Offensive Structures: Part 4

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


Since the advent of organized water polo, teams have positioned offensive players to screen defensive players away from the ball and create shots. However, it wasn't until the late 1960s that sophisticated "picks and screens" became a major factor in the game. Many of the original picking moves were borrowed directly from basketball. Bob Horn, former coach at UCLA, was one of the first to employ the picking style of offense.

The United States introduced the American style of picking to the world during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. We were the "Cinderella" team of the 1972 Olympics, winning the bronze medal, our first Olympic water polo medal since the 1932 Olympics. In Munich, the United States team brought new tactical concepts to the Games, picks being one of the more evident of these concepts. Many of the United States' goals were scorea by way of the picking game.

After 1972, the United States continued to refine pick concepts, creating an outstanding offensive weapon. By 1977, the United States had an array of successful picks which could be used against a variety of defensive counter measures. A young American player by the name of Jim Kruse may have been responsible for temporarily taking us out of the picking game at the international level. Jim became so successful with what we called the "muscle pick" (averaging nearly five goals a game in one European tournament), the international referees began taking a dim view of our picking game. Suddenly, the muscle pick was whistled as an offensive foul, supposedly for impeding the movement of the defending players. The United States was basically denied the use of the pick in international matches. During this time, picks were still being used at the high school and college levels but, internationally, we were unable to continue their use. Fortunately, as increasing numbers of international teams started to experiment with picks, the United States was again able to include them in offensive planning.

There are many variations of picks and they are known by a wide variety of names. Some teams use numbers rather than names to identify picks. The idea here is to correspond player positions to numbers, calling the number sequence to both describe the pick and the area of the pool where it is to be run. It's really up to the coach to decide how to name or number his/her picks. Personally, when describing picks, I'prefer to use the clock positions (11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock) to identify the "up top" player positions and right and left wing for inside identification.

Most picks are variations of three basic picking concepts. Let's break down those three picks to see how each works.

  The Moving Pick  

At the international level, the United States introduced the moving pick in 1981. Ken Lindgren of California State University Long Beach had been working on it with his college players. The moving pick has one main advantage over most other picks: there is no impeding (blocking) of defensive player movement as the pick is being run. From 1981 through 1984, this is the only type of pick we ran with the National Team. It worked well for us, scoring numerous goals and drawing many defensive ejections.

The moving pick is simply a cross over drive, with offensive players rubbing off defenders as they cross over. The moving pick starts with a point drive, with the point player 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER driving to either left or right. See Figure 13.

Figure 13

Moving pick point driving the right side.

In Figure 13, the point drive is headed right, or toward the three post. The player at the 11-o'clock position has the option of a cross break which turns the point drive into a moving pick. If the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER chooses not to drive, there is simply a one—on—one, right-side, point drive. If the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER chooses to cross drive, it is the start of a moving pick.

With any moving pick starting with the perimeter players (at the 11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock drive positions), the action must be initiated by the 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER. The perimeter moving pick is always started by the point. There are other rules which must be followed if this pick is to have a maximum chance for success. The 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER does not stop the drive unless continuing to move forward will create an offensive foul. Temporarily stopping the drive may give the referee an excuse to call impeding. The point drive is just that, a one–on–one drive. The 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, if choosing to go, must cross over the hips of the point Driver and be headed toward the two post. Two of the biggest mistakes made in this pick are failing to cross over the hips of the point drive (allowing the defender to slip through and stop the play), and failing to drive toward the post. Young players want to head the drive toward the side wall rather than the two post. If either offensive player is to get free, the cross over 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER must rub the defender off. By not crossing over the hips of the point drive or driving toward the side wall, the defender is given a chance to make the play. See Figures 14 and 15.

Figure 14

Wrong — The 11-o'clock drive is not crossing over the hips. This shows the defender in good position and able to swim through the moving pick.

Figure 15

Wrong — The 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER is shown driving toward the side wall rather than post.

Improper execution by the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER (14 and 15) doom the moving pick to failure.

If the point drive moves toward the left, or 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER, all the same rules prevail. See Figure 16.

Figure 16
The moving pick is shown with the point drive moving to the left side.

As we look at the point drive moving pick, we can see certain reads which develop for the 2-M PLAYER. If the pick works to inside water, several things remain constant for the two-meter pass. First, when the point drives right and the 11-O'CLOCK DEFENDER crosses over, the free player generally is the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER. The direction of the drive calls for the two-meter pass to be made dry if the Driver is righthanded. This becomes a constant read for the 2-M PLAYER. See Figure 17.

Figure 17

Notice the passing priority area for point drive moving to the right. The 2-M PLAYER passes to the driver quite near to the goal.

If the point drive moves to the left and the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER crosses over, turning the drive into a moving pick, the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER has the best opportunity of being free and the (2-M PLAYER) looks to his/her left to make the pass. If the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER is righthanded, the ball should be placed on the water to the outside arm; if the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER is lefthanded, the pass is made dry. See Figure 18.

Figure 18

Passing priority area for point drive moving left is shown.

With any of the three picks, a three-player read must take place so Driver movement is correct, and the 2-M PLAYER makes the correct pass. What must take place with all picks for them to work is, each of the driving players must make the correct move based upon the positioning of the defenders, and the 2-M PLAYER must read the defense on both the Drivers to anticipate where the pass finally is to be made. In Figures 13 through 18, the drive is getting through, thereby creating inside water reads for the 2-M PLAYER. When the defense pinches back, both the 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER and the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER or 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER (whichever one is involved in the pick) must "read" the defenders dropping off. The defense oftentimes does this in an effort to prevent the drive and subsequent pick from getting to the inside. When this takes place (both DRIVE DEFENDERS pinch or drop off the Drivers), the 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER should stop and set a screen for his/her 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER or the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER. This must be read by all three offensive players, and the two-meter pass should go dry to the offensive Driver rearing up behind the screen. See Figure 19.

Figure 19

Defense pinches back, creating a screen shot.

When shooting off the screen with the moving pick, the player shooting the ball should not fake. The ball should be caught and immediately shot.

The moving pick can be run from the wing positions as well. I call this a Wing Moving Pick. As aforementioned, many coaches number their picks for purposes of identification. When using this system, generally the perimeter players are numbered from left to right as you look toward the offensive goal. Starting with the left WING PLAYER, the players are numbered 1 through 5. Generally the number of the perimeter player starting the pick drive is "called" first. Therefore, in this identification system, a Wing Moving Pick on the left side might be titled a 12 or 21 PICK. If the action starts on the right side with the right WING PLAYER driving first, it becomes a 54 PICK. Although I still prefer the clock and word description system when naming and calling picks, most coaches now use the numbering system.

The Right Wing Moving Pick was very popular with our 1988 Olympic Team. It deviates from the perimeter moving pick in one major way. The pick is initiated by the wing or inside player. This pick usually is run from the Umbrella structure and from the right side. If the right WING PLAYER runs the pick, it is in conjunction with the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER. Should the left WING PLAYER run the pick it is with the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER Usually, the "read" for the two-meter pass is consistent: If the right WING PLAYER runs it, the pass is wet to the inside if the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER is righhanded (most teams have far more righhanders than lefthanders) or dry to the wing setting the pick in motion. When the defense pinches, if the pick is run on the left side, normally it ends in a screen with the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER receiving the dry pass from the two-meter position. See Figures 20 and 21.

Figure 20

Right wing pick with two-meter pass wet to 11-0'CLOCK DRIVER.

Figure 21

Left wing pick with ball passed dry to 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER.

The opponent's defensive strategy helps the coach decide which side provides the better opportunities.

As with all picks, the final pass is based on the defender's final positioning. To take advantage of those final positions, the offensive Drivers running the pick must read the defense and make the proper moves, and the (2-M PLAYER) must read both the defense and the positioning of his/her offensive players setting the pick. At that point, the proper pass must be made if a successful shot is to be taken. It sounds complicated but, with proper practice drills, picks can be very successful.

(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)