Back to Fundamentals by Terry Schroeder

Fundamentals of the Center: Part 4

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

Volume 3 Number 8May 15, 2011
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This month I will close out my four part series on the fundamentals of playing center.  Before you even read this month’s article I would encourage you to go back and review the first three articles in this series.  Reviewing the first three articles will help you to tie it all together and get you ready to play the game successfully at center.

Pre Game

Being a great center means that you are truly a student of the game.  Preparation is hugely important.   I would recommend that you study films of the teams that you are going to play next.  Find out what kind of defense they play.  Do they like to press or play a zone?  Specifically, watch the center defender.  What are his/her tendencies?  Look for his/her weaknesses.  Does he/she play better I the vertical?  Which means are they toughest when they are not forced to swim and move?  Many center defenders are great in the vertical but if you get them moving in a post up type situation their weaknesses may be exposed.  Also watch how they defend against the turn.  Do they force the center to turn one way all the time or are they vulnerable to one side or another?  Watching game films of your opponent can help you to be more successful during the game.  Once again I want to stress using your head and being smart.  Don’t try to attack the defender where he/she is the strongest.  Pick them apart by exploiting their weaknesses.  Also, as part of your preparation stay off your legs for a few hours before the game.  Your leg strength is going to be a key in the game and standing around or playing around before a game only will result in your legs fatiguing sooner in the game.   Make sure you are doing your best to eat properly (a good meal 3- 4 hours prior to the game and stay properly hydrating.  You will be far more effective if you are nourished and rested.  Before the game begins it is always good to review your own goals.  As I mentioned in the philosophy of playing center it is a good goal for a center to draw 8 – 10 exclusions per game.  Think about this and focus on how you are going to make this happen in the game. 

Game Time

As the game begins it is important to establish yourself early in the game.  My goal was to either score a goal or draw an exclusion in the very first series of the game.  This brings positive attention to you. The official sees that you are going to be a factor in the game and this may translate into a few extra exclusions for you.   My preference would be to draw the exclusion by executing the turn that I talked about in technique.   If you do this properly, you are controlling the line of scrimmage, controlling your defender (by sealing him/her off) and controlling the ball (moving the ball with you as you turn).  These are all good things in the official’s eyes.  You have established yourself and you have set a tone for the game.  By drawing this first exclusion early in the game you also make the opposing coach think about his/her defender and make a decision as to whether or not he/she can be left in the game.  It is possible that the best defender may be forced to sit on the bench for a quarter before the coach feels comfortable to put him/her back in.  
As the game wears on take pride in the fact that the offense runs through you.  Know in your mind that the game at the center position is a battle.  You are not going to win every possession although it is a good challenge to yourself to try to win each one.  Every series could mean the difference between winning and losing the game. 

When you are tired, let the secondary set go in for a series.  Most of the time there will be two players in the water that can set.  A good secondary center is usually far better than an exhausted primary set.  Once again, use your head and don’t let your ego get in the way.

Always keep the scoreboard in mind.  Do not turn anything into a personal battle.  Your team needs you in the water – so do not lose your cool over a bad call or a dirty play by an opponent.  Stays focused on the moment and control your emotions. 

A smart center is always aware of where he/she usually gets the ball from.  Usually there are one or two players on the perimeter that are very good at getting the ball into you so play the percentages.  When possible get set to the side of the perimeter players that can get you the ball.   Also, know where your shooters are.   Be ready to kick the ball out to one of your better shooters when the crash comes in on you.  

When you are struggling  - do your best to get to a side and hold that side.  Seal your opponent off and let your team mates bring the ball around to you.   Be prepared at all times (with each pass to you) for a bad pass.  If you expect a bad pass, then you are in good shape to knock the ball down and control it or move to it quickly to control it.  

Don’t rest on defense.  You may be exhausted from the last battle but you can not rest on defense and let your opponent score.  Take pride in how you play defense – your team mates will respect you for that.  

When you are setting and the ball turns over – your first three strokes to defense are your most important strokes.  Stay in front of your defender and the swim down the pool is much easier.  Don’t get tangled up with the defender  - show your hands and never get kicked out in the back court just because you get tangled with the defender.  Be prepared to swim 2 to 2.  A good team is going to make you work. 

Crunch Time

Look for your opportunity to put the dagger into your opponent.   One of the big rules that we talk about internationally is to NEVER let your opponent score a goal from center.  This is a back breaker for the defense.  Look for your opportunities to score.  If you get a perfect pass and the defender is a good match up then perhaps it is a good time to score.  A goal from center is often takes the wind out of your opponents.

When the game is on the line be at your best.  If your team is ahead then the opponents will probably be looking to press and steel the ball.  This creates opportunity for you at center.  Once again, be smart.  You may want to set at 3 meters instead of 2 meters.  Why?  Because when the other team is in a full press the goalie is going to try to come out a bit more to steel the ball on an entry pass.  By playing out that extra meter you will force him to come out further than he/she is comfortable doing and the perimeter shooters may get a better look at the cage.  Also, realize that you may have more time to work once you get the entry pass.  If the other team is pressing hard on the perimeter they will be usually slower to crash and this gives you more time to work.  Remember in this situation that the official is probably not going to give you any calls.  Your team is already ahead so you are going to have to earn anything you get.  You may have to score the natural goal or make it very difficult for the official to make a no call.  In this situation (when you are ahead) always remember to be aware of the shot clock and use it to your advantage.  Be patient and take advantage of this situation.  Make the other team panic.

When your team is behind you need to help them create opportunities to score.  Work hard to hold your position and seal your defender.  When the ball comes in protect it with all your power and work to make a turn.  Give the official a chance to call some exclusions on the defense.  If you are behind, the officials will usually look for opportunities to pay you off.  Be patient and don’t rush yourself.  If you are down by two you must still stay focused on the present moment (one possession at a time). 

When the game is on the line be at your best.  The ability to perform under pressure is an attribute that is hard to find in any athlete.  The great centers seem to be able to do this consistently.

Enjoy the game.  It is a fun game and playing center has great rewards.  Your team will love and respect you for going in series after series and controlling that line of scrimmage while taking a beating.   Be smart and use good technique.   I am convinced more than ever that a disciplined center who utilizes good fundamentals will beat his/her defender more often than not. 

I hope that you have enjoyed this series.  Feel free to email me with questions or comments on this series of articles.  [email protected]

See you at the pool.  

Coach Schroeder   

WATER POLO PLANET.COM: the Alternative Voice