the team is playing good defense, the two-meter switch should not have to be used more than once or twice a game.

My system of two-meter switching is different from most others. I like to use defensive reads to determine when the switch should take place.

Three defensive players are involved in the Two-Meter Switch: the DRIVE DEFENDER , the 2-M DEFENDER and the Goalie. All must act in unison for the switch to be effective, and I prefer the read-out command to the verbal command for initiating , the switch. The read-out command can be called verbally, but when three players must react as one in a noisy, indoor pool, it is difficult to coordinate.

This is what takes place. The DRIVE DEFENDER has been badly beaten and the situation is immediately read by the 2-M DEFENDER, the Goalie and the DRIVE DEFENDER. The decision to switch is made solely by the 2-M DEFENDER. The 2-M DEFENDER first decides whether or not the switch can actu­ally be accomplished. This is determined by the distance between the 2-M DEFENDER and the free Driver. If the 2-M DEFENDER has to move more than three strokes, the distance is too great to safely make the switch. Two-and-one-half to three strokes is as far as the 2-M DEFENDER can go to safely make the switch. When the decision is made to switch, the 2-M DEFENDER "jumps" or "crashes" in front of the free Driver. This move completely shuts down the Driver. but it leaves the 2-M PLAYER momentarily free. Because of this, the DRIVE DEFENDER must monitor the 2-M DEFENDER and the moment he/she starts the switch, the DRIVE DEFENDER must cut across to front the 2-M PLAYER.

It is important to point out that, with the read out method of initiating the switch, the 2-M DEFENDER can never fake or stunt a switch.. The 2-M DEFENDER either stays with the 2-M PLAYER or switches to the Driver. If a switch is faked, both defenders end up guarding the 2-M PLAYER.

The Goalkeeper must also read the 2-M DEFENDER. With the ball "dead" with the 2-M PLAYER following the hole foul, the Goalie comes off the 2-M PLAYER and totally shuts down the side of the goal where the drive is being made. This move is the same positioning as in the extra-stroke principle. The Goalkeeper stays to cover the drive until the 2-M DEFENDER starts the switch. At that moment, the Goalie, reading the two-meter switch. does a "crash back " to center goal to defend. The reason for this move is that the 2-M DEFENDER 's switch shuts down the drive side of the goal. The danger is the Driver's pass to the 2-M PLAYER who is briefly free as a result of the switch.

When the switch takes place, the 2-M PLAYER becomes the most dangerous offensive player. With the Goalie crashing back to center cage, the Goali e is in a better position to block the shot, should it come. The WING DEFENDER on the side away from the drive also should move slightly toward the 2-M PLAYER to take away any attempt of a layout shot. See Figures 8, 9, and 10.

In Figure 8 ( left) the DRIVE DEFENDER is badly beaten.

In Figure 9 (middle) the 2-meter switch is in progress.

In Figure 10 (right) it shows the opportune defender positioning after switch.

Filling Gaps

Filling gaps is an important team defensive concept which can pay dividends for both pressing and dropback team tactical defenses. I first developed the gapping concept to help defend the two-meter-def ens iv e switchout. This was when United States rules allowed the 2-M DEFENDER only two fouls before a switch had to be made. Under this rule, if a third foul was taken by the same 2-M DEFENDER, he/she was ejected. However, by switching 2-M DEFENDERS, the new defender was fresh and had two fouls to give before another switch was necessary. Although the game is no longer called this way, many teams still first-or-second foul switch with their 2-M DEFENDERS. This is particularly true of teams which have smaller players and must keep fresh players on big, offensive 2-M PLAYERS. Also, by switching after the first­or-second foul, the defense has the opportunity to re-front the 2-M PLAYER. And so, even with the present rules, many teams still use the first-or-second foul-switch method as a part of their defensive team strategy. In such cases, gapping can still be an important defensive tactic.

Let's take a look at how this tactic works. When switching the 2-M DEFENDER with another player, the switch always should be made to the outside, meaning the 11-o'clock , 12-o'clock or 1-o'clock positions. Wing switches should never be made. Wing switching provides little help from other defenders and a good 2-M PLAYER can get the ball to the wing for a quick shot before coverage can take place.

When making the two-meter-defensive switchout, the 2-M DEFENDER should move to the side of the 2-M PLAYER and, using first names, call in either the the POINT DEFENDER or the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER or the 1-O'CLOCK DEFENDER , depending on the side he/she is defending. See Figure 11 and Figure 12.

Figure 11 Figure 12

In Figure 11 the 2-M DEFENDER should call in the 1-O'CLOCK DEFENDER or the 12-O'CLOCK DEFENDER (point defender).

In Figure 12, the 2-M DEFENDER should call in the 12-O'CLOCK DEFENDER or 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER. It is important to keep the switch at as short a distance as possible and never call in the player to the opposite side. Looking at Figure 12, the 2-M DEFENDER would not try to switch with the 1-O'CLOCK DEFENDER .

Once the call for the switch is made, the 2-M DEFENDER who is "siding" the 2-M PLAYER should slide slightly to the front of the 2-M PLAYER and temporarily hold that position while the switch from the outside (the player who has been called in) is started. See Figure 13.

Figure 13 Figure 14

In Figure 13 shows the 2-M DEFENDER holding in front of the 2-M PLAYER as the switch from 11-o'clock begins. Notice the WING DEFENDER to the inside right position now slightly leaves his/her offensive player and fills a gap toward the 2-M PLAYER . This is to insure cover in case the 2-M DEFENDER leaves too soon and the 2-M PLAYER tries to layout for a shot. If the outside switch comes from the 1-o'clock position, the opposite reaction takes place - the left side WING DEFENDER fills a gap to prevent the layout shot to his/her side.

Moving along, as the switch is underway as show in Figure 13, the 2-M DEFENDER releases to the outside as the 11-o'clock switch arrives in a fronting position on the 2-M PLAYER. The defender moving in for the switch (the 11-o'clock defender) always gets the inside lane. and the 2-M DEFENDER who is switching out always takes the outside lane. See Figure 14.

As the switch is underway, the two remaining defenders "stunt the gap." See Figure 15.

Figure 15

1n Figure 15 the gapping maneuver for the two-meter switchout can be seen in totality. The purpose of stunting the gap is to "jam" die radar of the 2-M PLAYER, forcing the 2-M PLAYER to change his/her mind as to which player the release pass should go. In sequence, tile WING DEFENDERS need to rise up over their legs like they are going to rap to the outside. They fake this maneuver to lure the 2-M PLAYER to pass to a wing. They cannot leave the players they are defending, but only create an instant impression that this is going to take place. If the 2-M PLAYER makes a mistake and passes to a teammate in the wing position, the defenders must be back in place to make the interception. When the 2-M PLAYER realizes he/she can't make the wing pass, the 2-M PLAYER looks to the outside for the release pass. By the players defending the l-o'clock and 1 2-o'clock positions splitting and filling the gap, the 2-M PLAYER is again uncertain where to pass the ball.

The outside gapping players follow certain rules: First, if the outside offensive players (11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, 12-0'CLOCK DRIVER , and 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER) are close together, the defensive players can fill an equal distance between each offensive player and cut down the pass regardless to which player it goes. If the offensive perimeter is spread too wide to accomplish this, the defensive players "stunt" like they are going to defend the player they are faking toward, but then dropback onto their original opponent. The defensive players only fake that they are crossing over to another offensive player. In my systems of defense, other than the 'lime Switch, no triangle switches are allowed. Fake to give the 2-M PLAYER the impression that the defense is in the midst of a triangle switch. Sec Figure 16.

Figure 16

The purpose of gapping is to jam the radar of 2-M PLAYER. Get the 2-M PLAYER after looking to the wings and not having a pass, to look to the outside and think the 11-O’CLOCK DRIVER, 12-O’CLOCK DRIVER, or 1-O’CLOCK DRIVER is going to be free, only to find the outside defense falling back onto these players. By the time the2-M PLAYER finds the free outside player (the player who was originally switched from as the two-meter switchout took place), hopefully the switch has been successfully completed, without the offense finding a shooting opportunity. In my system. there is real­ly only one player who is briefly tree during the switch and this is always the player at 11-o'rlock, 12-o'clock or 1-o'clock who die perimeter defender left to move inside and make the two-meter switch. Our Goalie knows this and stays in position to guard against a shot from this player.

The gap filling switchout works wonders for the defense. I've had great success running it against the world's best teams. By the time the offense figures where the free player really is, the switch has successfully taken place. If the switch is slow in arriving, the Goalie still is in position to effect the save. Believe me, it's a maneuver worth practicing and perfecting.

(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)