Learning and Teaching the Basics  


The Goalkeeper: Part 1

   Monte Nitzkowski

The selection and training of a Goalkeeper is critical to the success of your team. In past history, the best athletes were picked to play in the field, while Goalkeeper candidates were most often weaker swimmers who wanted to play the game. Many times, coaches chose breaststroke swimmers as they had good leg support and could be trained to learn an eggbeater kick. Over the years, coaches began to understand that the two most critical positions for successful play in Water Polo were the Two-Meter player (hole forward) and the Goalkeeper. All great teams were built around these two key athletes. As coaches came to realize this, better athletes were picked to play the goal.


Coaches must search for good athletes to play the goal. Expert swimming ability is a help, but not a necessity. However, great leg support and quick-start ability are musts. Body size is important and players who will achieve a height of six feet plus should be a part of the coach's search. Where possible, prospective Goalkeepers should have good arm length and quick-twitch fibers. Upper body thickness can be a help in absorbing the impact of hard perimeter shots, but it is not as important as leg support and arm and hand quickness. Offensively, the Goalkeeper must possess a good passing arm. Their passes are key to the success of the counterattack.

Mentally, goalies should be leader-type individuals willing to communicate with their teammates. Many game situations call for the Goalkeeper to shout instructions to fellow players.

When it comes to blocking the ball, Goalkeepers need to demonstrate mental toughness. They must be somewhat fearless when it comes to shot blocking, willing to take the ball "head on" when required. They need to be self-confident and stable. Like quarterbacks in football, Goalkeepers are in a "fishbowl." Everyone is watching the shot and what happens with the shot. Goalkeepers cannot hide. Everything they do is easily seen. Field players can sometimes get lost in the flow of the game, staying out of the fan's "critical eye." Not so with the Goalkeeper. Those watching know if the Goalkeeper is having a good or bad day. When things are not going well, the Goalkeeper may have to take verbal abuse from friend and foe alike! They must be mentally tough, strong enough to shut out criticism. They must remain focused through all phases of the game. Goalkeepers cannot dwell on a shot scored by opponents, but must be concentrating on the next save. They must be individuals who do not have a tendency to get down on themselves. Mentally, Goalkeepers must possess many of the same traits required for divers and gymnasts.


The Goalkeeper's chief responsibility is to defend the goal. The secondary responsibility is to direct the counterattack.

The six field players are the first line of defense, but the Goalkeeper is the critical, all-important last line of defense. When a shot is taken, the goalie must be in position physically and mentally to attempt a save. Great goalies are great because of their physical expertise and the expertise of the six field defenders in front. Coaches must train field players to play outstanding individual defense (guarding the Driver, perimeter and Two-Meter player), good team defensive skills (foul and drop, stair stepping, etc.) and team tactical skills (press, dropback). Scouting plus great team defense by field players will allow shots to be "channeled" to the goal, thereby giving the Goalkeeper a much better chance of making the save. Goalkeepers don't want to be surprised. When field defense breaks down, shots come quickly from ball movement which outpositions the Goalkeeper and makes for easy scores. Even great Goalkeepers can be embarrassed when their field defenders are failing. Poorly defended shots from two meters are difficult for even the best of Goalkeepers, and perimeter shooters given time to fake and set their shots make life miserable for even the most capable Goalkeeper. For a goalie to give his/her best performance, field defense must be good. When field defense is good, there are few surprises. Shots will come from anticipated locations, thereby giving the Goalkeeper a better opportunity to get into position and block the ball.

Every good Goalkeeper would like to become a great Goalkeeper-and that certainly is possible for the Goalkeeper who will follow one simple but fundamental rule: Study (scout) the opposition. Learn the skills and preferences of their players. Know the types of shots and fakes they like to use; and a goalie certainly needs to know whether a shooter is left or right handed. Many shooters are predictable and keeping records on individual shooters can be very helpful to a Goalkeeper. As well as knowing about the individual shooters, the goalie needs to learn about the opposition's team tactics. The Goalkeeper who knows the opponent's offense can better anticipate from where the shots will be coming at him/her. All of this information, obtained through scouting, allows for better focus and anticipation—suddenly good Goalkeepers become great Goalkeepers. Physical skills are important, but mental skills and preparation provide the "razor's edge."

Offensively, Goalkeepers must be trained to find "open" players in the counterattack. They must become proficient in throwing accurate passes between fifteen and twenty-five meters. The shortest pass a Goalkeeper should ever make in the counterattack is to mid-court, and the greatest advantage in the counterattack will be achieved through much longer passes. The deeper and earlier the Goalkeeper can deliver a pass, the greater the opportunity of beating the defense. In my opinion, the goalie counterattack pass is the single most important pass in all Water Polo. It must be accurate if offensive advantage is to be maintained. Also, when executing the counterattack pass, goalies need to understand the "early wet" and "late dry" principle (see goalie ball handling


LEGS: A great eggbeater kick is a must. In the past, many Goalkeepers were breaststroke-type swimmers who had a good frog kick, which provided a strong body lifting motion but NO BASE. Goalkeepers using the breaststroke kick tended to surge then sink. Shooters needed only a good fake followed by an accurate shot to score. To create the eggbeater, the goalie alternates legs while frog kicking. (See Chapter 3, The Kicks of Water Polo.) The eggbeater gives the Goalkeeper a solid base and the ability to stay up in a stable position until the ball can be blocked. Goalkeepers must be trained in the eggbeater until they have great leg strength and the ability to ride steady in the upright position. This involves a great deal of leg conditioning in both the horizontal and vertical positions.

UPPER TORSO: Beyond quickness and flexibility, Goalkeepers must have strength. Therefore, they should spend time in the gym working to build upper body strength and thickness. Complete stretching exercises should be included in the regimen. The perfect combination of upper body characteristics for the Goalkeeper is adequate thickness to absorb the perimeter power shot, and quickness to help block drive, two-meter and quick-release shots following a cross pass. Successful Goalkeepers work to develop both upper body strength and quickness.

ARMS AND HANDS: Long arms and quick hands are advantageous to any Goalkeeper. It's difficult (sometimes impossible) to teach quickness. Therefore, it's advantageous to find goal candidates with quick-twitch fibers. Quickness can be improved with individual athletes, but much must be inherent—that's why it's advantageous to find those with native quickness, then train them to become even quicker. Playing other sports which call for quick hands is good for goalie training. Volleyball, racquetball, handball, team handball and table tennis are all good activities for Goalkeepers. Hitting a boxing speed bag (punching bag) is excellent training for hand quickness. All Goalkeepers should own a water polo ball and continually handle it. Quick wrist ball bouncing while standing next to a wall is good training.


As much as possible, maintain good position in the goal relative to the position of the ball and tendencies of the shooter. Anticipate shots and passes. Know where you are in the goal at all times.

Watch the ball, not the shooter—concentrate on the triangle formed by ball, arm and head of shooter. React as the ball leaves hand of shooter.

Illustration 132 - Goalie Lunge — reaching with
head, shoulder, arm and hand.

Goalkeeper's head should help move body in direction of ball. Lead with the head followed by arms and hands. Get as much body as possible to location of the ball. (Illustration #132.)

Whenever possible, block with two hands, moving both hands in direction of ball. Try to absorb impact of shot with hands and arms, bringing the ball down in front of the body. Don't swing at the ball. Reach, absorb and pull down. (Illustration #133.)

Illustration 133 - Blocking and pulling ball
down with two hands.

Goalkeepers can fake to lure a shot, but never lose position on the shooter. Remember, the goal is ten feet wide and three feet high. Position to make angle of the shot difficult, positioning to block ball or force it into the bar or over the cage. Don't give away position. Percentages are in favor of a blocked or missed shot if optimum position is maintained. Don't jump at ball or overcommit.

On perimeter shots, keep hands light on water (not deep) and be ready to react. (Illustrations #134 A and 134 B.)

Illustration 134A - Hands light on
water preparing to raise body and
hands for block.

Illustration 134B - Legs churning, starting
to come up for block

On inside (Drive) shots, get hands and arms up, follow ball until shooter releases. Force shooter to go to most difficult angle. (Illustration #135.)

Illustration 135 - Hands up preparing
to block drive shot.

Defending Lob Shots: As Goalkeeper moves across cage for lobs going toward the left, scoop with the left hand and reach across body with the right arm and hand. Reverse action for lob shots going to the right. Keep eye on the ball and keep reaching with offside arm. Don't give up on the ball. Keep legs churning. (Illustrations #136, 137.)

Illustration 136 - Moving left, goalkeeper in
crossover lob blocking maneuver.

Illustration 137 -Crossover position while
moving right to block lob shot.

On penalty shots, try to frustrate the shooter When ready, on the whistle, come up and out with arms spread wide, trying to block anything within reach with arms and hands, and anything overhead with head and shoulders. (Illustrations # 138 A, 138 B.) Scout penalty shooters to learn tendencies. Sometimes it's a good idea to give the shooter slight space toward their scouted shot tendency, then take it away as the referee whistles the shot.

Illustration 138A - Penalty throw blocking position. Illustration 138B - Penalty throw blocking

When defending against a free opponent in the counterattack, communicate with teammates, letting them know who they should defend and who you want to take.

Communicate to let the defender know if they are out of position in five-player defense. Let them know where you want them to move.

Don't overcommunicate when playing six on six, back court defense. Concentrate on the ball. (If defenders are constantly out of position, your team has a major problem. This can be remedied only by the coach during practice sessions.) When the game is underway, constantly trying to correct teammate defensive positioning is distracting. Focus on ball and take care of yourself.

The Goalkeeper is the prime passer in the counterattack. He/she should first look deep right, left or center to make longest and safest possible pass. There are only three things which can happen between the Goalkeeper's countering teammates and their defenders. First, the countering player will have beaten the defender. In this case, the countering player, after three or four hard strokes, should get to the back and continue swimming while establishing eye contact with the Goalkeeper; Goalkeeper will pass the ball only after making eye contact. The pass will be wet or dry (or no pass), all depending on the situation of the moment. The second possible scenario between the Goalkeeper and his countering teammate is that the countering teammate is barely up on his/her defender. In this case, the goalie does not pass the ball to this player. The third situation is created when the offensive player is unable to get up on the defender. In this case, the countering player will execute a square-out (a ninety-degree turn to get free of defender) and the Goalkeeper can make a safe wet (on water) pass to this teammate. In most cases, square outs should not be executed short of half tank. Goalies cannot afford to make bad passes in the counterattack. This is disastrous. The Goalkeeper should have clear eye contact with his/her
countering teammate or a safe square-out pass. Otherwise, he/she should hold the ball until all teammates are in front court and a perimeter player safely comes back
to take the pass.

Illustration 139 - Ball held high
for start of counterattack.

The Goalkeeper should have the ball held high so teammates know where ball is while countering. When the ball is held high, it is ready for an immediate pass. (Illustration #139.) Every second counts in the counterattack if you are to gain and maintain a player advantage at the far end of the pool. Also, as the defense retreats, the Goalkeeper should move forward toward the four-meter line to shorten the pass.