Frontcourt Offense: Part 1

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

Frontcourt offense probably is the most popular tactical part of the game of water polo. Players love to play offense. There's a special thrill associated with shooting and scoring. Frontcourt offense is the glamorous area of the game. Players who score the ball get their names in the paper. A team with the most goals wins. Winning records create positive publicity. Positive publicity helps bring recognition to the team, players and coach. Therefore, coach­es tend to spend much of their time coaching the offense. This can be a great mistake. Certainly all programs need a well-constructed offense, but water polo offense can be very complicated to teach and perfect. This is true of other team sports as well.

For water polo offense to operate at a high level there must be a special recognition between the 2-M PLAYER and the Drivers and perimeter release players. Everybody must be highly skilled in the fundamentals of the game. All offensive position ath­letes need to have proper passing, driving, shooting and releasing skills for the offensive positions they are playing. Also, every player needs an overall recognition of the offensive structure to be applied against the defense being employed by the opponent. These various physical and mental skills take a great deal of time to develop. Therefore, the successful coach must recognize the skill level of the players and team and, within his/her lesson plans, allow the proper amount of time for developing all areas of the game: conditioning, ball handling and passing, shooting, individ­ual defense, team defense, counterattack skills, six–on–five and five–on–six concepts and skills, along with frontcourt offensive skills.

I've seen teams that, despite well-planned offenses, lose many games because they were not properly skilled in defense, counterattacking and six–on–five offense. As the coach, it is your responsibility to see that your team is properly prepared to play all aspects of the game. Offense is important but it is only one part of the game - a part which takes a great deal of preparation time. Misuse of time can be extremely dangerous.

The responsible coach makes sure the athletes are allotted the proper amount of time for learning the entire game. And the coach who is not thorough and responsible is rarely the successful coach. This cannot be overemphasized.

By definition, frontcourt offense is the tactical time when the counterattack and transition have ended, and the team gets into some type of offensive structure and tries to score the ball, six players on six, against the defensive plans of the opponent.

If the team takes :12 seconds to complete the counterattack and another five seconds to make the transition from counterattack to frontcourt offense, there will be only :18 seconds remaining on the shot clock to run the offense. In turn, when your team has only :06-seconds left on the shot clock, thoughts other than just front-court offense start running through your mind.

Should we "dump" the ball? - Should we shoot high and hope for the Goalie deflection out of bounds and a new: 35 sec­onds of possession?

The point is, if there are only: 18 seconds to run the offense and your offensive thinking changes when the shot clock reaches the last: 06 seconds, your team has only: 12 seconds of effective offensive time in which to get a goal. Obviously, those: 12 seconds must be used to their maximum. With such limited time, offenses must be well designed and disciplined if they are to beat the defense being employed.

Water polo is fun to play. Players easily can lose their con­centration and focus. Precious seconds quickly disappear from both the shot clock and game clock. This can destroy an offense. Players must be disciplined to the offensive game plan, and make maximum use of the limited ball time of each possession.

As far as frontcourt offense is concerned, this focus must begin with the transition from counterattack to frontcourt offense and must continue until the ball is shot or the: 35-second clock has run out. If the team is slow to make the transition to frontcourt offense, :04-to-:07 seconds can be lost with each possession. Few teams spend practice time on the transition game. This is a mis­take. I always spend time coaching this aspect of the game, which requires little time to perfect and can gain valuable frontcourt offensive time.

If your team gets ten counterattacks in a game and saves :05 seconds with each transition, they will have :50 seconds more of frontcourt offense. This might make a difference of one or two goals per game.

When coaching the transition from counterattack to front-court offense, have the team start a non-scoring counterattack. When players reach the four-meter area, move the ball quickly to a foul so the clock can be stopped. This foul can be taken by any player within the four-meter region. With the clock stopped, quick­ly move the 2-M PLAYER into position and the other players into the desired offensive structure. Keep practicing the transition game until the team is adept at getting the first foul and moving quickly to the desired positions. Coaches are surprised at how quickly players learn the importance of this simple concept and how much time is saved for use with frontcourt offense.

Coaches should scout their opponents and the offensive game plan should be determined by the opponent's defensive style of play. Once a team moves into its frontcourt offensive structure, the offensive team must work for a percentage shot or an ejection against the defensive team. If neither can be achieved within the allotted: 35 seconds, the offensive team still must control the ball for the majority of the time before surrendering ball control. No matter what offensive structure the coach chooses to employ, ball control is the key to success in the frontcourt. Water polo games can't be won without total ball control. If ball control is lost, it is generally when your team is playing frontcourt offense. The player who most often turns over the ball is the 2-M PLAYER. This is only natural as this is the player who handles the ball the greatest percentage of time when a team is on offense. No matter what the offensive structure, a special "recognition" relationship must exist between the 2-M PLAYER and his/her teammates. Otherwise, your team constantly surrenders ball control.

This chapter looks at development of the driving game and two-meter game. Once these critical offensive components have been explored, team aspects of offense are studied, paying particu­lar attention to the umbrella structure of frontcourt offense as it plays against presses and dropback style defenses, as well as the Three–Three Offense and how it can be employed under similar circumstances. Drills to develop each area of the offensive game are presented.

Specialists Then and Now

Many years ago, I started separating my team's field players into three specialty playing areas: 2-M PLAYERS, Drivers and 2-M DEFENDERS. Before this, the common designations for field players were center-forward, center-back, forwards and defensive-backs.

As the game became more mobile, I wanted field players to be proficient in all areas of the game—swimming, passing, shoot­ing, defense, etc.- but also I wanted each to have a playing spe­cialty. I referred to the philosophy for players by the statement, "Jack of all trades but a master of one." Whether it be two meters, Driver, or defense, every field player needs to be trained in a play­ing specialty.

Decisions as to playing specialties should be determined by player size, strength, leg support, hand skills, personality and over­all talent.

In order to compete successfully, particularly for international play, a team must have a balance of sizes and talents. A team can't be successful against the rest of the water polo world with eleven 2-M PLAYER and two goalies, or eleven Drivers and two goalies. To compete internationally, a team must be able to match-up with its opponents. When playing against smaller and quicker players, a team needs to be able to match quickness and, when playing the bigger, "muscle" players of the world, it must match size and strength to be successful. Because of this, when interna­tional team’s rosters were set at thirteen players, I usually carried two goalies, two 2-M PLAYERS (also called prime sets), four 2-M PLAYER and five Drivers; two of the four defensive specialists were trained to be secondary sets. The 2-M PLAYER also could fill in as a 2-M DEFENDER and the five Drivers were divided between Quickness Drivers and Power Drivers.


Internationally, Drivers range in size between 5-foot-7 and 6­foot-3 and generally weigh from I55-to-210 pounds. Drivers are picked for their explosiveness and quick-start ability, tenacity and hand skills. Drivers along with the 2-M PLAYERS, carry a large part of a team's offensive load. Drivers usually lead the counterat­tack, provide the movement in frontcourt offense, and take a majority of the movement-type shots. Drivers need to be trained to play good defense and, where possible, should be defensively matched against the other team’s Drivers. Occasionally, Drivers are forced to play against the other team’s 2-M PLAYER. This is not a desirable matchup and should be avoided as much as possi­ble. When the Driver does end up playing defense against the 2-M PLAYER, the Driver should foul “early” to prevent being as soon as the foul takes place, a defensive specialist should be called to make  the switch. In five player (zone) defense, Drivers generally play "up top" where maximum movement is needed. From this position, they can lead the five-player counterat­tack.

The 11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1:00-o'clock positions pro­vide the best locations from which to start a drive. See Figure 1. From these three spots, Drivers are afforded the best angles of attack on the goal.

Figure 1

Players also can drive from the wing position but room to maneuver is reduced because of proximity to the two‑meter line, closeness to the goal, and reduced angles from which to attack. There is no question that the 11-o’clock, 12-o’clock, and 1-o’clock positions provide the best opportunities for the Driver to make his/her move, get free and position for a shot.

As for Driver timing, the Driver always should be prepared to beat the defender. To do so, the Driver's legs must be positioned to allow for the lunge kick (a breaststroke or sidestroke type kick) and for going quickly from the semi-vertical to the horizontal drive position. The Driver must be totally focused, recognizing any vul­nerability in the defender. Also, the Driver must be aware of his/her distance away from the goal. Drives should start from four-­to-seven meters out from the face of the goal and, the farther out the Driver starts, the sooner he/she must start the drive. Most young players have the tendency to start their drives too late.

Remember, once the 2-M PLAYER picks up the ball, he/she has approximately :03 seconds to put it into play. A good rule of thumb for starting the drive is to leave when the ball is released from the hand of the player who is making the pass to the . If the Driver waits until the ball reaches the hole position, the drive probably will be too late. If the Driver waits for the two-meter foul to be called before starting, the drive is too late 90% of the time. Drivers must be trained to start before the two-meter foul is called.

Drivers work on getting free from the defender. The object of the drive is to get inside water on the defender. When the Driver gets inside water, this presents the best opportunities for a shot, an ejection, or a four-meter award. Not all drives get inside, but this always should be the intention of the Driver. If the drive fails to get inside, the Driver can consider the possibility of a rearback. If that's not there, the Driver should continue moving and simply drive through and clear the area around the 2-M PLAYER. A motion drive (a drive which does not get free for a shot) still forces the defense to move and adjust and can take some pressure off the 2-M PLAYER So, even if it doesn't lead to a shot, the offensive team always can get something good from a well-timed drive.

Rearback Shot - The dri­ving player comes from the horizontal to the vertical position and receives the ball from the 2-M PLAYER  for a rearback shot.

Figure 2

  Ways to Beat the Defender  

There are a number of techniques which the Driver can employ to beat the defender. Let's look at some of the most suc­cessful.

  Beating the Defender with Quickness  

If the Driver is poised and ready to go, the Driver oftentimes can beat the defender with pure quickness. Defenders, while play­ing on the perimeter, sometimes move into a vertical position and lift an arm to aid with the defense. When this situation develops, a properly positioned Driver has an excellent chance to beat ("blow by") his/her defender.

  Beating The Defender With Alertness  

The Driver always should be aware of the location of the ball and the referee's call. He/she must hear the whistle and know the type of foul being called. The Driver must be alert and take advan­tage of any loss of attention if the defender turns to see the flag or to check out another offensive player in the area.

  Changing Directions  

Head and body fakes on the part of the Driver, followed by a change of direction after the fake or start of the drive, oftentimes help the Driver get free. Drivers need to practice their faking, quick starts and quick moves to change direction

  Stop and Go  

The stop and go is another good technique for the Driver to practice. When the drive is underway and the defender is maintain­ing a good inside water position on the Driver, stopping, followed by a quick restart, will many times gain the Driver inside water on the defender. United States players tend to rearback too often dur­ing their drives, and defenders are quick to react to this move. As such, the stop and go can be an excellent way for the Driver to beat the defender. Drivers using the "stop and go" must start the move at the six-or-five-meter line to insure having enough water to work with once inside.

  The Pass And Go  

This move is as old as the sport itself, yet it continues to work. The Driver passes the ball to a fellow player (the , 2-M PLAYER a perimeter player or a WING PLAYER) then immediately drives. When the ball is passed by the Driver to another player, the defender may relax for a second. This gives the Driver an excellent chance to beat the defender.

The grab and go was a widely .used method of beating the perimeter defender. The Driver would grab the defender by the arm or any other part of the body and pull by. Although illegal, it was very popular before the second referee was added. Now a sec­ond referee is stationed near the perimeter area and has the respon­sibility to watch for perimeter fouls. Therefore, this move should not be encouraged. Offensive fouls on the perimeter give the coun­terattack a great opportunity for a breakaway.

  Conserving Water  

When a driver successfully beats the defender to the inside, the driver may want to conserve water before continuing the drive. To conserve water, the driver, once inside the defender, momentar­ily halts the drive and protects the inside position by briefly block­ing the out-positioned defender. This move is done while the Driver is facing the goal. The purpose of conserving water is to give the @-M PLAYER additional time to make the pass, and to preserve as much free water space as possible for a safe pass, the final drive and the shot.

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.

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)