Frontcourt Offense: Part 2

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

Driver is facing the goal. The purpose of conserving water is to give the 2-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.

  Shooting From the Drive  

Once a drive is started, the Driver oftentimes gets the pass from the 2-M PLAYER. At this point, the Driver must be well versed in what type of shot should be taken.

Over the years, coaches have worked with four basic drive shots. Basically, any shot taken from the horizontal position can be termed a drive shot. About 50% of the shots taken from the drive are "wet," or "off the water shots," while the other 50% are "dry." The four drive shots which have received most attention are the rearback, the T-shot (also known as the scoop and bat), the push or screw shot and the pop shot. Each has its place but, in my opinion, they are limited in effectiveness and have been overrated as the answer to drive shooting. Let's first take a look at each of these four drive shots then, later, discuss what I feel to be a superior array of drive shots.

  The Rearback  

This is the most taught and used drive shot in American water polo. It definitely has a place in drive shooting and, again in my opinion, is the most valuable of the four commonly taught drive shots. The idea of the rearback is to drive hard, get the defender moving hard in an effort to guard the drive, then rear up and back away from the defender and take the ball dry from the 2-M PLAYER When received, the ball should be shot immediately, beating both the defender and the Goalie with quickness. Seldom should faking take place with the rearback. Quickness is the answer with this shot.

See Figure 3 for a photo of the Rearback Shot - The driving player comes from the horizontal to the vertical position, takes the pass from the 2-M PLAYER and immediately shoots the ball

Figure 3

The rearback is an exciting move and can create an excellent shot. But, when a player executes a rearback, he/she has not gotten inside the defender on the drive. If a team runs only rearbacks on their drives, it's an admission that the Drivers are not capable of getting inside water on their defenders. Each drive should start with the idea of beating the defense to the inside and the rearback should be used only when this, in fact, does not happen. Otherwise, the Driver once inside, must use something besides a rearback.

European players seldom execute the rearback. Their intention is to create inside water and, if that is impossible, to move through and clear the two-meter area for the next Driver or the two-meter shot. I've seen American Drivers get inside water then rearback into the defenders they already have beaten. The players simply did not know, under the circumstances, what other type of shot to take. The rearback is an excellent drive shot, but should be taken only when the situation requires its use.

  The T-Shot  

Another popular drive shot, the T-shot, is commonly taught and, when successful, can look spectacular. While the Driver is swimming, the ball is "Tee-'ed" (like a golf ball) on one palm and batted or pushed off the "T" with the opposite side hand. This is done in full stroke and the shot, properly taken, can be difficult for the Goalie to see. It's an easy shot to learn but difficult to perfect. With the bronze medal 1972 United States Olympic Water Polo Team there was only one player I felt comfortable letting take this shot (Russ Webb). With the 1980 and silver medal 1984 Olympic Teams, only Joe Vargas used it to any great extent.

The problem with the T-shot is finding the occasion for its effective use. At the end of a counterattack, in one–on–none situations, the angle of approach to the goal may be such that it can be used, but accuracy cannot always be guaranteed. If you are one–on–none with the breakaway in a counter, percentages tell you to pick up the ball, come to the vertical or semi-vertical, and move the Goalie before taking the shot. If a player has time, he/she always should come to the vertical and put away the ball. Otherwise, the player should stay horizontal, move the Goalie, and wrist shoot the ball from in front of the body.

Figure 4 the T-Shot, Scoop Shot or Bat Shot - The player places a hand beneath the ball while swimming (dribbling) and Tee's it in preparation for the shot.

Figure 4

Figure 5 the T-Shot - The ball is shot off the tee with the fingers of the shooting hand. The fingers hit the ball in a quick motion and shooting arm and shooting shoulder continue to extend in a follow through after the ball is shot off the "T."

Figure 5

As aforementioned, the three best driving locations are the 11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock positions. If the defense is playing well (most teams play proper position defense on the Drivers), scoring angles to the goal will be greatly reduced. See Figure 6.

Figure 6

In Figure 6 notice the angle of the cross cage drive. The ball is passed to the driver. The shooting windows for the driver are at the edges of the goal.

With a cross drive from the 1-o'clock position (or the 11-o'clock position), the angle to the goal does not make the "T" a practical shot to use. In fact, when the defense is playing well in the halfcourt, there are few places where the T-shot is effective. Remember, Drivers as they approach the goal, must contend with the angle the defense has given. In addition, the Driver must deal with a defender on or near the Driver's back or side, the defender on the (2-M PLAYER) who may switch, and the Goalkeeper. Seeing as it takes time and room to set up the T-shot, its effectiveness is extremely limited. Although I teach the shot, little time is spent with it during shooting drills.

  The Push or Screw Shot  

This shot has many of the same limitations as the T-shot. Pushing the ball while swimming or driving is a great way to make a pass and, it can be used to shoot as well. The problem here is that when the defense is beaten, bringing the ball back to the shoulder (the position from where this shot is started) may be a big mistake. Once inside on the defender, the Driver probably wants to keep the ball as far away from the defender as possible, particularly if the defender is larger than the Driver. The push shot brings the ball back toward the defender. Also, in narrow spaces it may be a difficult shot to place in different parts of the goal, away from the Goalkeeper. As with the T-shot, players should have an understanding of the push shot. When practicing pushing the ball, I prefer to work on it extensively during passing drills and a limited time when shooting.

Figures 7 - 9 is the Screw Shot or Push Shot - The next three photos show the shot mechanics. First, the player places his hand on top of the ball in preparation for the shot. This occurs as the player is in stroke.

Figure 7

In Figure 8 the second, the ball is drawn back to a shooting position by rotating the thumb to the outside as the ball is being drawn back to the shoulder release position.

Figure 8

In Figure 9 the ball is released by rotating the thumb back inside while the arm is pushed forward.

Figure 9

  The Pop Shot  

This shot is used commonly and with some success. With the pop shot, the Driver lifts the ball into the air with one hand, then reaches with the other hand and tries to direct (steer) the ball around the Goalkeeper and into the goal. It is used when the Driver is quite close to the goal. I usually describe it as "when all else fails, there is always the pop shot." The problem with the pop shot is, as soon as the ball is popped into the air, it's anyone's ball. The tall mobile Goalkeeper oftentimes can reach up and steal the ball. Again, as with the other commonly taught drive shots, players should know the shot, but not be encouraged to use it past a few limited circumstances or situations.

Figure 10 the Pop Shot - The next three photos show the mechanics of this shot. First, while attacking the goal, the player places a hand beneath the ball. In Figure 11 the ball is lifted (popped) into the air in preparation for the shot. Figure 12 the ball is caught and directed into the goal by the shooter.

Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12

  Improved Shooting Methods  

The method of off-the-water (drive) shooting taught to my teams is quite different. In the early 1980s, I searched for a method which would improve our driving game, allow for greater ball control and lead to high percentage drive shots. Ball control is the key to successful frontcourt offense but we found our 2-M PLAYERS were getting too many turnovers, usually not their faults. Drives were starting too late, perimeter releases were slow and incorrect, Drivers were driving with no discipline in their patterns. I developed a system of 2-M PLAYER and Driver "readouts" which greatly simplified the life of the 2-M PLAYER.

First, the 2-M PLAYER was trained to get to the ball and get it up and ready to play within :01.5 seconds. With this accomplished, Drivers could time their drives based on distance away from the face of the goal.

Once the timing between the 2-M PLAYER and the Driver had been disciplined into a consistent pattern, we learned to read the position of the defender on the Driver—the location of the defender trying to guard the Driver. This had to be understood by both the 2-M PLAYER and the Driver. With the timing of the drive, and knowing the exact position of the defender guarding the Driver, all Drivers reacted to what was being given by the defense. As a result, the 2-M PLAYER always knew where the Driver was going. Once established, if the pass was to be made to a Driver (if the Driver was up on his defender and no other outside defenders were dropping back to help), the 2-M PLAYER would locate the ball to this Driver. I use the word "locate" because this is exactly what we did. Each pass to the Driver was placed or located in a position which was determined by the angle of the drive, the side on which the drive was taking place, and the position of the defender attempting to guard the Driver. Although it sounds complex, the system is really quite simple and quickly learned by both Driver and 2-M PLAYER. Once mastered, turnovers are greatly reduced and percentage drive shots become available.

To further explain, let's start with the 2-M PLAYER’s pass to the Driver. On all drives moving to the 2-M PLAYER’s left, the ball is placed wet (on the water) to righthanders and dry to left-handers. The procedure is reversed with drives going to the right (the ball will be dry to righthanders and wet to lefthanders). Immediately, recognition between the 2-M PLAYER and the Driver has been simplified.

Figure 13 Quick Wrist Shot—The photo shows the proper hand position for the release of a Quick Wrist Shot.

Figure 13

Figure 14 Power Wrist Shot—The photo shows the proper hand position for the release of a Power Wrist drive shot.

Figure 14

  Popular Drive Methods  

Now let's take the three main driving positions (11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock) and see how the 2-M PLAYER locates the ball to the Drivers.

  The 11-O'clock Drives  

A number of driving angles can be achieved from the 11-o'clock position. Let's look at a few. The Driver fakes his/her head left then power drives toward the near post of the goal. The defender is to the inside and slightly beaten. The 2-M PLAYER locates the ball wet and to the outside on the right arm. The ball must arrive near the three-meter line so the Driver has the entire cage available to place the shot. The Driver now reads the position of the Goalie in the goal (all young players must learn to recognize where the Goalie is in the goal and what he/she is attempting to do - call "reading" the Goalie. Once the Goalie's position is ascertained, the ball can be wrist shot strong side, cross-cage, or lobbed cross-cage.

All Drivers must have strong wrists and need to know how to wrist shoot. When coming off the water with a wrist shot, there are two types which can be used: First, the quick-release wrist shot finds the shooter simply swimming through, placing the hand under the ball while in stroke, and snapping the ball off the palm of the hand with a wrist release. The ball is not lifted up and then shot. Instead, the ball is shot from the water, with the wrist, while in the swimming motion. Wrist shots come very quickly and are difficult for the Goalie to stop. Second, the power wrist shot is similar, but the player lifts the ball up from the water, holds the ball out in front of the body, allows the Goalie to make his/her move, then directs the ball into the goal with a power wrist release. Big power Drivers have great success with the power wrist shot, while smaller players generally are more successful with the quick release.

In another drive from 11-o'clock, the Driver starts cross-cage with the drive and there are two situations which might occur. First, the defender anticipates the drive is going cross-cage and stays ahead of the Driver. In this case, the Driver might want to cross back to the original side with what I call a reverse turn or "worm turn" (drives with the right arm and pull the left back and out of the water). This worm turn allows the Driver to rotate quickly back to the 11-o'clock side, and the Driver is up (free) if the defender has overplayed the middle. The 2-M PLAYER places the ball wet on the righthander's outside hand as he/she come off the reverse turn. The Driver then reads the Goalie and places the correct wrist shot. In the second scenario, we imagine the Driver has beaten the defender with the cross-cage drive—the Driver is up and free.  The righthanded Driver is now moving to the right side of the 2-M PLAYER. This calls for a dry pass. The key to the timing of the pass is when the Driver "slides" over his/her left arm and raises the shooting hand. (The slide is similar to a sidestroke move and keys the timing of the pass.) Because the defender is trailing, the Driver does not want to rearback (this would allow the defender to catch up) but simply slide and let the trailing legs help fend off the defender. The ball should be passed dry and over the ear of the Driver. This allows for a short range of motion and a good opportunity to keep the arm free for the shot.

  The 12-O'clock Drives  

The same rules apply to twelve o'clock drives. For the righthander, once inside, if the drive moves to the 2-M PLAYER's left, the ball will be placed on the water (at about three meters). The ball is passed dry when the 12-o'clock drive moves to the right of the 2-M PLAYER. The only difference will be the location of the dry pass. Because the angle of the drive is steeper from the 12-o'clock position, the Driver does not slide, but rather pops up at about a 45 degree angle and takes the ball dry from the 2-M PLAYER With the angle of the drive from 12-o'clock, the defender is in a position to slip through if the Driver slides. If the Driver pops, and takes the ball dry, he/she has an opportunity of either a good shot or a penalty throw award. The pop up should take place near the four-meter line.

  The 1-O'clock Drives  

Driving from one o'clock presents the Driver with a number of shooting possibilities. One of the best drive situations from 1-o'clock finds the Driver head faking toward the right, then power driving the near post of the goal. If he/she springs free, the 2-M PLAYER "hits" the righhanded Driver dry with what we call the timing pass. The 2-M PLAYER determines when the shot is to be taken. As the Driver is driving (swimming) toward the post, the 2-M PLAYER passes the ball when the Driver's right arm is pulling (stroking) under water. The pass is thrown above and in front of the Driver's right shoulder. In full stroke, the Driver shoots the ball as his/her right arm recovers above the water. This is an excellent shot from the 1-o'clock drive position. Again, it's important to emphasize that the Driver does not stop and rear up for the shot. This shot is taken in the full stroke position.

Another popular drive from the 1-o'clock position is the cross-cage drive. This should start with a head fake to the left, followed by the right, cross-cage drive. When the Driver moves past the 2-M PLAYER, the ball is placed wet to righthanders, and dry to lefhanders (slide). For the righthander in this drive position two shots should be considered. If the defense is trailing, the ball should be wrist shot. The Driver needs to know the position of the Goalkeeper and wrist shoot either near or far side. If the Goalie is "crashing" to the near side, the cross-cage lob is an excellent possibility. If the defender is even-up on the cross-cage the 1-0'CLOCK DRIVER, the 2-M PLAYER can locate the ball a little wider and allow the Driver to throw the cross over backhand. In this situation, if the Driver is to shoot the backhand, he/she should shoot it in stroke (don't drop the legs) and release the ball early in the shoulder rotation. This allows the ball to go cross-cage to the far corner of the goal. Properly thrown, this is an excellent shot from the 1-o'clock cross-cage drive.

  Any Drive Shot  

Two important points regarding "shooting from the drive" need to be made. First, players should throw the backhand only from two meters (the 2-M PLAYER), or from the 1-o'clock-crosscage drive.. Many athletes want to throw the backhand from the other drive positions. This should not be encouraged. The angle of attack from the 11-o'clock and 12-o'clock drive positions is not conducive to backhand shooting.

Second, it is important to mention again, that in my drive readout system, the lefthander gets the same passes as the righthander, but the wet and dry rules are reversed. As the 2-M PLAYER makes his/her passes, the righthander receives the ball wet to the 2-M PLAYER's left, and dry to the right. In turn, the lefthander receives the ball dry to the 2-M PLAYER's left, and wet to the right.

To 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)