The Counterattack: Part 1

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

The counterattack is to water polo what the fast break is to basketball. Lasting approximately :09-to-:14 seconds—depending on whether a team is playing in a 25-yard or 30-meter, Olympic-size course—the counterattack is the shortest phase of offense found in water polo. It starts with the quick recovery of the ball—blocked shot, rebound, stolen pass, offensive foul, etc.—and ends with a clear shot at the opponent's goal, an ejection, or simply the transition into frontcourt offense. The counterattack is probably the most exciting part of the sport. Water polo fans love to watch suc­cessful counterattacks, just as basketball fans love the fast break.

The counterattack is explosive in nature. As all six field play­ers move at "flank speed" away from their goal, any turnover could result in a goal scored against the counterattack team. Good ball control is a must. The action is very quick and players need a lot of training in the counterattack before its fundamentals can be mastered. Recognition among players must be great if turnovers are to be prevented.

There are a number of reasons why teams should train to develop a good counterattack system. This is particularly true in the United States, where many players start their aquatic careers as age-group swimmers. They have been trained as competitive swimmers to develop speed, quickness and stamina—all key ingredients for successful counterattacking teams.

Well-trained counterattacks accomplish many important things for a team.

The first and primary reason for the counterattack is to get an offensive player free and maintain that freedom through to a high percentage shot at the opponent's goal. The counterattack can create breakaways (one-on-none) or other favorable combina­tions—(two-on-one, three-on-two, and four-on-three).

Even when a player is not sprung free, disciplined counter­attacks help the offense move up quickly. Over the course of a game, the team which counters every turnover can gain an addi­tional minute of offensive frontcourt time. This translates to increased scoring opportunities and is reason enough to counter all changes of possession.

Many kickouts can be achieved with effective and consis­tent counterattacks. In Frontcourt Offensive structures, players are poised to attack the opponent's goal. Whether in the horizontal or vertical position, offensive players (other than the vertically posi­tioned (2-M PLAYER)) are facing and generally moving in the direction of the opponent's goal. The defensive team is facing out or toward the opposite goal. Therefore, the defense can outposition the offense quickly if they are alert, trained and disciplined to react quickly to any potential loss of ball control by the offense. As the counterattack begins with the offensive turnover, it is easy to gain advantage position on opposing players during the course of the counterattack. As the counter spreads out, referees are in good position to identify any pull backs. As such, the counterattack is a great place to obtain kickouts.

Consistent counterattacking can have a "hammering" effect on opponents. The well-conditioned team, which properly substitutes for matchups and freshness, can oftentimes wear down its opponents. This can have a positive effect, particularly in the later stages of a game. Although the counterattack may not always get a player free for a goal, scoring opportunities will arise in other phases of the game as the defense begins to tire.

Good and consistent counterattacks tend to have a psycho­logical impact on opponents. If opposing teams know they are going to face a strong counterattack on each turnover, they may start modifying their offense, not moving as many players into offensive positions and dropping off earlier as the shot clock ticks down. Also, good, consistent and successful counterattacking tends to demonstrate team superiority, a fact which is not always lost with referees.

European Styles Of Counterattack

European counterattacks differ in a number of ways from what I've taught over the years. Although European teams are starting to modify their counterattack thinking (particularly with Goalie passing rules haven’t changed), in my opinion, most of the European teams still have been slow to make major style changes. Their counterattacks, although well disciplined, have been pre­dictable and, therefore, easier to defend. Let's take a brief look at this style of counterattacking and contrast it to what I try to teach. Believe me, there are vast differences.

First, European teams tend to be selective counterattackers, picking certain situations and countering only those situations. To give an example, they always counter the offensive foul, but not necessarily all other turnovers. Generally, they go only when they feel an advantage can be achieved. This contrasts greatly with my beliefs. My teams counter every turnover, if not to obtain a free player, then to move the offense up and continue to wear on the opponents through the "hammer" and "psychological" effects.

Once a European counter is underway, the pattern remains simple and consistent. If there is not a breakaway, the ball is passed by the Goalkeeper to a player releasing near halfcourt and to the Goalie's right side. It is my opinion this particular move has developed over the years for two reasons: First, the Goalkeeper wasn't allowed to pass the ball over the halfcourt line. The rules changed in 1977 to allow a goalie-pass to go over halfcourt to the other team's four-meter line. Then the rules changed again in 1980 to permit any length of goalie-pass. Presently, the Goalkeeper can throw the ball all the way downcourt, and goalkeepers can even throw the ball into the opponent's goal. The second reason for the positioning of the first pass was to bring the ball down the right side of the pool, thereby allowing the next, generally final pass to go crosscourt to players who are predominately righthanders.

Because of the former Goalie-passing rules, many teams have continued to make the first counterpass to midcourt right side. Once the ball has been located at this position, the player receiving the ball generally turns and quickly dribbles the ball into the front-court, continuing to approach the goal wide and to the right side. When arriving at the two-to-four-meter area, the player with the ball has to make one of two choices: if unchallenged, to continue to attack the goal with a shot in mind; or, to look to the left side for counterrotating offensive players. See Figure 1 showing the coun­terrotating offensive players who are looking for the cross pass. These players generally are located in the area off the left post of the goal at four-to-six meters out from the goal.

Figure 1;

See Figure 1. Common form of European coun­terattack - the goalie pass is made to a releas­ing player at the right side of mid-court. If free, the player receiving the goalie pass continues with the ball on a drive for a shot. Or, the player with the ball drives to make a pass to a counterrotating teammate who takes a shot.
This is my perception of the basics of the European counter­attack. Not every European team follows this concept, but a great many do. Although they are beginning to make some changes, dur­ing my years of international coaching we were able to take good advantage of these patterns as we prepared our counterdefensive strategies.

My thinking on the counterattack differs greatly from the European method described above. First, as already mentioned, I believe in countering every change of possession. Secondly, depending on the advantage situation, I believe in attacking from all areas of the pool (right side, left side, center). Third, I believe in "striking" as deep as possible with the first (Goalie) pass. The ball in flight moves faster than the swimmer. Therefore, the deeper the first pass, the greater the opportunity to attack against fewer defenders. The longer it takes for the ball to come down the pool, the more opposition players the offense has to face.

Intelligent counterattack planning must take into considera­tion the time factor. The shorter the Goalie pass, the longer it takes to get the ball to the deep frontcourt. The longer it takes to get the ball into the deep frontcourt, the tougher the defense becomes.

Let’s take a look at the counterattack as I design it, considering Cardinal Rules, frontcourt attacking structures, and drills to build the counterattack.

Too 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.