The Counterattack: Part 2

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

Cardinal Rules And Fundamentals of the Counterattack

The Goalkeeper's Role

In my system, the Goalkeeper "quarterbacks" the counterat­tack. The goalies are trained to read the counterdefense, and hope­fully, to make the correct first pass. The goalies are trained to be great passers.

All balls turned over within ten meters of the goal are given to the Goalie. The Goalie makes the first counterpass. If the ball is stolen outside of ten meters, the field player stealing the ball moves it down court with either a pass or the dribble. This is the most efficient use of those precious counterattack seconds. It is a waste of time to intercept the ball outside of ten meters, pass it back to the Goalkeeper, and from there, pass it back to the front-court for a counterattack. However, other than this particular situa­tion, all balls recovered within ten meters of the goal are to be given to the Goalie.

The reasons to get the Goalie to make the first counterpass are simple. Get the ball deep as quickly and accurately as possible. At the same time, all six field players must be in the counterattack. When the ball is held and then passed by a field player who is within the ten-meter area, that player is holding himself/herself out of the counter. A field player who holds onto the ball waiting to make the first counterpass is being lazy and is resting while sitting and looking for a player to get free for the pass. That won't do! It holds up the team's opportunity to quickly establish a balanced frontcourt offense, should the counterattack fail. Besides, in my system of countering, the goalies are trained to read defenses and make the correct passes. Field players don't have that level of expertise in throwing position passes.

For emphasis, let's draw a parallel to American football. With good football teams, the three-or-four offensive backfield players are probably great athletes. In theory, all of the backfield players should be able to take the center snap in a four-down series and help their team by moving the ball downfield. In reality, the back­field players are not the specialist like the quarterback. The quar­terback is a specialist at reading defenses and passing. The quarterback in football and the Goalie in water polo have many offensive similarities. Both should be trained to read defenses and make accurate mid-and long-range passes. The properly trained Goalie makes the counterattack. If the counterattack fails, often­times it is caused by an inexperienced Goalkeeper who "hatches" the ball (sitting and holding the ball), afraid or unable to make the critical first pass.

When the ball is blocked or stolen within ten meters of the goal, the Goalkeeper should move laterally to the right or left and away from center cage. The Goalie should move to "free" water so any pass coming back to the Goalie cannot be stolen by an oppo­nent who may have been left behind by the countering offensive players. Once to free water and in possession of the ball, the Goalie should raise the ball directly overhead and continue to hold the ball high until the pass is made. There are two reasons for holding the ball high. First, the counterattacking field players know where the ball is, and second, the ball is passed quicker when held high. Remember, everything in the counterattack revolves around quick and proper use of time, and the ball can be thrown more quickly when held high and "wrist-passed." As much as a full second of countermovement time can be lost when the Goalkeeper has to lift the ball up from water level to make the pass.

When moving laterally away from the cage and looking for the place to position the first pass (after the defense has retreated), the Goalkeeper should move out toward the four-or-five-meter line. This shortens the first pass, a move particularly valuable when playing in 30-meter courses.

In Figure 2 the goalkeeper pass is shown. The arm position for the Goalie is high for the counterattack pass.

Figure 2

Once ready to pass, the Goalkeeper immediately should look deep to center, right, and left sides of the pool. By deep, I mean looking to the area of the opponent's four-to-six-meter line. While looking, the Goalie also should check out the location of the opposing Goalkeeper. If no free or "squaring" countering players are found near the four-to-six-meter line, the Goalkeeper should look to midcourt and again to the center, right and left. As a gener­al rule, while the counterattack is underway, no Goalie pass should be made short of half court. As a passed water polo ball moves faster than an opponent swims, the deeper the first pass, the better the opportunity the counterattack has of facing fewer defenders. Quickness and correct ball positioning are critical to successful counterattacks.

If the Goalkeeper can find no one free or in an early "squar­ing" release position, he/she should allow the counterattack to phase through the transition period and into the frontcourt struc­ture. At this point, a perimeter player should release back and take the Goalie's pass.

Whatever the situation, the Goalkeeper does not want to throw the ball away in the counter. With offensive players streak­ing away from their goal, a turnover is deadly and easily can result in a goal by the opponents. This is why goalies must be trained to read defenses and make long and accurate passes. Again, if no one is open, he/she should allow the offense to set up before making the pass to a releasing perimeter player

Early Wet and Late Dry Passing

All players except those "squaring" (square-outs are dis­cussed thoroughly later in this chapter) should receive the counter­attack pass either early wet or late dry. As use of time is so impor­tant, the proper placing or positioning of the ball to countering players is critical. If a player is up and free and with plenty of clear water in front, the ball generally should be passed wet (on the water) to the countering player. A wet pass allows the offensive player to maintain speed in the counterattack. If the attacking play­er is free but deep down the course and nearing the opponent's goal and Goalie, the ball should be thrown dry (to the player's raised hand and arm). The dry pass can be thrown throughout the field of play and serves as a warning to the field player that he/she is running out of free space or a defender may be closing fast

Number Of Passes In A Successful Counterattack

It is my opinion that a maximum of three passes can be thrown in a successful counterattack. Anything past three takes too much time and allows for defenders to fmd their places. There always are exceptions to any rule but, in general, no more than three passes should be thrown in the counter and players should train with this in mind. The first, or in most cases, the Goalie pass is the most important pass in water polo. It must be thrown early, deeply and accurately if the counter is to be kept alive. The first pass thrown deep shortens the playing field for the offense and gives the best opportunity for the score. Many one—on—none break­aways are created with this pass. The second pass, or field player pass also is extremely critical. It's generally thrown following a square-out and must be quick and accurate. The early wet and late dry passing principle also is very important when locating the ball with the second pass. The second pass most often is thrown to one—on—none (1 vs. 0), two—on—one (2 vs. 1) and three—on—two (3 vs. 2) situations. When needed, the third pass generally is to the shot. In this case, the late dry principle usually will prevails.


The square-out is something I came up with a number of years ago while training the Olympic Team in counterattacking skills. With the change in rules allowing goalkeepers to pass the ball past halfcourt, counterattacking theories had to change. Goalkeepers were hesitant to thrown the long pass to the oppo­nent's four-to-six meter area for fear the long pass would result in

a turnover. With an extremely fast team and field players who were getting free in the counter, I found our goalies were holding the ball too long and killing the counterattack. Unless the free player was extremely evident, goalies were waiting too long to pass, or simply throwing the safe, short pass.

To solve this problem the square-out seemed the logical solu­tion. The square-out can safely be used deep in the frontcourt, midcourt, or for that matter, anywhere throughout the field of play. The square-out is a right or left angle, 90-degree, stomach releas­ing move which allows the field player to break free of the defense and allows for quicker Goalie passes. This system replaced most of the bow-out movements of releasing players. The bow-out release method (still used by most of the world's teams) is a 45-degree field player release and is executed on the back. See

Figure 3, showing the square-out maneuver and Figure 4 showing the bow-out maneuver.

Figure 3 Figure 4

In Figure 3 (left) The square-out is a 90-degree turn to the near side of the poll. Players turn to either the left or right side depending upon their position in the pool.

In Figure 4 (right) the bow-out is a 45-degree arch. This movie is shown as a historical note and should not be used as the square-out method is much more effective

Typically, the Goalie is very hesitant to throw a deep pass to bow-outs for fear of a turnover. By the time the Goalie finally makes a passing decision, the defense has covered. Defensive players easily can follow the offensive player in the bow-out maneuver. Once on the back and with eye contact with the Goalie, bowing players are obvious candidates for the Goalie pass. When the bow is deep in the field of play, alert defensive players have an opportunity to cross in front and steal the pass. Even when the pass arrives safely to a bowing player, the distance between the offen­sive and defensive players is so little, the defender can easily foul and drop, or simply make it difficult to make the next pass, thereby stopping the counterattack.

The 90-degree angle of the square-out gives the field player a greater opportunity to break away from the defender. The theory here is the defender might know the field player is about to square-out, but the defender doesn't know when this is going to take place. With both the offensive and defensive players moving at "flank" counterattack speed, the stomach releasing square-out­properly executed—most often frees the offensive player. Square-outs allow field players the necessary room to receive the ball and make the next pass.

The square-out maneuver is similar to the sideline pass in American football: The cornerback might know the receiver is going to make the "sideline cut," but he doesn't know when. The quarterback can pass the ball early, ahead of the receiver and to a position where it safely can be caught.

The bow-out movie is shown in the next three figures. At first the defender (white hat) is beaten. The countering player (dark hat) is swimming on his back to establish eye contact with the Goalie. See Figure 5. In the photo in Figure 6, the defender (white hat) is closing on the bowing player. The defender (white hat) has closed the gap on the player making the counterattack (dark hat). With the close coverage, it is extremely difficult for the Goalkeeper to make the counterattack pass. Even when the pass isaccurately made, the bowing offensive playermay find it difficult to make the next pass. The bow-out did not sustain the the advantage for the counterattack player.

Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7

The square-out is shown in the next threer figures. The two players are swimming on the counterattack. In the Figure 8, and the defensive player (white hat) has an advantage position on the counterattacking opponent.In Figure 8, the counterattacking player (dark hat) makes a sharp right angle turn (90-degree) to get free of the defender.In Figure 9, the goalie pass is made early to the squaring player. The ball is passed wet and to the outside to a position easily controlled by the offensive player. n the last figure, Figure 10, showing the square out, the offensive player on the counterattack (dark hat) moves to pick-up the ball and comes to the vertical position. The offensive player can then make a pass to a counterattacking teammate.

Figure 8 Figure 9 Figure 10

As a Goalie gains experience, the Goalie can read countering offensive teammates players both in relationship to distance away from the goal and in location of the defending player as well as read the forthcoming square-out maneuver. A Goalie can learn to read the earliest body movement signs as field players start the squaring move, and put the ball out early, wet and to safe water.

The square-out is a time saver—always remember how important proper time use is to the successful counterattack. The square-out allows the Goalie to launch the first pass sooner and safer.

I found our goalies gained confidence in throwing the early and deep first pass when we introduced the square-out. Suddenly, goalies had the courage to release the ball with pinpoint accuracy to offensive players deep in the frontcourt. Craig Wilson of the 1984, 1988 and 1992 United States Olympic Teams was a master of the deep first pass. In my opinion, Craig is the finest passing Goalie to ever play the game. Square-outs helped him master the deep and accurate pass.

Field players executing the square-out need to be moving at top speed, reading the flow of the defensive player attempting to cover them. When the moment feels right, the right or left 90-degree squaring turn should be made, with the player releasing to the outside (on the stomach, not the back). As the field player comes off the square, the ball should be waiting in front, an arm's distance away. To accomplish the square-out, the Goalie must learn to read the squaring movements of his/her field players and have the ball passed early and accurately to take advantage of the freedom gained by the square. There should be no need for the squaring player to look back at the Goalie to see if he/she is going to receive the pass.

If the ball is not there, it's too late to receive the ball anyway; the field player should come off the square immediately and con­tinue the counterattack down the field of play. This way little time is lost by players squaring but not receiving the Goalie pass.

When the field player makes the square and the ball is wait­ing on the water, he/she should pick up the ball immediately from underneath (it comes up faster this way), kick up hard and quickly go into the vertical and look diagonally across the field of play. By kicking up hard after coming off the square-out, the countering player generally has time to make the second pass before being defended.

Defensive players in a counterattack love to foul and drop. When the field player properly executes the square and the ball is delivered from the Goalkeeper "on the money," and when the squaring player kicks up hard and quickly into the vertical passing position, he/she will most often beat the foul-and-drop move by the defense.

Once free and in position to make the second pass, the player must look diagonally across the pool. This is of extreme impor­tance in this counterattacking system. By looking diagonally, the field player can see all the key locations where a freebreak may be corning, The two key areas for finding a freebreak are the center of the pool and the far side. On the far side the passer always can find a leadbreak player moving into position. The leadbreak player may or may not be covered by the defense. After the leadbreak arrives, all free players come down the middle in this system. This is why it is so important for the squaring player making the next pass to kick up hard and look diagonally. If the far-side-leadbreak position is not free and if there is no freebreak coining down the middle, the squaring player can always look to the left or right (depending on the side of the pool the square is made) and to the other lead-break position. In this system of counterattacking, players know where their fellow players will be, no matter what the defensive situation.

As we continue to develop the Cardinal Rules, it gets easier to see how the recognition works.


(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.