With the Olympics kicking off in less than a month, we are going to continue to crank up our international coverage. On the heels of last month’s interview with Tim Kendall from Great Britain, we are going to keep the momentum going by sitting down with Chinese Men’s National team Head Coach Ricardo Azevedo. Coach Azevedo will be sitting down with me for this round and with Joan Gould on August 1st.
It is tough to briefly summarize the career of such a great coach in one paragraph, but I am going to try anyways. Ricardo Azevedo has been the coach of the United States Men’s National Team, the United States Junior National team, Long Beach State University, Long Beach Wilson HS and prior to assuming the head role with China he most recently led RN ElettroGreen Camogli in Italy. This famous club from the Genoa region of Italy is the neighbor club to EuroLeague heavyweight Pro Recco. I caught up with Coach Azevedo to talk Chinese water polo and the upcoming Olympic Games. Below is our interview.
You took the reins of China's National team and have had the team's form improving. Can you tell us a little about that challenge?
When I came to China I did not know what to expect, but just a few months in I saw a team with the possibility to learn at a higher rate than anyplace I have coached before. After a close call at Olympic Qualification, I went home and they called me for a four-year stint. I spoke with my family and decided to give it a go. My first job was to work within the culture, create a better way to bring them together, I have achieved that by uniting the clubs and working together with the federation in the creating of a national coaches training program. We have already put together videos and manuals for younger coaches on fundamentals and methodology of coaching. By moving the national team around China I got the support of the clubs as they can send me their best three players anywhere I am training for an evaluation and opportunity. It is an open book policy that allows players and coaches to move upward without spending too much money or time. My second biggest challenge was the motivation factor as the athletes were all remunerated the same, regardless of age or performance. We have since changed that to be performance and training oriented, the players have responded very well, by realizing that with hard work they could make a difference in their life. Finally, it always come down to fundamentals, even the greatest tactics will at the end need fundamentals to finalize the work. At a clinic I attended as a young coach Bill Walsh (ex-San Francisco 49er coach) said "every play in football is designed to go all the way, but when it comes down to it , how well the players execute their assignments will conclude the play". The same can be said about water polo as anyone can "Cookbook" water polo by X"s and O's but few can actually see the necessity of fundamentals needed to be successful , I spend five hours a day training the team and of that three are spent on fundamentals. At World League Super Final we came within one goal of Italy and two within the USA, and the reason was, we are not as good as they are but we can shoot, shot block and play position ball. Those things will keep us in most games, then with some basic tactics of no goals from center and no counterattack goals; we will make the game be decided by the extra man. In my opinion, anyone can be competitive at that point. We are still far away from our goals but in four months we have accomplished a lot.
Can you tell us about the four years of preparation that goes into getting a National team squad peaking for an Olympiad?
A quadrennium goes by very fast, and each team will have different priorities. Veteran teams will concentrate on staying healthy and not burning out, while younger teams will work frantically on giving the players as much experience as possible. Preparation is divided in three parts.
Physical - one's ability to train the athletes both in and out of the water, fundamentals and specific skill position training will allow you to be competitive.
Experience - No team can be successful without experience, looking at the USA's past performances, show that one-time Olympians struggle for medals, where only three-time Olympians have failed to medal, making experience a key point. A good junior program can really help on this, but if not, a team should play around one hundred games in four years (competitive).
Support - Athletes have families and need to live, so a fine line of time and efforts is important, and like anything else money is important, doing it for the "Gipper" sounds great in Hollywood but is not reality. I do not mention tactics, as that is the minimum that a coach should offer when accepting the position and each coach has their preferences.
When reviewing the men's field, what factors do you believe will be most important in determining a champion?
The field in London is the most balanced, I have ever seen as there is no dominating team. The last three Olympics were dominated by the Hungarians and Serbs and both teams are now beatable. Don't get me wrong they are still very strong teams, but so are Italy, Montenegro, Croatia, Spain and the United States. Not too far behind you have a physical Australian team, that what they lack on experience they overcome with physicality, Romania a team that with a plethora of talent that if it ever gels could be a strong contender, Greece, Kazakhstan and Great Britain round off the field but, as Kazakhstan proved in World League Super Final, they can put together a game and steal a point here and there. The field is balanced and game preparation and ability to be stay focus on such long a tournament will be key. Veteran teams will have an upper edge as they been there before and knows what it takes to get it done.
In analyzing the two groups, it feels as if Group B presents a much stiffer challenge with all four 2008 Olympic semifinalists along with a tough Romania team and the home country in Great Britain. Do you think there is any advantage for the top squads in Group A with the way the field is divided?
At the International level, you can over think about matchups. The bottom line is that you have to win the key games and those are in the crossover. In the 2000 Olympics, Croatia went undefeated through pool play with decisive performance, only to lose in the crossover to the fourth place finisher Spain (Veteran team that put together a spectacular performance) to advance to the semis, so looking at the brackets, both sides have a strong four, with both groups having a spoiler, but when it comes down to it, the sixth game will be the key. Looking at the results of the year, we have seen every team in the final eight, have a positive result. Here is a good way to look at it. Spain beat Italy, Italy beat USA, Croatia beat Spain, USA beat Croatia, Hungary beat Serbia, Montenegro beat Hungary, USA beat Montenegro, Italy beat Serbia, and the equation goes on and on. So if I was one of these coaches I would be more preoccupied on making sure my own team is moving upwards at the tournament. Momentum is important and positive growth should take place. During pool play, injury and physical stress will take place and that is the norm in these tournaments so how one deals with depth and usage of players during pool play will payoff at the crossovers, as Charles Darwin stated "it is not the strongest or most intelligent species that will survive, but the one that adapts to their situation and difficulties, that will".
With that our interview ended. Stay tuned for Part II with Coach Azevedo which will be posted on August 1 at Water Polo Planet.