Learning and Teaching the Basics  


Conditioning Players: Part 1

   Monte Nitzkowski

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This chapter deals specifically with in-water conditioning of the Water Polo athlete.

In order to play the sport effectively, it is critical for all Water Polo players to be in top water shape. Conditioning is an ongoing process and, once committed to the sport, Water Polo athletes should train to stay in top shape year round. As such, the marriage of Water Polo and competitive Swimming is a successful one, producing good results at both ends of the continuum. Few sports are more difficult to play out of shape. Believe me, it's no fun to compete out of shape against well-conditioned opponents in either sport.

I encourage all young Water Polo players to swim competitively through their high school years. This is a must. You can't improve your swimming ability on your own. Young players must have the discipline and education provided by a coach-directed, scheduled swim team program. Many high school age-Water Polo players want to quit swimming and just play Water Polo. It's very difficult to play Water Polo above the high school level without having competed in swimming through the high school years. Competitive swimming improves strength, size, mobility and quickness—all paramount to becoming an outstanding Water Polo player. Athletes need to "pay their dues" during the younger years to build the swimming speed, strength and stamina required to succeed as senior level players.

Once in college, Swimmer/Water Polo athletes tend to specialize in one or the other sport. However, some Swimmer/Water Polo athletes continue to train and compete in both sports. This is particularly true at the Division II and III NCAA levels. A few continue to compete in both sports at the Division I level (Matt Biondi, Pablo Morales, Tim Shaw to name a few who have succeeded) but it takes an exceptionally talented athlete to accomplish this. Water Polc serves as a great physical and mental conditioner for swimming but Division I level swimming is tough enough by any standard. Few swimmers, with or without a Water Polo background, have the ability to score points at the Championship Level of Division I Swimming.

In many ways, in-water conditioning for Water Polo parallels swim training. Pre-season and early season training should build a strong base. Over-distance swimming, high mileage, middle distance repeats and extensive kicking should be included. Because athletes are not then mentally tired or worn down from the successes and/or failures of the competitive season, it's a good time for the coach to give a great deal of practice time to basic swim conditioning. As the competitive season approaches, the emphasis on conditioning change from middle and distance-type swimming to more sprint repeats-200s, 150s, 100s and 75s. After the base of pre-season and early season training, players need to start picking up their stroke turnover. Remember, Water Polo requires both speed and quickness for the player to be successful. Leg drills (flutter, back flutter) should accompany the repeat swims. Eggbeater drills must be a part of daily practices. Dribbling and movement-oriented ball handling drills should now become an integral part of the conditioning regimen.

As the season evolves from early to mid-season training, conditioning should pyramid during the week. For example, start with overload on Mondays and taper the pyramid to sprints by Thursday and Friday.

One of the great mistakes Water Polo coaches make in the training of their athletes is failure to work enough quickness into conditioning drills. Quickness is critical to the success of the Water Polo athlete. American players tend to be fast (from their age group and high school swimming experience), but not always quick. Quickness must be trained, starting heavily with mid-season training. Start, stop, change of direction—all these must become a part of the daily conditioning program. World class sprinters are fast, but not always quick when it comes to Water Polo. It helps to be the world's fastest in fifty meters, but water polo players also want to be the fastest for six meters. Being quick for even two or three meters can give players an offensive or defensive positioning advantage. Offensively, quickness can get a player free on a drive for a shot or ejection and, defensively, put him/her in position to prevent the necessity of chasing an opponent for twenty meters. POSITIONING IS EVERYTHING IN WATER POLO AND QUICKNESS ALLOWS ATHLETES TO OBTAIN PREFERRED BODY POSITIONING.

Water Polo quickness is not a natural trait even when an athlete has "fast-twitch fibers." Swimming coaches teach athletes to become faster—Water Polo coaches need to teach players to become quicker.


Conditioning drills should be run early in practice, following a good warmup. Athletes should begin their warmups by arriving early for practice and doing on-deck stretching drills. After adequate stretching, players should enter the water and, on their own, begin stretch-out type swimming. Individuals will vary the amount of stretch-out swimming they do, but it should be adequate before the coach whistles the start of organized, team conditioning. I prefer letting the team warm up on their own (under close observation). Mature players know how important it is for the body to get a proper warmup and will do a good job of getting ready for organized condi tioning. Immature players will do as little as possible, forcing the coach to take over their warmup program. The reason I like individual warmup versus team warmup is that I expect so much thinking and discipline from players during the training session, that I feel they should be on their own until formal practice begins. If too many individuals are not taking the warmup seriously, I will run a regimented, loosening out warmup which includes the entire team.


This is the time that Water Polo practice most closely resembles swimming practice. Generally, I like to work on front and back crawl swimming and kicking. Eight hundred repeats, five hundred repeats can be included here. Head-up, flutter-kick fly should be added after several weeks. (Illustration 155.)

Illustration 155 - Flutter kick, head up fly conditioning drill.

Obviously, butterfly distances should be short. Note: A player with sore or bad shoulders should not do butterfly repeats—have the player swim front crawl during this period.

Eggbeater kicking should begin early in the season and I recommend starting in the horizontal position both with and without a kick board.( Illustration 156.)

Illustration 156 - Horizontal eggbeater drill,
with ball for board.

Turning the board into the "snow plow" position will increase resistance. When players eggbeater in the horizontal position, it is easier for the coach to see what they are doing and make necessary changes in the kick. Once players have their eggbeater kick fundamentally sound, ninety percent of eggbeater kicking should be in the vertical position.

During pre-and early season conditioning, some coaches like to add shoes, pants T-shirts, etc. to make the conditioning workout more difficult. Some use bungee cords to work increased resistance into stroke and kick conditioning. Personally, I prefer conditioning in positions which replicate what must be done when playing the game. I prefer a lot of repeats without the use of other tools. Note: Caution must be observed in early eggbeater training so that weight or resistance techniques are not used to the extent where knee joints can be damaged. This can happen particularly with younger athletes. Therefore, I don't recommend the use of weights or heavy resistance training. If a coach feels it is necessary, I would encourage him/her not to resort to this type of training before consulting with the individual athlete as to joint tenderness, and this type of training should never be used in the early part of the season or with heavy weights.