Six on Five Offense: Part 3

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

The Three-Three Offense

Although not so versatile as the Four-Two, the Three-Three has some advantages over the Four-Two which coaches should consider when deciding which six-on-five structure to use. First, the Three-Three sets up faster than the Four-Two. This has great application to the :20- second ejection rule now in force. Second, the Three-Three is simpler to run. There are fewer passing choices, as the offense is concentrated primarily in the three outside players. Third, fewer quality athletes are required to make the Three-Three structure work. (In the Four-Two, all six players need to be quality in their positions: everyone in the Four-Two is a shooter and the 1, 4, 5 nd 6 layers must excel in both passing and shooting.) Fourth, the Three-Three doesn't spread as wide as the Four-Two. This can be an advantage in narrow playing courses. The Four-Two Offense covers greater width of the pool in the front line, creating greater potential for throwing the ball onto the deck, particularly with the pass from player 1 o player 6. Overpassing is not a problem with the Three-Three, as 98% of the passes take place among the three outside players. As they are positioned in a "flat triangle." Passing distances are short and simple. The ball is easily kept in the field of play.

As far back as 1958, I started working with the Three-Three. Originally, my time was spent developing the structure as a six-on-six, frontcourt, offensive, attacking system. Today, the Three-Three frontcourt offensive structure remains popular, particularly at the high school level. In the early stages of development, it became apparent the Three-Three had great potential for attacking-five-player defenses.

Over the years, I continued working with this structure against the 3-2 zone. It was evident the Three—Three structure had good potential against player-down defenses. In 1972 we selected an Olympic training squad in June, immediately played four games against the visiting Yugoslavian Olympic Team, then left for Europe and a six-week-training stint. We had no team workout time prior to the Yugoslavian competition, and only two days of training before arriving in Budapest and commencing play in the Tunsgram Cup. It was a difficult time for United States Water Polo. Olympic squads were selected just prior to final training for the Olympic Games. Because of this lack of training time, we used the Three—Three as our Six—on—Five structure both against the Yugoslavians and during the Tunsgram competition. With essentially no training time, important and difficult games to be played, and teammates new to each other, it was far easier to use the Three-Three. We actually played quite successfully with this structure. Several of our opponents laughed at our use of a Three-Three as a Six-on-Five attacking system. In their minds, it didn't exist as an alternative to the Four-Two. Although we were using a Four-Two by the time the Munich Olympics rolled around (two months of practice gave us time to develop the player recognition necessary for a successful Four-Two), no one was laughing anymore. As mentioned earlier, the United States finished third in the Munich Games, winning its first Olympic Water Polo medal in 40 years. It's interesting to note the Three-Three started to be employed internationally as a Six-on-Five Offense shortly after the 1972 Olympics. Although not widely used at first, it slowly grew in popularity. Today most teams phase into a Three-Three from the Four-Two. Presently, several powerful water polo countries play almost exclusively in a Three-Three. I'm not saying the Three-Three has surpassed the Four-Two as the predominant Six-on-Five offensive structure. With quality players I still prefer the versatility of the Four-Two, but the Three-Three has become a very usable alternative to the straight Four-Two structure. This is even more true now with the :20-second-ejection rule.

Player Positioning In The Three-Three

The Three-Three lines up, as the title implies, with three players across the front line approximately N meters out from the goal and the three additional players in a "flat triangle" between six-and-eight meters. (The point of the triangle starts his/her play at eight meters.) In the Three-Three, 90% of the shots taken come from the three outside players.
To designate player positioning, use the numbering and titling system shown in Figure 8. This keeps the outside positions with the same numbers as used in the Four-Two, and uses the descriptive terms of the "Hole" and "Point" to describe the other two positions. I have found this the easiest system.

Figure 8

Let's consider the qualities needed to play each position in the Three-Three. We'll take the front line first.

1 Position

This obviously requires a righthander. If the team is lacking in quality players, this position can be played by one of the weaker starters. Only occasionally will the1J position be free for a shot.

The Hole - H

While the Hole position in normal six-on-six offense requires a highly skilled player to direct the attack, against the player-down defense the opposite is true. The weakest starter can play here as he/she is covered one-on-one 99% of the time.

6 Position

If the team is so fortunate as to start two lefthanders, the 6 position should be played by the weaker of the two. If a righthander is playing this spot, he/she should to be a "quick release" shooter and can be the fourth best field starter.

4 Position

Moving to the back line, the 0 player should be righthanded and should possess good legs and a strong right arm. Obviously, this needs to be one of the best players and a strong and accurate shooter.

5 Position

If the team has two lefthanders, the better of the two should play this position. If the team has only one lefthander, generally this would be his/her position.

There are exceptions to this rule: When the lefthander does not possess a good arm, he/she should be played inside. Another exception might be if the lefthander is too small or has poor legs. Players in the     position must be able to get up both to receive the pass and to see through the defense. If a righthander plays this position, he/she should be a good "off-side," quick release shooter. This position should be filled with the team's second best athlete.

The Point – P
The Point position must be played by the team's best and brightest athlete. This player must be an outstanding perimeter shooter, with both power and quickness. The POINT PLAYER quarterbacks the Three—Three Offense and handles the ball more than any of the other players.

Playing The Three-Three Front Line

1 Position

The 1 position needs to stay on balance to the goal at all times. By staying on balance, I mean keeping his/her body in a shooting position the entire time, with the left shoulder in, the right shoulder out. The center of the chest points toward the center of the goal. See Figure 9. The right arm should be up in a shooting position at all times, remaining there during the entire offensive sequence. This is important for two reasons: First, it provides a constant target for the occasional incoming pass, and second, it allows for a quicker shot if the Goalie is out of position. With the 3-2 zone defense, the 1 position is guarded one-on-one most of the time. Regardless of this situation, the 1 player must be ready for the ball in case the defense drops off or moves out to attack an outside player.

Figure 9 - The player's chest is pointing toward center goal

The 1 position does a rocker arm slightly to the outside when the ball is being penetrated by the 5 position. See Figure 10. "Rocker arming" creates a "teeter totter" effect and allows the front line (1 and 6 players) a better chance to cover the counterattack when it appears the ball will be shot. The 1 position always should be ready to receive the ball, but particularly when it is being penetrated by the 5 or Point positions, the 1 player must be moving slightly in a "rocker arm" motion.

Figure 10 - The rocker arm motion is used by the player at the wing.

The Hole

The "Hole” position occasionally gets the ball but never in the "wet" position. As with the 1 and 6 positions, the HOLE is guarded one-on-one with the Three-Two zone defense. As the team is one-player-up, the free player in the Three-Three should be outside, never inside as in the Four-Two. As a result, the only time the HOLE gets the ball is if the defense goes to sleep and makes a major positioning error. This happens occasionally with the 1 and 6 positions, but rarely with the HOLE. Even so, the HOLE must always be prepared for the rare occasions when the defense makes such an error. When this happens, the HOLE should slide slightly right or left of the defense and be prepared to receive the ball in the "dry" position. See Figure 10. The HOLE should move left or right only if the defense makes an error. Otherwise, when guarded one-on-one, the HOLE must remain stationary at center goal. If the HOLE's position is constantly moving left and right while being guarded one-on-one, the HOLE "clogs" the shooting lanes of the 4, 5, and POINT PLAYER positions. As the majority of the shots are created from 4, 5 and the POINT PLAYER) positions, unnecessary movement in the HOLE position can destroy the effectiveness of the Three-Three Offense.

Figure 11


6 Position

The 6 position's responsibilities are the same as the 1 spot. He/she always must be on balance to the goal, the arm up, ready for the dry pass and shot, and "rocker arming" when necessary. The righthander playing the 6 position must be particularly aware of staying on balance to the goal. Inexperienced righthanded players in the 6 position have the tendency to turn their backs to the goal, forcing a backhand type shot when receiving a pass from 4 or the POINT PLAYER. As this positioning in the Three-Three is two to three meters wide of the goal post, turning the back to the goal in the 6 position creates a nearly impossible shot. It is critical for the 6 player to keep on balance to the goal.

(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)