Learning and Teaching the Basics  


Passing the Ball: Part 1

   Monte Nitzkowski

The ball is advanced in Water Polo by dribbling and passing. Obviously the quickest way to position the ball is with the pass.

Few coaches would argue with the statement "passing is the most important technique for the Water Polo player to learn and master." Passing competency improves a player's shooting ability. Shooting incorporates all passing fundamentals. The fact is, a shot is simply a pass thrown hard at the goal.

To be successful on offense, teams must control the ball. To control the ball, teams must be able to pass accurately and safely. Players need to spend hours learning to pass. When the ball is "turned over," it is most often the result of a poor pass. Teams which constantly throw away the ball seldom find success.

One of my favorite Water Polo statements is "a pass is a goal"— meaning, a well-thrown pass can out position both Field Defenders and Goalkeeper, thereby making it easier for the shooter to score the goal. In my estimation, the passer making the assist to a score is a far more important statistic than the score itself. A player receiving a well-placed cross pass should be able to quick release (shoot) the ball into the goal. It's the well thrown pass which creates the high percentage shot.

Passing is critical to every part of the game. The pass thrown away in the counterattack oftentimes will result in a goal for the opponents. While a player is in the frontcourt offensive structure, good passing is critical to success. The Two-Meter offensive specialist turns over the ball more than
my other player. He/she must be trained to throw accurate and correct passes to both Drivers (wet and dry), and to releasing perimeter players (dry). It is necessary to spend a great deal of time teaching Two-Meter specialists to pass. The player advantage offense succeeds or fails with the passing game. The easiest six-on-five score comes after the defense is first committed to ball position, followed by a firm and accurate cross pass—a pass which a teammate catches and shoots into the goal. With the twenty-second player advantage rule, one poor pass can use up all the advantage time.

Players must learn to pass in both the vertical and horizontal positions. Circumstances vary, so players must learn to make a variety of passes. They must understand whether the ball should be passed wet (on the water) or dry (to the player's outstretched arm and hand). Passes always must be thrown to positions which complement their teammates' positioning. This concept is particularly true when passing from the perimeter to the Two-Meter specialist. Most often the ball will be passed wet to this position, and always to a spot
which will out position the Two-Meter Defender. In the counterattack, the proper application of either "early wet" or "late dry" passes are key components to success.

Coaches must design drills to teach the when, how and why of passing technique. All players should buy their own ball and take it home. They should handle, cradle, bounce and caress it during every free moment. It's hard to get too much ball handling time and a lot of this familiarization can take place out of the water.


Beginning players should first be taught correct passing technique while in the vertical position. The ball should be cradled in the palm of the hand, fingers spread with only the thumb and little finger applying pressure to keep the ball held comfortably. The middle three fingers are in contact with the ball and are used to help steer the direction of the pass.

(Illustration #66.) Remember, don't tightly squeeze the ball or it will pop out of your hand. Again, simply keep a firm but comfortable grip with the thumb and little finger while letting the three inside fingers serve as a guide. When properly seated in the hand, a small amount of air space will exist between the
palm and ball.

Illustration 66 - Thumb,
little finger and three middle
fingers position for passing
and shooting the ball.

There are certain key elements to successful passing:

THE WRIST: Proper use of the wrist is critical. When passing the ball, the wrist must bend forward and back, not twist to the side. When the wrist twists to the side while passing or shooting, accuracy of the pass is affected; any side spin makes the ball difficult to catch.

To pass correctly, a small amount of backspin should be placed on the ball. This is accomplished by snapping the wrist forward and letting the ball "ride" off the three middle fingers. A ball with backspin is far easier to catch and control.

THE ELBOW: The elbow must be raised well above the surface of the water. When the elbow drags in the water, the pass is "shoveled" forward. Shoveling slows the speed of the pass and affects accuracy. With the elbow properly raised, players are throwing from "on top" and accuracy is greatly improved. When throwing short passes, the elbow should be up and slightly forward. When throwing longer passes the elbow should be up and drawn back.

THE SHOULDERS: The shoulders must rotate with the pass. To accomplish this, players must lead with their opposite, non-throwing shoulder. Players should not pass with their shoulders square (parallel). When passing the ball, they must rotate with both the lead and throwing shoulder. In other words, righthanded players should lead with their left shoulder. (Illustration #67.) As the ball is being passed, the left shoulder should forcibly rotate to the left; the right shoulder (throwing shoulder) should rotate forward and slightly to the left.

Illustration 67 - Ball
raised to pass, left
shoulder forward.

THE HIPS AND UPPER TORSO: As the ball is being passed with shoulder rotation, the hips and torso rotate accordingly. The legs generally will be slightly forward or slightly to the side of the vertical passer. Therefore, as the ball is being released, the passer must properly balance the body and rotate with the hips and upper torso. A variety of passing drills should be designed by the coach to assist the player in learning basic body balance, turning, and proper shoulder, hip and upper torso rotation.

THE LEGS: The legs are the base for vertical passing. They are the support system and must be in great shape. A strong eggbeater kick is a great aid to passing. Passing is more than just good legs, but good leg shape will always help passers to develop their skills.

When learning to vertical pass, players should practice one on one (two players to one ball), concentrating on catching and ball delivery. When catching the ball, the hand and fingers should be outstretched and relaxed (no "iron hands"). The ball should be "looked" into the palm, and the receiving player's hand and arm should "give" slightly as the ball contacts the palm and fingers. When catching, players should concentrate on holding their vertical position. Don't let each successive pass force greater distance between the two passing players. Use the legs to hold position and, after catching the ball use the legs to get up and make the next pass.

To properly focus, players must restrict their conversation and totally concentrate on the task at hand. By starting to pass with a single partner, it's easier to concentrate on the basics and the coach can quickly observe the technique of partner.

When starting to pass, partners should be a short distance apart allowing for the warm-up of both shoulder and arms. It is a tendency of young players to get into the water without proper warm-up and start throwing the ball the distance of the pool. It's no wonder so many older players experience shoulder problems. This can be avoided through proper on-deck stretching, in-water stretching and swimming, and, after picking up the ball, easy short-distance passing. Only after shoulders and arms are properly warmed up should passing distance and velocity be increased.

As partners begin passing practice, and while still warming up their arms and shoulders, each should initially concentrate on the key ingredients for becoming a good passer: "Am I properly catching the ball?"; "While releasing the pass, do I have the correct grip on the ball?"; "Am I properly using my wrist, avoiding side spin, and putting a slight backspin on the ball?" "Is my elbow up?" "Am I properly rotating with my shoulders and following through with the arm after the ball is released?" "Am I using my legs to get up for the ball and make the next pass?" There is a lot to think about and, initially, players should isolate on each on each of these fundamentals as they begin their passing practice. Believe me, when young players follow this thinking pattern (concentrating on simple fundamentals and slowly moving to the next), they will be quick to understand what it takes to be a good passer and great results will follow.


Players also need to be able to pass from the dribbling, horizontal position. This is accomplished with both "wrist" and "push" passes.

WRIST PASSES: The wrist pass should be used to pass the ball short distances to the immediate right or left of the dribbling player. While dribbling, players should practice wrist passing to both sides. This is accomplished by reaching under the ball and lifting it slightly above the surface. For righthanded players passing to the left, the raised ball is snapped off the palm by a quick wrist release (snapping the wrist forward and releasing the ball off the palm
and fingers). (Illustration #68)

illustration 68 - Hand position for wrist pass to left.

For righthanded players passing to the right, the hand is placed on top of the ball. The ball is pressed slightly down and into the water, then the pressure is released, allowing the ball to spring upward. At this point, the wrist rotates to the right (thumb rotates down and under the ball). The ball is backhand passed to the right with a forward snap of the wrist and fingers. (Illustrations 69, 70.) When wrist passing to the left or right, lefthanded players simply reverse the process.

Illustration 69 - Start of wrist pass to the right.
Hand on top of ball and pushing it slightly down
into water.
Illustration 70 - As ball 'rises' from water, hand
rotates to thumb down position and ball is backhand,
wrist passed to the right.

PUSH PASSES: The push pass is used to pass the ball forward from the dribbling position. The push pass has advantage over the wrist pass in that the ball can be passed far greater distances.

To push pass while dribbling, place the hand on top of the ball and press slightly downward. (Illustration #71.) Next, remove the pressure and allow the ball to spring upward. For righthanded players, as the ball rises, rotate the wrist to the right (outside) allowing the thumb to rotate down toward the water. In this position, and with the ball lifted and cradled in the palm (held in place by thumb and little finger pressure), draw the arm back toward the shoulder. (Illustration #72.) This is accomplished by moving the elbow to the outside. From the drawn position, drive the arm forward by pushing forward with the hand while straightening the elbow and rotating thumb back to the left or inside. While the player is still in the horizontal or semi-horizontal position, the ball is released off the palm with the forward pushing and unwinding movement of the arm and wrist. (Illustration #73.) When this maneuver is executed properly, the ball can be push passed ten to fifteen meters with good accuracy.

Illustration 71 - Start push pass. Hand is on top
of ball and ball is slightly pressed into the water.
Illustration 72 - Push pass, thumb rotated down, ball
drawn back.

Illustration 73 - Push pass, arm coming forward
and ball releasing from hand.