Water Polo is a game of strength, mobility and conditioning. Coaches should combine some strength building exercises (weight room) with in-water conditioning.
A simple daily practice schedule should include stretching, strength exercises, in-water conditioning (arms and legs), ball handling (passing shooting), tactical game plan work (defense, counterattack, front court offense and player advantage situations) and general scrimmage to improve gamesmanship. Scrimmages should not always be general in nature. Half-court scrimmaging in defensive and offensive patterns plus full court counterattack scrimmages are all important to preparing the team but, I spend far more time in tactical scrimmage than in general scrimmage. Players want to general scrimmage all the time. Water Polo is fun to play and players want to have fun.
General scrimmage should be for gamesmanship (time on shot clock, game clock, transition, substitution, etc.) but should not be the dominant part of your tactical training program. Repetition is critical to learning. Passing, shooting and tactical scrimmaging should be designed to create repetition. When learning from scrimmaging, it's much easier to create repetition with half court, tactical practice. So, be sure when designing your daily practice plan to include more of the former (tactical scrimmage) and less of the later (general scrimmage).
To cover all of the practice areas mentioned above, teams should practice twice a day. On game days, the first practice should be a warmup followed by a walk-through of key defensive and offensive plans to be used against that day's opponent.
On regular practice days, I like to get conditioning out of the way during early morning workouts. Players generally are not thinking as clearly as they will be later in the day. I save the tactical and "polish" elements of practice for afternoon workouts when player concentration should be at its best.
When setting up practice schedules, I believe in pyramiding both the work week and the season. What I mean by this is the heavy work (over-distance swimming, etc.) will come in the early-season and the early mid-season work week. Training distances will get shorter as the work week progresses and as the main part of the season approaches.
By mid-season, the conditioning program should include extensive work on quickness. By then, all Water Polo technique and skill drills should be a part of your offensive or defensive strategies so not a second is wasted. As far as pyramiding the work week, I get the heavy work out of the way on Monday when players are sluggish from weekend activities. I like to THEME COACH so, after heavy Monday conditioning, I'll work tactically on defensive drills and scrimmage. This works well for Mondays since defensive training requires less handling of the ball. As minds and hands get "crisper" by Tuesday, I'll work with the counterattack, eliminating the rote conditioning drills (players have been overloaded on Monday with these exercises) and featuring counterattack drills. Counterattacking requires all-out swimming and moving from one end of the pool to the other. These drills require as much swimming as a simple conditioning practice. I want players to be moving at "flank speed" during these drills and the ensuing counter scrimmages. Therefore, all conditioning for Tuesday takes place in actual game drills. By Wednesday and Thursday, the theme will be front court offense. Practice will feature a good deal of shooting drills and tactical offensive scrimmage. Conditioning will feature a lot of quick starts and explosive swimming. If game day is Friday, the morning session will start with a team meeting to stress the objectives for the afternoon's game, followed by a loosening and walk-through practice. If game day is Saturday, Friday will include a regular two-a-day practice, featuring a lot of shooting and defensive and offensive half-court walk-through drills.
During late season practice, I coach each theme (defense, counterattack, front court offense, player advantage offense and special situations) daily. The team manager should keep a stop watch on each section of practice. No matter where we are with defensive drills, counterattacking drills, etc., when time is up (fifteen or twenty minutes) and the manager's whistle blows, we move to the next tactical area to be practiced. As you near the end of the season, players have enough knowledge to deal with a lot of different tactical concepts daily.
Earlier in the season, this will not work as players must learn with constant repetition in specific areas of the game. (We all know about spending a day working on a certain part of the game only to return to this area three days later and find players have forgotten most of what they previously learned.) Learning is critical. It's difficult to make corrections when players have no idea what they have done wrong. Players must learn to understand what is expected. Hopefully, with a well-designed seasonal practice schedule, this will be the case as you approach the late season.
Finally, in late season and when your team is contending for a playoff berth, let the players get rested. If you have done a thorough job with your conditioning program, players will be ready. Time has run out. They are not going to get in better shape. With proper late season work, they will retain their base through the last fourteen to twenty days. Short quickness conditioning, crisp passing and shooting drills, moving practice along in a "snappy fashion"— are all important.
Mentally, positive reinforcement is vital at this point of the season. Coaches tend to see the negatives. This is natural and should be a big part of helping players improve during the early and mid-season period, but when playoff time arrives, coaches must stress positives and eliminate the negatives. Get everyone thinking they are winners. Players "love" this game. If you, as the coach, have done a proper job of preparation, players will respond and the results will reach all expectations.