No School Like Old School
Chekhov once said that all of the great Russian literature came out under the hat of Gogol and we can allude similar for the water polo: all Yugoslav stars of this sport grew under the hat of Vlaho Orlic, said in an interview several years ago, unfortunately now deceased Ante Lambasa, giant of Yugoslav sport and honorary FINA president.
When speaking about the phenomenology of the Yugoslav water polo (and speaking of Yugoslav water polo I mean Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro), the story perhaps would have not existed if it weren’t for the main ideologue and creator of the phenomenon, the charismatic and controversial genius Vlaho Orlic. His name is synonymous with guaranteed success, which leads only to the highest podium - it does not matter whether we talk about a club or a team, domestic or international scene. His "home craft" made all of Balkan top water polo stars, whose assortment of medals awarded water polo the attribute of the Yugoslav sport with the most trophies.
The original model of the Yugoslav water polo, conducted by Orlic, became a system which with the authentic strategy and doctrine created, almost like the treadmill, the original models of this game, and "performers" like a virtuoso Muškatirović, Cukvasa, Sandic, Belamarić, Jankovic, Perisic, Marovic, Rudic, Markovic, Krivokapic, Milanovic, Sostar, Sapic, Vujasinovic, Ikodinovic… whose teacher was exactly Orlic.
Top players are made through a system of natural selection, first through national competitions, and then through a junior national selections which almost always won the first or second place in the competitions on the old continent or in the world. With skillful “grinding" of the offered material from a rather restricted basis, which is sadly the nature of this sport, the water polo specialists received a high quality for a short period. The school of Yugoslav water polo whose creator was Orlic differed from other systems solutions. The Banjica pool became the water polo "greenhouse", from which the system "nursed" the other relevant water polo centers in Croatia and Montenegro.
–It seems that we are god gifted for team sports. From a small base we extract dry gold. How? By strong and hard, but planned and designed work. I do not recognize the spite, nor luck, nor the Balkan mentality in sport- only in a small part of the superstructure of the players. One can be the best or not, ready up to the maximum or not, there is no third – it is a favorite theory of Vlaho Orlic.
The rest of the world called this water polo system, with no small amount of underestimation as "typical communist":
–But it never prevented them from copying, taking our technology and tactics, our models in the game settings - Orlic said. - Yet, what they never managed to understand, our game always had more content and novelties, was richer, more imaginative and beautiful. By the time they understood what we have introduced new, we've already prepared something else, and so forever.
The two most important exponents of the professor Orlic are world renowned and recognized coaches Ratko Rudic and Nikola Stamenic. Rudic's Yugoslavian team in the eighties won almost everything - except the title of European champion. His successor Stamenic brought to Yugoslavia just the title that was missing - his coaching sorcery emerged at the start of the Athens EC in 1991. The half of the team comprised of players from Croatia, left the team at the request of its political leaders. However, without them, Yugoslavia managed for the first time in its long and rich history to win a championship in Europe. After that it is history. Different states, different careers, but one thing is similar – always on the top and with medals on the chest.
All of these coaches are the followers of the strict and planned regime of trainings and sport philosophy. That it’s something that Mr. Orlic introduced and transferred to his apprentices. But as he also always liked to present, he was only the idea giver and the one who modeled the system. He never really tells the coaches how to act, but let them figure out the best way to express themselves in order to achieve what is wanted from the system. The System is everything. Water polo is a team sport which requires all the players to be interdependent upon each other. You can have an individual on the team who has the best skills and talent in the world, but if he does not play within the system - if his actions are unpredictable to his teammates - the system will fail and the team will lose.
On the other hand, what Nikola Stamenic brought to the water polo sport is a different perspective and understanding of sport itself. Very few coaches work according to the rules of science. He is the only one of the many coaches who has a technical university degree and who worked in his specialty. He is an engineer. This background has given him a special background for looking at water polo and analyzing individual skills. He pays attention to fundamentals because he knows he must have the best bricks for his building.
He is the best coach in the world when it comes to understanding and teaching individual fundamentals and individual tactics. There is an interesting anecdote which I read in one of the Stamenic’s interviews: Many years ago, when I was a young boy, I wanted to learn how to juggle three balls and I wanted to see how long it would take me to learn. So I got watch and three balls. I found it took me 35 minutes to be able to juggle.
A few years ago I wanted to prove a point to my players about skill learning. I told them about my little test and suggested an experiment. I proposed that all could learn to juggle in from 30 to 40 minutes of practice. Some wanted to quit in frustration after ten or twenty minutes but I encouraged them to continue. All became jugglers within the time frame.
What does this have to do with water polo? I believe that there is a threshold or a statistically provable amount of time required for athletes to learn the skills of a sport. Some skills might require a minimum of one hour, others might take one year - there are no shortcuts. The individual skills are the easiest to learn while team skills and tactics are more difficult. There must be a progression - a system - of one brick on top of the other. Time frames must be planned. You cannot build a fourth story of a building before the third.
Another interesting comparison was the Stamenic’s use of martial arts in the philosophy of water polo duels: At the national team level the players must have the fundamentals in place because we are working at the top of the building. But we are always looking to improve. About fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the Japanese martial art of Aikido. Aikido philosophy has influenced my life and coaching philosophy in many ways, but on this topic it is interesting that the highest level Dans (black belts) always spend time on the most basic techniques - ones that first day classes are taught. They do this because they understand that body position and basic movements are the keys to the most advanced movements and that no matter how many years they have practiced they have not perfected these basic techniques. Of course it looks perfect to you and me, but they know they are not perfect (the way a diver or gymnast knows a "l 0" does not mean perfection) and the Aikido philosophy is that "perfection" is an ideal concept that will never be reached. We are all human and can never be perfect but by constantly striving for perfection martial artists and water polo players and teams can become great. So sometimes we do some very fundamental things in practice, but only to show the importance to more advanced tactics and concepts.
Another thing about Aikido which has been very helpful to me as a coach is the way they use the strength of their opponent to their advantage. The principles are especially useful in water polo at the two meter position. It is very difficult to use force against force. But if the offensive player knows how to use the pressure and force of the defender to his advantage he will be a much better player. This knowledge, I believe, is essential and we show our players some basic Aikido to understand it. But Aikido also has given me knowledge of the points of contact. The Aikido defense against Yokomen strikes is very interesting. The Yokomen strike is a chop which is very similar to a pass or shot motion. When the strike is begun, the defender moves into the attacker and strikes his arm at the point of weakness. In water polo, the shot or pass can be blocked or disrupted. Defenders often go to block the ball when they should be blocking the arm which is easier to reach, being closer to the body. Try hitting the biceps or the elbow to prevent the pass.
Stamenic also speaks about the education and bringing up of the players. He educates his player that if they wish to be the best in the world, there is no running away and fears from the tough opponents, the winning mentality means that everybody needs to fear from you. One who goes to pass an exam mustn’t beg for God to receive the exact two questions which he prepared. If he wants to pass it certainly, he must learn the whole material.
The similar story is related also with Water polo Hall of Fame coach Ratko Rudic, who coaching teacher was also Mr. Orlic. But like with Stamenic, Orlic only gave the fundamental ides, directives and system values which Rudic continued to develop and add his own mark. Vlaho Orlic, who coached me in Partizan, was my coaching role model, but more on the way I think about the game, the strategy of preparation for the game…But, regarding the game itself, I have tried to look for the game solutions and actions in all other sports too. I find American football to be very interesting. They have the precise combinations, which they later memorize, then there’s the anticipation of the opponents defense and construction of your own attack…Ice hockey has the similar game philosophy…
Petar Porobic, the creator of the powerful Montenegro selection, always points out that he was also the apprentice of the three abovementioned coaches. Although I learned a lot from them, I decided to apply a slightly different model, but I still stick to certain principles and criteria. But, I try to find the place for compromise also. The commitments are there to be fulfilled, and when I give my players the tasks, I expect them to be done, but sometimes I try to find a compromise, and I’m sure that on that field I’m a lot loose than my teachers. I manage to meet the needs of my players, and if the team doesn’t abuse the trust, I’m prepared to go even one step further.
Before the game, I have my standard rituals. I don’t leave the house, I don’t go to lunches, coffees or meetings of any kind. I turn of my phone, I stay in my room and work. I analyze the adversary and prepare for what awaits me.
The main reason why Istarted writing about this in my column was the fact that Vlaho Orlic was recently named the head of the Expert Council of the Serbian Water polo Federation. As he announced, the main reason for his return in the national federation is the need to revitalize the Serbian water polo because the current situation is critical and anxious. This might be odd to hear coming from a country of world champions, and multiple junior selection medalist, but that is the way today people in the Serbian federation think. The crucial problems are the retirement of many national team players, small base for creating new quality players and a disastrous infrastructural situation with the pools. The lack of good coaching staff is also a serious issue. With a long term plan, to create Serbia into a dominant water polo force for a long term period where the ultimate goal is the Olympic gold. What attracted me to come back was the fact that we didn’t manage to achieve the goals we set in 1991/92. We kept our position in the world, which honestly doesn’t satisfy me. My value scale is that all the sports, except soccer, are classified by the number of Olympic medals won. Our potential is great, and now, with the help of the people from the federation, I have the opportunity to do what I wanted 19 years ago. Our target is to be the Olympic champions continuously. It’s not by hazard why we’ve been double Olympic champions and world champions in the eighties. We want to do what Hungarians are doing today. Sport is like that, you have to continuously prove yourself. It’s not only about winning the first place on the world and thinking that you’re the best. You are in that moment, but…I don’t think that this kind of talk creates bad pressure for the young players. That distinguishes the losers from the winners. The winner carries that passion inside himself. That is very simple. Ours is to select the winners, not the losers.
[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]