Defensive Tactics: Part 1

Robert Gaughran
California All Sports Clinic

In discussing defense I am going to spread it thin and hit on individual and also general team ideas on defense.The following points I feel are needed if one is to be considered a basically good defensive player: 1) anticipating, 2) assuming an immediate defensive position, 3) watching the ball, 4) playing the ball and not the person, 5) performing the grab block, 6) performing the lunge block, 7) positioning while swimming, 8) positioning for release, 9) stealing the ball,10) guarding the 2-meter player, 11) contesting all passes. In part one I will discuss the points 1 - 6 and in part two the points 7 - 11.


Anticipation, in water polo, is an acquired skill and only through experience and exposure to game conditions can a player hope to develop this skill. Anticipation will allow the player to know the pattern of passing of the average team. For example, a player will almost, always look to the intended target of his next pass. With this in mind, the defender can usually gain an edge by fronting his man after the passer has taken his look and returned to initiate the pass.

Anticipation is also the result of coaching the defenders to the patterns of the offensive teams plays. With the offensive patterns in mind, the player is easily able to anticipate the next pass. For example, if the offense runs a wing offense, the player guarding the driver should be ready for the pass to his or her person. The same is true for the predominantly 2-meter offense. If the defender knows that his player is the target for most passes, the defender can anticipate and thus cause great problems for the attacking team. Prior knowledge of the offensive patterns will also allow the guard of the 2, 3, or 4 player or guard of the 1 or 5 player to slough toward the 2-meter player and be able to two-time him or her.

It must be noted that in order to be able to learn to anticipate well, a great deal of gambling must be allowed and encouraged by the coach early in the player's career. Otherwise, if a player is made to play "close to the vest" all of the time as a beginner, the player can hardly be expected to learn to be a "Ball Hawk."

Assume An Immediate Defensive Position

In water polo, no matter on what level we talk, the goal is usually scored by 1) a free person who gets the fast break or 2) a person who gets the jump on his or her player by reacting immediately to the ball changing hands.

This situation is most often created when the offensive team is unexpectedly placed on defense by:

1) an intercepted pass,

2) a missed shot,

3) a free throw awarded to the opposition.

The free person situation is achieved by the offensive player (made offensive by 1, 2, and 3 above) immediately reacting to the situation and breaking uncovered down the pool.

This type of free person situation can best be avoided by the players on the offensive team immediately assuming a defensive position. The defensive position which is most desirable is accomplished by the player immediately blocking his or her player from swimming down pool. By placing him or herself between his or her opponent and cutting this person's path to the goal, this will allow the player to accomplish the following five things:

1) discourage his or her opponent from breaking down the pool;

2) effectively hinder the opponent's value as a passer by applying pressure in the direction the opponent is attempting to throw;

3) add the burden of the passer having his or her back to the potential receivers.

4) make it much easier to cover the opponent when he or she should decide to go to his or her offensive end of the tank.

5) better enable teammates, who [we hope] are either to the side or in front of their players while swimming down the pool, to intercept down pool passes.

Watch The Ball

Although this may seem to be an elementary rule to some. I feel that most coaches tend to overlook it in their daily workout plan, and consequently the players may not concede the skill its full importance.

The gains that can be realized by watching the ball and thus knowing where the ball is at all times are very large. Also players watching the ball can spot any bad passes by their opponents allowing them to either steal the ball or start the counterattack. When the player notices an opportunity to steal the ball, he or she can act immediately and get the jump on his or her opponent, simply because he or she was watching the ball.

A player can also spot the ball changing hands and react to the situation quickly. When covering players on a "close-in" goal attempt, (i.e. a free throw awarded to opponents from the "2-meter position" or on a corner throw) the defender must watch the ball and his or her person closely. It is most important that the defender sees the ball coming to his or her person, because if the defender can just tap the ball out of range it can save a possible goal.

Play The Ball - Not The Man

This is most important when attempting to stop a shot. More shots are scored because the defender grabbed the shooter's head, suit, leg, or something other than the shooter's throwing arm. Consequently the shooter is often able to execute the throwing motion and thus get the shot on goal.

The major flaw in many players' game is that they will "head-hunt" or swing wildly and without direction instead of making sure the throwing arm is immobilized and the ball knocked away. When attempting to stop a player from passing down the course, the grab block is extremely effective; especially if the offensive man is in a perpendicular position and is attempting a layout pass.

Grab Block

As the right handed passer rolls onto his or her back to pass, the defender grabs him or her around the waist with his or her right hand and lunges forward toward the throwing arm. The defender should then grab the opponent's throwing arm with his or her left hand. If the defender can achieve any contact with the passer's arm as he or she attempts to throw, the defender can cause the ball to go off course, resulting in a possible steal for his or her team.

When the defender grabs the waist of the passer it should be a "clinching up" type motion. This will interfere with the thrower's body rotation and should disturb his or her rhythm. It will also bring the defender in closer and will help facilitate the block.

Lunge Block

A variation of the above skill is called a "lunge block." This skill is also performed by the defender when the offensive person is attempting to roll and pass while closely guarded.

As the passer attempts to pass, the defender places his or her right hand on the body of the passer and lunges forward and upward with his or her left arm fully extended. The idea of this "lunge block" is not to block the arm as in the "grab block," but to block the ball when it is in flight just after it has left the passer's hand.

To be continued ...

(For the most part I tried to keep the content of Robert Gaughran’s original hand-out "Defensive Tactics" intact; however, I did take a few liberties with the original work. I changed the outline form, updated some of his terms (for example changed the term "Guards" to "Players in the 1 and 5 Positions" and the term "Forwards" to "Players in the 2, 3, and 4 Positions", and edited a few sentences for my own clarity. Robert said essentially that I could do with his hand-outs what I pleased, and hopefully, what I did would please him. - Doc)