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Fundamentals of the Center: Part 2

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

Volume 3 Number 6March 15, 2011
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This month we will dive deeper into the fundamentals of playing center.  This month, in part two of this series I will write about the philosophy of playing center and tie this in with proper technique. 

First of all, I believe that any great center needs to understand his/her role in the game of water polo.  Simply stated the most important role of the center is to control the offense.  This is done by controlling the line of scrimmage which takes a combination of great leg strength, upper body strength and good technique.

In my opinion, to be successful in this game you need a good center on your team.  Without a center you will have no real offense.  Perhaps some would make a case for the playmaker who can now post up at the 5 meter line and draw kick outs and score goals from there, however, this is not a healthy offense and nine times out of ten this team will lose to a team with a talented center who is doing his/her job.  Talent alone is not enough.  The center needs to understand the game and approach each game with a certain attitude or philosophy. Here are some important philosophical keys to being successful at center.

  1. The center must approach the game knowing that he/she is going to have some calls go against him/her.  They must also realize that at times the center defender is probably going to get the best of them.  This means that through the course of the game the center might get roughed up a little.  This is a physical game and playing at center is the most physical position there is – so if you can’t take the heat then maybe this position is not for you.  Here is the pregame mentality that the center should have. My opponent is good (although I know I am better) and therefore I will not win each and every battle.  I am going to get roughed up a little by this defender and he/she may get the best of me on a few series.  Also, the official is going to make it hard on me.  I know it is a difficult game to officiate and sometimes the official is going to miss a call.  Therefore, I should not expect the official to see the game as I do.  No matter what happens, I will control my emotions and stay calm and focused on my team and the scoreboard.  If your center does this consistently they will find that they are more likely to control their emotions and be successful at this position.  It is important for your center to go into the game with the proper expectations.  They should expect to beat their opponent regularly but they can not expect to win every battle at 2 meters.

  2. Perhaps the most important goal of every center as they approach a game should be to draw 8 – 10 exclusions in a game.  This is a tell tale sign that the center is doing his/her job. If a center is able to do this in a game they certainly have controlled the offense and line of scrimmage.  There is no way that a center can draw 8 – 10 exclusions in a game without controlling the line of scrimmage.  The other important element of drawing exclusions is that it gets your team mates involved.  Drawing exclusions is unselfish play.  Your team and team mates now have a great chance to score on a 6 on 5 advantage.  It is not a statistic you will ever see in the paper (at least here in the USA) but it is a vital stat for the success of a team.   This puts your team in a position to be successful.  Chances are another player will probably score on the 6 on 5, however the center should feel good about giving his/her team that opportunity to score.  A good coach will help his/her center understand that drawing exclusions is one of the primary roles.

  3. How does a center put himself/herself in a position to draw that many exclusions? Here is the answer - A good center establishes himself/herself as a scoring threat early in the game.  I believe that this is very important in the officials mind to see a center that wants to score.  That being said it is vital that the center look for a good opportunity early in the game to try to get a high percentage shot off.  Even if he/she does not score it sets the tone in the officials mind and will payoff as the game goes on. The center’s job is not to try to score on each possession.  In fact, I think the center is in a position where he/she can help a team come together by playing unselfishly.  There is, however a balance in this.  If the center is not a scoring threat but only trying to draw exclusions the official’s tendency to call the exclusions may slowly wear down.  A good official wants to see a balanced game where the center is a threat to score and every once in awhile there is a good shot or a goal out of center.  By establishing himself/herself early as a threat, I believe that as the game is played out the center will have more of the official’s attention and will more than likely draw more exclusions.

    There is certainly technique involved with drawing exclusions and this is important to mention.  First of all, there are times in the game when the center defender is being overly aggressive and all you need to do is get a good entry pass in and there is a very high likelihood of having an exclusion called.  In this case, the center only needs to use good technique to seal off the defender and protect the ball as the entry pass comes.  This is often enough to draw the exclusion when the defender is being aggressive.  However, most of the times the center will need to show the official that he/she is controlling the ball and improving his/her position.  This is done most of the time by controlling the ball with the off side arm/hand.  If the defender is on the left side of the center then the center needs to make sure that he/she is controlling (sealing off) the defender with his/her left arm and reaching for the ball with the right arm/hand.  The opposite is also true which can be difficult on a right handed center.  If the defender is on the right side of the center –the center needs to control (seal off) the defender with his right arm/hand and reach for the ball and control the ball with his left arm.  *** Centers can not always try to reach for the ball and control the ball with their strong arm/hand.  If they do this it is bad technique and they are liable to lose many of these battles because they are not properly sealing off their defender.  Also, this “seal” needs to be low, preferably under the defenders arm pit so that you don’t commit counter fouls.  The best “seal” is with the proper arm’s elbow in the defender’s rib cage.  When you have this position you will have maximum control over the defender.

    Once the defender is sealed off and the ball is controlled the center needs to improve his position towards the goal.  In other words, be a threat or create a scoring opportunity.  This is done by performing a quarter or half turn towards the cage.  The center must feel where the defender is and be aware of where the crash is coming from and work towards making a quarter turn or half turn towards the cage.  To put this into perspective, I like to teach my centers to draw an imaginary line in the water where they are at (2 meters).  This imaginary line should be parallel to the goal line.  The centers job on this quarter turn or half turn is to turn far enough to break this imaginary plane. If the center can control the defender and the ball and turn to break this imaginary line he/she has created an advantage by improving their position in the pool and now if they let the ball go and struggle just for a second the official should award them with an exclusion.  If the defender backs off and goes two hands up when the center drops the ball the center must be prepared to go after the ball and look for his/her shot.  Using this technique it is very difficult for the official to not call an exclusion on the defender.  On the other hand, if the center only backs into the defender and does nothing else when the ball comes in it is very difficult to call an exclusion because the center has not improved his/her position nor has he/she created any advantage.  This is a technique that will pay great dividends for your center and will give them the best chance to draw more exclusions in the course of a game.

  4. A talented center will find a way to get his/her team mates involved.  Another important stat that a good center should strive for is assists.  It is not as easy as it used to be when there were many more “normal” (non-exclusion) fouls called out of set.  The center used to be more of a natural passer and would commonly have many opportunities during a game to make an assist.  In the game today, the center needs to work for these opportunities. There still are some “normal” fouls called and the center must work to get to the ball quickly and see if there are any openings to set up a team mate with a good pass off of the foul.  Another situation that occurs fairly often in the game is when the entry pass comes into center and there is a crash coming to get the ball.  A talented center may be able to draw the defender towards the ball thereby creating a little more space for his/her team mate on the perimeter.  Now if he/she can perform a good “kick out” pass to his/her team mate there may be a good scoring opportunity.  The center needs to very aware of where these crashes are coming from. On occasion the crash will come from the wing and if the center can draw that defender in just a bit and then kick the ball out to an open 1 or 5 player there might be an opportunity for a high percentage shot. The goal of a good center should be to make 3-4 direct assists during the course of a game. 

  5. Finally, the center needs to be a scorer.  On my list this is at the bottom of center’s priorities. However, having said that, a goal from the center can be a back breaker for the other team.  One of the biggest defensive goals that most teams have is “No goals from the center” so when the center does score he/she has made a dent in the heart of the opposing team’s defense.  As I mentioned before, a good center is not looking to shoot on each possession.  The most successful centers are patient and wait for their opportunities.  Perhaps it is a good match up with a certain defender or good positioning on a certain series or maybe just the perfect pass to get a shot off.  In my opinion, if the center gets 1-2 goals a game from this position, he/she has done an excellent job.

In my opinion, it is very important that the center finds a balance in all of this. If philosophically the main goal is to control the offense, then drawing exclusions is the most important stat to look at.  A coach should certainly be aware that in some games there are very few exclusions called so to draw 8 – 10 exclusions may be impossible.  At times the officials let the teams play and don’t call much.  The priorities may shift slightly in this type of game.  The center may need to look for a few more natural scoring opportunities but overall the same fundamental keys remain the same.  In this type of game it is even easier for the center to get frustrated and lose focus.  If there is proper mental preparation the center will know that the calls are not always going to go his/her way and will be ready to maintain composure and focus on his/her team mates and the scoreboard. 

Next month, look for part three of this series of playing center which is titled “What to do when fronted?’   As always please feel free to email me at [email protected] with your questions or comments. 

See you at the pool

Coach Schroeder

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