Team Defensive Strategies: Part 1

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

Over the years, as rules and referees' interpretations of those rules have changed, coaches have been forced to modify their team defensive strategies. Coaches must prepare their teams defensively and offensively based upon how the game is being played at that point in water polo history.

For example, it wasn't until the late 1940s that the South American rules came into play, allowing all players other than the player taking the free throw, to continue to move and position after an ordinary foul. Before these rules, players were frozen to their positions at the time of the foul and remained frozen until the free throw was taken. This type of game was entirely different from today's game, calling for more basic defensive and offensive strategies.

Since the late 1940s, rules have continued to change. Each major change has affected the way team defense and offense is played. During part of this time, United States high school and college rules allowed only a certain number of personal fouls before the player was removed from the game. Concerning personal fouls, this rule was similar to present-day basketball rules. Although these rules are no longer in effect for water polo, they impacted the defensive strategies of the day. Also during this period, the development of the two-meter game featuring a specialized 2-M PLAYER greatly influenced team strategies.

Another rule change which had great impact on the game was the addition of a second referee. Although the United States had played for many years with two referees, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that a second referee was added to international play. In the early 1980s, referees started calling quicker ejections on the 2-M DEFENDER, again forcing coaches to alter defensive planning.

With all this in mind, let's look at defensive team strategies as they exist today and talk about the development of some of the more popular strategies. Again, the approach to defense is always determined by the rules of the day, the ability and style of the other team's offense, and your own team's mobility, size and experience.

The video camera has provided water polo with an inexpensive way to scout and prepare to defend other team's offenses. Never a sport with fat budgets, comprehensive scouting came slowly to water polo. There were always penciled notes on how certain individuals or teams played the game, but not much more. This all changed as the video camera and monitor became readily available, providing water polo coaches with an affordable way to know a great deal about their opponents. As coaches learned more because of scouting, game planning grew in importance. Team strategies became an integral part of the developing game.

Although most of the teams around the world play in several basic defensive structures, different countries have modified the structures to fit the size, strength and ability of their players. For example, some countries have a difficult time fielding physically large players. To defend, they are forced to rely more on quickness than strength. Smaller teams tend to do a lot of first foul switching at two meters. This is done in an effort to refront the 2-M PLAY ER and keep fresh defenders at this position at all times. In contrast, countries which can field mammoth defenders often go with three-or-four defensive specialists who can help defend the two-meter position, thereby eliminating continuous switching.

In the United States, players have generally been competitive swimmers before becoming water polo players. As such, American players have always had great end-to-end mobility. With good swimmers, American teams have used the pressing style of defense as the main defensive strategy. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the United States teams started to play a total dropback style of defense.

In Europe, the opposite has been true. Players are water polo players first, and then they develop their swimming talents to improve their game. Although this is now changing, for many years European teams featured great size, strength and ball handling ability, but less mobility. As such, for years they pressed sparingly, using a pullback and sloughing style of team defense which took advantage of their size and strength. It was only after the United States' success with defensive and offensive mobility in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games that a number of other teams began to move out and "throw" complete pressure presses at their opponents.

As with American football and basketball, water polo finally has reached the point where using a number of defensive variations is both practical and advisable. To confuse and frustrate the offense, teams can slide in and out of a press or dropback at a moment's notice. A simple example of changing defense is to have your team press until the first foul, then move to a dropback. This procedure can be reversed or initiated at other junctures. A number of other methods of change can be used, but the coach needs to keep the method of change simple. It's much easier to change defenses in football where :30-seconds can elapse between plays, or in basketball where communication is simpler. It's not so easy in water polo where vision can be limited and indoor noise intoler able. Since hand and voice signals are easily lost, coaches are well advised to keep it simple.

Pressing Defenses

The blanket press has had its greatest advocates in United States high school, community college and university water polo. As a result, the pressing game has reached a high level of sophistication as a team defensive strategy. For awhile, however, it did have a negative impact on the development of the game. With the four and five personal foul basketball rule in effect for United States' water polo, referees became far more hesitant to call quick fouls. This was particularly true for the perimeter area, where the game "died" along the walls and laneline markers as hard pressing defenders prevented their opponents from making passes. With referees hesitant to call the foul in a non-critical area of the playing field, the game got very rough and slow. Although personal fouls would be called more quickly in the two-meter and strike-zone areas, the reluctance to call the outside foul slowed the game to a snail's pace and allowed for too much wrestling between opponents. Many in the United States resisted the international rule of unlimited personal fouls - not major faults. The unlimited personal foul rule finally was added to the United States' game. Although fans now must put up with constant whistle blowing by the referees, these rules have quickened the pace, allowed for more offense, and still kept pressing defenses effective as a team strategy.

   The Basic Press   

The basic press is the original form of pressing defense. It is simple and easy to teach. Everyone has an offensive player to defend, and gets in the opponent's "face," not worrying too much about how teammates are doing. Again, the basic press is the "I've got mine" theory or attitude. Defense is played individually in a pressing concept.

Before specialized 2-M PLAYERS became a major factor, defensive pressing players attempted to stay between their offensive counterparts and the goal. They almost always played behind when a player either stopped or set up in the two-meter area. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

The basic press was used before the two-meter game became popular. Also the basic press is straight up, simple and easy to teach. "Stay with your player. Don't let the person you are covering get inside for a shot."

With the advent of the specialized 2-M PLAYER, the emphasis slowly started to change. Originally, defenses played the biggest or second biggest player on the 2-M PLAYER . These 2-M DEFENDERS usually had good legs and long arms. Many were butterfly or breaststroke swimmers. In the early going, they usually could hold their own with the 2-M PLAYER . The Basic Press was still employed with the 2-M DEFENDER playing behind and using fouls in an attempt to prevent shots. When the 2-M DEFENDER had four or five fouls and was removed from the game, another player was substituted and continued the same defensive strategy. In other words, five defenders pressed their opponents, while one defender tried to prevent the two-meter score. Although the game continued to be very physical in both the United States and the rest of the world, this basic defensive strategy worked until 2-M PLAYERS developed the skills to force defenses to make additional adjustments. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

   Basic Press, Two Meter Fronted   

The next step in developing the press is moving the 2-M DEFENDER in front of the 2-M PLAYER in an effort to prevent the 2-M PLAYER from receiving the ball and getting off a shot

As the two-meter-offensive game developed the team’s best player oftentimes played this position. Over the years, the 2-M PLAYER (also called: hole forward, set forward, set player and two-meter-offensive-specialist) became water polo's prime skill position just as the quarterback is in American football. As size, strength, passing and shooting skills improved at two meters, the pressing defense was faced with a problem. When trying to defend the 2-M PLAYER from behind, it was easy for the offense to pass the ball to two meters and 2-M DEFENDERS began "giving up" too many goals. The answer to the problem was to continue the development of 2-M DEFENDERS and to now try and play the 2-M DEFENDER in front of the 2-M PLAYER. To do this successfully, the other defenders had to become more aware of the overall situation. Defense had to become more team oriented. The perimeter defender needed to successfully press and guard the opponent, yet know at all times the position of his/her 2-M DEFENDER as well as the position of the opponent's 2-M PLAYER. Team defensive strategy took another major step forward with the hole fronting concept. See Figure 3

Figire 3


The 2-M DEFENDER is fronting the hole. See the impor­ tance of the perimeter defenders in the team defensive plan. With the ball and the player being guarded by  4  the defense is in good position and working well. However, if the defensive players guarding the 1 and 2 offensive players (and to a lesser extent, the player guarding the 3 offensive player) don't continue to press out hard, a pass from player 4 to player 1 or 2 quickly outpositions the 2-M DEFENDER and allows the offense to gain the advantage. The keys to fronting the hole are good, mobile, defensive specialists and intelligent, alert perimeter defenders. Now defense truly becomes a team game. If the ball comes over to the 1 or 2 offensive positions as shown in Figure 3, these defenders must be pressing out hard and not fouling. Only then can the 2-M DEFENDER refront the hole and prevent ball access to two meters.

   The Lane-Go Press   

As the fronting and pressing game continued to successfully develop, the Lane-Go Press was introduced, creating a new and threatening team defensive structure. The United States ' Olympic Team of 1972 and the National Teams of 1977-79 had great success with the Lane-Go Press. This style of pressing defense had great impact on the American game, particularly at the university level where several teams won more than one NCAA Championship with the press and counter style of water polo.

The object of the Lane-Go Press is to place other defenders (besides the 2-M DEFENDER) in optimum counterattack position, while continuing to present all the frustrating pressures created by the fronting press. Playing a press in a position to take immediate offensive advantage of any turnover adds a "new page" to the game's tactical development and another concern for the offense as they try to beat the intimidating style of the Lane-Go Press.

The Lane-Go Press, Figure 4 and Figure 5, keeps the pressure on the offensive player with the ball, fronts the hole, and moves other defenders into passing lanes, splitting the offense and providing great counterattack lanes.

Figure 4

The Lane-Go Press defenders take posi tion to gain advantage, should a turnover occur. Also, by taking position in passing lanes on the side away from the ball (a critical concept with this style of defense), the defense is preventing the ball from being moved to an advantage offensive position. The Lane-Go Press is a great defense at certain levels of the game, and I would recommend it highly, particularly for younger teams. In Figure 4, the  4  defender has the ball under heavy attack, but without fouling. Again, I must emphasize that most times it is not to the defense's advantage to foul the ball on the perimeter. Players must use a lot of judgment as to when, and when not to commit the perimeter foul. Remember, defensive teams don't want to stop the clock and award a free throw, particularly in the late stages of the: 35 -second clock.

The  5  defender is in a straight-up press as the  5  defender is defending on the strong side. The strong side is the side on which the ball is being played. Any "Ianing" with the  5  defender in this situation might provide an advantage to offensive ball movement. The  3  defender, because of his/her positioning, also is straight-up on the offensive player. The  2  defender has moved into a passing lane, ready to intercept a poor pass and initiate the counterattack. The  2  defender also is relying on the  1  defender for momentary help in case his/her offensive player starts a drive. The  1  defender is in a lane, ready to counter or help the  2  defender. The  1  defender can gamble when the ball is in the position as shown in Figure 4. Playing on the weak side, it is nearly impossible for the offensive player with the ball, being guarded by the  4  defender, to make a safe and accurate pass to the 1 offensive player. The  1  defender can gamble, taking "advantage" counterattack position and being alert to all passes and, hopefully, a turnover situation.

The keys to the Lane-Go Press are: Do not foul. If the foul is required, it must be intelligent and selective. Put intense perimeter defense on the offensive player with the ball.

Figure 5

This shows the Lane-Go Press with the ball on the opposite side of the pool. In this case, defenders  4  and  5  are in "total" lanes and ready to go. Also, with the hole fronted, the 2-M DEFENDER is in excellent position to counter. The 2-M DEFENDER needs not only size and strength, but the 2-M DEFENDER must have good swimming speed as well. This player can have great impact on the game, countering off the 2-M PLAYER with every turnover. Not only is the 2-M DEFENDER a critical part of an effective counterattack, but by countering each turnover, the 2-M DEFENDER is taking the 2-M PLAYER the length of the pool on each counter. This is very tiring for the 2-M PLAYER and takes him/her out of the frontcourt for greater periods of time. This is all an advantage to the defending team. In today's game. it is strategically important for the 2-M DEFENDER to possess good swimming speed.

The basic press, the basic press with hole fronted and the lane-go press all have had major impact on the game. When you add stairstepping, gap filling, and time switches to the style of defense you choose to run, you are creating defenses which are tough to beat. In my opinion, the key to winning water polo games always has rested with the defense. As previously mentioned, alert defense provides "game tempo" which leads to quick movement in the counterattack, successful and rapid transition to frontcourt offense, and frontcourt-offensive tempo.

"Great defense is everything!"

One final comment before moving to sloughing and dropback defenses: The lane-go press can be effective at all levels of play. It is particularly effective at the high school, community college, and college–university levels of play. However, at the international level, the lane-go press—by necessity—must become more conservative. The reason for this is the overall ability and depth of abilities possessed by Olympic Teams. At the high school and community college level, the coach may be fortunate to have three outstanding players. At the collegiate level, this number may reach seven. With the coach forced at times to substitute weaker, inexperienced players, the gambling lane-go press style of defense can have great success.

At the Olympic level where all 13 squad members are great players, the press takes on a different look. The reason is simple: When a press faces a great team, both two-meter-and-perimeter ball handling and positioning skills are so good it is almost impossible to front the hole effectively for the entire: 35 seconds. With five great perimeter players, the ball can be moved more quickly to outposition the fronting 2-M DEFENDER. This doesn't mean pressing defenses can't work at the Olympic level. They just become more conservative. Through scouting your opponent's offense, the press can be modified and remain effective. Against Olympic level teams, this generally means quickly getting back in the counterdefense, fronting the hole at the outset, and then going to the Basic Press style of team defense once the "front" has been beaten. This doesn't mean the defense can't refront, it's just more difficult. Also, playing gambling lanes against Olympic-player skills and quickness can be deadly. While trying to protect the fronting 2-M DEFENDER’s positioning, being in a lane can give too great an advantage to the offense. As such, the perimeter pressing defense tends to become more conservative at this level. The press takes on more of the Basic Press tendencies once the 2-M PLAYER has beaten the 2-M DEFENDER for front position.

As mentioned earlier, physically smaller teams playing at the international level will do a lot of pressing and first foul switching on the 2-M PLAYER. Therefore, the press does have a place at all levels of the sport, but its application may differ at various stages.

To be continued ....

(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)