Defending the Counterattack

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

Important rule changes in the late 1940s, plus improved swimming abilities, encouraged coaches to start improving their counterattack systems. The counterattack has gradually become an important part of a team's offensive thinking. Today, most of the world's best teams feature a strong counterattack.

With improved counterattack strategies, coaches now find it necessary to include counterattack defense as a part of the practice schedule. Most of the basic concepts of counterattack defense can be taught in several days, but coaches will need to return once or twice a week to the practice of these concepts. This is particularly true when the team is young and the opponents feature a strong counterattack

The first steps to defending the counterattack are taken while the team is still on offense. Let's look to this area for a moment:

Individual players must be moving to a defensive position, not after the shot has been taken by a fellow teammate, but at the time the ball leaves the hand of the player who is taking the shot. Any reaction after this point will be too late. In making this move, the player must constantly monitor the flight of the ball as he/she moves to a defensive position. Intelligent team defense always relies on the percentages and, in this case, the percentages are greater that the ball will not return to the shooting team. Some of the possibilities are: The ball will score, in which case it will go to the opposing team at the restart position; the ball will miss the goal and go out of bounds (ball goes to opponent); the ball will be stopped and controlled by the Goalkeeper, in which case the ball belongs to the opponents; or the ball might rebound into the field of play, in which case the offensive team will have a 50% chance of recovery. The lesson here is that the chances of losing the ball with the shot are much greater than the opportunities of retaining possession. Therefore, the offensive player must be reacting to the defense. If he/she watches but still reacts toward defense, the chance to recover a rebound is not lost. If he/she watches the flight of the ball but does not start moving toward a defensive position, countering opponents will most likely gain a freebreak.

Frontcourt offense must be designed so your team has offen­ sive balance. Never commit more than four players to the attack at any one time, and keep at least two players balanced to defense in case a sudden turnover occurs. When teams commit five players to deep frontcourt driving, they are extremely vulnerable to the coun­terattack.

Being aware of the time left on the shot clock is of critical importance to each member of the offense. Nothing can "feed" your opponent's counterattack more than 11-o'clock , 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock drives in the last five seconds of the shot clock. This is particularly true of the (12-O'CLOCK DRIVER), as this athlete has a considerable distance to go to get into scoring position and will not be in the best position to defend the counter. Offensive players must always communicate, particularly as the shot clock starts to run out. When it's apparent the team is not going to get a good shot during the last :06-to-:08 seconds, players should start to "lean" toward defense.

Players who are alert and aware generally read the offense and know when a shot is coming. Coaches need to stress this type of player focus. Percentagewise, this level of focus pays defensive dividends as individual offensive players avoid being surprised by teammates' sudden shots.

Once the offensive turnover occurs, the opponents begin the counterattack. Now, a new set of priorities comes into play.

All six field players must be "crashing back" on defense. They must be moving back with the same speed and intensity as if they were on offense. In other words, you want white water swim­ming on the part of your counter defenders.

Players "crashing back" must "jam" the middle of the pool, forcing any freebreak to the outside. Outside means toward the side walls and toward the perimeter positions.

Defenders need to guard from the "inside out." In other words, lam" back, take away the inside middle, and allow no offensive players to be free in the two-to-six-meter area in front of the goal. To accomplish this, defenders must do what I call defend­ing from the "inside out": first get defenders back deep (overload the two-to four-meter area); then, once the inside is covered, move extra defenders quickly toward the outside so no one gets a shot in the six-meter area. When the "inside out" jam is effectively exe­cuted, any free countering player will be isolated to the outside.

Scouting will tell the coach if certain pat­terns are being fol­lowed by counterat­tacking opponents. From these scouting reports, adjust counter­attack defensive posi­tioning to help "shut down" these patterns.

Where possible, immediately pick up the offensive player receiving the Goalkeeper's pass. If this can be accom­plished, there will be five players jamming and one player cover­ing the ball. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

By picking up and defending the player receiving the first counterpass (normally the Goalie's pass), most often the offense will be prevented from locating and effecting the second pass (first field player pass) to the "free player." When picking up the player receiving the Goalie counterattack pass, the defender must apply pressure, no-foul defense. If the Goalie positions the first pass at or behind the midcourt line, the defense should challenge this pass each and every time. The defender picking up this "short" pass must press hard, getting a hand up to make passing difficult. The whole idea is to both slow down and destroy the accuracy of the second counterattack pass. Successfully accomplished, this will allow other counter defenders the chance to get back and neutral­ize any freebreak.

Although picking up the first pass is oftentimes key to stop­ ping the counterattack, there are several situations where it should not be applied. See Figure 2. Never pick up the first pass if, by so doing, you allow an offensive player to get inside and stay free. In this case, the individual defender should not come out to defend, but simply continue in the "jamming" pattern.

Figure 2

Looking at Figure 2, the nearest defender must con­tinue the jam, as moving outside to defend the first pass would allow the inside counter­ing player to remain free. Finally, in the discussion of exceptions and/or variations to pick­ing up the first counterattack pass, the foul and drop principle comes into play. Fouling and dropping is an important princi­ple, but it must be applied under the proper circumstances. To "foul and drop," a defender simply moves out and fouls the player with the ball. Following the foul, the defender immediately drops back and joins his/her "jamming" teammates. The foul and drop can be particularly effective when the first counterattack pass goes deep to the offensive end of play. See Figure 2.

In this case, by fouling and dropping, the defender will cut off the freebreak. Again, I reemphasize, the "foul and drop" is an important coun­terattack defen­sive considera­tion but it must be properly employed. When executed as described in Figure 3, it will most likely save a goal. However, it would not be a good idea to foul and drop when the situation is as described inFigure 3.

Figure 3

A defender should not foul and drop under every circumstance. Don't when the distance to be covered after the foul is too great to allow the defender to participate effectively in the jam. Also, don't when a freebreak is such a threat that a foul will allow an uncontested pass to the free player before the drop can be of help.

There is a simple rule the defender in this situation can apply: the farther out the defender is from his/her goal, the more discre­ tion must be used with the foul and drop maneuver.

When a team can "jam" the middle, pick up from the "inside out," and defend the first pass (Goalie) without fouling (or with an intelligent foul and drop), there are all the ingredients for good counterattack defense. When scouting is added to the formula, chances are the team will have a great counterattack defense.

(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)