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Fundamentals of a Successful 5 Man Defense in Water Polo

Terry Schroeder
US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics

Volume 2 Number 4August 15, 2009
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

Last month, I focused on the 6 on 5 man advantage.  As I said in my article last month – this would be a big key for us in the World Championships.   Reflecting back on 4th place finish at the World Championships in Rome here are my thoughts.  We are one of the best teams in the world.   We are close but we need to continue to work hard and work together to climb those final few steps to get to the top.  In the critical times it was our 6 on 5 that failed us.  In the semi-final against Spain we were not able to convert the most important 6 on 5 opportunities in the 4th quarter.  Overall, we were 2 for 6 on our 6 on 5 in this game.  As I had predicted, 6 on 5 would make or break us and scoring 35% does not usually help you win the big games.  In the bronze medal game, the breakdown of our 6 on 5 in the 3rd and 4th quarter was also the difference. 

We were slightly better against Croatia, scoring on 5 out of 11 chances but in the end  - in the most important games at the most critical times our 6 on 5 did not come through.  The bottom line is that we know what we need to work on and if we are to climb that final mountain and win a gold in London we will need to continue to work on and improve our 6 on 5.  We are one of the best teams in the world and we will continue to work hard on the fundamentals to help make our 6 on 5 the best in the world. 

While scoring when you have the man advantage is critical - being able to stop your opponent when they have those same 6 on 5 opportunities is equally important.  So this month, I thought I would focus on the fundamental keys to a successful 5 man defense.  In my opinion, another important bench mark of team work is how well your 5 man defense is playing.  It is absolutely critical that all the players involved in the 5 man defense are working together and know what their responsibility is when the ball is at each position.  Successful 5 man defense is the ultimate in zone defense.  Each and every player has the responsibility for at least 2 and sometimes 3 offensive players.  Each player on the defense is also trying to funnel the ball to the center of the cage by successfully taking away a part of the shooters angle.

Here are my fundamental keys for a successful 5 man defense:

  1. Communicate the exclusion.  If you are the man that has been excluded you need to let everyone on your team know that you have been kicked out and they need to quickly mobilize to set up into a 5 man defense.

  2. Protect against the quick.  If the center or attacker is isolated and his/her defender gets excluded it is very important for the defender that is closest to come back hard and deny the pass right back to the unguarded player. 

  3. Get your back line set.  The first line of defense has to get set up – these are the three defenders that will end up closest to the goal.  Usually these players are called X1, X2 (center defender) and X3.  This back line gets set to make sure that the offensive team does not get any slam dunks or easy goals from the post players.  X1 and X3 need to get set up quickly to make sure that no easy near side goals are scored from the 1 and 6 players.

  4. Play heavy on the posts.  Do not let the post players score.  Wear them down by playing heavy on them and using them to push off of to move out at the player with the ball.  I am not saying that you should ever get excluded for just mauling the post player but usually you can get away with being pretty heavy on the posts and making sure that they do not score on a 6 on 5.

  5. X1 and X3 – primary responsibility is to never allow the 1 and 6 players to score a near side ball.  It is impossible for any goalie to cover the entire cage on the 6 on 5.  If the goalie can rely on his/her X1 and X3 players then the entire 6 on 5 becomes easier to cover because he/she does not have to worry about these near side goals.

  6. Be mobile.  The best 5 man defenses are mobile and have the ability to move in and out.  I have written about this in and out skill in the past and I believe it is one of the most important skills in water polo.  The teams that do this best have the toughest 5 man defenses to score on because they can keep the offensive team off balance.  To play successful 5 man you can not get caught in the vertical you have to be mobile and this takes great legs and balance.

  7. No drifting.  Once you move out to shot block you need to hustle back to the post after the player you are shot blocking has passed the ball.  Successful 5 man is all about releasing each other.  So if one player is slow to come back to the post this will start a chain reaction and someone on offense is going to end up being open for an easy shot.

  8. Maintain your balance.  Whether you are neutralizing the post player or jumping out to shot block you must maintain your balance.  This will allow you to move in and out and be a successful shot blocker.  The most successful shot blockers are always on balance in the water. 

  9. Center defender is a big key.  The center defender should be the best shot blocker on the team.  It is very important that he/she is mobile and does not sit in the middle of the cage and shield or block the goalie out.  The center defender can actually intimidate shooters by taking away the angles and being in the shooters lane so that it appears to the shooter that there is no open shot. 

  10. Play the odds – if a team has a right hander at the 5 position – this is probably where you want to force the shot to come from.  Make the player with the worst shot or the poorest angle shoot when possible.  When you are playing good 5 man , most of the shots should come from the 4 and 5 players (the two outside perimeter spots).  The reason for this is that these players have to shoot through the most defenders and the goalie in order to score. 

Being able to stop your opponent when they are up a man is one of the big keys to winning big games.  In this recent World Championships, the winner of the tournament was Serbia.  They definitely had a very strong 5 man.  In fact, in the semi-final game against Croatia they were excluded 18 times and still managed to win the game.  That is great 5 man defense. 

When you stop your opponent from scoring on their 6 on 5’s you often will frustrate them and “get in their heads” which obviously then can carry over to every other aspect of the game.  Every team should go into a game of water polo with the knowledge that they are going to be excluded here and there.  When it happens do not complain about it – but make it a challenge. 

When you are a man down every player needs to be working hard.  The intensity has to be at its highest level.  As I said before this is the ultimate zone defense so each and every player needs to be funneling the ball to the center of the cage.  If one player does not do his job the defense will break down quickly and usually this results in a goal being scored against you.  As I mentioned before in last month’s article when you get the opportunity to practice 6 on 5 and 5 on 6 make sure you practice like it is a game.  The harder the 5 man defense works the better the 6 on 5 will become and vice a versa.  Practice like it is a real game and you will see the rewards happen in the games. 

My recommendation when you practice 6 on 5 and 5 man is to make it shorter, higher intensity periods.  Perhaps do 10 attempts for each group 2 – 3 times during the practice rather than trying to do it all at once.  This will keep the intensity high and make it more game like.  To be successful on your 5 man defense you have to work together as a team. 

As always, please feel free to email me if you have any questions [email protected]

See you at the pool.

Coach Schroeder
USA Water Polo Ė Menís National Team Coach

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