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 5November 15, 2013
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

The Art of Shot Blocking

Shot blocking is a vital part of our sport.  With the present rules, a shot block basically turns a scoring opportunity (shot) into a turnover.  Good shot blocking can definitely mean the difference between winning and losing a game.  It is also the link between the field players and the goalie.  When the goalie can trust his/her field blockers to take their side of the cage, the goalies job is easier and the defense as a whole tends to become more connected and stronger.  The goalie certainly anchors the defense but a good field blocking team will make a good goalie into a great goalie.  This month I will give you some of the keys to becoming a successful shot blocker.  In this article on shot blocking I will discuss; shot blocking body position, taking the angle, matching arms, matching elevation, taking your side and a few other small but important shot blocking keys. 

Before I discuss some of the keys to shot blocking, let me first review some basics of shot blocking responsibilities.  In general the shot blocker must take the near side shots and funnel the ball towards the middle of the cage whenever possible.  If you are at X1, you must make sure that your opponent can not get a shot past you on the near side (goalies right) of the cage.  If you funnel the ball (by making him/her shoot to your left) then the goalies job is easier because he/she does not have to dive all the way to the right corner of the cage.  We want to allow the goalie to concentrate on the middle 2/3 of the goal.  If the shot blockers can take the outside corners than the goalies job is much easier. Going around the perimeter, X2 takes near side (goalies right), X3 matches arms and takes the left side of the cage on a right hander and the right side of the cage for a left hander, X4 near side (goalies left), X5 near side (goalies left) and the center defender should try to take cross cage when possible.  If everyone is taking “their side” then the entire defense is stronger and the goalies job is much simpler.  

First of all, I will begin by discussing the proper body positioning in the water for successful shot blocking. It is my strong opinion that it is impossible to be a great shot blocker without being balanced and strong over your legs.  Once in a while, I see an amazing shot block when the defensive player is falling off his/her legs but most often shot blocks are made by players that are balanced and strong over their legs.  The proper position in the water should include a strong tripod position – which basically means that you have both legs working in a split eggbeater and one arm (the non shot blocking arm) sculling for stability and movement.  If I am shot blocking with my right arm then my left leg is forward and my right leg is back in the split eggbeater and my left arm is sculling to keep me balanced.  As I eggbeater in this position my left leg is the primary elevator (vertical power) and the right leg is mover to close the gap between me and my opponent (horizontal power).  Obviously, if I am shot blocking with my left arm the legs will be reversed where my right leg is forward (vertical power) and my left leg is behind (horizontal power).  My sculling arm acts as a stabilizer and is involved in fine movements.  My shot blocking arm should be slightly forward in relationship to my body.  I believe that having your shot blocking arm slightly forward helps in a number of ways – it closes the gap between you and the shooter, it allows you to see your hand/arm with your peripheral vision and it helps to keep you balanced better over your legs (in a slightly forward position).  I also like to have approximately a 30 degree bend in my shot blocking arm.  From this slightly bent position I can react better.  Also, your head should be forward so that you can read the eyes of the shooter.  Most shooters will give you some clues with their eyes as to where they are going to shoot the ball. 

Obviously, our sport is very dynamic so it is very rare to just come straight up into a perfect shot blocking position. In fact, more often than not a defensive player is shot blocking in some kind of zone defense where they have are moving in and out (please refer to some of the archived articles about the in and out skill).  A huge key for successful shot blocking is awareness.  Even when you jump in towards center to crash you need to be aware of where your perimeter player is moving.  This will help you to prepare for your next “jump” out towards your opponent - the potential shooter.  Now comes perhaps the biggest key in shot blocking – Take the angle first!  This is definitely a game of angles and when the shooter moves slightly left or right after you have crashed towards the center you must adjust when you “jump” back out towards the perimeter.  If you jump straight out you will often times be missing your shot blocking responsibility (your side). Too many players will jump directly out towards there opponent to shot block when all the shooter has to do is lean right or left to beat the shot block to the near side.  This is especially true on the wings or at the 1 and the 6 spot on the extra man.  If the shot blocker moves directly out towards his/her opponent from the wings or at X1 or X3 on the 6 on 5 there is no way that he/she can take the proper angle and the goalie will be forced to try to dive to the near side to cover.  If this happens routinely then your goalie will begin to feel like he/she needs to cover everything and the cage will begin to open up more for the shooters because the defense and the goalie are out of sync and holes will begin to show up everywhere.  The first step of successful shot blocking is to take the proper angle!  If you miss this step there is no way that you can consistently be a good shot blocker.  This is a good skill to practice on your own.  If you get in the water on your own and practice jumping in towards center ( a good lateral lunge towards the center) and then work out jumping out into a shot block to the right or to the left before moving out towards the perimeter.  The first jump out to the angle is critical as this will help you cover any quick shot by the perimeter player.  Once the angle is covered then you can balanced better over your legs and begin to move out towards the shooter in order to close the gap between you and the shooter and minimize the time that the shooter has to fake before shooting. 

One of the questions that many young players have is “when to match arms”?  It is my opinion, that too many players sacrifice the angle or body balance in order to try to match arms immediately.  Here is my rule – cover the angle first with the best shot blocking arm!  When the opponent is on the wing or at the 1 or 6 spot on the extra man it is vital to get back to cover the near side while maintaining your balance.  In order to do this you may not be able to match arms initially.  Imagine shot blocking at X1 and you get pulled center or out by the 2 post.  When the ball is passed down to the 1 position (usually a right handed shooter) your only hope of covering the near side shot is to jump out over your legs and reach with your right hand to cover your side (the goalies right side of the cage).   Obviously, in this case you are not matching arms initially, as you cover the near side with your right arm and regain balance (hopefully you stayed on balance pretty well when you jumped out to cover the angle) you now begin to move out at your opponent.  As you get closer to your opponent you can now switch arms and match your opponents shooting arm with your shot blocking arm.  This translates into right handed shooter at the 1 spot and a left hand up to match arms and shot block.  I think that what makes the most sense is that the closer you are to the shooter the more important it is to match arms.  If you are pulled out of position and you try to jump and cover the 1 man with your left arm initially you will not only be off balance but you will have a tough time jumping to cover the angle because you just can not reach as far with your left arm as you can with your right (while at X1). This same scenario is true anywhere in the pool.  Jump to cover the angle first and use whatever arm makes the most sense to take that angle first.  Then as you move at your opponent you can switch to match arms and make the shot block. 

Another key to successful shot blocking is to match the elevation of the shooter.  This is where strong legs come into play.  Once the angle is covered and the shooter engages to prepare to shoot the shot blocker must read his/her elevation and try to match it to the best of their ability.  This is to avoid getting shot over the top.  I have seen this happen many times where the shot blocker is in perfect position but they do not react to the shooter coming up on their legs and the end result is that they are scored on over their block.  Be aware of the shooter and as they come up and elevate with a strong egg beater kick you as the shot blocker must do the same. 

Also, it is important to stay true to your responsibility.  As you get to higher levels of play the goalie really depends on the shot blocker to take their side.  The best goalies on teams that are successful usually have good solid shot blockers in front of him/her.  The shot blockers know their responsibility and stay home even when the shooter is faking hard.  A good shooter will try to beat the shot block by faking and making the shot blocker react and move out of his/her responsibility (side).  The key here is to commit to staying home and taking that near side.  It is not your job a s a shot blocker to try to block everything so don’t get pulled out of your side.  Stay home and shot block near side.  This is what being a team is about.  We all have individual responsibilities an when we all do our job the team functions well and often wins.  If the shot blocker is trying to be a hero and take everything away from the shooter he/she will often get beat to the near side.  The end result is that the goalie begins to have to guess what to cover and then as I mentioned earlier, holes begin to open up on the defense and the shooter will have a better chance to finding these holes and scoring.

Finally, don’t get vertical in the water.  I have stressed many times that one of the biggest keys to being successful on defense is the ability to move in and out over your hips.  As you do this you will minimize the time that a shooter has to fake and the goalie then has a better idea of when the shot is coming.  This is turn makes the goalies odds of making the save go way up.  When you get vertical on defense (in a shot blocking position) you give the shooter more time to fake which will make the goalies job that much more difficult.  So it is very important to move out at the shooter in a good strong balanced shot blocking position. 

Here is a quick summary of the art of shot blocking.  Be aware of where your opponent is at all times.  When your opponent gets the ball in a shooting position you need to jump to cover the near side angle as quick as you can.  Stay on balance and use whichever arm you need to cover the near side first.  Try to stay on balance as you do this.  Close the gap by moving at your opponent in a strong tri pod position.  Be ready to elevate if your opponent elevates up to shoot. As you move closer to your opponent it is more important to match arms in order to follow the fake and maintain your shot block.  Do not get faked out and lose your side.  Stay home and keep your responsibility.  Remember that your goalie depends on you to take your side and shot block on the near side if that is where the shot goes. 

When the field players and the goalie are working well together the defense tends to frustrate the other team.  This is what wins the big games for your team.  Take pride in how you play defense!  Shot blocking is a huge part of playing good defense.

As always please feel free to email me with any questions or comments about this months article. [email protected]

See you at the pool.

Coach Schroeder


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