Back to Fundamentals by Terry Schroeder

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

Volume 5 Number 2July 15, 2013
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

Gaining the Right of Way

Last Sunday, I travelled up to the Santa Barbara Polo Grounds for a couple of matches.  This is Horse Polo of course – so you might be thinking what does this have to do with water polo?  Well, this month I am going to write about something that I found very interesting in Horse Polo. In fact, it deals with one of the most important rules of the game.  Horse polo is governed by a fundamental “right of way” rule.  This rule is designed to protect the horses and their riders since the horses are often travelling at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Basically the right of way rule says that – “the player who has the ball on his right hand side and is following the direction of the ball has the right of way”.  Once the ball is hit, a line of play is established and re-established with each subsequent hit or at any time the ball changes direction.  Approaching the ball must be done safely to both player and rider.  One of the biggest penalties in Polo is called crossing and this happens when an opposing player crosses the player who has the ball and is “on-line”. 

Obviously, this does not sound like water polo much at all right!  No wonder they can’t get the horses in the water.  Ha ha Anyway, what earned my attention was the difference between Horse Polo and Water Polo when it comes to the so called “right of way”.

So many parts of water polo involve taking the “right of way” and gaining an advantageous position on your opponent.  While horse polo does not allow this crossing over the line of play – water polo encourages and thrives on it.  Let me expand on this idea and tell you why taking this so called “right of way” is so important in water polo. 

There are a few simple rules to beating your opponent to the “right of way”.  Whether you are talking about an attacker or anyone on the counter attack it is critical to get your head inside your opponents head (inside refers to closer to the goal).  How is this done?  Often times it is being aware of the situation and “out reacting” your opponent.  If you can beat your opponent on the first 1 – 3 strokes chances are you will take the “right of way” and put yourself in a good position to earn an exclusion or score a goal.  Most of the time, beating your opponent on these first three strokes involves initiating contact at the right time or right situation.   For example, if I am playing defense on the perimeter and my opponent takes a shot, I need to try to initiate contact and beat him/her to the right of way or the line of play (however you want to describe it).  So as I am moving towards the shooter in a shot blocking position I am balanced on my legs so that when the shot is taken I can lunge at my opponent (big breaststroke kick)  and perhaps grab his/her waist or suit and knock him/her off balance.  The officials should allow you initiate contact in this instance and they will usually give the defender a bit of an advantage on the change over so that as long as I don’t totally gross the shooter by grabbing their head or neck I will rarely get called for a foul.. After I have knocked them off balance even slightly I need to take a quick stroke or two to their back side and jump in front of them.  So if they are on my right shoulder facing me I will try to take a quick stroke with my right arm and dive a bit in front of them.  At this point my next stroke can also be to gain this position.  Once I have the position I want inside,  I do not want to give it up so I can swim down the pool by continually cutting off my opponent and crossing over the line of play to remain in control of the “right of way”.

This would also apply to a drive on offense.  If I am guarding the driver and the ball turns over with either a shot or a counter foul – I need to be aware of the situation and “out react” my opponent.  If I can, I will take advantage of their forward momentum and try to knock their hips out from under them by grabbing low on the waist or suit then I can gain just a bit of a lead by taking a couple of quick strokes and cutting them off.   Once I have gained this advantage over my opponent I will try to keep it all the way down to the other end and into the front court. 

The center defender also has a great opportunity to take advantage of a center working hard to hold or gain position.  When the ball turns over the officials normally will allow the defender to use that contact to his/her advantage by knocking or grabbing the hips and taking a stroke or two to free or open water before diving in front of the center with another quick “high elbow” stroke or two to capture the “right of way”.  Now I can make the center trail me down the pool.  When I do this I also force him/her to throw their hands up to show the official that they are not grabbing me and this gives me even a greater advantage to break free or work them down the pool and try to earn an exclusion.  If there is a good deal of free and open water I may want to explode off of them and swim hard into the counter attack.  If it is pretty congested in front of me than I may choose to cut the center off right and left and challenge him/her to play clean as I make them use a great deal of energy by crossing in front of them over and over again down the pool and letting them know that I am not going to give up the “right of way”.  This is an effective method to wear the center down if nothing else.

In the front court offense, the deep wings are in a vulnerable position for being countered,  especially if the opposing team is playing high in the lanes in a press defense.  If I am guarding the 1 position (playing X1) and playing in the lanes with my hips up towards the goal I will look for the opportunity to break out on any turnover or shot.  In this case, when the ball turns over I will look to initiate contact either by grabbing my opponent’s right arm with me left and taking one quick stroke in front of them with my right arm to gain the position I desire going down the pool. As I do this one big breaststroke kick will help propel me into the position that I want to be in front of my opponent.  Or I could grab his/her right arm with my right and go by with a quick stroke or knock their hips off balance with my left hand/arm as I take a quick stroke to go by them.  Once again, whenever you get this position you need to make it tough on your opponent to win it back. 

Finally, wherever you are playing front court defense you need to be ready to explode out on the counter and take advantage of any opponent that is sleeping a bit with their hips down or has there momentum going forward.  Or perhaps they do not anticipate the turnover as well as you might and you can beat them on the first stroke or two out of the back court. 

Another interesting battle for the “right of way” occurs between an attacker and the drive defender on a drive.  There are a number of situations that are worth noting.  When the defender is playing high in the lanes in a press, he/she is vulnerable to a back door drive.  If the driver is highly skilled they may be able to beat the defender to an inside water position by grabbing that right arm (assuming the drive is coming from the 1/ 2 side) and then taking a quick stroke or two to the inside and maintaining this inside position for an inside drive.  The defender on the other hand can try to counter this move by “counter rotating” over their hips and then try to cut the drive off.  For example, if the drive comes from the 2 position (on offense) and goes behind the driver to his/her right side, the defender will quickly balance over his/her hips and take a back stroke to the left while using a big breaststroke kick to try to recover position and propel himself/herself forward.  Then immediately take two to three quick strokes to try to regain the position that you want to be in on defense with your head to the inside of the driver’s head.  At this point a foul would mean a normal foul.  If the offensive driver has the inside position a foul will more than likely result in an exclusion.  Any kick out without the ball on the perimeter is considered a bad kick out so this “counter rotation” move is a great way to try to take back the “right of way” and get yourself out of trouble.  You might also see this battle when a driver does a pass and go to gain advantage.  Once again, it comes down to how good the defender is in counter rotating and getting back into position.  

Yet another place where you would often see battle for the “right of way” is at the end of the counter when players are trying to work for a ball side position.  Offensive players may use a change of pace or a change of direction to try to gain an advantage as the ball comes into the front court zone.  When players are swimming side by side a quick change of pace may be all you need to gain a slight advantage and dive to the inside position by taking a quick stroke or two.  Or you can initiate contact by swimming into your opponent and finding the ‘hip to hip” position and then dragging on your opponent as you complete your swim stroke to slow him/her down just a bit and gain an advantage.  In either case, you are trying to gain that “right of way” or line of play that gives you an advantage and might allow for you to get ball side.

Once again, I would encourage you to find ways and situations in the pool that allow  you to gain this advantage and take the “right of way” from your opponent because in reality in our sport there really is not a right of way rule.  Gaining good position on your opponent can happen in many situations throughout the game.  The important thing to remember as you work for good position is to grab or push or knock your opponent’s hips down low (way below the surface of the water if possible).  If you do this you will rarely get called for the counter foul.  While if you grab your opponents shoulder, neck or head you will most likely get called for a counter foul.  A quick low grab with an explosive breaststroke kick followed by two to three quick strokes angling into your opponent is usually the best way to jump into an advantageous position. 

I encourage you to take the “right of way” in the game when you can and you will find yourself drawing more exclusions and scoring more goals on your opponent.  As always, I welcome feedback or comments at [email protected].  Have a great month and I will see at the pool.



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