Team Defensive Strategies: Part 2

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

This article is the continuation of last months article, Team Defensive Strategy: Part 1.

Sloughing Defenses

Slough defense can best be defined as a style of defense which is part way between a press and a dropback. Popularized in Europe where physically big teams could pull back into the half-court then semi-drop (slough) against the opponent's offensive structure, it was and still is an effective style of defense. It provides a way of simultaneously gaining some of the advantages of both a dropback and a pressing defense. It can be particularly effective when teams are long on size and short on mobility. The slough was most popular in the United States during the 1950s.

In sloughing-style defenses, the slough generally comes from the 11-o'clock , 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock positions. Its purpose is both to discourage drives by shutting down drive lanes and to aid the 2 - M DEFENDER in guarding the 2 - M PLAYER. See Figure 6.

Figure 6

Basically, the slough defense varies in its intent from some of the dropback defenses discussed in the next section of this chapter. The slough harasses the 2 - M PLAYER by applying some drop pressure, but, by still playing with considerable pressure on all the perimeter offensive players, not as much emphasis is placed on totally denying the ball to the 2-M PLAYER. When it comes to defending the 2 - M PLAYER, the key words for describing the difference between the slough and the drop are probably "harassment" versus "denial."

Dropback Defense

In the early days, some teams actually played all six defenders in a zone defense similar to the five-player-defensive structure used following an ejection. With these earlier, six-player zones, defenders guarded a section of water, taking only those offensive players who came into their area of the zone. This type of defensive thinking provided a difficult and confusing task for individual defenders, and most teams have long since abandoned this concept in favor of a number of dropback-style defenses.

Dropback defenses have the purpose of helping protect the 2 - M DEFENDER by either denying the 2 - M PLAYER the ball or being in a position to force the 2 - M PLAYER to handle the ball quickly, not having time to shoot. When the ball makes it to the 2 - M PLAYER without being intercepted—this happens more times than not—the drop defense is still moving in the right direc­tion to discourage or prevent a shot. Dropbacks also have the pur­ pose of shutting down drive lanes, thereby destroying the drive and pick game.

Dropback defenses got a tremendous boost when, in the early 1980s, referees began calling first and second foul ejections on the 2 - M DEFENDER . Before this time, the 2 - M DEFENDER was allowed to guard more aggressively. Also, the 2 - M DEFENDER generally was allowed at least two firm fouls before considering a switch with another defender who, being fresh, could resume fouling and probably get away with it several more times. When referees started calling first foul ejections on the overzealous 2 - M DEFENDER , the 2 - M PLAYER was back in the offensive game. No longer were they just absorbing fouls and making the pass. With size and skill, 2 - M PLAYERS suddenly became "scor­ing machines."

Now the 2 - M DEFENDER is faced with an unacceptable sit­ uation: either allow the shot or face ejection when fouling to pre­vent the shot. As a result of this situation, dropback defenses became very popular in the early 1980s.

To play good dropback defense, no matter what style is being employed, players must be schooled in certain basic principles. When playing on top 11 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER , 1 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER , and 12 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER, defenders have to work harder than when pressing. The key to a successful dropback is keeping the perimeter ball always under attack while, simultaneously, having another defender dropped in to a position where a pass cannot successfully be made to the 2 - M PLAYER. When this is accomplished, you have an effective dropback. To make it work, players must have a complete understanding of the type of drop-back which is to be employed. It takes a great amount of practice, effort and experience for the defensive players to develop the anticipation and positioning skills necessary to run a good drop-back. Once these skills are mastered, a well run dropback can destroy the opponent's offense.

An effective dropback shuts down the inside-offensive game which is controlled by the 2 - M PLAYER and Drivers. The real threat is from the perimeter shooters since this is where 90% of the shots occur. Two things are of maximum importance for the drop to be successful: First, the goal play must be above average. Second, it is critical for the defenders on top to be movement oriented. They must work the entire: 35-seconds of the shot clock to deny the ball to the 2 - M PLAYER while still not allowing the offense to set up the perimeter shot. As important as a good drop-back is to today's defensive water polo, if the team does not have good Goalie play and field-player mobility, the coach may be better off staying with a press or possibly going to a point drop, a style which will be discussed later in this section.

The Six Drop

The six drop is the simplest of drops. It is pure percentage water polo with the 2 - M DEFENDER behind the 2 - M PLAYER, the  6  position defender drops into the gap between the hole and his/her opponent to help defend the 2 - M PLAYER. Most of the time, the 2 - M PLAYER is righthanded. Hence, the 2-M PLAYER tends to turn or work toward the 6 position for the shot. The  6  defender playing in a gap position can oftentimes destroy the two­meter-offensive game simply by being in the gap and ready to defend. Most teams have few lefthanders and, percentagewise, the offensive player in the 6 position is generally righthanded. This makes it more difficult for that offensive position to score the ball and allows the  6 defender to take more liberties with the gap. If the offensive 2 - M PLAYER is lefthanded, I would not recommend a "one gap" or a "one drop" as, 90% of the time, the offensive player on that side will be righthanded and in position to get a quick shot if a defensive error is made. With a lefthanded 2-M PLAYER , I would recommend other types of drops. This also applies if the 6 position offensive player is lefthanded. If you choose to play a Six Drop with a lefthander on the 6 side, the gapping defender must be more alert to the offensive possibilities.

Figure 7: The Six Drop

The Top Drop (for 11-o'clock , 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock )

This drop is probably the most popular with teams and is easy to run. As mentioned earlier, it differs from a straight sloughing defense in that the movement of the on-top defenders has the intention of preventing a pass to two meters and, when a pass is successful, to prevent a two-meter shot. The top drop also has the purpose of putting as much pressure as possible on the perimeter shooters. It's a straight-line drop, meaning the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER , 1-O'CLOCK DEFENDER , and 12-O’CLOCK DEFENDER drop in a straight line from their outside positions. This particular style of dropback is easy to teach and is learned quicker than some of the more sophisticated dropback defenses. See Figure 8.

Figure 8: The Top Drop

In Figure 8 the ball is at the 11 - o'clock offensive position. The defender is in the process of moving out to pressure the ball and prevent a clean shot. The 12 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER has moved back from the point and is ready to either drop or press out on his/her opponent. The 1 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER has moved in to help cut off any pass to the 2 - M PLAYER. The top drop is a straight-line drop in which the defenders either drop or press out on a straight line between the 2 - M PLAYER and their perimeter opponent. The player at  6  can also drop some as in the six drop defense. The perimeter players must be anticipating the next pass and monitor the eyes of the offensive player with the ball. The effort is made by the defenders to read whether a shot is coming or where the next pass may be going. By being on the eves, the perimeter defenders can better anticipate where the next pass is going. They need to he physically quick and have the ability to cross over their legs to get in and out quickly on the straight line.

Figure 9: The Point Drop

The Gap Drop

In an attempt to improve dropback strategies, I developed the gap drop in 1983 and used it extensively with the 1984 United States Olympic Team. In my opinion, it is the most effective of all dropback defenses. However, it takes experienced players and a lot of practice time to be perfected.

The purpose of the gap drop is to bring into reality the concept of simultaneously shutting down both the two-meter shooting game and the perimeter shooting game. To do this in a six drop, top drop or a point drop is a difficult, if not impossible task. I devised the gap drop to solve the problem. By placing the dropping defenders in a gap between offensive players, and not running a straight-line perimeter drop, we are able to shorten the distance defenders must cover to shut down both hole and perimeter shooters. In the 1984 Olympic Games, we had great success with this style of dropback. See Figure 10.

Figure 10: The Gap Drop

The ball is at 1-o'clock. The 1 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER leaving his/her gap position to attack the ball. The POINT DEFENDER has dropped to prevent the two-meter pass and the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER has moved into a gap to shorten his/her next move (either to attack out or to affect a drop). Also, the gapping 11 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER can threaten the point pass. Although the 11 - O'CLOCK DEFENDER is in a position to be beaten temporarily by a drive, the defender at  6  is in the gap and aids momentarily with any drive. He/she helps until the 11- O’CLOCK DEFEDER either has picked up the Driver or has switched to the 6 position's offensive opponent.

Figure 11

The ball is in the right wing at the position. The 1 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER is playing the gap as is the POINT DEFENDER and the 11 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER. The cross pass is prevented and the hole is shut down. The 11 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER, 12 -; O’CLOCK DEFENDER, and 1 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER are in position to counter if ball is turned over.

Figure 12

The ball is at 11 - o’clock with the POINT DEFENDER in a gap to the right and the 1 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER in a full drop. Again defenders in the 1 and 6 positions gap to help shut down any perimeter drives. In this alignment, counter lanes are open for both the 1 and 6 position defenders as well as the POINT DEFENDER and 1 - O’CLOCK DENDER.

To get a better understanding of the gapping philosophy, let's look at several diagrams showing fewer players and giving a clearer picture of gapping positions. See Figure 13 and Figure 14.

Figure 13

In Figure 13 it shows the basic gapping positions for the 1 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER and 11 - DEFENDER. This positioning allows them to defend their perimeter opponent and the 2-M PLAYER. It also puts them in the counter lanes.

Although seemingly difficult, with practice the gap drop can be perfected and, once mastered, it provides a defense which can shut down the driving and picking game, help neutralize a strong, two-meter game, keep pressure on outside shooters and put defenders in excellent positions to counterattack.

Coaches should experiment with the dropback defense, making modifications of their own. Scouting can be a tremendous help to the coach in the placement of defenders.

Figure 14

This shows only the 11 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER , 12 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER , and the 1 - O’CLOCK DEFEDER plus the 2 - M DEFENDER and the Goalie. By gapping, the POINT DEFENDER and 11 - O’CLOCK DEFENDER shortened the distance between the 2 - M PLAYER and the perimeter players to be defended. Also, they have excellent counterattack lanes.


+ Make sure players are wearing hats with ear guards. This is par­ticularly true when practicing defensive drills as some contact is unavoidable.

In addition to his lucid explanation of Team Defensive Straregies, Monte presents in his book, United States Tactical Water Polo, a series of excellent drills which will reinforce the concepts taught in the last two articles on Team Defensive Strategy. WPP will not have an article on these drills; however you can buy Monte's book and get them - Doc

(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)