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Playing the Game at Center Defender: Part 3

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

Volume 3 Number 11October 15, 2008
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 3 part series on playing the center defender position.   Before you even read this article, I would recommend that you go back and read the first two articles in this series.  This will help to remind you about some important technique and philosophy ideas that are critical to playing this position successfully.  Once again, I think that if you re serious about playing this sport you need to be a student of the game.  Proper preparation means that you are practicing the right things over and over again in training.  You have to practice like you are going to play.  If you practice lazy you will play lazy… If you practice with good intensity then you will play this way.

When preparing for your game at center defender, it is important that you are prepared in all areas.  Eating properly, being hydrated, making sure that you have had enough rest and getting yourself in the proper frame of mind are all very important.   What is the proper frame of mind?  To me this means being emotionally prepared for a battle.  A battle in which you will not win every series, nor will you always get a favorable call, however you must be able to remain focused on the most important thing – that is the next play and the scoreboard.  You can not let yourself get into a personal battle ever. 

Another key part of your preparation should be to know your opponent.  Study game films if possible or better yet watch him/her play in a few games.  Get to know what his/her tendencies are.  Does he/she like to turn, step out, shoot a backhand?  What are your opponent’s strengths and what are his/her weaknesses?  When you know these things you can develop your own game plan (obviously this has to fit within the team’s game plan).  This is how you want to play against this particular center.  Do you play them more on the right side, left side?  Can you front?  Or do you have to be prepared to call your team back into a zone?  Be prepared to attack your opponent where they are weakest.  All of this is important information that will help you be more successful as you enter the game.

As the game begins, I believe it is important to establish the tone early.  Let the center know that he/she is going to be for a battle.  You are going to front and play tough and then swim 2 to 2 on each and every series.  You are going to drag a bit on the center during the counter or swim in front of him/her and let them know that nothing is going to be easy in this game.  The mindset should be that I am going to make it rough on the center.  He/she will not score any easy goals.  In fact, nothing will be easy on them.  No center likes to swim so be prepared to counter hard on each and every turnover or shot. As I stated in the article on playing the center, the first 3-4 strokes on any turnover or shot are the most important ones.  Make sure that the center is not going to get any rebound type garbage goals but once your team has the ball be ready to go hard and try to get in front of the center.  If you can get in front on the counter and then make sure your flutter kick is going strong so that he/she needs to swim through some turbulence.  You are not trying to kick your opponent at all, you are just trying to make it as miserable as possible for the opposing center to get down to the other end.  Once you get this front position, you can also cut him/her off and slow down to see if you can get them to grab you and take an exclusion.  Once you get down into the front court you can assess the situation and see what needs to be done.  If possible, you want to make the opposing center play defense.  Do not let him/her rest.  Drive and look to make the center play good defense.  If you can get them to take an exclusion or two while playing defense then you can get them out of the game.  A good center is much less effective when they are sitting on the bench…  

One of the things that we try to do with Team USA is every time we have a fresh center defender in the game we will look to take the center down 2 to 2 and post them up on the defensive end.  Make them play defense.  Get them tired and they are much less effective. 

It is also important to establish some connection with the officials.  I witnessed a great move by the center defender this summer at the World Championships.  He was playing against a very good center and both players were going at it pretty hard.  Finally, the official made the call and kicked out the defender.  Instead of being upset and making a stinky face at the official the defender looked up and put his hand up and just gave the official a nod as if to say “good call”.  It was pretty slick and as the game went on I believe that this defender was awarded the benefit of the doubt on a few occasions because of this earlier acknowledgement.  Now this is something that you can not try to do all the time but perhaps every once in a while just let the official know that he made the right call.  They don’t get that too much and you might be surprised how it earns you some respect. 

Be fully aware the score and the situation all the time.  If your team is up by a few goals perhaps you are a bit more likely to have a call go against you and you need to be a bit more cautious in there.  Perhaps you need to go to a zone a bit earlier.  The same goes the situation.  If the other team just received a questionable kick out a the other end you might try to protect yourself and go into a zone sooner to minimize the chance of a make up call happening and wasting one of your three exclusions.  Remember, you can help your team if you are on the bench.  By being fully aware you may save an exclusion here and there.  Also, remember that you use an exclusion to prevent a goal.  Don not get kicked out when the ball is not even at two meters or on the perimeter.  Use your fouls wisely and be a smart player.  

In the article about playing the center I talked about scoring the ball from two meters.  This often times in the dagger in the heart of a good team.  Do everything you can to prevent the opposing center from scoring at two meters.  Use a kick out to prevent a goal at center.  

Much of the work that you will do is prior to even getting into the center area.  Make it difficult for the center to get ball side.  Make it difficult for them to get to set.  Impede them with your body and good positioning.  Don’t overuse hand checking but a little here and there is good and effective.  If you are using it too much it may result in a kick out and this would be a bad kick out in my book.

Don’t let your ego get in the way.  When you are tired let a team mate take one series of guarding or ask your coach for a break.  It is important that you stay honest with yourself.  If you are exhausted then someone else can probably do a better job then you can.  Do what’s best for your team.  Remember when you are tired to focus on technique.  Many good players break away from good technique when they are tired.  Focus on your legs.  Often when you are tired you tend to grab and use your arms and upper body strength too much.  This will only result in more kick outs for you.  Using your legs properly will help you stay focused on good technique. 

The best players are at their best when the game is on the line.  Be smart so that you can be a factor in the fourth quarter.  A strong center defender will help to seal a victory by dominating the opposing center in the fourth quarter. 

Remember to have fun and play the game with respect for your opponent and the game itself.  When something bad happens to you or your team, smile a little and let that just motivate you to be better on the next play.  Don’t get down and let something that happened two plays ago impact how the next play goes.

I hope that you have enjoyed this series on playing center defender.  Please feel free to email me with questions or comments regarding this series or any in the past at [email protected]

Team USA is on our way to the Pan American Games to qualify for the Olympics.  We need to win the Pan Ams to qualify.  Send us some good positive energy. 

See you at the pool.


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