Back to Water Polo Fundamentals by Terry Schroeder

"Intangible" Fundamentals in Water Polo

Terry Schroeder
US National Men's Team Coach

Volume 1 Number 9June 15, 2008
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

Team USA has been spending a great deal of time over the last six months working on improving our fundamentals in the water.  We will continue to emphasis these fundamentals in our training as we go forward into Beijing.  There are signs that the work is paying off.  Our team has improved in our passing, shooting and shot blocking.  All of these are improving because our legs and body positioning are getting better.  We are seeing signs that the guys are creating new habits.  They are using their legs better and they are more stable in the water.

There are other fundamentals that are vital to our team’s success.  These are more difficult to measure.  As we continue on our Olympic journey we will be tested over and over again on these “intangibles”.  I have identified three of these so called “intangibles” that could turn out to be keys for our team as we attempt to get back to the podium in Beijing.  In my opinion, these are important for any team to be successful. 

The first intangible is trust.  In order for a team to be successful you need to have good relationships.   Relationships grow and thrive where there is trust.  First the players must care and respect each other enough to want to build this trust. Players must trust one another to experience success on a team. Everyone likes to talk about team chemistry and how important that is to any team’s success.  Good team chemistry revolves around this trust factor.  How do we know if we have it or not?  It is difficult to measure trust.  On any team some of the players have been burned in a relationship before.  They may have more issues with trusting others.  Others may trust too much.  The bottom line is this.  In order to be trusted you must first trust others.  You must be willing to put yourself out there and risk getting burned in order to build this trust factor on a team.  To become a real team takes time.  There is no real clear path or formula.  The first team building exercise that we did as a team this year was to go down to San Diego and spend some time with the Navy Seals.  These are guys who have learned to depend on one another and trust each other with their lives when the pressure is really on.  Our instructor that day was Captain Andy Stumpf.  Andy is a Seal who was injured in battle and now is an instructor in Coronado.  His life was spared because his team mates did not leave him behind.  They knew he had been injured and they came back to rescue him risking their own lives in the process.  Obviously, it is hard to compare a game of water polo with what these guys go through to protect our country but there are lessons to learn from these guys who represent a “team” at the highest level.  On our debriefing Captain Stumpf told us this “I can’t stand up here and tell you what it means to be a team.  I can’t tell you how you become a team.  I can only tell you that the path to becoming a true team is all about the experiences you share together. Sometimes these life experiences are difficult (like our seal training) and sometimes this things are fun but most of all it means putting in the time together and sharing a common goal and being willing to be open to what your brothers (teammates) are going through.   So here we are on this journey together (presently we are in Italy competing in the World League Finals), sharing a common goal, sacrificing together and hoping to continue to build trust in each other.  I know that we have a long way to go but I can see that chemistry getting better.   Trust is growing and we are becoming a better team. 

The second intangible is responsibility.  Each and every coach and player must be able to accept responsibility for his actions.  Taking responsibility will build trust and strengthen the chemistry.  This is very difficult to master.  It is an easier path to blame others and shift the responsibility from ourselves.  It is especially easy to blame officials in a game where at times it appears that we do not always have control.  I struggled with this for years.  Our 1984 Olympic team should have won the gold medal.  We were ahead 5 – 2 late in the third period.  We were in control of the game and we finished in a 5 – 5 tie allowing Yugoslavia to claim the gold based on goal differential.  The result was difficult to swallow and it was easy to say that the officials really took the game from us.  For years I hid behind that thought.  As I grew as a person and as an athlete I came to realize that I had no one to blame but myself.  We had our chances to win that game outright.  We blew opportunities on our 6 on 5 and we played to protect a lead rather than to win that game.  There is a mirror test that we should all challenge ourselves to each day.  Here is the way that this test works.  Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are doing everything that you can do to make the team better.  Every day in every workout we are trying to build on this principle.  With each play that goes wrong there is a responsible party and yet that person often looks to blame someone else.  Hey the pass I received was bad or they should have done this or that.  As I became more mature as a player I learned this valuable lesson as a team captain.  If I could take responsibility for the mistakes in the game that were even partially my fault then I could diffuse a situation and keep our team focused on what was most important – the next play.  When someone accepts the responsibility and play continues without any emotional attachment of trying to blame or being blamed then the team stays more focused.  Accepting responsibility is a big factor in building the trust on a successful team.  It is a sign of mature athletes that know that they have made that same mistake and can look at a teammate who has made a mistake and say let’s move on and stay focused.  When all individuals on the team accept their responsibility, it allows the team to play at a higher level.  The blame game produces a lot of negative energy and breaks down the chemistry.  When players accept responsibility then the team stays more positive and more focused.  Teams that accept responsibility as individuals and collectively as a whole will feel more in control of their own destiny.    

Finally, one of the most important fundamental intangibles is a positive belief system. Do the athletes believe in themselves?  Do they have confidence and truly believe that they can win?  This is also very difficult to measure.  Last month, we were honored to have Tommy Lasorda come out and talk to our team.  He told us that of all the great sports moments that he has experienced in his life the Olympic Games were the greatest of all.  He took the 2000 Olympic baseball team into the Olympic Games as heavy underdogs.  The team was made up of primarily no name minor leaguers and they definitely were not expected to medal.  The favorite in the tournament was Cuba who had not lost an international tournament in many years.  Tommy Lasorda and his staff helped to install a strong belief system into their team. By the time the team arrived in Sydney they believed that they could beat anyone. They were not going to be pushed around or intimidated by anyone.  They went out and beat everyone – winning the gold medal, 3 – 0 over the highly regarded Cuba team.  It was an incredible experience and it would not have happened if the players and coaches did not believe that they could do this.  The teams that I played on in the 80’s and early 90’s had this belief system.  We always believed that if we did our best, if we performed the way we could that we would win and we usually did. Certainly, one of the biggest factors in building this belief system is to have small successes that build that confidence inside and tell us that our goals are really possible.  Our win last month over Croatia (the # 1 ranked team in the world) gave us a little taste of that success and we have a small seed planted in our heads telling us that just maybe we can.  We will be tested here at the World League and we need to have more of these small successes in order to really build on this belief system.  We will then travel to Hungary to train and play against another one of the best teams in the world.  A little more success there will help us as we grow and eventually get to a place where we all believe that no matter whom we are playing and no matter what day it is we can win.  We can beat anyone. It is hard to measure but I sense that it is growing within our team everyday.

The fundamental intangibles are hard indeed to measure.  I know that we are building these fundamental skills and I am confident that when our time comes in the Olympic Games we will have grown in all of these areas.  We will take more responsibility for our own actions which will build trust and allow us to truly believe!

Once again if you have any comments or questions feel free to email me at [email protected]

See you at the pool!

Coach Schroeder


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