Learning and Teaching the Basics  


Picking Up the Ball

   Monte Nitzkowski

All players must be able to pick up the ball from the surface of the water quickly and efficiently and bring it to a position where it can be passed or shot.

Throughout the country the coaches' cry of "pick it up from underneath" has echoed from the walls and ceilings of most swim facilities. However, under certain circumstances, the ball can and should be picked up from on top. This may not be welcome news to all, but it is a fact. Therefore, both underneath and on-top methods should be taught to young players and these players need to understand under what circumstances each method should be employed.

PICKING UP THE BALL FROM UNDERNEATH:  Picking up the ball from underneath should be the first method taught to beginning players. Have players tread water and float a ball next to their passing arm. With the ball in this position, the player should reach underneath the ball with an open hand, fingers spread and the thumb positioned toward the outside, or away from the body. (The open hand should be positioned as if the player were preparing to "read" I the palm.) In this position, place the hand underneath the ball and lift it slightly above the surface of the water. At this point and while the ball is being lifted, the hand should begin to rotate (in a "rolling" fashion) hack to the inside with the thumb finally pointing toward the ear and the ball cradled in the hand next to the side of the head. The ball is now positioned where it can be passed or shot. (Illustrations #27,#28,#29.)

Illustration 27 - Hand under ball, ready to pick up
from underneath while in vertical position – thumb
on passing hand pointed away from the players body.

Illustration 28 – Ball starting up,
thumb begins rotation back to inside.  
Illustration 29 – Ball up
ready to pass or shoot.

Players should practice this maneuver in the vertical, treading water position until they can bring up the ball quickly and under complete control. Once players have mastered picking up the ball from underneath in the stationary, vertical position, they should practice picking it up from underneath while swimming (dribbling). To execute this maneuver, have players dribble the ball the width or length of the pool and practice picking it up while moving in a swimming fashion.

The technique for picking up the ball from underneath while dribbling is simple. In order, the player should shorten the overarm recovery motion on the passing arm and enter (catch) the water just behind (short of) the floating air.-As the hand enters the water and is placed underneath the ball, begin the same rotational movement as in the stationary position—rotate the palm so it is in the "up" position with the fingers spread and thumb positioned to the outside. Now lift the ball up and slightly out of the water. While cradling the
ball in the palm of the hand, rotate the thumb back toward the inside, bringing the ball up and in close to the head. As the ball comes up, the player's legs drop down and the body moves from the horizontal to the vertical passing
or shooting position. (Illustrations #30, 31, 32.)

Illustration 30 - Picking up ball from
underneath while in horizontal, swim-
ing position, showing early catch phase
of stroke and hand entry position.
Illustration 31 - Ball starting up,
thumb begins rotation to inside.

Illustration 32 - Ball up in tripod,
shooting or passing position. Player
has gone from horizontal to vertical,
hips down position.

There are many arguments for picking up the ball from underneath. First, the ball comes up quicker that way and it can be released quicker, which are of particular importance in the counterattack where every second is critical to maintaining an advantage situation.

Second, when an offensive player places a hand on top of the ball, defenders are alerted to an impending action, giving them the advantage. But when an offensive player picks up the ball from underneath, the "picking up" action is disguised until the last moment. Defenders have no idea what is coming next, creating a greater element of surprise and a definite advantage to the offense. This is particularly true with an off the-water (drive) shot taken from a "wet" pass, which is far more effective when picked up from underneath. Additionally, picking up from underneath makes it very difficult for the Goalkeeper to know what's coming next.

A third advantage of picking up the ball from underneath has to do with control. After practicing this technique young players will find it much easier to control the ball.

This concept has great application for beginning Two-Meter players. When a player is being aggressively defended from behind, it's extremely difficult to hold and maintain the Two-Meter position. This problem is compounded when a young player trying to absorb the foul and make a release pass places a hand on top of the ball, oftentimes "pushing" or "pawing" it farther out and away from the Two-Meter area. This happens all the time. Two-Meter players end up at five to six meters, a position which quickly can destroy an effective offense. Valuable seconds are lost while Two-Meter players attempt to regain proper position. The best way for young Two-meter players to avoid this is to reach under the ball and, after lifting it from the surface of the water, make a wrist release pass. Picking it up from underneath will bring up the ball quickly and under control. This allows the Two-Meter player to make an accurate release pass while maintaining the correct Two-Meter position.

One can see that picking up the ball from underneath is an extremely important Water Polo fundamental and should be taught to all players during the early stages of their careers. This method has many applications for making the offense effective. It can't be stressed enough!!

PICKING UP THE BALL ON TOP: Although limited in its application, there are certain situations in Water Polo where the ball should be picked up on top. In reality, as players' skills improve and as young players' hands grow larger, many insist on picking up the ball only from on top. Any observer of the sport constantly hears the coaches' cry of "pick it up underneath" while actually seeing the ball picked up from on top. Experienced players tend to pick up the ball from on top. This is wrong and should be discouraged. Players must learn when the ball can and should be picked up from on top and when it should be picked up from underneath. Both skills must be applied and should be determined by the situation of the moment.

The question arises, "Why do experienced players want to pick up the ball from on top?" There seems to be a logical explanation: The ball floats and makes an excellent flotation device for players. They like to place their hands on top of the ball and lean on it before lifting it up to pass or shoot. Leaning on the ball becomes a bad habit. When players lean on the ball they will always pick it up from on top.

What situations call for the ball to be picked up on top? First, when "walking the ball" in for a shot (ball cupped in shooting hand and stroked through in preparation for an off the water shot) the ball should be picked up from on top. (Illustrations #33, 34, 35.)

Illustration 33 - Walking the ball,
hand on top in swimming position.
Illustration 34 - Walking the ball,
stroking through underneath the
water with hand on top of ball.

Illustration 35 - Walking ball,
recovery phase of stroke and ready to
stroke again, pass or shoot the ball.

Second, when executing a push pass or shot (screw shot), the hand is placed on top of the ball prior to taking the shot. (Illustrations #36, 37, 38.)

Illustration 36 - Push pass,
hand on top of ball.
Illustration 37 - Push pass, ball
cocked and ready to throw.

Illustration 38 - Push pass, ball released.

Third, the Two-Meter specialist generally will need to place a hand on top of the ball prior to making a backhand shot or backhand release pass. For right-handed Two-Meter specialists, oftentimes the release pass will be to the right wing side, or to the one o'clock perimeter position. Usually this will call for the hand to be placed on top of the ball in preparation for the backhand pass.

Players should practice picking up the ball from on top in the same manner as when picking it up underneath. Float the ball on the passing arm side and while in the vertical, treading position, place the hand on top of the ball, press down, then release the pressure and allow the ball to spring upward. Slightly rotate the thumb down, forward and outward to cradle the ball as it is lifted to the passing position. (Illustrations #39, 40, 41.)

Illustration 39 - Picking ball up from on
top, vertical position. Press ball down into
water, fingers spread, thumb to inside.
Illustration 40 - Ball coming up out
of water from top, pick up position.

Illustration 41 - Ball now up and ready to pass.

Once mastered in the vertical, stationary position, this same hand and arm maneuver must be practiced in the swimming (dribbling) position.

So one can see, under certain playing conditions, the ball does get picked up from on top. Therefore, beginning players need to train both skills, remembering there are more situations where the ball should be picked up from underneath. Don't let the fact that the ball is sometimes used by offensive players as a flotation device be an excuse for always picking it up from on top. For coaches teaching young players, the rule of thumb should be: focus on picking up the ball from underneath under almost every circumstance but, remember, it's okay to nick it up from on ton under certain specific situations.