Learning and Teaching the Basics  


Shooting: Part 1

   Monte Nitzkowski

All players love to shoot. It's the fun part of the game. Crowds cheer and your name gets in the paper. In our game of Water Polo, the challenge of beating the Goalkeeper lends additional excitement to the sport.

Shooting falls into two major categories—vertical and horizontal (drive, off- water) shooting. Both vertical and horizontal shooting skills need to be learned by all field players.

Vertical shooting skills should be taught first. Vertical shooting is the next step after players have learned to pass. In reality, a shot is simply an accurate pass thrown at a greater speed, and toward the goal. Most Water Polo shots take place in the vertical and semi-vertical positions. Most perimeter shots, penalty throws, player advantage shots, Two-Meter shots and counterattack shots take place in the vertical or semi-vertical positions. Even when drive shooting, the rear back (RB) shot puts the player in the vertical position. It is easy to see why all field players need be well versed in vertical shooting skills.

Horizontal (drive, off-water shooting) has its place as well. Once the front court offensive structure is set and players begin to attack six against six, offensive game plans come into play. If the defense is dropping back, most shots are taken from the perimeter and in the vertical position. However, if the defense decides to press, offensive players will attack the goal from two meters, the perimeter and the drive game. Driving players will need to master horizontal, off-water shooting skills.

Great shooters are born, not made. Good shooters are made, not born. To become a good shooter, a player must first learn proper shooting techniques and then train to improve his/her shooting skills. This takes time.

The first step for young players is to work long and hard to develop shooting accuracy. Development of power should come later. Most beginning players want to reverse this process, shooting for power and disregarding accuracy. This is a big mistake. Many young arms are ruined by trying to power the ball, oftentimes before properly warming up the arm and shoulder. Young players tend to think that throwing hard IS good shooting— "The harder I throw, the better the shot." Two major factors have helped create this false theory. First, inexperienced goalies are easier to beat when the opponent is shooting to power. Sometimes they will even dodge the ball when it comes hard at the cage. It's easy for strong shooters to throw the ball "through" an inexperienced Goalkeeper. Second, in the United States, many goals are wall mounted and have canvas backs. When the ball is thrown hard, a loud noise is generated as the ball strikes the back of the goal. The noise becomes even louder when indoors. I believe it was Ricardo Azevedo who coined the phrase "Kaboom Theory" — Kaboom being the noise made as the ball strikes the back of the cage at a high rate of speed. The louder the noise, the better the shot — at least in the mind of the young shooter.

These two false factors quickly lose credibility when goalies are experienced and the goals are netted and floating. First experienced goalies block inaccurate power shots. It's no different from baseball: A high school pitcher with a 95 mph fastball often will over-power young hitters. In the major leagues, a pitcher who throws only 95 MPH fastballs will soon be in trouble. You'd better have several other pitches and be able to locate the ball. The same is true in Water Polo—as players reach the higher levels of our sport, accuracy and a wide range of shots become necessary to get the ball past the Goalkeeper. Second, the "Kaboom Theory" comes to a fast halt with float goals and net backing. The ball striking a net makes little sound. Most club, NCAA and international championship matches are played with float, net-backed goals. The only sound of the ball being scored is the sound of silence.

The lesson here is—young players first must learn to shoot with accuracy—this is critical to getting the ball into the goal. Once accuracy is gained, players can work to build power. The final steps in the "learning to shoot chain" are: develop a variety of shots; create methods to disguise the delivery of those shots. Just like Hall of Fame baseball pitchers, a combination of accuracy, power and variety of pitches (shots) is required to succeed. Young Water Polo players must take the time to develop all the components of good shooting technique.


Strong wrists are key to great shooting. This is true for both vertical and horizontal-drive shooting. Young players need to work to strengthen their wrists. Consult any strength coach for advice on exercises which can be done in both gym and home to improve wrist strength. Some simple wrist exercises I have used in the past are: Secure a light-free weight (two to five pounds) to a twelve-inch metal bar with approximately two feet of cord. In a standing position with shoulders bent slightly forward and holding the bar with both hands, rotate the wrist to roll the weight up to the bar and back down. Repeat four to six times or until tired; increase the number of lifts as strength is increased. Another good wrist exercise: While using counter-weighted hand weights (dumb bells), rotate the weights back and forth using only the wrists. The athlete should be in a standing position with the arms outstretched. A third exercise can be done with a short strip of surgical tubing: Tie the tubing to a door, fence, etc. Secure some sort of a hand grip to the other end and pull, changing positions of the pull so the wrist is worked both vertically and horizontally. Squeezing a rubber ball also can help increase wrist and hand strength.

Let's look at places where strong wrists make Water Polo players better shooters. First, in vertical shooting, strong wrists help with the quick release of the ball. Quick-released shots are extremely difficult for the Goalkeeper to defend. It is much easier to beat an experienced Goalkeeper with quickness than power. Strong wrists contribute to quickness. Also, faking is a key ingredient to disguising the shot when shooting from the vertical. Breaking a fake—faking then halting the fake, followed by a quick release of the ball is one of the most effective ways of scoring the ball with a vertical shot. Breaking a fake throws off goalie timing. A quick shot following the break can be extremely effective. To excel with this type of shot, players need strong wrists. Second, in horizontal-drive shooting, the wrists play a key role. The OffThe-Water wrist shot is all wrist and quickness. The Power Wrist shot lifts the ball from the water before shooting, the player "locking" the goalie then using wrist strength to quick-release the ball. (See Drive Shooting later in chapter for more information on these shots.)

Wrists are important to our game and all players should work to build strong wrists.


If most perimeter, counterattack, two meter, and virtually all player advantage shots take place in the vertical position, it behooves players and coaches alike to spend a great deal of time developing this area of the game.


Accuracy must be emphasized from the very beginning—put the ball where you want it to go. Power should be trained only after players start improving the accuracy of their shots. All players can learn to shoot with some degree of accuracy. However, not all players will be able to shoot the ball with great speed and power. You can improve power but, like baseball pitching, not everyone will have a ninety-five mph fast-ball. Body size and strength have much to do with power.

Timed on a radar gun, a few of the world's best players will throw the ball between fifty and fifty-four mph. Most top international players are in the forty-five to fifty mph range. Generally, good high school players will shoot the ball between thirty-seven and forty-five mph, with only a few "guns" approaching or exceeding fifty mph.

Actually, many of the world's greatest shooters are not the most powerful. Some of the very best players shoot the ball between forty-two and forty-five mph. Their secret is accuracy and a quick release of the ball. Quick release shots at forty-two mph are more difficult for good goalies to stop than fifty-two mph, slow release, power shots. The secret to great shooting is quick release, good accuracy, a wide range of shooting techniques and the ability to "read" the goalie's position in the cage.

ACCURACY: To learn to shoot accurately, players must practice shooting the ball at a slower speed, trying to place it exactly where they want it to go. These shots should be taken between six and eight meters out from the goal line. Don't worry if the Goalkeeper stops the ball. The most important thing is to have the ball go exactly where you want it to go. Hanging towels at the corners of the goal to provide targets can be a help. (Actually there are commercially designed cage targets now available which can be purchased from swim-water polo shops. These can be a great help to young shooters developing their fundamental skills.) As they work on their accuracy, players should practice sighting and visualizing the ball into the goal.

To improve accuracy, players need to learn to react to the shot—don't think too long before shooting. Know the Goalkeeper and his/her position in the goal. Receiving a good pass and being willing and able to deliver a shot quickly is a skill all young shooters must master. Too many young players want to fake before taking a shot, no matter what the situation. Oftentimes this destroys the advantage gained over the defense from a good cross pass.

POWER: After accuracy is improved, players can start working on power. (Realistically, most young players will have been thinking about power from the time they first picked up the ball and threw it at the goal.) Power should be introduced only after proper shoulder and arm warmup. Power is built into shooting by developing good leg strength combined with coordinated hip, back, torso and shoulder rotation.

Young players should be taught to follow through with their throwing motion, actually having the arm and hand strike the water in front of their body. (Illustrations #80A, 80 B.)

Illustration 80A - Startof vertical shot
showing eggbeater leg support, left arm
and hand providing balance, left shoul-
der forward.
Illustration 80 B - Follow through after ball
is passed or shot.

All these motions can be practiced without a ball, the coach carefully observing the entire shooting motion. As is the case with most important fundamentals, some players will demonstrate good shooting motion from the very beginning, while others will need a number of corrections before developing proper throwing technique. As players mature, their strength, power and quickness will increase. If, from the very beginning, young players have worked to develop accuracy and a quick release of the ball, they can become "premier" shooters. A variety of controlled shooting drills must be introduced to improve player accuracy, power and all facets of the shooting game.

DELIVERY: Players soon learn that Goalkeepers will study their individual shooting techniques and shot preference in an effort to improve their chances of blocking the ball. Shooters must learn that they can't deliver each shot from the same point. To improve overall shooting skills, field players must develop a variety of ways to deliver the ball. There are a number of points (locations) from which the shooter can deliver the ball—side, front, back, up, down, etc. In addition, some shots should be delivered quick, some slow and others with a quick stop (hesitation, broken delivery)—all to throw off the Goalkeepers and prevent them from concentrating on just one delivery position. Coaches need to design drills to practice different delivery points and release timing. To allow for maximum repetitions when practicing delivery, set up triangle passing and have players work on their delivery points without actually shooting the ball. Once the coach sees that players are developing the proper delivery skills, move into actual shooting with players concentrating on various points of delivery.

DISGUISING THE SHOOTING MOTION: To make the Goalkeeper's job even more difficult, shooters must learn additional methods of hiding their shooting intentions.

FAKING: Knowing how and when to fake the ball is important to all vertical shooters. When to fake is as important as how to fake. Once the ball is received, young players tend to want to fake, no matter what the situation. This is wrong. If the defense is out positioned, generally the ball should be caught and shot immediately. More goals are scored from a cross pass followed by a quick release shot than any other method. Following a well thrown cross pass, when players start faking rather than immediately shooting, they allow the Goalkeeper and field defenders to recover defensive position. Why do inexperienced players always seem to want to fake with the ball? First some feel they look better as players if they throw in a lot of fakes; it's a "style" mentality. Second, when receiving a cross pass, many young players have difficulty catching the ball. They start faking to get the ball under better control. (This is a good argument for extensive work on the passing game. Before players start to work on shooting, learning proper handling of the ball is an absolute necessity. Only then can they become good shooters!!)

When should players fake? As aforementioned, if the ball is received cleanly and the defense is beaten, an immediate shot without faking, should be considered. That doesn't mean players always must shoot off the cross pass, but it should be a strong consideration. If the defense is not beaten, a pass to two meters generally will be the next consideration. If that is not available, faking is now introduced. The player should start faking and penetrating in toward the defense. If time on the shot or game clock is running out, or if the Goalkeeper's positioning is not good and a shooting lane exists, the shot should be taken. However, while attacking in toward the defense and with plenty of time remaining on the clock, if no shooting lane exists and the Goalkeeper is in good position to block the ball, the penetrating shooter should continue faking. Once his/her defender is committed to the ball, this player has two considerations—first, do I have a good passing lane in to Two-meters? If not, secondly the offensive player should finish the ball faking penetration with a chest lift fake (thrust hard with the legs and lift the chest in the shooting motion, thereby locking the goalie to the posi tion of the ball) and make a cross pass to a teammate. (Illustrations #81A , 81B.) The teammate receiving the pass should first consider an immediate shot. If not available, this player should follow the same sequence of action as his/her predecessor.

Illustration 81A - Ball up and in
faking position.
Illustration 81B - Ball up and in
chest lift, faking position.

Shooting from the fake can be difficult for inexperienced players. Oftentimes they don't have enough leg strength to stay up while faking. Most often they will fake and fake, but not penetrate with the ball. Because of this, valuable seconds disappear from the shot clock as the ball "stalls" with the fake. Finally, after they have faked the defense into good position, and as they slip deeper into the water as their legs weaken, they will attempt a shot. Generally this is a big mistake. The shot comes against well-positioned defenders and from poor body position. A turnover most often results.

How should players fake? First, faking should be crisp and generally short in duration (3-7 seconds). Second, fakes must be varied to help destroy the timing of the Goalkeeper. Stay away from rhythm faking (always using the same number of fakes in a set rhythm—one fake, two fakes, shot). Shooters need to change the rhythm of their fakes as well as types of fakes and ball delivery points. This approach presents the goalie with far greater defensive problems.

Players must practice faking. Shooting drills should be set up to practice this aspect of the game. Coaches should encourage players to practice different types of fakes: ball fakes; head and eye fakes; shoulder fakes, etc. Also, different release points need to be emphasized. When faking, timing of the release of the ball also must be worked into practice sessions.

Remember, faking can help create a shot, but other considerations prevail, including the amount of time on the shot or game clock. If time is running out, a well-placed shot may be advisable (in this situation, if the player does not have a high percentage shot available, he/she should practice shooting the ball high and hard in hopes of an "out-of-bounds" deflection, or simply "dumping" it to a safe area). If plenty of clock time remains and the defense is set, a shot should not be taken. As aforementioned, in this case, faking should be used to lock the defense, not to shoot the ball. In this situation, a pass must follow and shooters must learn the importance of this concept.

MOVING THE BALL: This is the simplest of ways to improve shooting percentages. Move the ball to a better shooting position with the pass. Again, remember the cross pass should come only after the defense has been locked to the ball. This is accomplished by good ball faking followed by a chest lift fake. The chest lift fake properly executed will lock the goalie to the ball ninety-nine percent of the time.

BREAKING: While faking, simply break the motion (stop), then shoot off the break. This is a wonderful way to disguise a shot and is very effective against most goalies. The shot should come immediately after the faking motion is broken. This move must be practiced and shooters should have quick release ability. When shooting off a broken motion, strong wrists are critical to success.

WORKING: Coaches have different interpretations of the term "working." My definition is as follows: while faking and penetrating with the ball, the shooter moves laterally (left or right) to create a better shooting lane. While working with the ball in the faking mode, players should consider a shot if a shooting lane (alley) opens to the goal.