Special Situatons: Part 1

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

Special situations are parts of the game which don't necessarily fit under any of the other tactical headings—parts of the game which need to be understood and practiced but which don't require major practice time. An analogy from American football might be the "onside kick," which certainly requires practice by every football team but, when compared to regular defense and offense, receives only a small amount of practice time. The same is true of the subjects discussed in this chapter.

Sound tactical preparation (defense, counterattack, frontcourt offense and six–on–five) provides the key to team success in water polo. Special situations are the "icing on the cake"—the little things which, in the final analysis, might turn a loss or tie into a win.

How much time to give to special situations is a matter to be decided by each coach. Designing plays or patterns for specific situations can be fun and should help stimulate the creative side of the coach's personality.

Let's take a brief look at some situations which occur often enough to be given special consideration.

Penalty Throw Cut-Off

When a penalty throw is awarded, the defense must be prepared to aid the Goalkeeper. Two members of the defense must bracket the offensive player taking the penalty throw. One defensive player should be on the right side of the shooter, the other to the left. If the shooter is righthanded, the defender to the left side should be behind or to the "blind side" of the shooter. With the referee's whistle signaling the penalty shot, the defender to the left should lunge in front of the penalty shooter, blocking him/her from playing a rebound which might occur if the ball is blocked by the Goalkeeper or rebounds from the face of the goal. The defender to the right of the shooter, as well as the Goalkeeper, should move to recover the rebound. If the ball rebounds to the Goalie's right, the blocking defenders are in position to recover the ball.
When the penalty shooter is lefthanded, the opposite action should take place. With a lefthanded shooter, the defender on the right moves to block the shooter's chance for getting the possible rebound.

Although seemingly of minor importance, the Penalty Throw Cut-off almost always prevents a goal from the rebound. It is surprising how often teams do not block or react properly during the penalty shot, giving the shooter a second chance to score. Teaching the proper use of the Penalty Throw Cut-Off maneuver should prevent this embarrassing occurrence. See Figure 1 and 2.

Figure 1 Movement of defenders for righthanded penalty shooter. Figure 2 Movement of defenders for lefthanded penalty shooter.

Over the years, it's been a favorite tactic of some teams to harass the penalty shooter by getting too close and forcing the referee to delay the game to reposition the two defenders. About the time the penalty shooter is ready, the defenders again move in too close, sometimes threatening to push the shooter with their legs. Oftentimes, the Goalkeeper joins the action, moving forward off the goal line before the penalty shot is whistled. All these actions by the defenders are meant to annoy the shooter in the hope that, when the shot is finally taken, the harassment will contribute toward a miss. This type of tactic should be neither taught nor encouraged. It is my opinion, anyone purposefully interfering with a penalty throw should be ejected immediately.


After a goal is scored, play must be restarted, with the team which has just been scored on receiving possession of the ball.

The current restart rule calls for the ball to be put back in play by an offensive player at midcourt, with both teams lined up in their respective halves of the pool. The offensive team can make the first pass back to either a field player or to the Goalkeeper and, while the offense moves up, the defense can either press out or fall back and then press or drop. A number of years ago in the United States, the restart pass was taken by the Goalkeeper after the referee had handled the ball and substitutions were made, with the result that opposing teams using the press were able to pickup and defend throughout the entire field of play. This rule generally favored the stronger of the two teams and forced the Goalkeeper to make a sometimes difficult first pass.

I like to have four different restart plays. Each has its purpose. First, I like to have a play for use when the game is going well, we are leading, and plenty of time remains in the quarter. Second, with basically the same game conditions existing, we need a play to pick up the pace by going for a goal off the restart. Third, there should be a restart play for use when only :12-to-:15 seconds remain in the quarter and a goal attempt is needed. Fourth, there should be a play for use when fewer than :09-seconds remain in the quarter.

In recent days in the United States, there has been some talk of returning the restart to the Goalie position. Personally, I prefer the restart at halfcourt, which allows the offense to position more quickly, thereby creating faster action in front of the opponent's goal. Whichever restart rule is employed in the future, coaches should have three or four restart plays or patterns to fit the different situations which might occur during the course of a game.

Let me diagram a few restart plays. They are shown from the midpool line, which is how the restart takes place under the current rules. Should the restart rule be changed in the future, the four game situations mentioned above still will exist, and the patterns shown can be used from either midcourt or the goal line with simple redesign of the passing patterns. The coach should name or number the restart plays, which should be "called" by the team captain or Goalkeeper before action begins from the restart position.

Play One

Play One is not a play at all but simply the team captain's call to move up the offense in a controlled fashion. Starting at halfcourt with the first situation (game going well and plenty of time left on game clock), Play One simply means to move up the offense and, depending on the defense, set up in the desired offensive structure—Umbrella or Three–Three—and begin the attack within the constraints of the :35-second shot clock. In this case, the first pass (ball in play) from centercourt should go to an offensive field player a good number of meters back from the center line, or to the Goalkeeper, who already should have moved up (out) to the four-to-seven-meter area. For three reasons, the first restart pass should go back to the Goalkeeper: First, the Goalkeeper is trained to make safe and accurate passes from the "deep" position—an art the Goalkeeper has perfected from counterattack training. Second, because of positioning, the Goalkeeper generally has longer to find and make the best (correct) pass. Third, by making the first pass back to the Goalkeeper, all six offensive players can move immediately to their positions within the designated offensive structure, preventing delay in starting a six-player attack against the defense. This consideration might prove of major significance in providing the opportunity to score a winning goal in a close competition.

Generally, when simply moving into a controlled situation off the restart, the SECONDARY SET should be sent to the two-meter position in  an effort to force the defense to put its best 2-M DEFENDER on the SECONDARY SET. Depending on the situation of the moment, the prime 2-M PLAYER should then move to the two-meter position. Although moving the prime 2-M PLAYER to the two-meter position after briefly posting a "decoy" will not confuse the defense every time, it is always worth a try. Once the prime 2-M PLAYER is moved to two meters, the team should be ready to run a patient and controlled attack based on the opponent's defensive strategy and scouted weaknesses.

Too 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)