Frontcourt Offense: Part 5

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

  Drills To Build Two-Meter Shooting  

 Drill Description #1: The sweep and backhand shooting drill  

For teaching sweeps and backhands, I start the 2-M PLAYER on the bottom in the shallow end of the pool. Once the 2-M PLAYER starts having some success in releasing the ball, I move the 2-M PLAYER to deep water and start practicing in front of the goal. At this stage, I allow no defense and keep the Goalie out of the cage. A fellow player passes the ball in to the 2-M PLAYER and he/she practices shooting a number of sweeps and backhands (some with the right hand and some with the left).

 Drill Description #2: The A–B–C shooting drill with little "d"  

When players demonstrate some success with these shots, passive defense is added. The defender keeps his/her face away from the ball and the arm's follow through after the shot. For safety's sake, the defender's position should be over the shoulder on the side away from the shot being practiced. At this point, a Goalie can be added to the defense. Once the sweeps and backhands are coming along well, the turn-around shot can be added to the drill. To do this with defense, the guard should overplay the 2-M PLAYER shoulder for the foul, actually allowing himself/herself to be outpositioned. The 2-M PLAYER turns and takes the ball to the goal for a shot. Practice this to both sides so the 2-M PLAYER eventually becomes adept at going to either side for the shot.

  Drill Description #3: The animal drill  

Only after the 2-M PLAYER has some experience do I add the "animal drill" to the practice sequence. The animal drill must be monitored carefully by the coach, and used only with experienced players. This drill is run in two sets of five each. A passer feeds the ball to a 2-M PLAYER covered by a defender. In the first set of five, the defender is allowed to over defend (over the shoulder, grab with both hands, actually water wrestle with the 2-M PLAYER for control of the ball). This section of the drill must be totally supervised, with the coach blowing the whistle when the 2-M PLAYER is out of position or has no chance of getting off a shot; in other words, when the defender has won the wrestling match. To complete this section of five, the 2-M PLAYER must get the ball off with some kind of shot five times. The ball does not have to score, just be shot in the direction of goal. If the defense is strong, this section may take 3:00-to5:00-minutes to complete.

After the first set of five is completed, the 2-M PLAYER should have a rest. Then come back with the second set of five. In this set, the coach calls a regular game at two meters. In other words, the defender must foul cleanly as he/she would in a game, and the 2-M PLAYER must again get off five shots at the goal before completing the set. This sounds easy, but if the foul precedes the shot, the 2-M PLAYER must pass the ball outside to his feeder, then take the return pass and try to beat the foul to the shot. This second set of five presents exactly the opposite situation from the first: In the first set, the 2-M PLAYER must work to strength and quickness to get the five shots; in the second set, he/she must work completely to quickness to be successful. In the first set, a situation is created which is physically more difficult than the player will ever encounter in a game (after practicing the animal drill, even the toughest game feels easy at two meters); and in the second set of five, the 2-M PLAYER  learns the quickness which is required of all great 2-M PLAYERS.

I had great success with the animal drill and found that our scoring from two meters in tough games substantially improved. Again, this is a drill which can have a positive effect on the two-meter game, but only if it is used with great care. Where possible, 2-M DEFENDER and 2-M PLAYERS need to be strength-and size-matched for best results. Knowing when and how much to use the animal drill is an important coaching decision.

One final note concerning the animal drill. If not properly administered, a player could be hurt. Those who play the 2-M DEFENDER must be instructed as to their role in making the drill safe and effective. The coach must carefully supervise this drill and make sure the drill is properly and safely practiced. Insure that the drill improves two-meter play. Do not use the drill in practice just to have a wrestling match.

  Directing the Offense from Two-Meters  

When in position in front of the opponent's goal, the 2-M PLAYER is in charge of the offense and guides the offense through the remaining time on the shot clock. Many difficult decisions are made during this short time span.

Is a shot available?
If a shot is available, which shot should I use?
Am I in position to obtain an ejection or four-meter award? Should I be making a pass to a Driver?
Should I be making a pass to a pick?
Should I be making a pass to a possible perimeter shot, or to a release?
How much time is left on the shot clock?

There's a lot to think about! And decisions become more difficult when a big defender is "hanging on" and the perimeter defense is crashing back to help the 2-M DEFENDER.

It's no wonder the 2-M PLAYER must be bright, strong and a leader. As the player who handles the ball most, it is natural for the greatest number of turnovers to fall to the 2-M PLAYER. The coach can't eliminate all turnovers. The key is to minimize the problem - to train the 2-M PLAYER and his/her supporting cast so that turnovers are greatly reduced. The fact is, many turnovers credited to the 2-M PLAYER really are the fault of others. Lack of proper releasing or late changing drive patterns result in turnovers statistically credited to the 2-M PLAYER.

The answer to reducing  the number of two-meter turnovers is in training the 2-M PLAYER to read defenses; how and where to pass the ball; where to look for help from releasing perimeter players; and where the ball should be placed for the Driver. Once the 2-M PLAYER is properly trained and drilled in these aspects of the offensive game, turnovers are greatly reduced. Let's discuss these training tactics  one by one to learn what can be done to improve the life of the 2-M PLAYER.

  How to Pass From Two Meters  

Often we hear coaches say, "Don't pick up the ball from on top." This is particularly good advice for the two-meter game. In the two-meter game, 85% of the passes should be picked up from underneath. The ball comes up quicker and with better control when picked up from underneath. There are several exceptions to this advice. One exception is the national-level player with large hands and lots of experience. These players have little difficulty picking up the ball on top. Also, there are certain backhand passes (and shots) where the hand is placed briefly on top. Otherwise, it is generally advisable to pick up the ball from underneath. This is particularly true for younger players who, while stepping out to meet the ball and trying to pick it up on top, will end up "pawing" or "pushing" it toward the perimeter. Not only does the ball not come up quickly, but the defense can see that the ball is about to be picked up and, reacting quickly, may push the ball under with the offensive player's hand on top. Even if this does not occur, when the ball is pawed and pushed, the ball is moved to the outside toward the dropping defenders.

Wrist passing from two meters also is extremely important. The (2-M PLAYER) needs to work to strengthen the wrists. Many times the player at two meters with a big defender on his/her back does not have the freedom to get the entire arm up and out to make the good pass. Getting the ball up quickly from underneath and being able to wrist pass with either the right or left hand is a must for success at two meters.

  Where To Pass The Ball When Making The Perimeter Release Pass  

The release pass (a pass not necessarily going to an immediate shot) always should be to the "strong" side or to the point position. If a 2-M PLAYER release passes the ball to the "weak" side, he/she is immediately outpositioned by the location of the 2-M DEFENDER. This necessitates refronting the defender and valuable time is lost. The 2-M PLAYER should make a pass to the weak side only if it is going to a shot. Otherwise, stay on the strong side or to the point with the release pass.

The only four places for the ball to go with the release pass are: to the strong side WING PLAYER; to the strong side player who is at the 1-o'clock or 11-o'clock positions; to the strong side "loop around" (when the strong side 1-o'clock or 11-o'clock position drives, the wing balances to the outside and becomes a strong candidate for a release pass - what I call the loop around); and, finally, to the point position.

All four positions are excellent for safe release passes. When in doubt, the point always should be considered, as this player has more room to maneuver, making it easier to get free from the defender.

Drill Description #4: The release passing priority drill

The 2-M PLAYER needs to practice release passing. Several drills should be used. The first and simplest is to walk (swim) through the release passing priorities with the 2-M PLAYER and perimeter players. The defense should be in place against both and should be passive in nature. The coach should referee the two-meter foul just as in a game, and have the 2-M PLAYER, in sequence, run through the wing release, the 1-o'clock or 11-o'clock release, the loop release, and the point release. The coach should referee this drill in sequence numerous times. Although a simple drill, it greatly improves the 2-M PLAYER's release pass recognition.

Drill Description #5:: The availability drill

The second release passing drill is what I call the availability drill. It should be used to improve two-meter passes and reduce turnovers. To set up this drill, have the perimeter defensive players throw a tight press against the outside offense, with no driving allowed. The 2-M DEFENDER starts behind the 2-M PLAYER on the first pass, but then can work to front. With the coach refereeing, the 2-M PLAYER must complete 20, successful, release passes to the perimeter players. This must be done under full scrimmage conditions. The 2-M PLAYER does not shoot, working only to complete 20, successful, release passes. This is a difficult drill for the 2-M PLAYER; since only successful, "clean" passes count toward the 20. It may take 8:00-to-10:00-minutes to complete the drill. In other words, any inbound pass broken up by the 2-M DEFENDER does not count toward the 20, successful passes. Any intercepted pass, (inbound or outbound), does not count. And, if the foul takes place on the perimeter before the pass can be returned, this does not count either. Only clean, quick passes to the releasing perimeter players count.

What this drill accomplishes, besides a lot of two-meter conditioning, is what makes a frontcourt offense effective. The 2-M PLAYER is forced to recognize, under game conditions, where the release pass should go. The 2-M PLAYER is trained to pick up the ball quickly and correctly. The perimeter players are trained to time their releases. The perimeter players are trained to release hard and laterally to free water. And finally, it forces the 2-M PLAYER to field every ball which is within reach and to get the ball up and ready to pass within one-and-a-half-seconds.(:01.5). This last part is particularly important to the drive phase of the offense - when the 2-M PLAYER is trained to get to the ball and get it up and ready to pass every time within one-and-one-half seconds of the foul, the Drivers will be able to always correctly time their drives. It enables the Drivers to be on time rather than early or late.

The availability drill is superb for training frontcourt offense. As long as the coach referees the drill as if it were a tournament-game, the drill produces excellent long-term results for the offense.

  How to Pass to Drivers  

Many teams won't drive one–on–one. They simply work for two-meter shots, kickouts at two meters, and set picks for their shots. They don't feel comfortable one–on–one driving because the ball is turned over too often when passed to Drivers. The reasoning here is sound: it's twice as difficult to hit a moving target as it is a stationary one. If you don't drive, it is easier for the front-court offense to maintain ball control. The problem is, to have a total offense, you will eventually need some driving.

Can a team drive, yet maintain a high level of ball control? In 1983, with the United States Olympic Team, I introduced a system which proved very successful in effectively passing to Drivers. This, along with our release pass discipline, enabled our outstanding 2-M PLAYERS to maintain ball control against the best defenses in the world. Our system for passing to the Driver revolved around a plan of two meter and Driver "readouts." When the Driver was driving for a possible shot, the 2-M PLAYER "read" the position of the defender on the Driver. If the Driver was not free to receive the ball for a shot, the 2-M PLAYER would immediately look to the release pass. If the Driver did get up, the next "read" was to dropping perimeter defenders, particularly the players guarding the wing. If the WING DEFENDER were pressing out, the drive would stay free once the Driver had beaten his/her defender. The 2-M PLAYER would simply make the correct pass to the free Driver.  If the WING DEFENDER were dropping to help against the drive, the 2-M PLAYER would most often hit the loop around release (depending on space available) rather than "forcing" the ball to the Driver. If the 2-M PLAYER "read" the position of the defender on the Driver and monitored the outside defensive help (particularly the WING DEFENDER, the correct pass would be made 95 percent of the time. If the drive were up and the WING DEFENDER not dropping, the 2-M PLAYER  would put the ball "wet" to righthanded players driving to his/her left and "dry" to righthanded players driving to the right; the "readout" is reversed for lefthanded Drivers. Although sounding complex, the theory is simple and, when regularly practiced, can be learned quickly and effectively implemented. Suddenly, the 2-M PLAYER will find that he/she is making the correct passing decisions and ball control in driving offenses is greatly improved.

  Reading the Defense from Two Meters  

Along with knowing the time on the shot clock, the 2-M PLAYER must know what defense the opponents are running. The 2-M PLAYER must be alert, as defenses can change quickly and any change must be communicated quickly to all players in the offensive structure. Once the offense is correctly set up against the style of defense being played (press, drop, slough etc.), the 2-M PLAYER must be trained to read the location of defenders playing against Drivers. The 2-M PLAYER also must be able to read the location of defenders in dropping defenses whether it simply be a single drop to help with a Driver, or whether the entire defense is in some style of dropback configuration.

The ability to read defenses can be learned only through proper-tactical-halfcourt-offensive drills, scrimmages and game situations. Experience becomes the best teacher and the coach must provide the opportunity for the 2-M PLAYER to get the correct levels of practice and game experience. NFL quarterbacks need time to learn, and it's certainly no different for the 2-M PLAYER. With proper skills, the potentially outstanding 2-M PLAYER can achieve success if properly prepared by the coach through tactical drills and game experience.

(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)