Offensive Structures: Part 2

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84
12/15/07

The Three—Three Offense

  The Three—Three Offense Against Pressing Defenses  

I began experimenting with Three—Three offensive alignments as early as 1956 when the 2-M PLAYER was coming into popularity in the United States. As mentioned earlier, prior to the 1950s, a swimming style of frontcourt offense had found favor with most coaches. This style of offense featured a number of different players briefly taking up a set position in front of the goal, only to move to another position as the next player drove toward the "hole."

Bob Hughes from El Segundo High School, one of the greatest players ever to represent the United States, helped change the swimming style of offense and bring great popularity to the 2-M PLAYER position. Hughes was a giant of a man, with powerful hands, tremendous throwing strength, and world-class swimming ability. He held the world record for the 100-meter breaststroke and represented the United States in both water polo and swimming at the 1956 Olympic Games. Hughes and Marvin "Ace" Burns of Fullerton Junior College and USC were prototypes of the modern-day 2-M PLAYER. They helped popularize the position. Today, like the quarterback in American football, water polo offense is built around the 2-M PLAYER.

In 1956, I began working with different offenses, searching for a structure which would give a strong 2-M PLAYER the opportunity to lead the offense. The Long Beach City College water polo team at that time had a young man who was 6-foot-7 and weighed well more than 200 pounds. In an effort to cater to his size and talents, my experiments lead me away from the "lung" and "triangle" driving offenses and toward a more stationary style of play which featured the 2-M PLAYER as the leader of the offense. The structure which seemed to best serve this purpose was a Three—Three positioning of the players, with the inside line featuring a 2-M PLAYER playing center goal at two-to-three meters. In the front line, he was flanked by two WING PLAYERS, one to his left and one to his right, both playing at about three meters. Outside, another line of three players was stationed in what I called a "flat triangle." The 11-o'clock and 1-o'clock positions played approximately six meters out from the face of the goal and the point (12-o'clock position) seven-to-eight meters out. See Figure 8.

Figure 8

As most high school, college and club teams at this time in history were playing a pressing style of defense, when offensive players were positioned in a Three—Three structure, the ball could be moved easily to the 2-M PLAYER from any of the other five positions. With a big, strong 2-M PLAYER, the defense was dominated by this position. In an effort to cope, it wasn't long before pressing defenses began to try to front the 2-M PLAYER. This tactic oftentimes forced the 2-M PLAYER to "layout" to the right or left in an effort to get away for a shot. Generally, the defense would cut down this shot by dropping the WING DEFENDER in as the 2-M PLAYER "layed out" to receive the pass.

At Long Beach City College, I immediately adjusted the Three—Three to take advantage of the fronting 2-M DEFENDER I introduced a technique for the 2-M PLAYER which I called the "counter rotation." The 2-M PLAYER was trained to give the defender front water at three-to-four meters. Once fronted, the 2-M PLAYER would begin pressing the defender out an even greater distance away from the goal. This was accomplished by using a strong egg beater kick while pressing into the defender with the upper body, chest and shoulders. While moving the defender out, the 2-M PLAYER would motion, with his head, the side to which he was going to rotate. Let's assume he wanted the ball to his left. While moving the defender out and signaling he was going to rotate to the left, the 2-M PLAYER placed his left hand low on the defender's hip. As the ball was brought to teammates playing that side of the pool, the 2-M PLAYER pressed hard on the hip of the defender (to get maximum leverage). He then quickly released the left hand and rotated around the defender by turning his head hard to the right, simultaneously swinging the right arm above but low to the water and allowing his body to rotate (in the vertical position) around the defender and to front water. While rotating around the defender, the 2-M PLAYER went from the chest, or fronted position, to a position where he had his back to the defender in the desired two-meter-playing position. As soon as the right arm completed its swing, the right elbow came into contact with the defender and was placed under the armpit of the defender. This allowed the 2-M PLAYER to legally hold off the defender's attempt to re-front.

It is especially important to train the 2-M PLAYER to rotate only far enough to gain advantage position on the defender. He/she shouldn't rotate to a complete front-water position if this move would put him/her at five-to-six meters out from the goal. If the fronting guard has been pushed out a significant distance, the 2-M PLAYER should go for a quarter rotation and have the ball brought in from the wing position. See Figure 9.

Figure 9

The counterrotation, although sounding difficult, is a simple maneuver which can be done to either the right or left side. The rotation needs to be completed totally in the vertical position, keeping the 2-M PLAYER in front of the goal and in good shooting position. With a properly executed counterrotation, a strong 2-M PLAYER can gain an advantage position on a strong defender nearly every time.

The Three–Three structure with a strong counterrotating 2-M PLAYER, dominated frontcourt offense for a number of years. As time went by and rules slowly changed, I simply modified our offensive approach, while keeping with the basic Three–Three structure. By the early 1970s, referees began to favor a moving style of play and started calling numerous ejections on defenders trying to guard Drivers. As the Three–Three was basically a power-shooting, two-meter offense, this created the need to make additional tactical changes. The Three–Three is limited since there is no place to drive from the three outside positions; the player must always drive into an area occupied by a teammate and a defender. Yet drives had to be incorporated into the offensive structure to take advantage of ejections caused by trying to defend the drive.

Since many of the rule changes and interpretations of rules were influenced by the European FINA referees and their Federations, the ejection on the Driver's defender became a very popular call as the Europeans attempted to put more movement into water polo. These changes were not a great problem for the European style of play, as most of their team offenses were using the Umbrella structure, a style which provided plenty of opportunity and room to drive. But putting movement into the Three–Three was definitely a greater challenge.

The answer for drive movement in the Three–Three was the "pick," an offensive move borrowed from basketball and introduced by the United States in 1971-72. The "pick" had a lot to do with our success in the 1972 Munich Olympics where the United States won its first medal in 40 years.

Simply speaking, the pick is a move which involves three offensive players, the 2-M PLAYER plus two others. Describing it in the simplest of terms, as the ball comes into the 2-M PLAYER a Driver takes off and, if not drawing an ejection on the original drive, reached a position to set a "pick" against a defender guarding a fellow offensive player. The 2-M PLAYER reads the defense and passes the ball to the proper player in the pick,—that player who becomes free for a shot as a result of the pick.

Many different names (outside, inside, reverse, wing, moving, muscle) are given to the various types of picks, which became the perfect solution for adding movement to the Three–Three Offense. As aforementioned, picks provide the opportunity for defensive ejections with the original drive and, while not providing a lot of free room to maneuver after the original move, the Driver in the Three–Three could still help set a pick and add another dimension to the offense.

Many goals for the USA Team in the 1972 Olympics came from the Three–Three picking game.

As rules continued to change and interpretations of those rules within United States water polo changed, there were other tactical modifications to the Three–Three Offense. By the late 1970s, the 2-M DEFENDER was able to foul the 2-M PLAYER twice, then switch to prevent being ejected. Once the switch was made, the defender was "new," meaning the defender had two fouls to give before facing ejection. These rules played well with the Three–Three structure. As defensive switches were made (99 percent of the time from outside defenders), the "flat triangle" of the Three–Three structure put the outside offensive players in excellent shooting position. All they had to do was follow the switch in and receive the ball from the 2-M PLAYER.

The Three–Three structure is still the main offensive structure for high school teams. It has a number of advantages for younger teams. First, there is less movement than with the Umbrella offense. It's easier for young players to pass the ball to stationary targets. The more movement, the greater the risk of turnovers. Second, the Three–Three is an easier structure to run in small pools as it can be run effectively with less room. The Umbrella needs to spread out to be efficient. Third, provided you have strong two-meter play, a team can be competitive with fewer quality players—it's basically a simple offense to run which requires far less decision making (thinking) than the Umbrella.

(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)