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Fundamentals of the Center: Part 3

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

Volume 3 Number 7April 15, 2011
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This month I will continue to expand on the fundamentals of playing the center position successfully.  Through my years of playing, coaching and giving clinics I have been asked one question more than any other.  That question is this “What should I do when I am fronted at the center position?”  So this month, I will take the liberty to answer that important question.  As you will see the answer depends on some important factors.  Let me explain and try to keep it as simple as possible in the process.

First of all, it is always best to use your head and be the smarter player.  Do not let your ego get in the way of your team’s success.  What I am saying here is if the defender is much bigger and much stronger than it may be the best thing for you (and your team) to simply swim out and let the secondary center come in and set.  In other words, if the other team has a great center defender that may totally dominate the game then it is often best to get him/her off the center position and look for a better match up.   If your team does not have a secondary center than it might be better to run a post up offense where different players are trying to swim into position and create mismatches while trying to gain an advantages position.  In this case, it is better to a least swim the center defender into center first and then rotate out to one of the wings so that you do not let this big defender switch easily onto the second center.  Another scenario in this situation is to look for a swimming pick or a back pick to try to get this defender to switch off of you (assuming that you are the primary center) to create a better match up for yourself.  Obviously, this does not always work so there will be times when the best thing you can do for your team is to swim out and let the secondary center take a go at it.  This does not mean that you should just sit on the wing and occupy space.  Usually these big strong players don’t like to swim and move as much so when you have swam out look for opportunities to post up or even drive and make this defender play movement defense. Your strategy should be to wear him/her down by moving and making him/her play defense in the horizontal position as much as possible.  If it all works out well you may be able to draw a few exclusions on this defender while he/she is not guarding center. Obviously a big strong defender is much less effective when they are on the bench in foul trouble. 

The next scenario involves just the opposite situation where you are much stronger than the defender.  In this situation you have to remember that the smaller guard’s strength is normally quickness and finesse so you have to be very smart and patient with this situation.  Stay low and focus on your technique.  Too often a smaller guard will draw many offensives or counter fouls because the big strong center is trying to outmuscle him/her.  The best thing to do is to stay low and stay connected to the defender.  The defenders advantage is to move and go side to side but if you move into the defender and stay connected they will not be able to move as well.  By staying connected I am not at all suggesting that you just reach out and grab the defender.  Use your body and good back to chest or at least side to chest technique.  Push them out as you are staying connected and once you are out to the 4 to 5 meter line they are going to have to make a decision as to whether or not to stay in front or try to reposition and get behind.  At this point you have made them react and now you have the advantage.  If you can hold this position and have your team mates bring the ball to one wing or another you now have a great advantage of inside water once you get the ball.  Of course, this assumes that your team mates can work on the perimeter to get the ball around to one of the wings and then in to you.  The other thing that you can do with a smaller defender is to push him/her out and make them react.  Once they jump to try to reposition and get behind hold one side and back the defender up so that when the ball comes to that side you have great position to make your next move (a quarter turn for an exclusion or goal).  Once again this is dependent on your team mates being able to work the ball around to you.  The absolute worst thing you can do in this situation is to allow the guard to jump back and forth and continuously go side to side.  This is the situation that we all have seen when a good quick defender is able to jump and stay fronted wherever the ball is.  Remember to be patient and allow your team mates to get the ball to you as you hold one side. Inexperienced players that play center often try to follow the ball around constantly working for position.  Unfortunately’ this just feeds into the smaller guards strengths and allows for the guard to jump and front.  Stay low and stay connected and this defender will be taken out of his/her strength.

Finally, what happens most of the time is that the center and the defender are fairly evenly matched. Even is the guard is slightly stronger this next move is one of the best for centers to utilize when being fronted.  It is called a counter rotation move.  When the center and defender are pretty equally matched the advantage may go to a good defender in a vertical situation.  My plan was always to try to get the guard moving a bit.  Take a few swim strokes and make the defender get out of the vertical position.  Once you have him/her moving a bit (transitioning to the horizontal or swimming position) you now can execute the counter rotation maneuver.   This move is pretty simple but very effective.  By taking few strokes at the defender or to one side of the defender you have made them react.  So here is how this works.  Take a stroke or two to one side or the other of the defender.  If I am going towards the defenders right (with him/her facing me) I will lead with my right arm towards his/her right side rib cage.  Before I complete my stroke with my extended arm I will contact his/her rib cage with my right elbow/forearm and pull my legs into my body as to change directions in the water and prepare to set.  Next I will take a half backstroke stroke with my left arm being careful not to hit the defender in the head (keep the stroke very short and compact) and then quickly dive my left elbow down towards my side and try to contact the defenders left rib cage with my left elbow.  As I do this I am getting my legs into position to set on this side.  Left leg down in the split eggbeater and right leg out in front trying to drive the defender back and make some room on what is now my strong side. 

The whole idea is to get the defender going one way and then to change direction and use the defenders momentum against him/her to set to the other side.  It works just the same the on the other side too.  Take a quick stroke or two to the defenders left.  With your left arm extended in full stroke try to catch the defenders left side rib cage on your modified recovery and change directions with your body so that you immediately go into a half backstroke stroke with your right arm.  Next dive the right arm down by your own side and try to catch the defenders rib cage on the right as you set your legs in a split eggbeater on this side.  Your right leg down driving to keep you up and the left leg out and driving the defender back.  Once again beginning one direction, trying to quickly change direction and use the defenders momentum to your advantage.  Once you have done this move once or twice the defender may try to over compensate and now you have an even bigger advantage.  As he/she tries to prepare for your move you can usually just get them moving and look for the right opportunity to get set on the side that you want as they react to your movement.  This is a great and effective move that needs to be practiced over and over again to get it down.  Don’t get frustrated because it does not work a time or two.  No move is 100 % successful.  I have used this move thousands of time throughout my career with a very high success rate.  It really does not matter if the defender has seen it before because once you get them moving you have options and often times you can get set on the side you were initially moving towards because the defender is over compensating. 

I hope that this has helped solve this problem for the centers and their coaches out there.  Be smart and always focus on your technique.  Stay with your fundamentals.  Stay low and use your legs to get the position that you want. As soon as you go to using your arms only you will usually end up with a counter foul.  Utilize this counter rotation move – it will make you a better player. As always please feel free to email me at [email protected]  with any comments or questions.

Next month, I will finish off this four part series on playing the center position with trying to apply all this fundamentals to game situations and becoming a more productive center. 

See you at the pool

Coach Schroeder

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