The Counterattack: Part 3

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

Cardinal Rules And Fundamentals of the Counterattack

The Goalkeeper's Role

The Leadbreak

The leadbreak is a critical principle in my system of counter­attacking. The leadbreak always is established by the first two offensive players down the pool and approaching the opponent's goal. If either leadbreak player is still free a one-on-none or a two-on-one situation is created. The Goalie should make the appropriate deep pass. As soon as the two-on-one situation devel­ops, the leadbreak principle is established. These two players square-out, bracketing the goal between three-and-four-meters out from the goal and two-to-three-meters wide of the goal posts. If one player is still free, you have the classic two-on-one situation. The player with the ball should attack in, either shooting the ball or cross passing to a fellow teammate for the shot. Who shoots is determined by the actions of the defense. If neither is free, their job is to stay in the vertical and tie down the defense. See Figure 11.

Figure 11

The lead-break play­ers make a cut around the 4-meter line. The rule for determining who takes the leadbreak is simple. The first two players who can get to leadbreak position must do so. The two players in Figure12 are the two players who can most quickly estab­lish the position.

Figure 12

In Figure 12 the leadbreak should be taken by 1 and 3 because 1 and 3 can get into the leadbreak position quicker than 2. In the leadbreak right side is taken by a player farther out than player 2. The rule stays consistent. As time is of the essence, the first two players who can reach leadbreak positions (and who have the route to follow) go there. Leadbreak comes into play as soon as the situation is two-on-one. See Figure 13.

Figure 13

In Figure 13 players 1 and 2 are the leadbreak and create a one-on-two opportunity for a moment.

Once the two players reach the lead‑break position, they can become any of the following: shooters, passers, or players that simply tie down the defense. The idea of leadbreak is just that—to tie down the defense in the deepest positions toward the goal. Once this is accomplished, the freebreak coming from the outside moves to center water, creating the necessary shooting structures to capitalize on three–on–two and four–on–three situations. Leadbreak forces the defense to take positions which the offense will then attack. Any defensive players moving off the leadbreak players in an attempt to stop the counter will leave positions which cannot be covered by later arriving defenders. As such, leadbreak is the foundation for attacking two–on–one, three–on–two and four–on–three.

After reaching the leadbreak position, each of the two offen­sive players should raise a arm to create a target for an incoming pass incase they become free as a result of a defensive error. Also, the leadbreak players need to communicate to arriving offensive players the situation as to whether they are attacking three–on–two or four–on–three.

Players to Beat in the Counter

In my system of counterattacking, all six field players go. As previously stated, when stolen within ten meter of the defensive goal, the ball is given to the Goalkeeper to make the first pass.

Players need to know the rules of the game and understand referee calls. They must be alert constantly for any type of turnover. The offense is going to turn over the ball sometime with­in the :35-second-time period and alert players will know where the ball is at all times. They will know time left on the shot clock, referee calls, and the general game situation at any particular moment. With all this information, players should be able to react quickly to the turnover, generating a successful counterattack.

Along with overall team alertness and a philosophy and disci­pline that all players are going to counter each turnover, individual players should concentrate on certain offensive players they feel they have the best opportunity of beating in the counterattack. Certain players always should be countered. Let's take a look at that now.


When pressing or dropping back, defensive players should take lanes on the side away from the ball. This should be done in an effort to outposition the offense and allow for counter lanes toward the opponent's goal. As the offensive players must face and attack in toward the defensive goal, defenders who take lanes have a great opportunity to outposition their defenders once the counter­attack begins. See Figure 14 and Figure 15.

Figure 14 Figure 15

In Figure 14 (left) the drop is shown and in Figure 15 the lane press is shown . The ball side WING DEFENDER is playing in a more conservative position.

Field Player Recognition By The Goalkeeper

When the Goalkeeper gains possession of the ball and looks down the playing course, what is seen can be very confusing. Six offensive players and six defensive players plus the opposing Goalkeeper can all come into view at once.

How can we help the Goalie sort out this scene?

The view is not as difficult as it might seem. Actually, there are only three situations which can develop between the counter­ing offensive player and the defender.

First, let's take a look at the countering player who has deci­sively beaten the defender. This situation generally is created by burning the shooter, the 2-M Player, or a player who has committed an offensive foul.. In this case, the countering player should take three to five strokes on his/her stomach then roll to the back and keep swimming hard while establishing eye contact with the Goalkeeper. If the ball has been turned over within ten meters of the goal, the Goalie should have the ball held high and ready to pass. Once eye contact has been established, the Goalkeeper may choose to pass the ball to the offensive player on his/her back. If it's a breakaway, almost certainly the pass will be made to this player. The Goalkeeper, depending on the situation, hits the break­away early wet or late dry.

If the breakaway starts from within 12 meters of the counter­attacking team's goal, the free player gets to his/her back within three to five strokes. If it's a breakaway, chances are this player receives the ball wet. This player then rolls to his/her stomach and dribbles the ball down court for a shot. When safe, the breakaway pass should be wet, as this movies the quicker to the shot. See Figure 16.

Figure 16

When a player beats an opponent on the breakaway in the counterattack, the player should roll onto the back and get eye contact with his or her Goalkeeper. Figure 16 shows the offensive, counterattack player in the dark hat and the defensive player in the white hat.

If the breakaway starts near center court, the free player immediately should get to his/her back for the ball. If the goalie pass comes wet, expect the opposing Goalie to still be in the cage. If the pass comes dry, catch and turn and expect the Goalie to be attacking out.

Many times the free player takes three-to-five strokes, gets to his/her back, establishes eye contact with the Goalkeeper, and then the Goalkeeper passes the ball to another player father down the field of play. This happens regularly. The player on his/her back should turn back on the stomach immediately and continue the freebreak. What has happened here is the Goalkeeper has read the defense and feels there is a chance of turning the ball over by hit­ting the free player. By going deeper to the leadbreak squaring, a safe pass can be made and the square-out either can pass the ball to the free player or, if the defender drops to pick up the freebreak, the square-out can take the ball to the goal.

The second situation created between the countering player and the defender is "being up," but not entirely free of the defend­er. Again, this happens often. An example would be countering the 2-M PLAYER the defender gets up, but the chase is tight. In this type of situation, the Goalkeeper should not pass to this player; the Goalie needs to look for another passing opportunity and ignore this situation. The "barely up" countering player should work hard to slide carefully in front of the opponent and work for a pull-back ejection. Remember, the counterattack is an excellent place to get kickouts. The offensive player must work hard to stay in front of the defender and try to get the defender on his/her back to create the ejection. The offensive player should continue to work for the ejection as he/she continues down the pool. Two or three pull­backs might be required before the referee sees the situation. If the offensive player fails to get the ejection, he/she should continue the attack toward the opponent's goal and hope to receive the ball from a leadbreak player somewhere in the last seven meters.

Figure 17 Figure 18

In Figure 17 the offensive player (dark hat) in the counterattack who is barely up should move in front of his or her opponent and try to get the opponent ejected.

In Figure 18 this barely up play­er is working to get a pull back or sinking ejection called or his oppo­nent in the white hat.

Again, it is important to remember in this second situation between countering player and his/her defender; the Goalkeeper does not want to pass the ball to this player. First, with the defend­er this tight on the offensive player, the Goalkeeper's pass is most difficult to complete. If not careful, the pass can become a face off pass. Second, even if the ball gets to this offensive player, it will be very difficult to continue an advantage position while having to dribble the ball. This situation always calls for the Goalie pass to go elsewhere. Let the "barely up" countering player concentrate on getting his/her defender ejected.

The third and final situation which can occur between the countering player and the defender is when the defender has not been outpositioned (beaten) by the start of the counterattack. This is a very normal happening. In this case the countering player is a prime candidate for the square-out and the Goalie reads this. The square-out comes for a number of reasons. First, a countering play­er may see a teammate with a breakaway in front of his/her posi­tion. In case the Goalie does not see the breakaway, the defensive­ly covered countering player should square to provide additional passing help. Second, unless free, players should always square-out when in position to establish leadbreak. Finally, it is important for covered countering players, when coming out of the deep back­court, to square at halfcourt and possibly help the Goalie move the ball up to countering teammates already in the frontcourt. Remember, unless it's to keep one-on-one alive, no covered, countering player should square short of halfcourt. Also, if lead-break squares at five-or-six meters, he/she should move to the four-meter area after coming off the square and then monitor the developing situation. Finally, no player free in the counterattack (free from the defender) should ever square. If the player is free, swim on the back, but don't square-out. A square-out in this situa­tion allows the beaten defender a chance to recover.

Field player recognition for the Goalkeeper is developed through the Goalie read out drill discussed at the end of this chap­ter. Suffice to say, the Goalie has only two situations to monitor as the counterattack progresses down the pool: the offensive player on his/her back and the square-out. When a Goalkeeper realizes that there are only two situations to look for, and when the Goalkeeper always looks first to the deep left, center, and right side areas of the pool, the Goalkeeper quickly starts to correctly read defenses and make the correct first pass.

So much for the Cardinal Rules for counterattacking, let's now talk about counterattack shooting structures.


(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.